Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Things change

Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design
Like a river, a great city is constantly flowing, changing its course at will, never standing still. When you live in a city, change becomes a routine part of life, a new business opens, another one closes, neighborhoods slowly crumble while others gradually revive. Sometimes, when an important building is threatened as is with the case of the former Prentice Hospital in Chicago, change becomes a hot button issue on both sides. But that's the exception not the rule, generally we accept change and move on; like our children, most changes take place right under our nose and we barely notice them.

Of course if you don't see a child every day, those changes become profound. It's our kids' grandparents custom to tell them how much they've grown since the last time they saw them, even if it was only a week ago.

A reminder of the now distant past in the Third Ward
We just took our annual birthday trip up to Milwaukee and overall I'd say the city looks like it's doing just fine. Admittedly, we tend to visit the same old haunts so I can't report on the city as a whole. "The "Historic Third Ward" just south of Downtown seems to be booming. Centered around MIAD (the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design), the old warehouse and manufacturing district is flush with art galleries, boutiques and upscale restaurants. The lack of available parking spaces attest to its success.

Here I'll give a shout out to my friends Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman, collaborative artists who have a wonderful show of their new work, a project called Natural History, which is currently on view at the Portrait Society Gallery in the Third Ward.

Recent riverfront construction in the Third Ward
Downtown Milwaukee, the main drag anyway, Wisconsin Avenue, had its life sapped away with the construction of the Grand Avenue, an indoor shopping mall which was built back in the eighties. I haven't been inside that mall in probably twenty years so I can't comment on it, but the outside is as dead as ever. Which is a shame, the death of the once vibrant street life in the heart of town is an enduring testimony of the fallacy of building such places. We here in Chicago can thank our lucky stars that our lame attempt to build a downtown mall back in the day was easily reversible, and is now but a distant memory.

A couple of years ago I wrote a small post about Milwaukee and listed several of my favorite this and thats in the world found in that city. Sadly, one of them is gone. There was a little restaurant on the East Side, catty corner from the Oriental Theater called Palermo Villa. They served what I and my family considered to be the best pizza we'd ever had and was the traditional final stop on our visits up there. Our heart sank as we walked by the empty storefront last Saturday, it had been closed since July.

Another of my wife's longtime favorite restaurants, a little hole in the wall Middle Eastern place called Abu's was gone, as was another longtime haunt in the Third Ward.

On a brighter note, another of our favorite stops, Boswell Book Company on Downer Street (yes it's really called Downer Street but it doesn't live up to its name), is alive and well, testimony that the independent book store is not quite dead yet. As you may recall from this earlier post, the shop used to be part of a small chain of Milwaukee book shops that went out of business. This one was kept alive by former employees of the old Harry Schwartz chain and retains its depth of selection and charm.

Another business in Milwaukee that's bucking the trend of the national chains is Alterra Coffee. They now have several shops in Milwuakee, the most beautiful of which is in an abandoned water pumping station on the lake shore. In all honesty, this company in every way blows the competition out of the water; unlike most other cities, you are hard pressed to find a Starbucks or other big name coffee chain in Milwaukee, there's no point.

Simply put, Milwaukee in so many ways is unlike every other city. Could there be any better reason to love the place?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Meet me between Thomas and Vivekananda

Chicago may not be the most logical place in the world. For starters, the river flows backwards. Then we have two baseball teams in town; last season one of them battled another team for the worst record in the major leagues and you couldn't keep people away. The other team was involved in a legitimate pennant race and they had to lower ticket prices just to get warm bodies in the seats. Most important of all, even though we're a city with many great assets, we're known around the world for our gangsters and corrupt politicians.

One thing however that is completely logical about this city is its street numbering system. Based on the Cartesian grid, addresses are numbered according to points on the grid, meaning that if you were looking for an address, say 1200 North, you would know that what you're looking for is twelve blocks north of Madison Street, Chicago's north/south divide. If you know your east west coordinates, say 2400 West, you'd know that you were exactly twenty four blocks, or three miles west of State, the dividing line between east and west. Since the vast majority of Chicago streets run in the same direction as the grid, if you told a Chicagoan you were looking for something in the vicinity 1200 North and 2400 West, he or she most likely would know that your destination is somewhere around the intersection of Division Street and Western Avenue. It's even easier on the South Side where all the east/west streets have numbers for names, the numbers corresponding to the grid. 22nd Street for example, is twenty two blocks south of Madison. Even more logic: unlike other cities, a street at a particular coordinate on the grid will keep the same name even if it does not continue uninterrupted through the city. The residential streets way up north in my neighborhood of Rogers Park: Claremont, Oakley and Bell, the streets just east of Western Avenue, have counterparts with the same names all the way down in my cousin's neighborhood of Beverly, more than twenty miles to the south.

Simply put, if you can't find your way around Chicago, you probably couldn't find your way around anywhere.

Recently however, that logic has been put to the test with the introduction of honorary street names. All over town you can find street signs that were placed in honor of someone of distinction who either lived or worked in the area, or did something important in that place.  If you've been around town a bit, you learn to ignore the brown signs displaying the honorary names which are meaningless, navigationally speaking that is. Unfortunately, visitors see the brown signs which look like legitimate street signs, and mistakenly think they are the real names of the streets. Hence out of town visitors to the Art Institute mistakenly think the famous Chicago landmark is on Swami Vivekananda Way, rather than the actual street with the less resonant name, Michigan Avenue. To make matters more confusing, one block to the south, the Swami gives way to Theodore Thomas, a tribute to the first conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

With the exception of the Loop, the majority of honorary street signs in Chicago pay tribute to people who are not well known. An example I'm intimately familiar with: Honore Street between Division and Thomas (the actual street name, not the one honoring the conductor) is named Rose Gabellini Street after a beloved teacher who taught for many years at the elementary school at that location.

This morning I decided to map my route through the Loop from the train station to work by means of the brown signs. I must admit I had to look up two of the names, (and learned a few things in the process), when I got home. My journey took me past (David) Ben-Gurion Way (honoring the first Prime Minister of Israel), Chicago Region for the Weitzman Institute of Science Way (here is a link to their web site), Eugene Heytow Way (honoring a local businessman and entrepreneur ), Newton Minow Way (honoring a former chairman of the FCC), Palmer House Hilton Way (in tribute to the landmark hotel), to the aforementioned Swami Vivekananda Way.

In 1893 the Hindu monk Vivekananda gave a famous address advocating religious tolerance to the Parliament of the World's Religions at their conference which took place during the World's Columbian Exposition, in the building that would become The Art Institute.

As you can imagine, to the initiated, the brown commemorative street signs provide a unique insight into this city's history.

To the uninitiated, the signs are more or less a nuisance.

I just discovered the history of dedicating sections of streets in Chicago to particular individuals; it came courtesy of the WBEZ Chicago History Today blog, written by John R. Schmidt.

It turns out that columnist Mike Royko proposed re-naming a small section of the street where the late author Nelson Algren lived. Much to Royko's surprise, Mayor Jane Byrne agreed and before too long, workmen were replacing signs that said "Evergreen Avenue" with signs that read "Algren Street." The neighbors, many of whom were Polish folks who didn't care much for Algren or his work,  (they felt he portrayed them in a bad light in his novels), vehemently objected to the change, citing issues ranging from safety to the expense of having to change official addresses. City Hall listened, the Algren signs came down and shortly thereafter the honorary street program began.

Today there are an estimated 1,000 honorary street signs in Chicago, elightening, confusing and irritating folks at the same time.

Friday, November 16, 2012


What do Pyongyang and Chicago have in common?

Both cities have buildings that made HuffPost Travel's "Ugliest Buildings in the World" list. I'll give you a second to guess which Chicago building made the list. I knew the answer before the question, had it been the other way around, I would have guessed wrong.

The North Korean capital's entry in the list is the Ryugyong Hotel, a multi-pyramidal shaped hulk that has been under construction for the past twenty years. Having seen pictures of Pyonyang, I suppose any building there could have made this list, except the editors point out that being merely stultifying doesn't cut it, you have to work really hard at ugly to be included.

Anyway, if you guessed Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center as I probably would have, sorry. The building that put Chicago on the map of ugliness is Hammond, Beeby and Babka's Harold Washington Library.

Since I spend a good deal of time in that building, and remember when its construction in the early nineties was cause for great celebration given the fact that we hadn't had a main branch of the public library for well over a decade, I give it a pass.

Still I have to admit, the over the top eclectic pile in the South Loop is in my opinion a pretty ugly building. Here's the assessment from the article:
Neoclassical references collide with a glass-and-steel Mannerist roof; throw in some red brick, granite, and aluminum—and a bad sense of scale—and you’ve got way too much architecture class for one day.
In case you're interested, here's a link to the list, check it out if you dare.

By the way, if you think Bud Goldberg's old Prentice Hospital is ugly, take a look at the post and maybe you'll see the light.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Our president

Last night a Facebook friend posted the question: "What's the first election you can remember?" This guy is in his twenties as are most of his friends, and the typical response went all the way back to Bush/Clinton, 1992. I didn't respond to his query because given my age compared to the age of the responders, I might as well have said I can remember Abraham Lincoln's last election. In truth the first election I remember, though not in great detail, was the 1964 election between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. In other words, I've been around a long time and can remember a lot of presidential elections. Without a doubt, the one this year has been by far the most contentious election in my life.

When folks tell me that more hatred is directed toward Barack Obama than any other president, I try to downplay it, pointing to events such as the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton and the broad dislike, even hatred of George W. Bush from the Left. But Clinton and Bush earned most of the vitriol aimed in their direction all on their own. While some people find President Obama's politics, his methods, even his personality objectionable, I can't for the life of me figure out why he is hated so much by a such a large sector of society. At least I don't want to admit what I think might be the reason.

Walking past a public school on my way to work this morning, I passed several children who were having an animated conversation about last night's election. Clearly some of them had not stayed up past 10pm and were asking their friends: "Did Obama win Ohio?" Interest in such details of an election coming from kids who couldn't be more than ten or eleven was inspiring. I couldn't help being moved by the fact that those children were all African American. In fact during several encounters with black people today I noticed a definite sense of enthusiasm. The exuberance over the president's winning the State of Ohio and consequently the election was contagious. In the world in which I live, Barack Obama is very popular.

In other parts of the country, he obviously is not.

Clearly we live in a divided nation, and much of it has to do with race. It's a nasty issue that doesn't get  discussed much in polite society. A co-chair of the Romney campaign, former New Hampshire governor and Chief of Staff to the first President Bush, John Sununu touched on the subject briefly during a TV interview when he suggested that General Colin Powell's endorcement of Obama was racially motivated. He said: "I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him." In a more reasonable, non racially-charged society, that comment probably would have gone unnoticed. But it went viral here because between the lines, some people read Sununu as saying: "If it's OK for black people to support one of their own, why can't we white people do the same?"

After I encountered the enthusiastic kids this morning, the thought did cross my mind about how I'd feel if the tables were turned and I walked past a group of fist pumping, high fiving white folks, hollering and whooping it up because Mitt Romney won the election. I'd probably dismiss them as a bunch of yahoos.

In this year's presidential election, about 59 percent of the white vote went to Romney and the pundits are using that figure to comment how racially divided we are. But about 93 percent of the black vote went to Obama and there was hardly a peep. Is this a double standard?

In one word, no.

The ancestors of most African American people lived in this country long before the ancestors of most European Americans, including my own. Needless to say, most of them did not come here of their own free will. Black soldiers fought and died for this country in every war, often in disproportionate numbers. When they had the opportunity to, which was not until quite recently in some cases, African Americans could be counted on to consistently vote for white candidates. Black voters had been taken for granted for so long by white politicians that no one saw coming the tremendous ground swell of support for black candidates such as the late Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago. Still it is a mistake to assume that African American people always vote as one block for candidates of their own race. The last mayoral election in Chicago was decided by the black vote in favor of Rahm Emanuel, despite the fact that on the ballot there was an extremely well known black candidate.

The fact is, in the past four years, the Republican Party has bent over backwards to alienate black voters:
  • The issue of requiring voter ids in some states harken back to the days of the poll tax where poor people, many of whom were black, were prohibited from voting simply because they could not afford to. The tremendous turnout in many of those states in this election where people stood for hours in line to cast a ballot, proved that people would not be denied the right to vote. 
  • The new campaign laws which eliminated spending limits, made the office of president available to the highest bidder. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the Democrats and Obama outplayed them at their own game by raising more money, an obscene amount, than any campaign in history.
  • While the office of president should command the highest respect, opponents of Barack Obama have gone to tremendous lengths to disrespect both the man and the office. Instead of doing their jobs and governing, some Republicans in Congress openly vowed at the outset of his presidency that their number one goal was to make Obama a one term president. From ridiculous demands of proof of citizenship, to a governor pointing her finger in his face, to a congressman calling him a liar during a speech, to the unbelievable intransigence in Congress over every bit of legislative minutiae, Republicans have shown over and over again that they will stop at nothing in order to gain control of the government. 
In short, every plausible reason for black folks (and folks of many other shades including white), to vote for Mitt Romney, was overshadowed by the enormous baggage of poor choices made by the candidate and his party. Instead of venting their anger at the results of this past election, Republicans need only look in the mirror.

It's not going to get any better for the GOP. This country is moving in a new direction demographically, and being the white people's party is simply not going to cut it anymore. As someone who has voted "Democrat" for most of his life, you might think I'd be thrilled at the prospect of the demise of the Republican Party. I'm not. As an American I believe deeply in the two party system, in a meaningful rational dialog, and being forced to make a choice between two credible candidates come election time.

In this election I didn't feel there was a choice. Four years ago I knew President Obama was in for a rough ride and given the state of the economy, I was skeptical about his prospects of being re-elected in 2012. Yet I believe he's done a reasonably good job in office, attempting at least to fulfill the campaign promises he made four years ago. My most profound experience of the effects of his presidency came this summer while driving up to Wisconsin with my family. As we passed the massive Chrysler plant in Belvedere, Illinois, I noticed the employee parking lot was filled with cars, far more of them than I had seen in years. As my wife pointed out, had it not been for this administration, that lot, and hundreds like it around the country today would be empty.

That said, we're still in deep financial trouble and I'm not entirely convinced that the policies of this administration will lead us out of the morass. I would have desperately liked to have been challenged by a candidate from the other side who presented a clear, consistent alternative vision for the future of this country. Unfortunately Governor Romney did not. His statements during the campaign were all over the place, made more out of convenience rather than conviction. The only conviction of the governor's I could detect, was his desire to be president. Perhaps the delicate balance of trying to please a very disparate constituency was too much for him, but in my opinion, the governor was simply not a credible candidate.

Obviously a lot of people disagree, most of them belonging to the same race and gender as me. Unemployment, the deficit, the debt, the bad economy and a plethora of other issues are all legitimate concerns and most of the people who voted for Governor Romney believed his ideas to address those issues were better than Obama's.

Some people however, I have no idea how many, don't feel that Barack Obama truly represents them and voted for Romney simply because of the color of his skin. I know this to be true because I personally know some of them. Unsavory as it may be, that is their right.

All I can say is this: I'm glad the election is over.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Deja vu all over again

It was interesting to see deposed alderman Burton Natarus testifying at the Landmarks Commission hearing that decided the fate of Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital building. Natarus, the Yogi Berra of Chicago politicians, (which is really saying something given the quality of oratory in that esteemed group), said the following about the building:
This is not a good piece of architecture...We have a Yiddish word for what it is, farshimmelt.
I must admit not having known what farshimmelt means, but I do know that seldom does a person use a Yiddish word to describe something favorably. From the site Wordreference.com I found this:
This term is used to describe a confused state of mind, disorientation, or feeblemindedness.
Now that's one man's opinion and I have to respect it for what it's worth. Lot's of people think the building is shall I say, less than appealing, certainly not worthy of the fuss to save it, given that Northwestern Memorial Hospital plans to use the site for a facility that will not only produce medical research that will save countless lives but will also bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue into our fair city. At least that's what they say.

An even more colorful term I've heard to describe the building is "butt ugly." Fair enough, everyone's entitled to his own opinion.

But I do have to disagree with all due respect of course, to the former alderman's assessment of old Prentice as "confused, disoriented, and feebleminded". The building in fact is everything BUT those things. It was one of the most sensible, well thought out buildings ever built in this city. Goldberg's "bed tower", the cluster of cylinders, containing hospital rooms. around a central core which contained the nurses' stations, was a brilliant, ground breaking design; the architect's sensibilities putting patient care at the forefront of his efforts gained him worldwide acclaim.

Uninformed as they were, Natarus's were probably the most honest words spewed during yesterday's meeting. The Commission went to great lengths to present Prentice as a building that met more than the minimum number of requirements necessary for landmark status. Their report waxed eloquently about the significance of Goldberg's building, presenting it favorably in the context of other major works of international architecture inluding Le Corusier's sublime Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronhamp, France, Frank Lloyd Wright's Gugenheim Museum and Eero Sarrinen's TWA Flight Center, both in New York City, among others. Then the commission voted to adopt
the Preliminary Summary and make a preliminary landmark recommendation concerning the Building in accordance with Sect. 2-120-630 of the Municipal Code.
The vote was unanimous, the Commission would recommend landmark status for the building. Fantastic. But wait, there's more:

The commission then presented a report from the Department of Housing and Economic Development for the City of Chicago which congratulated the Commission for its careful and professional work in recommending the landmark status but added: heck, the building is in the way of Northwestern's plans so it should go, landmark or not.

The Commission apparently was so moved by the report and no doubt by Mayor Emanuel's OpEd piece in the Tribune this week in favor of the demolition, that it voted 6 to 1 to rescind the recommendation they made just minutes earlier.

Heads in the room must have been spinning quicker than pardon the expression, lager turns to piss.

The Landmarks Committee in effect declared that the work they allegedly do for the city is irrelevant. What after all is the point of declaring a building a landmark, then refusing to protect it? Spineless is too kind a description of their actions yesterday. Unless of course this was all part of the plan, which turns out to be the case. In his blog Lee Bay posted the agenda one day before the meeting took place. The events of the following day followed the script line by line.

It turns out the fate of Prentice at the hands of the Landmarks Committee was a fait accompli, it had no chance. The meeting in the words of Christina Morris of the National Trust for Historical Preservation was a farce. Jonathan Fine, the executive director of Preservation Chicago said this:
We asked for a day in court, instead we got a show trial.
Much more distressing than the refusal to protect the Bertrand Goldberg building is the ease in which the commission gave in to the forces behind its destruction. What they're saying is that no matter how important a building may be, there can always be a legitimate cause that trumps protecting a building. In one fell swoop they did away with decades of hard work of preservationists and concerned citizens who feel that the city's architecture matters. It is a terrible precedent that may very well have dire consequences for every significant building in this city. Suppose Roosevelt University campaigns to demolish the Auditorium Building because it cannot effectively teach its students (tomorrow's leaders) in the "out of date" landmark? What if the forces driving the La Salle Street Financial District insist on their need to expand onto the site of the Rookery Building and propose to demolish it to build a state of the art "world class" trading center? What if somebody discovers oil underneath the Wrigley Building?

Those admittedly far fetched scenarios would potentially result in windfall profits for the city, but at what cost? Northwestern Memorial Hospital paints a very attractive picture of what they would do with the site in terms of benefits to the city. I have no quarrel with that. But I have a serious problem accepting their assertion that all their plans, the money made for the city, the jobs created and the lives saved would vanish if they don't get their way and turn old Prentice to dust. The truth is that patch of ground upon which Prentice stands represents a tiny fraction of the property owned by the hospital in their Streeterville campus, much of which is currently unoccupied. There are lots of very talented architects and designers in town who could create a solution that would satisfy everybody's needs, the hospital's and the preservationists' alike.

So why is the hospital so intransigent?  I don't have an answer but looking around at the brand spanking new hospital buildings on the campus all bearing the names of wealthy donors, I have a sneaking suspicion. I have a little experience with big institutions and know that people like to put their names on big spiffy and above all new projects. Turning old Prentice into an office or teaching facility would be very feasible, but not very sexy. Could the morass over old Prentice be really be about ego, power, money, control and prestige, rather than jobs and lives? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

The mayor in his Tribune OpEd piece acknowledged Bertrand Goldberg as an important architect whose buildings are worth preserving. Then he added that we have other Goldberg buildings in town so losing this one won't be so bad. As I pointed out last week, the exact thing could have been said about the Garrick and Old Stock Exchange Buildings, two Louis Sullivan masterpieces that were lost decades ago. It would be difficult to find any reasonable person in town today who would support the demolition of those buildings so long ago.

So in fifty years what will they be saying about us? My guess is they will say this:

"Didn't those people learn anything?"