Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Farewell Michael...

The end of the year causes most of us to sit back and take account of the events of our lives, our communities, and the world over the past year. Most of us take the good with the bad, and we consider a year to be good if we come out slightly ahead.

For Chicago, my home town, it's been a year of losses. It was a particularly bad year for architectural preservation as we lost the beautiful and historic St. James Church in Bronzeville. We also lost the battle to save Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital which is being demolished as I write this. Perhaps worse than the loss of the building itself was the devastating precedent of the ruling by the city's Landmark's Commission, which declared the building worthy of landmark status then in the next breath, determined that economic considerations trumped that status, clearing the way for the building's destruction. After that disastrous ruling, no building in this city is safe from the wrecking ball.

More mundane to be sure but also worth noting was the loss of the enormous baseball that proudly announced the presence of the former Thillen's Stadium at Devon and Kedzie on Chicago's far north side.

Chicago lost a long time institution this year as all of the Dominick's grocery stores closed their doors for good this past Saturday, leaving thousands of workers unemployed during the holidays. Some of the locations have been purchased by other businesses but the vast majority of them will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future. As many of these stores anchored shopping centers, the businesses that shared those centers no doubt will suffer as a result. And a city already well known for its "food deserts" will have one fewer source of fresh food at reasonable prices in neighborhoods that can't afford to be without them.

There is one more loss to the city that I'd like to note. Today was the last day on the job for a wonderful man who for 36 years was the operator of CTA trains, mostly along the Red Line which runs almost the entire length of Chicago from 95th Street on the south all the way up to its northern boundary at Howard Street. His name is Michael Powell. I first met Michael about ten years ago as I was taking my young son to his grandmother's apartment downtown. As I did as a child, my boy liked to sit up front to watch the operator drive the train. Most of the operators I think appreciated the attention but for the most part kept quiet as the company rules prohibit them from talking to passengers while the train is in motion. Given that by now he's finished his last run, I can safely say that Michael had little regard for that rule. My boy and I learned Michael's life story that day, especially his love of trains. He never wore the standard issue uniform, as you can see in the picture he preferred the more traditional striped engineer's uniform and cap, his "Choo Choo Charlie outfit" as he liked to call it. If anyone was born for a particular job, it was Michael. I was shocked when he told me earlier this month that he was about to retire.

Michael Powell on his penultimate run
Another policy that Michael had little regard for was the application of the recorded voice of the CTA that calls out stops and lets the passengers know, as if they didn't know it already, that there was a delay. On Michael's runs, you seldom heard that smooth but impersonal voice. Instead you heard Michael's friendly, high-pitched voice commenting on the events of the day, or just informally shooting the breeze in a stream of conscious manner. As Michael delivered his train into the Loop during rush hour, he would typically bid adieu to his passengers with: "May the Force be with you" or other popular aphorisms. Sometimes he would simply say: "goodbye and have nice day." Never would anyone of Michael's regular riders think for a moment that he didn't mean that from the bottom of his heart.

Michael's humor could be cornball but every once in a while he hit the nail right on the head. My favorite experience of riding aboard one of his runs was the day we had a blizzard that dumped about three feet of snow on the city. The storm was so bad that most businesses discharged their employees even before the first snowflake fell. Since we were in the middle of a project, my colleagues and I chose to stay at work and by the time we left, about a foot of snow was already on the ground. Needless to say, the train platform was crammed with cold and frustrated passengers who had no idea how long the journey home would take. After what seemed like an eternity, a train pulled into the station. As luck would have it, it was Michael's train. Although the train was packed like sardines, Michael told everyone to keep calm, that we were all in this together, and that by cooperating, we'd all get home in due time. His charming sense of humor calmed everybody down and soon he had the passengers eating out of his hand. I'd say the blizzard reached it's apex right around the time our train got to the Sheridan station, just north of Wrigley Field. The unfortunate people who got off at that station were hit by a tremendous gust of wind and snow; frankly it was a bit comical as the poor folks looked as if they didn't know what hit them. "Don't laugh..." Michael told the rest of us over the loudspeaker, "...pretty soon, that will be you."

Luck was with me again today as I left home unusually late this being New Year's Eve. It just so happened that I boarded Michael's train for one last time. I heard that familiar voice and remembered him telling me a few weeks ago of his imminent retirement. Something was strange however. That canned CTA voice kept popping up on the loudspeaker, much more often than it ever did during Michael's runs. Just every once in a while, Michael broke in to say "all aboard, thanks for riding." When our train dipped into the subway after Fullerton, that familiar voice broke in again saying, "My name is Michael and I'm about to retire after 36 years. It's been my pleasure to serve you." There was a collective groan from the passengers. Someone aboard our car informed us that in the first car people were signing cards for Michael. Just about everybody got off and headed there to sign his card and wish him well.

So did I.

I got off at my stop, shook his hand and said good bye. He told me that he'd miss me. I said that I'd miss him too.

All choked up, I never got the chance to thank him. It was always a pleasure to ride with him.

Happy New Year Michael, and may the force be with you.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

An honest to goodness winter

They say the only two things you can depend upon in life are death and taxes. Once upon a time here at the 42nd Parallel in North America at least, you could add two more things: cold and snow in winter. All that has changed in the past thirty years or so as winters have been getting milder, and white Christmases are are the exception rather than the rule.

Most folks I know are pretty OK with that. While this time of year as they eagerly put on tunes that extoll the virtues of dashing through the snow, jingling sleigh bells, and Jack Frost nipping at one's nose, most people it seems when push comes to shove, are content to leave cold and snow to the reminiscences of Johnny Mathis, Nat Cole, and Bing Crosby.

Photograph by Beth Iska
Not me. Despite noticing that my body is slightly little less tolerant to cold weather than it used to be, I've welcomed our recent arctic blast with much joy. Two weeks ago, my son and a friend were only slightly disappointed when their plan to play hockey was ruined because of the six inches of newly fallen snow on their outdoor ice rink. Instead, they grabbed their sleds and despite being improperly dressed, spent two hours on the good sized sledding hill at our local park. The rest of us joined them later and spent a good time ourselves on the frigid highest point in our neighborhood. For some reason, my six year old daughter never before had the desire to go sledding, so this was her first experience of it. After getting bored with going down the puny slopes for the little kids, she eventually overcame her apprehensions and took to the big hill like a seasoned professional. From the photograph taken by her mother, you can see the look of pure joy on her face. 

My son did get to play hockey this past weekend and when I dropped him off (I didn't play myself because I still had Christmas errands to run), the sound of the skates, sticks and pucks of the few kids who had already taken to the ice, took me back to my childhood and my love of the game. As it had gotten considerably warmer by that day, a fog of condensation hovered over the rink and despite being in the middle of the city, I could best describe that scene as something right out of a Currier & Ives print.

Yes I'm one of those people who truly appreciates the change of season. Despite its hassles, I love winter. I love the sight and smell of the freshly fallen snow that covers everything in its path like a soft blanket. I love the sounds of winter, the ones mentioned above as well as the squeaky sound of footsteps on the snow. I love the howl of the wind on a cold winter night. In a slightly perverted way I even like the sound of snow shovels and the whine of automobile tires (when they're not mine) as they futilely spin on the ice and snow.

My most memorable Christmas was the one of 1968. We recently moved into our new house and as luck would  have it, on a cold December 25th morning, our furnace went out. We spent the entire day huddled in the kitchen heated by our oven as the rest of our house became uninhabitable. That was the day the crew of Apollo 8 became the first human beings to circle the moon. As they came out from behind the moon's shadow and regained radio contact with the earth (thus becoming the first people to experience earthrise), the crew on that Christmas Day were moved to recite the passages from Genesis describing the creation of Earth, our beautiful planet seen for the first time as a lonely island floating in a desolate sea of emptiness. My Christmas present, the Mattel Matt Mason Space Station received the evening before had to wait as the real, live spacemen, even if seen only on a small black and white TV in the kitchen, were just so much more impressive. Despite the inconvenience, I will remember that as one of my best Christmases for as long as I live.

My worst Christmas came fourteen years later. My uncle had just died suddenly as well as our family's long time next door neighbor. On Christmas Day that year we visited my grandmother, (who due to her fragile condition was not informed of her son's death). Playing on a TV at the nursing home where she lived was a movie that had been very special to me as a child. Seeing glimpses of that movie, as well as my grandmother who didn't recognize me, only made the grief I was already experiencing all the more painful. Topping it all off, it was about 65 degrees outside that day. From that moment on, mild weather on Christmas has reminded me of a world thrown off kilter, just as it was on that day so long ago.

Well I'm happy to report that today, December 25, 2013, we have snow on the ground in Chicago. True, it's only a small dusting of the white stuff, but it's still a white Christmas.

Just the way it should be.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Don't Mess with Mr. In-between

One e-mail message line on my inbox screamed this:
Obama's illegal alien uncle to appear at new immigration hearing.
And another:
Oklahoma City will not cancel pornographic play mocking the Bible.

From a site devoted to the leanings of the other side comes this:
Libertarian Writings that Read like Comic Books. 
And this: 
Truth, No Strings Attached. 
And again: 
Some Filthy Facts About the Rich.

I've been on the mailing lists of these and similar web sites for some time now. If strangers were to casually glance at my inbox, they would draw the conclusion that my political views are schizophrenic to say the least. Other than their wildly divergent points of view however, there is very little difference between the sites. I never asked to subscribe to them, the organizations responsible for the publications are spamming me, they got my address from other sites that I do subscribe to. I could simply unsubscribe but frankly I'm entertained by headlines such as these, much like those of the tabloids at the checkout line. The difference between these messages and the ones at the supermarket is that the e-mail headlines are lead-ins to articles that are meant to be taken seriously.

I also don't unsubscribe to these sites because unlike most Americans it seems, I'm interested in what people who don't necessarily share my point of view have to say. Good heavens, I might even learn something.

More than anything, what these web sites have in common is the tone of their discourse. There is seldom an attempt to lend any credence to the other side of the argument as if to say people who don't believe as they do are simply a bunch of irritating, misguided fools. On both sides of the ideological divide, the websites, periodicals, and TV networks devoted exclusively to one point of view or another are essentially saying this: "We're right, and everybody else is wrong."

Small wonder why our current government is so dysfunctional, the rhetoric of these internet articles, and the comments that follow them, seem to be a beacon for our politicians as well.

There is a war going on in this country and the weapon of choice by the combatants is hyperbole.

I distinctly remember a time during the late sixties and early seventies when this country was bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam. While we have our own serious problems today, I can't see an issue in our time, no not even Obamacare, that comes close to the divisiveness that Vietnam produced. Yet today I'd say we as a nation are as divided if not more so, than during that difficult time.

What accounts for the lack of tolerance, subtlety, and common sense in our current political discourse is anybody's guess. Perhaps it's because we don't have a common enemy bringing us together as we did during the Great Depression, World War II and the days after September 11, 2001. Maybe it's the proliferation of cable TV outlets, the internet, and social media which provides a platform for every political ideology no matter how extreme or goofy, and promotes the segregation of those with like minds. Or maybe its just the old ennui, I have no idea.

What worries me is that the voices that scream the loudest on both sides are the ones that get the attention, leaving the subtle, unbiased, and measured views behind.

No ideological group holds the monopoly on overblown rhetoric and hyperbole; both sides spew it as freely as a drunken sailor spends money on a twelve hour shore leave. But if I had to crown a king of bluster, a crown prince of bombast, and a champion of the art of summing up all the world's problems into one sentence, usually wrapped around an infantile temper tantrum, that title would have to go to Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh's political views are well documented, as they say he's a little to the right of Attila the Hun. That alone for me is not a problem, far from it. In fact sometimes, rarely, but sometimes I agree with him. It's not his message I find objectionable, but the way he delivers it. Limbaugh is as subtle as a twenty pound sledge hammer, blasting his targets, that is to say anyone who doesn't subscribe to his world view, with insults and diatribes that would not be out of place in a professional wrestling ring. He seems to reserve the bulk of his wrath for women supporting women's issues. Recently Limbaugh labeled a women who publicly supported medical insurance paying for birth control pills a "slut." Of course it's all an act, no one in their right mind should take Limbaugh any more seriously than the circus known as the Jerry Springer Show.

But unfortunately, many people do.

Limbaugh's latest target has been none other than the Pope. When Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires stepped into the shoes of St. Peter in the Vatican this past March becoming Pope Francis, it quickly became clear that he would be a quite different pontiff than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict, now officially Pope Emeritus, is a brilliant theologian who was instrumental in the creation and implementation of the reforms of Vatican II which brought radical change to the Catholic Church. But the former Cardinal Ratzinger would later change some of his views on the sweeping changes that took place since the Second Vatican Council met in the early sixties and became very well known, even before his pontificate, as a strong voice for conservatism in the church.

Unlike Benedict, Francis, the first pope from Latin America, has rejected many of the trappings of the royal Vatican lifestyle, going out of his way to show that his pontificate will be devoted to the basics, that is to say, ministering to the poor and the helpless, and concentrating on the most fundamental tenets of Christianity, namely the gospel of love and forgiveness.

In recent months Pope Francis has made strong statements about some of the failings of capitalism, specifically the culture of greed that unrestricted capitalism left unchecked, can create.

This is where old Rush, huffing and puffing as usual, comes in. Though not a Catholic himself, he tells us he very much admires the institution. Specifically, Rush strongly approves of the Church's stand against abortion and gay marriage. He brags about being wined and dined aboard a yacht by the former Cardinal O'Connor of New York during a "Pro-Life" cruise. He claims to have visited the Vatican on numerous occasions and correctly points out there would not be a Vatican, and all its treasures, were it not for the vast amount of money that capitalism provides. And he writes admiringly about Pope John Paul II's strong opposition to communism and the late pope's claim that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (two of Limbaugh's personal heroes) were important figures in the downfall of Communism in central and eastern Europe. Rush is right about that too.

But in the Gospel according to Rush:
...juxtaposed against the actions of Pope John Paul II this pope (Francis) and the things that he released yesterday or recently are really striking. 
There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism. It's been around for quite a while. That's what makes this, to me, really remarkable...
...I'm not Catholic, but I know enough to know that this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago. But this passage, "The culture of prosperity deadens us. We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to buy. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle." I have to tell you, folks, I am totally bewildered by this. 
Here Rush shows that he's way out of his league. Fair enough, the non-Catholic Limbaugh couldn't possibly (or could he?) know that both Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, while being harsh critics of communism, also had stern warnings about "unfettered capitalism." According to Rush's great hero J.P.II in 1987:
The tension between East and West is an opposition... between two concepts of the development of individuals and peoples, both concepts being imperfect and in need of radical correction... This is one of the reasons why the Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal (unfettered) capitalism and Marxist collectivism.
Then in 1991 after the fall of communism in Europe, in the encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, John Paul II wrote this:
...can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?
The answer is obviously complex. If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative... But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality (in other words, unfettered capitalism), and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative. (Emphasis and comments are mine)
Pope Benedict XVI would later go on to write much the same on the subject. In that vein, Pope Francis
has added little or nothing to the Church's doctrine on capitalism. What he has done, which has come as a breath of fresh air to many, and a thorn in the side to folks like Limbaugh, is place less emphasis on hot button topics, social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, in favor of living and preaching the Gospel. In other words, the focus of his ministry as stated above, is directed toward the hungry, the poor, the dispossessed, the sinners, (groups Limbaugh doesn't have much time for), as well as the so called righteous. As a result, Pope Francis has brought the Vatican in step with what goes on daily in the lives of Catholic parishes around the world. Contrary to the general (non-Catholic) public's perception, as any practicing Catholic can tell you, the Church's heart resides within the hearts and souls of its people, not within the mysterious halls of the Vatican.

Judging from his words, Rush Limbaugh clearly knows little about Catholicism or the Catholic Church. What he knows or understands about Christianity is also somewhat suspect. If Limbaugh were looking for some truly radical theology he could chomp is pointy incisors into, he should read this:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
That said, it is important to point out that despite Pope Francis's ingratiating words for those on the Left to believers and non-believers alike, the Church's doctrine regarding the controversial issues of our time is not about to change. Don't expect to see the Pope coming out in favor of abortion, or gay weddings inside St. Peter's any time soon. This is as it should be I believe. It's one thing for individuals, government and statutory law to be swayed by changing times, public opinion, and ideology, but I believe that the Church is the one institution in our lives that must remain steadfastly true to its mission, namely the Gospel.

Popes come and go, some of them such as Francis and John XXIII are claimed by the Left, while others like John Paul II and Benedict XVI are claimed by the Right. However I suspect that none of those pontiffs would have appreciated being labeled as a poster child for any particular ideology.

The nutty political discourse we're now experiencing maybe OK for the secular, temporal world in which we live. However when all is said and done, we will all be judged (by a greater power if you believe in such things, and most certainly by those who survive us), by the way we treated others. The fundamental message of Christianity and other religions is so simple and profound that we lose sight of it among the all the busy details of our lives. That message is this:

Love and forgive one another.

That's all.

In the words of the great Rabbi Hillel, spoken 2000 years ago:
 the rest (of scripture) is commentary.
We may claim the Almighty for ourselves but God is neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican. He is neither a Communist nor a Capitalist. His message doesn't belong exclusively to the Right or to the Left, to the Jew or the Gentile, or to you or me. It belongs to all of us.

In the end, that message is the only one that matters.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ornithology- From the Morning Commute...

A huge Red-tailed Hawk, (Buteo jamaicensis) almost the size of my six year old, (OK even she didn't buy that one), seen perching itself on a tree limb in Chicago at Birchwood just west of Clark Street, 8:00AM, Thursday December 12. Below was a small rodent of the species Rattus norvegicus scampering about, seemingly unaware of the avian threat fifteen above. I watched for a minute to see a potential drama unfolding but alas the big bird seemed disinterested and the rat got to live another day.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Coyote in the median

Through the din coming over the radio this morning, those words caught my attention. It turned out that traffic was stopped somewhere because there was a coyote camped out in the traffic median on the northwest side of the city. I'm always impressed when a wild animal can bring a part of the city to its knees; it's as if Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom is letting us know who's in charge.

Large numbers of coyotes and other predators are a fairly recent phenomenon in cities as suburban sprawl continues to wipe out those species' natural habitat. By contrast, as large tracts of land are opening up in big cities because of disappearing industries, businesses, and homes, nature quickly reasserts itself. The overgrown, unkempt vacant lots, so unattractive to human beings, are a godsend to our four legged (and two legged winged) friends, and are becoming unintended nature preserves.

A few years ago as I was documenting the demolition of the last of the notorious south State Street housing projects, I witnessed two wildlife dramas that could have merited a feature on a TV nature documentary. One day I spied upon a magnificent Red tailed hawk on a telephone pole as she (guessing she was a she from her size), was intently gazing down on some undergrowth directly below. The raptor did not move a muscle for at least ten minutes. Then without warning, it sprung from its perch and dove straight down in to the growth below and in one motion, came up with a small bird in its talons. I watched intently as the hawk devoured its unfortunate victim.

On another day in the same place, as bulldozers worked over a patch of ground where new housing was to be built, I heard the unmistakable whistle of a pair of Killdeers, birds that are related to seabirds, but for some reason, prefer to live on open land, as this neighborhood was becoming. These two poor birds were nesting right in the bulldozer's path and there was nothing I could do for them because the area being worked upon was fenced off. I went about my work with the sad notion that this little bird family would be wiped out before it even got a chance to begin. Much to my surprise and joy, when I returned the following week, not only did I see mama and papa Killdeer proudly prancing about the open field, but five other Killdeers. The brood nearly as big as their parents, not only survived the bulldozer, but was thriving. It turned out the ruts made by the bulldozer provided the perfect structure for their nest.

And so it goes, life and death in the big city, just as in the wilderness.

To me there is something wonderfully profound about the Wild Kingdom transplanted into the heart of the big city. A little while ago I wrote about a pair of Bald eagles who were nesting along the Calumet River on the south east side of Chicago. Even our taciturn mayor couldn't help be a little giddy about a pair of endangered (well, once endangered) animals who also happen to be our national symbol, raising a family in our fair city. I imagine that fewer people are thrilled about the coyotes, a much disparaged species of animal. Yet in the big picture, they have as much a right to be here as the eagles, or us for that matter.

Coyotes pose very little threat to humans, unless they're cornered when they'll protect themselves. The same cannot be said about the threat to pets who are allowed to wander about freely. It's also not a good idea to try to feed coyotes as a three year old boy who was bitten by one discovered in Columbus Park last month. In general however, coyotes go out of their way to avoid us which is why you rarely see them. Rest assured however, they're everywhere, there's probably one within a few hundred yards of you right now. It's usually bad news for the animal when it does get entangled with humans; the coyote who bit the boy was captured and destroyed along with its family to test them for rabies. The coyote mentioned in the traffic report this morning was captured and presumably relocated. This would seem to be the humane thing to do but coyotes are very territorial and being moved into another coyote's territory will severely compromise the animal's safety.

Despite the minor inconveniences, coyotes benefit us as they help control the populations of rodents and avian pests such as the Canada goose, by stealing their eggs. They also remind us that we're not alone on this little planet, and their presence in our cities tells us as much about ourselves as it does about them.

Long may they survive.

Friday, November 22, 2013

50 years

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy only confirms what my creaky joints and aching muscles have been reminding me for a few years now: the undeniable fact that I'm getting old. When I was a child, I saw fifty as the magic divide between youth and old age. Passing that divide myself a few years ago didn't phase me much as fifty is the new forty, or thirty, or whatever age you choose. But actually remembering something that happened a half century ago is different. I'm reminded of the old folks I knew as a child who used to say all the time: "You know I remember, years ago..." Now I'm one of those people.

This anniversary is something of a personal milestone, as the events surrounding the death of the president mark the beginning of recorded time for me. My memory before that event is fragmentary, bits and pieces of vague remembrances: riding on my father's shoulders as we walked through Humboldt Park, watching Black Hawks' games on TV, taking the L to the Loop with my mother. I even remember brief glimpses of President Kennedy. To me as a small child, his strident oratory style put me off, I remember thinking he was yelling all the time. Yet those memories are vague and without context.

However I can tell you exactly where I was from 12:30pm CST November 22nd, 1963, until the following Monday afternoon. Perhaps the most vivid memory of that terrible Friday was being at home with my mother in the late afternoon, well after the tragic events in Dallas earlier that day. She was particularly somber, although I don't remember her crying, as she did after Robert Kennedy was shot five years later. Our apartment was completely dark save for the TV that was tuned to Channel 11, the local public broadcast station. Their programming, if you could call it that, consisted of nothing more than a static shot of a portrait of the slain president, while somber music played in the background. It gives me chills just thinking about it. To add pain to the misery of that day, I vividly remember accidentally banging my head against the side of our couch. The TV remained on rest of the weekend as every moment of the president's elaborate funeral was broadcast. Just about the only thing I missed was Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby which was also shown on live TV. I may have taken a brief respite to play in the halls of our building when that happened, but I distinctly remember seeing the news report flash across the screen that he was dead.

This year, with the exception of thumbing through a commemorative issue of Life Magazine, which was essentially the same issue they ran shortly after the assassination with the exception of a picture of the president with Marilyn Monroe, I've managed to avoid coverage of the anniversary. I don't need to be reminded of it; the memory of the events that took place that late November long ago has been so strongly imprinted in my brain, that hardly a month or even a week have gone by when I haven't in one way or other thought of Kennedy and his tragic death. Not that I'm a Kennedy buff, far from it. I'd say hostage to the memory of the event is a more appropriate term. Nor do I obsess over who did it. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president. It's not that I think a conspiracy is inconceivable, I just have never seen any credible evidence that points to anyone other than or in addition to Oswald. The fact that there are so many wildly divergent conspiracy theories out there is evidence enough that there probably wasn't one.

I suspect that people so vigorously support the idea of a conspiracy because they simply refuse to believe that one man's actions could so throw the world off kilter. Everybody knows that four US presidents have been assassinated, but it's less known that in US history there have been dozens of attempts on the lives of presidents, most of them planned and carried out by a solitary individual. As I heard pointed out in a recent radio interview, we're fortunate that so many of those would be assassins were simply incompetent.

Here another matter comes to light: the success or failure of such a diabolical act, depends greatly on happenstance. Case in point: it had been raining for several hours in Dallas on that fateful day, the sun came out only moments before President Kennedy's plane landed at Love Field. Had it continued to rain, the limousine in which the president and Mrs. Kennedy, and Governor and Mrs. Connelly rode past the Texas School Depository Building, would have had a rain (and bullet)-proof* bubble top, and Kennedy would have lived to see another day. If there's anything more disconcerting than the idea of a lone individual changing history, it's the idea that the course of human events can be altered by dumb luck.

As a lot of people, I've been thinking lately about how things would have been different had Kennedy lived. Some people see his murder as a watershed moment in American history. It's easy to divide the sixties into two distinct periods, before and after Kennedy's death. If you don't look too closely, you can view the early sixties as an idealistic, optimistic time with prosperity at home and relative peace abroad. After Kennedy was killed, all hell seemed to break loose. The late sixties became one of the most tumultuous periods in American and world history. Yet how much of that turbulence was a result of the assassination?

The two issues that tore this country apart limb from limb in the 1960s were Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Kennedy's theoretical impact had he lived, on the battle for Civil Rights in this country is easy to predict.

He would have had little or none.

It's true that Kennedy famously stood up to Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett and Alabama Governor George Wallace in their attempts to prevent their states' universities from being integrated. He also gave an impassioned speech on the issue of Civil Rights to the nation on June 11, 1963 where he told the country:
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue, It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution...
We preach freedom around the world, but are we to say to the world, and . . .to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes ...?"
Strong stuff indeed but Kennedy, who was preoccupied with his foreign agenda at the expense of any domestic policy, was forced into action by the brutal events that were taking place all over the country, especially in the South. In regards to the race issue in America, Kennedy given the chance would have preferred to have taken a back seat and let time heal the wounds of racial discrimination in this country.

In his well publicized letter from a Birmingham jail, written in April of 1963, Martin Luther King wrote:
For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
In his letter, Dr. King was responding to the concerns of local clergy that the campaign he led of protest and peaceful, sometimes not peaceful resistance in that most racially divided of cities, was doing more harm than good to the cause. But King's words were also seen as a thinly veiled condemnation of the Kennedy administration's taking its sweet time in the matter of equal rights for all.

The tipping point for the president could very well have been a photograph. It was taken during a protest in Birmingham of a high school student, Walter Gadsden, being grabbed by a policeman by his sweater while a police German shepherd goes for the boy's midsection. The photograph by AP photographer Bill Hudson, made the front cover of newspapers all over the world and would become one of the chilling, iconic images of the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States. Kennedy, ever conscious of this country's image around the world, worried that the photograph would undermine the credibility of this country, and the work he was trying to accomplish overseas. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy gave his aforementioned speech to the nation, where he echoed many of the points that King made in his letter.

But even though he jumped into the fray, Kennedy preferred to sit on the sidelines. As his daughter Caroline admitted this past August during the fiftieth anniversary of the momentous March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, her father watched the unfolding events on TV a few blocks away at the White House.

Kennedy during his campaign for the presidency in 1960 promised meaningful Civil Rights legislation, but never delivered it during his nearly three years in office. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson on the other hand, put Civil Rights at the top of his agenda and managed to pass his own Civil Rights Bill one year after taking office. Being from Texas, a state not known for its racial tolerance, Johnson exhibited a great deal of courage in his actions. Yet it's one thing to change the law and another to change the hearts and minds of people. The new federal laws which made the disenfranchisement of voters and local Jim Crow segregation laws illegal, went largely ignored. It took the great struggle of the sixties and beyond to begin to turn things around. If Johnson, the architect of the Great Society, fully committed to the cause of Civl Rights, ultimately had little effect on the racial climate of the United States, it's unlikely that his predecessor  JFK who was lukewarm about those issues would have had more success.

Vietnam is a little more complicated. A good case can be made for Kennedy not following the same course in Southeast Asia as his successor. In his book If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History, ” Jeff Greenfield notes that while very hawkish toward communism early in his presidency, Kennedy's views were tempered by his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the flirtation with nuclear war that crisis provoked. He allegedly confided little interest in Vietnam with his close advisors and stern criticism for France's occupation of that country. Others point out that Kennedy had no qualms about rejecting the ideas of the more hawkish members of his cabinet, the same men who advised President Johnson to escalate the war. It is speculated that Johnson may have been intimidated by his brain trust, most of them Ivy League educated. Kennedy, himself a Harvard man, had no such misplaced awe. The theory goes that had he lived, Kennedy, tired of confronting the Communists and risking nuclear war, would have rejected the advice from his Cabinet to escalate the war. Johnson of course took the advice and the War in Vietnam would dominate all aspects if American life for the next ten years.

An interesting theory, however I'm not sure I buy it. Kennedy's rhetoric up until his death continued to  be staunchly anti-communist. While he may not have been particularly interested in Vietnam, I find it highly unlikely that he would have just thrown up his hands and given up the country as yet another "domino" to fall under the influence of communism. He may have had reasonable trepidations about directly confronting the Soviet Union and the inherent risks that would entail. The Cuban Missile Crisis was solved when Kennedy, much to the disapproval of his Cabinet, made a secret, tit-for-tat deal with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, agreeing to remove US missiles from Turkey in exchange for a Soviet agreement halting the installation of their missiles ninety miles from Florida.

On the other hand, direct confrontation with the Soviet Union is a much different matter than sending troops to quelch an insurgency in a nation few Americans heard of let lone feared at the time. The armed forces of North Vietnam would certainly be no match for the weight of the US Military, or so it seemed. Historians certainly will be debating this issue from now until kingdom come, but my feeling is that Kennedy would likely have escalated the war just as Johnson did.

If my suspicion is correct and Kennedy would have escalated the war, then the impact of his death, beyond the personal, human tragedy, would have been negligible. If he had not escalated the war, I believe that the Civil Rights struggle would have completely dominated American life and politics, and much of the dissent of the sixties would have taken place regardless, although focused in a different direction. The times, as Bob Dylan sang, they were a changin', (in a song he wrote before Kennedy's death), and there would have been little or nothing that Kennedy, with all his charisma, could have done to stop it. Had he lived into the late sixties, as president and as a very privileged white male, he would have become the very personification of "The Man", that is, the ultimate establishment-authority figure, which for many in the so called Baby boomer generation, was the symbol of everything that was wrong with society.

I suspect the biggest historical impact that Kennedy's death had was on his own image. To this day we associate the Kennedy years with "Camelot", that brief shining moment (inspired by a Broadway musical), where the young and handsome president with a noble vision spelled out during his inaugural address, led this nation justly with his beautiful wife and family by his side, charming their subjects all the while. The whole Camelot connection was invented by none other than Jacqueline Kennedy as she gave an interview just after the assassination, to the author Theodore H. White which would appear in Life Magazine. That is how she desperately wanted her husband remembered, and it worked.

Since his death, historians have not been particularly kind to President Kennedy as many of his personal shortcomings have come to light in our own day of full disclosure. Had he lived, his indiscretions would have probably been revealed during his lifetime, perhaps even during his presidency. We now know that Kennedy was also a very sick man physically, suffering from numerous ailments that were kept from the public. How all that would have played out is anybody's guess.

Had John F. Kennedy lived and won a second term in office, like most second terms he would have faced adversities that he could barely imagine in his first term.  American cities would have still burned as a result of riots fed by anger and frustration over the lack of respect and dignity afforded to people of a different color. Struggles all over the world would have taken place with or without a President Kennedy. Who knows what conflicts we may have hypothetically engaged ourselves into had we not put so much effort into the struggle for Vietnam?

I suspect that today as the country observes the fiftieth anniversary of the death of President Kennedy, we'll be hearing a lot more about Camelot than about the trials and tribulations of a complicated man. That's entirely appropriate in my opinion. We need to have our heroes, even if they're flawed ones.

As the newspaper reporter of old once said: "When facts get in the way of a legend, print the legend."

*As my friend Michael pointed out in his brilliant comment below, the acrylic bubble top that would have been placed on top of the limousine in Dallas, was not bullet proof. Consequently it may or may not have spared Kennedy had it been employed, it just would have made for a harder shot. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Recently lost Chicago

Belmont Avenue and Concordia Lutheran Church, 2000
The terrible storm system that destroyed much of the town of Washington, Illinois last Sunday also hit Chicago. With the exception of 50,000 inconvenienced Bears fans at Soldier Field, the rest of us breathed a collective sigh of relief that our city was spared. Then came the news Monday morning that a stretch of Belmont Avenue between California and Western was closed because a church steeple was in danger of toppling. My heart sank as I immediately knew the church and its steeple, one of the loveliest in the city, that until this week graced the Concordia Evangelical Lutheran Church in the community of Avondale. The distinctive 1893 steeple's sheer height and ultra thin profile was a distinctive landmark in the neighborhood and for miles along Belmont Avenue. I've known it practically all my life as the church was smack dab between our house in Humboldt Park and the home of my surrogate grandfather. In recent years I'd find myself driving by the building every once in a while, greatly admiring the simple, beautiful steeple, by itself taller than the handsome neo-Gothic building that supported it, which stood in stark contrast with its surroundings, mostly undistinguished two story industrial buildings, contemporary housing developments and vacant lots. Long time residents of Chicago will probably remember this church as it sits just across the river from the site of the old Riverview amusement park.

After Sunday's storm, several supports were damaged or destroyed and the steeple perilously swayed with the breeze. City inspectors deemed the steeple too dangerous to save. It was removed on Tuesday.

Beyond the sad loss for the city, the community, and the congregation that worships in the building, that congregation of only about thirty or forty people has been strapped with the bill to remove the steeple, somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000. It's unlikely that the small congregation will be able to pick up the tab, which may threaten their very survival as well as the survival of what's left of the building. 

I know that any help to the struggling faith community, be it in the form of prayer, or cash contribution would be greatly appreciated. Here is a link to their Facebook page which has information on how to send contributions. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A thug's game played by thugs

There's been a lot of talk lately about football supplanting baseball as "our national pastime." It should come as no surprise that football consistently outdraws baseball in terms of TV ratings. Had this past World Series gone to a game seven, that game would have taken place directly opposite a regular season NFL game, nationally broadcast under the brand of "Thursday Night Football." That particular game featured a non-divisional contest between two teams from smaller markets, one good team, the Cincinnati Bengals, and one so so team, the Miami Dolphins. It would have been interesting to see how the television ratings of the two respective sporting events would have compared: a relatively insignificant game, (except where the NFL is concerned, since if you believe all their hype, every game is of the utmost importance), against what would have been the championship game between two evenly matched baseball teams both with glorious histories, capping off what turned out to be a tremendously exciting post-season. Back in the day, a seventh game of the World Series would have drawn as much attention in the United States as a presidential election, the last episode of Breaking Bad, and the Super Bowl all put together.

Not anymore.

Since TNF is shown only on cable and not available to everyone with a TV, it's unlikely that more people would have watched the Dolphins upset the Bengals that night. Still the ratings for this year's World Series were the fourth lowest in history. That despite a fantastic series featuring the emotional draw of the Boston Red Sox, a team that finished dead last in their division last year, and the city they represent, still reeling from the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings last April.

Well it turns out the Miami-Cincinnati game was more important than anyone would realize at the time.  That week, Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin turned up AWOL at a couple of team practices and missed the Thursday night game. He cited "personal reasons" but it would come out that his line-mate, Ritchie Ingonito, a player not particularly known for his tact and good manners, had said some rather unpleasant things to Martin over the season.

OK that's a bit of an understatement. Acting on his coaches' insistence to "toughen up" the rookie Martin, Incognito among other things took it upon himself to send Martin texts and voicemails of the most vile nature, including physical threats to Martin and his family, as well as racial epithets, (Incognito is white, Martin is black). Transcripts of those messages went public (I won't bother to quote any of them but trust me, they're bad). The story went viral and set off a firestorm of diatribes, blasting one if not both of the players. Many of the Dolphin players, a team that like the rest of the NFL is predominantly African American, came to Incognito's defense, saying that kind of talk is perfectly normal locker room jive, and that Martin as a professional football player, rather than complaining to the authorities, should have stood up for himself like a man, presumably with a fist to Incognito's face. On the other side there were calls for Incognito's immediate dismissal for his racist remarks and for workplace harassment. Incognito has in fact, been suspended from the team.

The debate made for great theater, especially all the disingenuous NFL "insiders" who sounding a lot like Captain Renault, the Claude Rains character from Casa Blanca, said they were shocked, SHOCKED, that such words could come out of the mouth of a football player.

Quite frankly I'm not sure which side I'm on. Clearly Incognito is an unabashed, unapologetic, (pardon the expression) asshole, who had long before the Martin incident, created a legacy of sociopathic behavior. Martin on the other hand by his actions has shown, unlike scores of other players who have taken the same kind of verbal abuse throughout the years, that he cannot stand up to the kind of punishment expected of a professional football player, and probably does not belong in the NFL.

In other words, he's a perfectly normal human being. There in a nutshell is the basis for my thesis on why we Americans so love to watch football.

Unlike baseball players who traditionally came from all sectors of society, rich, poor and everything in between, football began in the nineteenth century purely as a collegiate sport, designed to "make men" out of individuals who were not likely to ever be subjected to the demands of hard, physical labor. The comparison is similar to that of rugby in England which was also played by college men, and their game of football (what we call soccer), which was the game of the masses. That distinction is still made to this day: "rugby is a thug's game played by gentlemen, while soccer is a gentleman's game played by thugs," (or something of that nature).

Today, although virtually every NFL player still comes from the college ranks, big time universities recruit their players from all sectors of society based exclusively upon athletic ability, for the sole purpose of playing football (and other lucrative sports) for the school. If star players (i.e.: the ones with a chance of making it into the pros) manage to get a college education in the process, it's purely by accident. Beyond those differences, football is still considered the manliest of games. To strident fans, American football embodies all the virtues of the ideal American male: strength, fearlessness, obedience, love of God and country, and a ferocious, competitive spirit. To its most bellicose fans, football is compared to war, its players to soldiers.

In perhaps the most brilliant comparison ever of the two games, the late comedian George Carlin had this to say about baseball and football:
...the objectives of the two games are completely different: 
In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.
In baseball the object is to go home. And to be safe. - I hope I'll be safe at home!
Unlike most other sports played in this country, full contact football exists purely as a spectator sport. Most Americans have themselves played some form of baseball, either the game itself, its close relative softball, or even kickball, the playground game which has had a recent resurgance among adults looking to re-capture their childhood. In parks and playgrounds all over the country you see pickup basketball, soccer and even lacrosse games played by men, women, and children of all shapes and sizes. And on frozen ponds in the north and up in Canada, all you need to play hockey is a pair of skates, a stick, puck, and a couple pairs of shoes for goals. Other than levels of skill, strategy, and intensity, all those games are essentially the same games the pros play.

Gridiron football is different. The majority of football fans, myself included, have never played the game. OK we may have played football-lite in the form of touch or the slightly more intense flag football. Even if some tackling is thrown in for good measure let's face it, with full contact football's complex set of rules, strict division of labor, highly developed play strategies, and especially its speed and sheer brutality, the games that resemble it have as much in common with the real deal as a foot race has in common with NASCAR.

American football is compelling drama, especially as seen on TV with its incessant analysis and commentary designed to milk every last drop of significance out of the game. Like all legitimate athletic competitions, the outcome is not pre-determined, yet in football there is a sense of urgency that doesn't exist in any other sport. In football, with every play comes the real possibility of nirvana or disaster, depending which side you're on. Think of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers recently being forced out of a game (and possibly the season) because of an injury on the opening drive of a Monday Night Football game after being cleanly sacked by Chicago's Shea McClellin. In that one play, Green Bay's agony was Chicago's ecstasy. Injuries are part of every sport of course but in other games they are the exception, in football, they're the rule. Given its short season, every football game is a "must win" situation. In America, watching the game has become a Sunday (or Monday or Thursday) ritual, and much like going to church, it is played out as a clash between good and evil, the believers vs. the infidels. In fact it's not uncommon to hear people profess their full belief in one team or other. I once read a newspaper article on game day up in Wisconsin featuring two Catholic priests who quite seriously debated whether or not God is a Packer fan.

For their part, fans live vicariously through the exploits of their larger than life (both literally and figuratively) cartoon-like heroes, as they wail upon the villains on the other side. All the frustrations of the previous week can be alleviated during those three and a half hours on a Sunday afternoon, if all goes well that is. And if it doesn't, you can always blame The Man, dressed in a white cap and a shirt with black and white stripes.

One can learn a lot about football culture just by watching the commercials during a typical game. Never do you see regular people in commercials actually playing the game; most depict the fan, glued to a TV or tail-gating outside the stadium. Yet these fans are not merely passive spectators, no they're usually involved in some kind of ritual designed to help their team win. Another way fans become "active" participants in the game is through the wildly popular game of fantasy football, where "leagues" composed of a group of people compete against each other by selecting NFL players for their individual "team." Each team's performance is based upon that week's cumulative performance of its "drafted" players, all tallied up on the computer.

Of course, like the computer game, football fandom is all fantasy. Since your average fan could never in his wildest dreams suit up in pads and a helmet and get out there and play with the big boys, these rituals enable us to become part of the game, without having to do any of the hard stuff. That's where Jonathan Martin comes in. Normal people would never put up with the kind of crap that was thrown at him. Of course normal people don't make a living expected to protect a quarterback by blocking 300 pound defensive linemen coming full speed ahead at them, prepared to knock their head off given half the chance.

If normal people played professional football, other normal people would not watch it. My guess is that between the two players, Jonathan Martin and Ritchie Incognito, both at the present time inactive, it will be Incognito who returns to the game. He will go through the obligatory sensitivity training and after a few sniffly TV interviews (maybe even with Barbara Walters if we're lucky), he will apologize for his misdeeds, will be publicly deemed acceptable to return to the game, be welcomed with open arms by his teammates, and hailed as a conquering albeit flawed hero. Football fans have forgiven much worse behavior.

As for Martin his talent notwithstanding, he'll probably have a hard time finding another job on an NFL squad, should he chose to do so. He's an outcast now, known by the insiders as someone who's soft, someone who can't take the heat.  That's the kiss of death in the antediluvian culture of the NFL. All those blabbering NFL insiders on TV may publicly praise him for coming forward and exposing the evils of bullying and harassment in their sport but in the end, you can bet your bottom dollar they'd never pick him to play for their team.

I wouldn't worry about Jonathan Martin however. Given his pedigree, both parents well respected Harvard graduates, one a lawyer, the other a professor, my guess is that he got himself a reasonable education while he attended Stanford. In the end he'll probably get an advanced degree and go on to do great things with his life.

On the other hand, after his playing days are over, who knows what's in store for a goon like Incognito. He's probably not coaching material and with his reputation, he's unlikely to end up in the broadcast booth. He'd probably make a heck of a professional wrestler.

So is football our new national pastime? Well I'd have to say no, simply because in the words of Sports Illustrated columnist Frank Deford:
Nobody would dare call football a pantywaist thing like 'pastime.'
Obsession, maybe new religion perhaps would be more fitting terms; certainly gridiron football is without a doubt, America's game.

In the sixties, the columnist, Mary McGrory wrote this:
Baseball is what we used to be. Football is what we have become.
So true. But like Jonathan Martin's future, I don't worry much about baseball either. Despite the declining TV ratings, attendance at MLB games is soaring, baseball's becoming more and more an international game, and little league programs as far as I can tell are still thriving all over the country, insuring the future of the game.

By contrast, with all the attention lately given to the lasting effects of concussions and other serious injuries common in football, fewer and fewer parents are signing their kids up for the game.

In the end, baseball is still the people's game while football for all its popularity, is for the most part nothing more than reality TV.

Thank goodness it's only 128 days until opening day.

In the meantime, go Bears.

They may be thugs, but gosh darn it, they're our thugs.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tallest building west of the Hudson?

Once again, Chicago's status as the home of the tallest building somewhere in the world is diminishing as the new 1 World Trade Center in New York has been topped off and will very likely be determined to be taller than our Willis/Sears Tower. I say likely determined because no one agrees exactly what constitutes the top of a building. Antennas for example don't count, since they're not considered an integral part of the design of a structure. Spires however, which are essentially ornamental in function, may or may not actually be measured as part of the height of a building.

This has become an issue since the new WTC has a spire which supporters of the building say should be counted as part of its height. With the spire the building measures 1,776 feet. Where have I heard that number before? As you can imagine, Chicago boosters say no, a building should be measured by its highest inhabitable floor. Since the WTC's spire leapfrogs it above the Chicago building, there has been quite a to do about methods of measurement. However we lost that battle to the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur years ago.

Willis/Sears, once unquestionably the tallest building in the world, has slipped into the double digits depending upon whose list you subscribe to. Until the New York tower was topped off, Willis/Sears could still be claimed as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. It was especially satisfying to denizens of the Windy City to know that while New York may get all the attention, by golly we still had a taller building.

I've previously written about the famous Chicago tower, expressing little enthusiasm for the building itself, and my lack of interest in the subject of ranking heights of buildings. And I was prepared to write another post expressing more of the same. But after giving it considerable thought, at least ten minutes worth, I've come to the conclusion that Sears Tower (as I will refer to it now and for evermore), deserves to be considered the taller building.

It turns out that the spire atop of the WTC itself is nothing more than a sheathing for an antenna, albeit a rather attractive one. What's more, the building's developers have decided for practical reasons against attaching the structure that was originally designed to cover the antenna, so now we're left with a 1,368 foot building topped with a 408 foot antenna. Sears Tower, without its two antennas, measures 1,450 feet.

This week in Chicago of all places, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat will meet to settle the score. There will be sentiment for 1WTC for obvious emotional and symbolic reasons. Meanwhile there will be many Chicagoans who will be awaiting the decision with baited breath. As one of our mottos is: "the city of big distinctions" it will be important to know just how to refer to Sears Tower; will it continue to be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere or merely the tallest building west of the Hudson?

Of course my life and probably yours won't be much effected by the ruling. Still, looking at pictures of the new Manhattan tower, it seems pretty ridiculous to consider the thing stuck on top of it to be anything other than an antenna. Measuring to the top of that antenna would be like measuring the height of a woman from the floor to the tip of her beehive hairdo.

There now I've done it, now I'll never look at 1 World Trade Center again without thinking of Marge Simpson. And maybe you will too.

You're welcome.

POST SCRIPT: Today, Tuesday November 12, 2013, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has indeed declared 1 World Trade Center to be officially 1776 feet tall, making it the tallest building in the western hemisphere. Curses, foiled again.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


It's that time of year again and my son and I are heartily enjoying another World Series. We're watching this one more intently than usual perhaps because our lives, mine by association only, have more than any other year to date, revolved around baseball, and we're not quite ready to see it end for the year. My son just had an experience that doesn't come along all that often in sports or in life for that matter. Last week, he and his team won the very last game of their season, meaning they went out as champions. In some ways that's a double edged sword as experiencing early success like that may make anything less in the future seem like a letdown. Of course many times in his life he's also experienced, as they used to say in the opening of the TV classic, The Wide World of Sports, the "agony of defeat", so I guess it all balances itself out in the end.

Anyway, this year's Series, at least the first five games of it, has proven to be a real corker featuring just about everything a baseball fan could hope for. For starters, the two best teams over the grueling 162 game regular season, actually made it into the Series, something that doesn't happen all that often in these days of extended playoffs. Last night, Boston's Jon Lester pitched a brilliant game while his teammate, David (Big Papi) Ortiz has been so hot at the plate that even when the opposing pitchers try to walk him, he still manages to hit doubles and home runs. On the other side, the St. Louis Cardinals under the capable hands of the best catcher in the game, Yadier Molina, have had some excellent pitching of their own, especially the youngsters, starter Michael Wacha, and their relievers, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, both capable of 95 plus mph heat. Despite game one being a comedy of errors, and with a few other miscues sprinkled throughout, both teams have shown brilliance in the field, especially the second basemen: Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox and Matt Carpenter for the Cards. Carlos Beltran perhaps made the play of the series by robbing Ortiz of another home run. Plus, this series features teams with long, storied traditions, each representing a great city that I love.

Quite honestly the only thing I'm rooting for this year is a seven game series, so what's there not to like?

Actually there are two things: the endings of games three and four. Game three ended with a controversial call when Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, in the process of attempting to field an errant throw from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, was charged with obstructing the progress of the runner, Allen Craig.  Although Craig would be thrown out at home by the Sox left fielder on that play, he and the Cardinals were awarded the winning run of the game because of the obstruction. Upon scrupulous viewing of replay after replay, the home plate umpire made the correct call in my opinion. However no one wants to see a game, especially a World Series game, decided by an umpire's judgement call.

Then in game four, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Cardinals down by two, Allen Craig (him again), got a base hit. Rookie Kolten Wong came in to pinch run for the slow-footed Craig who had recently come back to the team after a leg injury. The Cards' best hitter, Beltran was next up, but he didn't get a chance to swing the bat because Koji Uehara, the Red Sox reliever picked off Wong at first, game over. It was the first time ever that a World Series Game ended with a runner being picked off a base. Thrilling to be sure, but it came at the expense of a huge mistake on the part of the base runner. As has been pointed out ad-nauseum since the play occurred, the run that Wong would have represented was essentially meaningless, as the batter Beltran would have represented the tying run. Therefore there was no need for Wong to have taken a big lead off first, placing himself in jeopardy of being picked off.

Wong has been raked over the coals since the play, he was publicly excoriated by his manager Mike Matheny as well as by the incessant blabbering of sports radio. Close to tears, Wong did not shun the cameras after the game as he could have, but stood up to account for his error. He later apologized via Tweet to "#Cardinal Nation."

Last night, the Cardinals dropped their second game in a row after the aforementioned Jon Lester masterpiece, meaning that in order to win the World Series, they must win the next two games in Boston, no easy task.

And so we have the birth of yet another baseball scapegoat. If the Cardinals lose this World Series, you can rest assured that poor Kolten Wong's base running miscue will be remembered for as long as there are people who care about baseball. His name will go down in history, grouped with other players, and at least one spectator, as people who through one unfortunate act, allegedly cost their team a championship.

I don't know if any other sport produces as many goats as baseball. Perhaps it's because every play in the game hinges around the actions of relatively few players. If you mess up, it's there for all to see, and right there in the scorecard, recorded for posterity. There are as many ways to mess up in baseball as there are different plays, but I think you can distill baseball mistakes down to three or four categories:

The missed opportunity. Case in point: you're up to bat with tying run at third and only one out. Then you hit into a double play, game over. Probably the most famous missed opportunity in baseball is the mythical "Mighty Casey,"who after much anticipation comes up to the plate with two runners on and the chance to win the game with one swing of his bat. But with his "haughty grandeur," he just stood there watching the ball go by for strikes one and two. Then with the force of his mighty blow, he shattered the air, but not the ball, for strike three, dampening the joy of the faithful fans of the Mudville Nine. However, batters who fail to come through in the clutch are not usually blamed for their team's demise. As the great Ted Williams once said:
Baseball is the only field of endeavor in life where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.
The error. When you play in the field and the ball is hit to you, you either make the play or you don't. If it is determined by the official scorer that the play should have been made but wasn't, it's an error. Errors are simply a part of the game and for the most part are quickly forgotten. They do become a big deal when they have a direct impact on the outcome of a game, especially a big game. One of the most famous errors in history came in game seven of the 1912 World Series. The New York Giants were leading the Red Sox 2-1 in the bottom of the 10th inning. The Sox' Clyde Engel hit a routine fly to center fielder Fred Snodgrass who misplayed it. That opened the door for a series of events that enabled the Red Sox to tie the game, (with Engel scoring the tying run), and win it later in the inning. Snodgrass, otherwise a terrific fielder, made a sensational diving catch preventing a sure triple immediately following his error in that game. Despite that, a distinguished career, and a long, productive life, the headline of his New York Times obituary 62 years later read:
Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.
In recent memory of course there was Bill Buckner, another player of distinction who will always be remembered, especially in Boston, for misplaying a ground ball hit by Mookie Wilson of the Mets, that would have ended the inning but instead allowed the game winning run to score in game six of the 1986 World Series. The Mets went on to win game seven and the Series.

The mental gaffe: This is probably considered the most inexcusable of mistakes as baseball players are expected to be 100 percent in the game at all times. It's true that despite being a rookie, Kolten Wong should never have allowed himself to be picked off in that situation. But he's in good company. In a play during this year's American League Championship Series, Detroit Tiger great Miguel Cabrera was rounding third when he got the "stop" sign from his third base coach. He chose to ignore the sign and ended up being thrown out by at least twenty feet at home. The culprit of one of the most famous boneheaded plays in World Series history, was none other than the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth himself, who made the last out of the 1926 World Series against the Cardinals by being thrown out while trying to steal second base. When asked why he attempted to steal in that situation, the Bambino just said: "because they weren't expecting it." Turned out it didn't matter, they weren't expecting it but the Babe  was so slow they got him anyway.  To this day no other World Series has ended with a runner caught stealing.

Wrong place at the wrong time: This is the most unjust cause of goatsmanship. Here in Chicago, we just witnessed the tenth anniversary of the Steve Bartman incident. In case you don't recall, the Cubs were leading the Florida Marlins 3-0, and five outs away from their first World Series appearance in 58 years, and counting. With a runner at second, Luis Castillo hit a foul ball hit in the direction of the stands and several fans reached out to grab it. At the same time, Cubs left fielder Moises Alou tried to make a play on the ball. Of all the hands that reached out, it was Bartman's which actually touched the ball, deflecting it away from Alou, who may or may not have had a play. That simple out of play foul ball, and the ensuing hubbub the Cubs made charging Bartman of "fan interference," completely unravelled the team and by the end of the inning, the Marlins scored eight runs, more than enough to win the game. They won the next game too and the Marlins, not the Cubs represented the National League in the 2003 World Series. Despite all the the bad plays from the team that game including shortstop Alex Gonzales booting a tailor made, inning ending double play ball (hit by Miguel Carbrera), that would have gotten the Cubs out of that disastrous eighth inning virtually unscathed, it was the poor fan who to this day is blamed for his team's demise. Today the name Steve Bartman is more familiar to the public than most of the names of the players on that ill-fated team.

Probably the most famous incident in baseball history took place even before Fred Snodgrass's muffed fly. On September 23, 1908 in the old Polo Grounds in New York, the Giants were in a heated pennant race with the Cubs. The game was tied in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a runner at first. Up to bat comes another rookie, Fred Merkle of the Giants. He gets a hit that advances the runner to third. The next batter, Al Bridwell, hit a solid single to center field, scoring the runner at third, game over, Giants win. Or so it seemed. Merkle, the runner at first, did what every other major leaguer had done up to that point after a game winning run, he turned around and went back to his dugout. Well it so happened that the Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers had been prepared for such a situation. You see, the rules of baseball state that if there is a force out at any base with two outs, any runner crossing home plate will not be awarded with a run, even if he crosses the plate before the out is registered. Evers yelled to his center fielder, who himself was headed to the dugout, to retrieve the ball which he did. After getting the umpires' attention, Evers then tagged second base with the ball and argued that since Merkle had not touched second before the ball (he had in fact long since left the field), he was forced out, and that the run should not count. After agonizing with the decision, the umpires ruled in Evers' and the Cubs' favor, Merkle was declared the third out of the inning, the run was not allowed, and the game was still tied. But since by that time darkness had settled upon New York, the game was suspended, to be replayed at a later date if necessary. It turned out that it would be necessary as the Giants and the Cubs both finished in first place with identical records. The game was replayed in its entireity on October 8th. The Cubs won that game, the pennant, and the World Series (for the last time to date).

Despite himself having a long respectable Major League career, from that point on Freddie Merkle, for doing what anybody else would have done in the same situation at the time, would be forever known as "the Bonehead." He died in 1956, and here's how he was remembered in the New York Times:
Giants 1st Baseman’s 'Boner' in Failing to Touch 2nd Led to Loss of ’08 Pennant
In each case depicted above, despite all the other things that went wrong in those games, despite all the opportunities other members of the teams had to pick up their teammates, one person was singled out by fans and sportswriters, (but not the players who know better), as the scapegoat for the team.

It's a sad comment about the human condition that whenever something doesn't go our way, it always helps to blame somebody else.

And who says baseball isn't a metaphor for life?

So now I have a legitimate reason to root for these Cardinals. I'd like to see them win this thing for no other reason than saving Kolten Wong from the burden of being forever known as the guy who cost St. Louis the 2013 World Series.

Well actually I do have another reason. I really can't stand those stupid Red Sox beards.

Go Cards!

POST SCRIPT: In a case of life imitates art, (or is it the other way around?), in my haste to get this post out in a timely fashion, I originally credited John Lackey for the brilliant win in game five. Of course it should have been the lefty, Jon Lester. Lackey pitches tonight. Score that as an E-B (Blogger). In my defense all those Boston beards make their players look alike.

POST POST SCRIPT: The Red Sox just won their first World Series at home in Boston since Babe Ruth was on the team in 1918 and they beat the Cubs in six games. Game six of the 2013 World Series was filled with what I described above as missed opportunities as the Cardinals left nine runners on base in their 6-1 loss to the Red Sox. John Lackey, (yes I believe I got it right this time), was just as good as Jon Lester was in game five, pitching himself out of several jams and giving up only one run. After missing two games because of a back injury, Shane Victorino was the offensive hero of the game breaking a scoreless tie with a bases loaded triple in the third inning off Michael Wacha. And the Cardinals just gave up on David Ortiz, the Series MVP, intentionally walking him three times, tying a World Series record.  What can I say, the better team won, it's going to be hard to pin this loss on Kolten Wong, but I'm sure we haven't heard the last about him and his adventures on the basepaths.

Congratulations Red Sox!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Open House Chicago

This weekend, October 19th and 20th, the third annual Open House Chicago will take place. The event sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation was based upon a similar event that began in London nearly two decades ago. Buildings all over this city will open their doors and allow visitors to see parts of Chicago that are typically off limits the rest of the year.

I'll be busy giving tours of our own building, the Casa Bonita in Rogers Park, so I won't have the opportunity to take advantage of all the event has to offer.

But if I did, here's where I'd go, in no particular order:
  • The Auditorium Theater. OK this probably would be my first choice, you'll get to visit possibly the greatest interior in all of Chicago, maybe anywhere for that matter.
  • The building that replaced the Auditorium as Chicago's principle opera house, The Lyric Opera House, another grand interior especially if you like Art Deco.
  • McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum where you'll get to see the infrastructure of a thoroughly Chicago institution, one of the city's movable bascule bridges, smack dab in the epicenter of Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett's realized Plan of Chicago.
  • JAHN, the architecture firm founded by the controversial Helmut Jahn, its offices are located in the cupola of the Jewelers Building. You might not like the work of the frim but their offices are stunning. This touor is for CAF members only. 
  • Palmisano Park in Bridgeport, the site of the former Sterns Quarry. The tour will be led by members of the design team responsible for this magnificent park's creation.
  • Two businesses located on the site of the Old Stockyards, The Plant, a "net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation" and Testa Produce, another fully sustainable food business featuring its gigantic wind-powered turbine. Unfortunately the tour of the Testa plant is no longer taking reservations. 
  • On the west side, Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, unquestionably one of the most beautiful, and historically significant Roman Catholic churches in Chicago.
  • Another church, this one I've always been curious about, Harvest Bible Chapel, formerly the Scottish Rite Cathedral in the Gold Coast, across from Bughouse Square and the Newberry Library. The church is one of the few buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire. 
  • Also in the Gold Coast, the Charnley-Persky House, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright while he was under the employ of Louis Sullivan.
  • The Brewster Apartments, a highfalutin 1890s apartment building with another magnificent interior.
  • The Elks National Monument, a Classical Revival temple which was highly praised by John Drury in his book Chicago in Seven Days. (see my previous post).
  • Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Hyde Park where you can save the money on the regularly scheduled tours and see the inside for free.
  • KAM Isaiah Israel, a gorgeous synagogue in Hyde Park/Kenwood.
  • You can save yourself another tour fee by visiting H.H.Richardson's Glessner House, the great architect's only surviving Chicago building.
  • In South Shore, the former St. Constantine Greek Orthodox Church, now the Mosque Maryam, modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Whew! I could go on and on but I've run out of time, and you will too, there's simply too much to see this weekend and far too little time. Most of these buildings are generally not open to the public. Churches and temples of course are open during services so you might plan to visit them some other time. Check out the Open House Chicago website and plan your visits accordingly. 

And have a great weekend.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chicago, 1928

Courtesy of a fellow subscriber to a Facebook group devoted to "Forgotten Chicago", the fascinating book, Chicago in 7 Days was just brought to my attention. The book, published in 1928, was written by John Drury, a poet, writer, and later a radio host, much of whose work was based upon the Chicago scene. In the twenties and thirties he had an article in the old Chicago Daily News specializing in restaurant reviews, which becomes readily apparent when you read this little book. He was not related to the famous local TV news anchor of the same name.

Chicago in 7 Days is written as an account of a day by day tour given to a Miss Anne Morley, a self described "wide eyed visiting yokel from the Corn Belt." (We later learn that she hailed from Springfield). Day after day, the author takes Miss Morley on an exhaustive bus, streetcar, and elevated tour of the city, from the top to the very bottom. Miss Morley is shown neighborhoods where many life-long residents today wouldn't dare venture.

For example, stopping at an establishment for something to eat in the vicinity of Sacramento Avenue and Madison Street in East Garfield Park, Mr. Drury writes the following:
Because of its good food and pleasant appointments"  I explained to Miss Morley, "this place is popular with the beau monde of the far west side.
Today this area would be off limits to all but the hardiest urban pioneers and adventurers. The "beau monde" of the west or any other side for that matter, haven't been found in that part of town for years. In truth, many of the places our tour guide takes his intrepid guest would have been far off the beaten path for the average 1928 visitor as well. Hardly a stone is left unturned in their exploration of the city.

The ground rules are expressed at the outset: "We won't visit the stockyards." To our 21st Century ears, that might sound like an ironic remark, as if a gentleman would ever think of showing a young lady the brutal, mechanized killing industry that put our city on the map. On the contrary, Miss Morley is a bit put off that Chicago's number one tourist attraction at the time, might not be on her tour guide's agenda. The author puts her mind to rest, she would indeed get to visit the stockyards including its most gruesome features, but not before she saw the "fruits of our famous pioneer industries", that is to say the architecture, public works projects, and great cultural institutions that were all made possible by those industries.

There is an unabashed pride and optimism in Mr. Drury's words about this city. One can easily see the Chicago swagger and braggadoccio that is so off--putting to critics such as Rachel Shteir whose lambasting of Chicago in the guise of a book review was published in the New York Times earlier this year. That's not to say this little guidebook is a mouthpiece for the Chamber of Commerce. Far from it, Drury doesn't pull any punches, he takes Miss Morley through some of the most unflattering parts of the city, places with colorful names like Floptown, Bum Park, the Slave Market, and a place he calls simply, the "Underworld District". They visit the Western Undertaking Company which is:
particularly interesting because practically all persons who meet a sudden death in the north end of the Loop are brought here-that is, until such a time as the relatives of the deceased are located of notified by the police.
The couple visit the "Noose" Coffee Shop across from the Criminal Courts building and County Jail where the proprietor, Joe Stein:
provides meals gratis to condemned prisoners on the eve of their hanging.
Drury takes the lovely lady to Little Sicily on the near northwest side where:
at Milton and Oak Streets, we stood at Chicago's notorious "Death Corner"... where Sicilians are mysteriously shot to death every two or three weeks. And a shrug of the Sicilian shoulder is as far as the police ever get in their investigations.
And to the famous neighborhood on the south side, just west of the stockyards where in Drury's words:
in recent years, Back O' the Yards has been the scene of many gang murders and shootings, arising from the territorial disputes in distribution of illicit beer and alcohol.
In 1928 of course, the country was still under the grips of that noble experiment, Prohibition. Substitute the word "drugs" for "beer and alcohol", and he could have written those words today.

Despite the desperate conditions, Drury takes pains to point out that things were much worse in the past, that great strides were continuously being made to rectify the evils of poverty and its effcts. While walking through Floptown past the:
gnarled old men with yellow teeth, shabby young men with dirty wrinkled clothes, middle-aged men with doughy complexions, laborers, Mexicans, lumber- jacks, and drunks, 
he shows Miss Morley, Hobo College, an institution :
founded and conducted by Dr. Ben Reitman... for the betterment of the down-and-outer.
And they visited Chicago's legendary institution devoted to helping the needy of this city, the Hull House. Founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr as a settlement house and a place for social reform, the Hull House provided housing, educational opportunities and cultural activities for tens of thousands of individuals, mostly newly arrived immigrants on Chicago's west side. Unfortunately Miss Addams, who was still very much alive at the time of the writing, was not available  for a visit.

Of course not all of the seven day journey through Chicago ivolved visiting as Miss Morley called it: "how the other half lives." Starting from her base camp at the late, great downtown hotel the Sherman House, our travelers' urban excursions typically began mid-morning, and didn't end much before midnight. The first day is a whirlwind overview of the city, north, south, and west. Even the much overlooked east side is explored as the two find their all the way down to the residential neighborhood still known as "The Bush", adjacent to the now defunct United States Steel South Works plant.

Day two was devoted to Michigan Avenue (mostly south of the river), and the lakefront. It's interesting to note the contemporary sensibilities about architecture and other matters of the day. Drury singles out two specific buildings on that day's tour as "two of the world's greatest structures." His choice might come as a surprise given the number of notable Chicago buildings that were built before 1928. The first stop on the Michigan Avenue tour, number one on Mr. Drury's list of great buildings of the world, is Tribune Tower. The tower, the work of the New York architects Raymond Hood, and John Mead Howells, was selected the winner of a 1922 contest sponsored by the newspaper to build "the most beautiful office building in the world." The stiff competition included submissions from all over the world; many of them were, as was the winning entry, designed in the popular at the time, neo-Gothic style.  Drury spends several pages on the building, waxing poetically about its magnificence: the breathtaking design that makes the building appear to be reaching toward the sky yet remaining firmly planted on the ground, its cathedral-like entrance, the masterful stonework, the unforgetable view of the Chicago skyline between its flying buttresses thirty stories above the ground, and yes, he even goes on and on about the building's occupant, richly deserving in his opinion, of its self-proclaimed title: "World's Greatest Newspaper."

Surprisingly, for all the words Drury devotes to the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, directly across the street, is mentioned only in passing.

The "second burst of glory" in John Drury's collection of great buildings of the world found in Chicago, conveniently comes at the end of this particular tour sitting as it does at the other end of Michigan Avenue. My guess is that unlike Tribune Tower, this one would not rank highly on most lists of Chicago best buildings today. It's the Stevens Hotel, today known as the Hilton Chicago but best known to most long time Chicagoans as the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Its ornate Beaux Arts style,  Louis XV appointments, and especially its enormity overwhelms the visitor. These days, those of us who care about such things, marvel over the originality of the great architects of Chicago, John Root and Louis Sullivan for example. Back in the twenties, those architects' work already three decades old, was seen as "old fashioned." It was the architecture that looked back to the past for its inspiration, that was the current vogue. Another building that Mr. Drury lavishes praise upon, is the Classical Revival Elks Memorial at Lakeview and Diversey, a building well off the radar of most contemporary Chicago Architecture buffs.

Interestingly, under the heading of Architecture, the book's index lists, Classical, Colonial, Moorish, Reproduction of Parisian churches, Romanesque and Renaissance. However, the couple does explore a number of buildings that do not fit into any of those categories. These styles are described by the author as "modernistic" or "futuristic." Inside the long lost Union Station concourse, Miss Morley makes the observation:
I would say it looks unfinished...
Drury continues:
What aroused this thought in her was the appearance of square pillars of exposed fabricated steel, forming criss-crosses along the walls and lofty ceiling. "This exposed steel work," I asserted, "is an original innovation in terminal design. In fact, many of the more advanced modernistic artists claim that this is the first appearance of a typical American architecture. Because of its simplicity and directness, these artists believe that such an interior fulfills the purpose of art. They hold that art, particularly in the field of architecture, should reflect the present and not the past."
OK so Mr. Drury may have gotten his timeline a little mixed up; the appearance of a "simple", direct" and "typical" American architecture did not begin with Chicago's Union Station, not by a long shot.

Here's another passage from the couple's tour of the South Side:
Our walk then led north on Woodlawn Avenue to 58th Street.  
"What an odd-looking house," sang out Miss Morley, indicating a long, low, rambling house on the northeast corner.

"That," I replied, "is known as 'The Houseboat House because of its similarity to a boat, and is one of the show- places of the south side. It is easy to see that it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the foremost of American architects of to-day.
In case you haven't guessed it already, the house he's referring to is Robie House, one of FLW's most iconic designs. While Drury's writing on the subject may not shed much light on architectural history from a scholarly point of view, he does give us great insight into the way the average person looks at buildings, back then and today.

Miss Morley and her guide do eventually make it down to the stockyards where the visitor is at the same time repulsed and exhilarated by the goings on. "Gracious..." she says:
...the experience has a weird thrill with so much killing going on. I shall never forget it in all my life.
No sooner than the thought of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came into my head, Miss Morley brought up the muckracking novel. Always quick with the reply, her tour guide said:
"Yes," I said. "That novel caused as much of a stir when it appeared years ago as Uncle Tom's Cabin did earlier. Its expose of conditions in 'Packingtown' did much to bring about improvements in the meat-packing industry in Chicago. The deplorable conditions pictured in the novel are of course a thing of the past.
Of course.

In many parts of the book, Drury brings up Chicago's literary scene, even taking his guest to some of the hangouts of the famous writers of the time. He drops names of the likes of Theodore Dreisser, Ben Hecht, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and others. Unfortunately, our wanderers never seem to meet up with any of these literary giants. No one would ever confuse this book with the works of the great writers whose paths crossed at some point with this town. What Drury's book lacks compared to the works of his literary idols is a critical edge and a sense of irony. Superlatives abound in desribing the assets of this city, and its problems are reported as matter-of-fact, they're little more serious than smashed bugs on a windshield. Drury even finds something positive written from perhaps the greatest cynic of all, H.L. Mencken, who wrote this on Chicago's literary scene:
In Chicago there is the mysterious something that makes for individuality, personality, charm; in Chicago a spirit broods upon the face of the waters. Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every pulse- beat, an American who has something new and pecul- iarly American to say and who says it in an unmistak- ably American way, and nine times out of ten you will find that he has some sort of connection with the gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan— that he was bred there, or got his start there, or passed through there in the days when he was young and tender.
No, you will not find within its pages of this book, an insightful critique of this town. That's part of its charm. It would be almost inconceivable to find such a book, even a visitor's guide, written in our own cynical age.

If you were to break open a compenprary guidebook to Chicago, you will notice the book more than likely covers only a sliver of a section of the entire city. The large swaths of "unworthy" areas are deemed so because authors and editors consider them to be short on interest and/or high in danger. Not so with Chicago in 7 Days. The greatest joy for me in reading this book was Drury's portrayal of a city of tremendous life and potential. He and his guest embark on a magnificent seven day journey exploring practically every nook and cranny of Chicago, discovering treasures in even the most banal of places. Those banal places are are woven in seamlessly with the landmarks, the places considered "worthy" of note as tourist destinations go. That in a nutshell, is the essence of what the eperience of any real city is all about.

Unfortunately, tourists in our day it would seem, are not by and large interested in exploring real cities.

Again that term, "Disneyfication" rears its ugly head. Chicago's North Michigan Avenue is a good example. In the book, Drury writes about the neighborhood then known as "Towertown", after the Water Tower. In the twenties, this was the heart of Chicago's "Bohemia" as Drury called it, referring not to ethnicity but its lifestyle. The neighborhood once abounded with cafes, nightclubs, bookshops, and art galleries, much like New York's Greenwich Village and San Franciso's North Beach back in their heydays. As its counterparts in other cities, there was a certain edge to Towertown, which only added to its appeal:
Anne saw a long, low, dimly lit room filled with swaying couples - long-haired men and short-haired women. A jazz orchestra in one corner at least provided time for the dancers. On the walls of the room my companion noted weird futuristic and impressionistic drawings and cartoons, as well as newspaper clippings and art pictures.

"This," I said, "is Bohemia in all its glory !"
This milieu would over the years combine with upscale shops making for an interesting mix. Towertown as it was, became history in the late sixties and early seventies as major projects like the John Hancock Building and Water Tower Place anchored a wave of commercial development that continues to this day. North Michigan Avenue now is Chicago's major shopping street and any trace of its "bohemian" past is long gone. As a result, the neighborhood is both perfectly safe, and perfectly bland. It's also highly successful, economically at least. It may have gained the world at the cost of losing its soul.

Chicago of the Twenties was anything but Disneyfied; it was real to the core. Its lifeblood as John Drury pointed out, was found in its steel mills, factories and stockyards. In them, and in all their "fruits", progress and the hope for a better future seemed to writers like John Drury to be boundless. Today that industrial lifeblood is all but gone, but the great institutions that were made possible because of the industries still hang on. That is testimony perhaps, to the greatest quality of this city, its willingness to re-invent itself. Chicago has been doing just that since its inception. Simply put, no city can re-invent itself without people believing in it.

The term "world class city" had not yet been coined in 1928 but I have no doubt it would have been used unsparingly in Drury's text if it had. Perhaps taking their cue from Chicago in 7 Days, more recent unabashedly overbearing accounts of Chicago testify to the fact that there are people who still believe in this city. Whatever your opinion of the grandiose rhetoric, I'd be inclined to put this city's future in their hands, rather than in the hands of the apologists and cynics who can come up with nothing better than: "well at least we're better off than Detroit."

It's a charming book, a fun read, and a fascinating insight into the spirit of a city in the midst of one of its golden ages.

If you have any interest in Chicago, its past, and how that past relates to the current city, Chicago in 7 Days is a must read. Pick up a copy if you can find one. Short of that, you can find a PDF version here.