Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Churches of the Kennedy...

The construction of the major expressways in Chicago in the fifties and sixties was a mixed blessing.  While it made getting from one end of the city (by car) much simpler, these massive public works projects scarred the city for life, displaced thousands of homes and businesses, decimated if not outright destroyed neighborhoods, and from the outside looking in, created unsightly and impenetrable walls and barriers that divide the city. They contributed greatly to the exodus of the middle class from the city to the suburbs and isolated the poor within their boundaries.

Well as they say, that's progress. Despite the hardship they created, fifty years later the expressways are not going anywhere anytime soon, and honestly it's difficult to imagine the city without them. On the bright side, from the inside looking out, driving on these superhighways as they were once called, can be a fantastic experience, as long as you're not stuck in traffic, which is rare. Some of the best views of the city can be found along those journeys; one of the most spellbinding is the stretch of Interstate 90-94, aka the Dan Ryan Expressway, about two miles south of the Loop. As a consequence of a major interchange, the road rises from its depths beneath grade level, ascending about forty feet into the sky, then takes a swooping curve to the east. Leaving the man-made canyons of downtown, the true nature of Chicago's topography opens up and from this elevation, the entire southwest side presents itself as an enormous ocean of prairie broken up only by industrial towers and church steeples.

The stretch of that same road north of the Loop is known as the Kennedy Expressway. Here again the road goes from being a valley below street grade, to an elevated highway. As there is no interchange, the elevation is only about twenty feet, about the height of a two story building. Consequently the views from the Kennedy are more intimate than those of its south side cousin. Again the most memorable sights along this stretch of road, are the churches, five of them in particular are within striking distance of the highway. In fact, if you give it a little thought as I did many years ago, you'll realize that the serpentine path the expressway takes in this particular stretch, was created precisely to avoid the churches.

The first installment of a wonderful series of posts on the blog "A Chicago Sojourn", includes an arial photograph to prove exactly that point. In his series called "The Trail of Churches" Robert Powers has covered in depth up to now, four of the churches along the Kennedy. These particular churches serve as mileposts describing the history of Chicago, in this case the Polish community who settled heavily in that part of town. The sheer number and quality of these churches attest to the character of the people who built them, as well as the people who struggled to keep them going in the recent past, against all odds.

No point in me going into their history here, by all means, check out these posts. Better still, let Robert Powers' blog encourage you to every once in a while, get off the darn expressway and check out the city for yourself up close.

Today, Easter Sunday, would be an excellent day to start. Best wishes for the holiday.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

This morning's commute...

A beautiful, sunny, ice-free morning seemed perfect for my first bike ride to work since I hung it up for winter in the middle of January. Wouldn't ya know it, about 2.5 miles into the ride, my back tire blows. Being not fully equipped to change the flat, yes it does pay to be prepared, I hauled my sorry self, and my sorry bike about a mile to the L.

Not only was I not prepared for the breakdown,  I wasn't prepared for riding the L either as I left the book I had been reading at home. So, equipped with a Red Eye, (I had to have SOMETHING to read after all), and a bad attitude, I rode public transit, as I have for the last two and one half months to work.

Pigeons did not grace my train this morning, instead something even more unusual, an honest to goodness major league sports franchise mascot. Now before I had children, I would have been aloof to such nonsense. Priding myself on being a purist, I'd have ignored the person dressed up in a ridiculous costume as well as his (or perhaps her, I couldn't tell) companions, two young women who were handing out key chains and foam fingers advertising their team. Back in the day I didn't approve of things such as mascots, the game was all that mattered, mascots were for, well, children.

All that's changed of course, my son who is now 12, is a sport's maniac, and much to my chagrin, is also obsessed with the mascots. He compares the attributes of various team mascots and continues to ask me what the mascots were like when I was his age. Somehow he can't quite comprehend that there were no mascots during my poor deprived childhood so very long ago. OK I vaguely recall Bennie the Bull from the seventies when I was a teenager. Back in those days Benny didn't have what you'd call a schtick, he was just a guy wearing red pajamas and a bull's head, who walked around the old Chicago Stadium and shook fans' hands during Chicago Bulls games. Anybody could have done it, and in fact I know a guy who did just that. His friend, the regular Benny T. Bull was either sick or hungover, and asked this guy if he would be Benny for a day. He did, and nobody knew the difference.

Today, being the team mascot is a big deal, and much effort, training and I'm sure money goes into the job. I wouldn't be surprised if they offered college degrees in the subject.

For Christmas last year I bought my son a packet of tickets to the Chicago Wolves, a minor league hockey team, and we've been attending their games on a regular basis. They have a mascot called Skates, a guy (I'm pretty sure it's a guy), dressed head to toe in what else, a wolf costume. During the intermissions, he skates around dodging the Zambonis whipping the crowd into a frenzy by teasing them with tee shirts he either throws or sling shots into the seats. My boy was fortunate enough to catch one of those shirts last year and it remains one of his most cherished possessions. I too have been sucked into the act and have a soft spot deep down in my heart for Skates and his antics, as I know these cherished days with my son will not last forever.

Anyway, the creature I saw today was Southpaw, the mascot for the Chicago White Sox. I can't tell exactly what Southpaw is supposed to be, the best description I can give is a friendly looking, furry green monster in an oversized White Sox uniform. I took a key chain from one of the young ladies, a foam finger from the other, asked them who the Sox were playing on Opening Day (something I should have already known), then warned Southpaw not to hit his head as he walked out the door of the train.

Something about seeing that green monster made me forget all about my up to that point miserable morning. Can't wait to get home to tell the kids I saw him.

But I'm keeping the keychain and foam finger for myself.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Passenger Pigeons

Two legged passengers on the L are not an unusual site, unless they happen have two wings as well. That was the case this morning as a pair of pigeons hopped aboard our train at Howard Street. Since the train was an express, this pair of dark feathered Rock Doves would be traveling with us until Belmont, a roughly fifteen minute trip of five and one half miles. Usually when a winged passenger hops aboard a train, the paying riders make a fuss and shoo it off before the doors close. A few weeks ago I saw a man go into near hysterics when a pigeon briefly entered the train only to be unceremoniously escorted out the door. The way the man carried on long after the bird was kicked off, you'd have thought a tiger had boarded the train.

That wasn't the case today, these two birds made themselves at home as a couple of human passengers gave them some bread crumbs, while others just smiled and took pictures of them with their cellphones. No one seemed particularly disturbed by the well behaved avian passengers whom I assume did not pay the fare. As the train approached Belmont, the birds headed toward the door and waited patiently as the train pulled into the station. To help them along on their journey, the man who fed them gently encouraged them to be on their way, but I don't think it was necessary. Like the panhandlers who occasionally work the trains, these most urban of birds knew exactly how long to test the patience of their fellow passengers.

Presumably they hung around the trendy Belmont/Halsted neighborhood for a while before catching the train for home. It wouldn't have been a problem for them of course, pigeons have a perfect sense of direction. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mo' Motown

Detroit has more than its share of detractors and I'd say negative articles about the Motor City outnumber positive ones at least ten to one. In a way I suppose one could say that things have gotten so bad there that there's nowhere to go but up. Then comes yet more bad news, the city government is so dysfunctional that the state is taking over control of its finances.

Happily, during my lunchtime web browsing today I came across not one but two positive pages about Detroit. The first was written by the Leonard Slatkin, Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In the article, Slatkin speaks about the orchestra's outreach program into the schools of the city with some very positive results.

I'm a little skeptical about the second page as it comes from a source of ill repute at least in my opinion, yet another web list from Forbes Magazine. You might recall last month they published a list of the twenty most miserable cities in the United States and ranked Detroit number one. Well they've just published another slightly more useful, and positive list they call: "Fifteen Cities' Emerging Downtowns." Detroit made this list as well. Forbes sites five companies that have pledged significant resources into Downtown Detroit as well as other companies that are relocating there.

Of course a thriving downtown does not necessarily translate into a healthy city; one can only hope this will help spur more development and interest in one of our great cities.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The end is near...

A demolition permit has been issued by the City of Chicago for old Prentice Hospital, the Bertrand Goldberg building that has been the front burner issue for Chicago's architectural preservation community. The battle it seems is all but lost as the legal means attempting to stop the demolition and to question the motives of the Landmarks Commission have been exhausted. If you recall, last fall the Commission went out of its way to heap praise upon the building, saying by all means it was significant and very worthy of designation as a landmark, and then declared it a landmark. Then in the next breath they went on to say that the needs of Northwestern Hospital who owns the building and land it sits upon, trumps its architectural significance, then rescinded the declaration they had made only minutes earlier.

In one unfortunate ruling, the Commission essentially declared itself and its work irrelevant, a far greater concern than losing one wonderful building. It seems the fox is in the henhouse of the Landmarks Commission; as of that ruling, no building in Chicago is safe from the wrecker's ball.

Other preservation concerns are quickly moving to the forefront as the wrecker's shroud is about to be placed over Prentice. Lynn Becker has this wonderful elegy to many of the churches that have been lost or are very likely to be lost in the near future including St. Boniface on the near northwest side, whose fate is again uncertain as the funds to convert it into a home for the elderly have not come through.

Here is Robert Powers' testament to St. James Church in Bronzeville whose date with destiny is close at hand.

These are troubling times indeed for our historical and architectural legacy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Upping the ante

Responding to Brad Stevens, the mayor of Rosemont, Illinois who just offered the Chicago Cubs a 25 acre site gratis, along with other perks to build a new ballpark in his town, an aide to Mayor Emanuel said this: “The idea that the Cubs would leave Wrigley Field is not something to be taken seriously.”

I wouldn't be so sure. As beloved as the friendly confines of Wrigley Field may be, it has plenty of detractors. Folks claim that it's hard to get to, especially by car, difficult to get in and out of, has terrible food, dirty bathrooms, bad facilities for the players, it's old and falling apart; in short: "it's a dump." There are in fact many voices out there who for years have called for the team to relocate into a new facility either in the city or the suburbs, where much of the fan base resides.

Tom Ricketts who along with his family owns the Cubs and Wrigley Field, seems committed at the moment to keeping the team in the old ballpark. In that vein, the Ricketts family proposes a major overhaul of the 99 year old cathedral of baseball to bring it up as well as possible, to current standards, while preserving its intimate character. The price tag for such a renovation would be in the neighborhood of 300 million dollars, all of which would be funded through private capital. By not demanding the municipality pay for, or even share in the burden of the project, the family Ricketts is doing something almost unheard of in this day and age of public spending on sports arenas. True, AT&T Park in San Francisco was built privately, but in a time and a place, (the Bay Area in the 1990's) that was flush with capital. The same cannot be said of Chicago, 2013. One would think that everyone in the city with the exception of die hard baseball haters (and maybe a handful of disgruntled White Sox fans) would jump at the chance to keep the Cubs in Chicago without costing the taxpayers a dime.

Not so. To help raise capital for the renovation, the family is asking that some zoning restrictions be lifted in regards to advertising, night games, as well as certain landmarks restrictions relating to the design of the ballpark. Community groups with the help of 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney, are looking to stall the plans siting parking issues, police protection and “aesthetic” issues regarding the ballpark. But it seems the real stumbling block are the owners of the properties across Waveland and Sheffield Avenues from the ballpark who have constructed bleachers on top of their buildings for the expressed purpose of selling tickets (at about 100 bucks a pop) to watch Cubs games. They are afraid that the proposed advertising structures in the outfield would obstruct the views of the field from their "Wrigley Rooftop" seats.

In case you were wondering, no they're not getting that view for nothing. In an agreement brokered by Alderman Tunney, the rooftop owners fork over seventeen percent of their profits to the Cubs in exchange for the club not building a wall obstructing their view. Connie Mack did precisely that in Philadelphia in 1935 when his Athletics lost revenue due to fans watching from the roofs across the street instead of inside his ballpark. Needless to say, the Wrigley rooftop owners have a sweet deal and aren't going to let go of it without a fight, and Tom Tunney is their staunchest advocate. Not surprisingly, the rooftop owners have given Tunney's campaign fund a generous amount of money over the years. Could that be related to Tunney's foot dragging in the Wrigley renovation plans?

You mean a Chicago politician with an ulterior motive...  perish the thought!

Tom Ricketts would like a deal with Tunney and the city finalized by Opening Day if not sooner in order for work on the ballpark to begin by the end of this coming season. For his part Mayor Emanuel understandably wants a deal made, and now. “Yeah, but it’s not going to be on the backs of my community, sorry..." says a defiant Tunney, the man of the people. Adding to his demagoguery, Tunney made this pointless observation about the Rickettses: "You’re talking about one of the wealthiest families in America."

To hear the rooftop owners talk about it, you'd think it was they who are responsible for the Cubs' success and not the other way around. "There's a reason that the Cubs pull (in crowds)," said Beth Murphy, one of the rooftop owners. "I believe it's the synergy between the neighborhood and the ballpark."

Apparently it's inconceivable to them and many other defenders of Wrigley Field, that the Cubs might one day leave the "Friendly Confines."

Here's a brief history lesson:

The late forties and fifties were the golden age of baseball in New York City. There were three teams in the city back in those days when it was rare if the World Series did not feature at least one New York  team. In 1951 all three New York teams finished in first place. Perhaps the greatest year of all was 1955 when the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the Yankees to win their first championship. The same two teams met the following year in the Fall Classic when the team from the Bronx won.

Then the unthinkable happened. Despite their tremendous popularity, despite their success on the field, and despite boasting the names of immortals like Mays, Thompson,  Reese, Snyder, and Robinson, nobody came to the games, at least not in Brooklyn nor up in the Polo Grounds where the Giants played.  Walter O'Malley, then owner of the Dodgers desperately tried to get the city to help build a new ballpark to replace Ebbets Field, the beloved but run down ballpark in a run down neighborhood. The city was unmoved. It so happened that there was a tremendous market out west just waiting to be exploited but O'Malley could only move his team to California if another team relocated to the Golden State. O'Mally had little trouble convincing Horace Stoneham the principal owner of the Giants, to join him. So in 1958, both the Dodgers and the Giants left New York City for greener pastures. The move which was a huge boon to both teams and their new cities, left a tremendous void in New York, especially in Brooklyn.

So far Tom Ricketts has not publicly expressed interest in Rosemont's overtures to the Cubs. He is sticking to his April 1st deadline for the city to work out a deal. Short of that, everything may be up for grabs. Perhaps the Rosemont proposal will be just a bargaining chip. Wrigley Field certainly has a draw that a new facility would not. I've gone on the record and am sticking to my belief that the Cubs would be foolish to leave Wrigley Field. On the other hand, there are unavoidable issues that need to be addressed, first and foremost of them is safety. Wrigley Field has outlasted its life expectancy by at least fifty years; it was not built to last forever and its infrastructure is in desperate need of repair. Secondly, while it's difficult to feel sorry for multi-millionaire ballplayers, the training and workout facilities for them at Wrigley are woefully inadequate and the team needs to face the issue if it expects to compete for elite players in the future. The other issues which involve fan comfort and distractions have no interest to me, but they do for other people and need to be addressed. Plans are in place to address these issues right here in Chicago and at Wrigley Field, the only obstacle appears to be the arrogance, intransigence, and short sightedness of a small group of people, and a politician who appears beholden to them. If the alderman continues his stonewalling, the team may have no alternative other than packing their bags.

Unlike other local institutions such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Art Institute, the Cubs are a privately owned business, not a non-for-profit entity. The Ricketts family does not owe it to Chicago to keep its team in the city; they have the right to look at every option open to them. If they should decide to move the team out of Chicago, to a place where they feel their business has a better chance of thriving, that too is their right, it's their team after all. Chicago has nothing to gain by not working out a deal with the Cubs, and everything to lose.

After the Cubs move on to Rosemont, Arlington Heights, Shaumburg or beyond, we can look forward to the Wrigley Condominiums at the corner of Clark and Addison, surrounding a lovely little park. There will be a plaque marking the former location of home plate where Babe Ruth allegedly called his home run shot in the 1932 World Series, and from where Gabby Hartnett hit his "Homer in the Gloamin'" to help the Cubs win the National League pennant in 1938. Maybe there will be another marker at the pitcher's mound site where Fergie Jenkins once worked, and another at short where Ernie Banks first broke into the big leagues. There'll be a little piece of the outfield wall covered with the ivy that Bill Veeck planted, where Jose Cardinal "lost" several balls hit in his direction. If they're smart, perhaps they'll even build a Little League ballpark on the site of the old diamond for the use of the little tikes who live in the condos.

One thing is for sure, Wrigleyville will be a much quieter place. I'm just curious how much Beth Murphy will be able to charge for a seat on her rooftop overlooking the place where the Cubs used to play.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Chicago Seven again...

Preservation Chicago has realeased its annual list of the seven most endangered buildings in Chicago. Returning to the list are two splendid prominent skyscrapers on State Street which I wrote about (hard to believe) two years ago.

Yet another Roman Catholic church has made the list, St. James Church at 31st and Wabash. The Joliet limestone church was designed by one of the preeminent ecclesiastical architects of the 19th Century, Patrick Keely. It is slated for demolition as early as next month and there will be a vigil outside the building on St. Patrick's Day held by a group hoping to save the building, a prominent landmark on the South Side for over 130 years. Unlike other recent threatened church buildings in the city, St. James continues to support an active, albeit small parish community which would like to save its beautiful church, just as it did back in 1972 after a devastating fire. The Archdiocese of Chicago supports the demolition siting the costs of repairs to bring the building up to code. I have to admit it's a difficult call, the Church has to juggle so many balls these days, money is tight and I have a hard time finding fault in the Archdiocese's view that its priorities lie in saving people rather than buildings. However in a case like this where there is an active community that would like to worship in a building that has meant so much to so many for so long, special considerations should be made. It worked with Holy Family Church which survived the Chicago Fire, but barely survived the wrecking ball no so long ago, ditto with the magnificent St. Mary of the Angles, the beautiful domed landmark off the Kennedy Expressway. I hope some arrangement can be made to save St. James but I'm not optimistic.

A prominent West Side landmark on the list is Hotel Guyon which fronts Garfield Park. That neighborhood which once boasted several magnificent hotel-apartment buildings, has been in decline for decades but has recently seen some resurgence, anchored by the restoration of the great Chicago park and its conservatory designed by the estimable landscape architect Jens Jensen. Coincidentally, Hotel Guyon was designed by another prominent Chicago architect by the name of Jens Jensen, no relation. It's a massive building that defines the western boundary of the park and its loss would be significant to the community. Unlike the restrictions faced with preserving a church, I believe the city should step in in cases such as this to encourage successful re-development of buildings which could go a long way to jump start communities which sorely need it. Given the size of the building however, it would be an enormous effort and again I'm not optimistic.

Saving the Medic Building on Ashland just north of Belmont Avenue would not be a massive undertaking. The two story Art Deco storefront-office building is a gem. Despite the difficult economy, it's hard to believe that a private concern could not be convinced to take over the building, and preserve an architectural genre that popular as it may be, is disappearing from our city at an alarming rate.

By contrast, post World War II architecture is not popularly loved as Art Deco or everything that came before. Three of the buildings, or groups of buildings on the list fall into that category:

  • The Allstate Building, part of the Sears Campus on the West Side,
  • The State Bank of Clearing on the far Southwst Side by Harry Weese,
  • Lathrop Homes housing project on the Northwest Side. 
Preservation Chicago makes splendid arguments for all three. However despite being architecturally significant, none of them are particularly charming, or easily lovable works of architecture, nor are they in high profile areas, so it's hard to imagine a groundswell of public support for any of them. Which is too bad.

And speaking of post WWII architecture, old Prentice Hospital, Bertrand Goldberg's groundbreaking mid-seventies work which has been on the front burner of preservation battles in recent years, appears to be a lost cause. Here is a lovely elegy to the treasure apparently soon to be turned to dust from my friend Edward Lifson.