Tuesday, April 30, 2013

There goes the view

In her once legendary, now all but forgotten dismissal of Chicago in the New York Times, Rachel Shteir managed to find three things she actually liked about the city:
The beauty of Lake Michigan. A former rail yard has become Millennium Park. Thanks to global warming, the winters have softened.
Well I can't argue about the lakefront, but I do have a hard time rooting for global warming for many reasons, not the least of which is that around here, the last two winters have not provided us with a steady frost enabling my son and me to play outdoor hockey. And I may represent a party of one, but I actually liked the rail yard that was covered up (not replaced) by Millennium Park.

Illinois Central tracks as seen from the Art Institute
Today the presence of the railroad is still felt south of Millennium Park as its tracks continue to bisect Grant Park, Chicago's front yard. There is no longer the massive freight yard that once extended all the way north to the river, that's all been replaced by underground parking and other development. Today the tracks that remain in the Loop exclusively serve the Metra and South Shore commuter railroads.

There have been many calls to cover up the tracks, burying them beneath the park and the Art Institute of Chicago. The AIC plans to build more gallery space over them in the future, as the air rights over the tracks are the only free space the museum has available. As for the rest of Grant Park, well it might happen someday, but now it would be prohibitively expensive to cover up the remaining tracks from Jackson Street to Roosevelt Road.

And that's just fine by me. That railroad right of way, if not the actual tracks that sit about fifty feet behind me as I write this, has been around longer than just about anything extant in Chicago. It was the railroads that made Chicago the transportation hub of the nation, and consequently the booming city it would become. Those particular tracks, once the domain of the Illinois Central, and now owned by the Canadian National Railway, extend south to Memphis and New Orleans. Louis Armstrong came to Chicago aboard a train upon those tracks as did millions of other African Americans during the Great Migration, looking for a better life up north. Those who stayed, headed to the south side and Bronzeville, the one part of the city available to people of color in those days, and built a great community.

The Illinois Central tracks which to the casual observer appear to lie in an underground trench, were originally built upon trestles in the lake. The ground beneath them as well as all the ground east of Michigan Avenue is landfill, remnants of the First City destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire. The retaining walls that line the railroad trench we see today in this, the Second City, are made of Joliet limestone, the same material from which the Water Tower and many other buildings of its vintage were built. That stone was quarried in the vicinity of and transported up the Illinois/Michigan Canal, the original link between the Chicago River, and by extension the Great Lakes, to the Mississippi River. That link, and the dreams of building it, is the entire reason why Chicago exists in the first place.

So those railroad tracks represent much more than transportation conduits, they are a part of the living history of the city, the region, and even the country. If I were king, (which probably would not be a very good idea), I'd decree they remain just as they are, forever.

To me, a city is more than great architecture, museums, concert halls, sculptures and monuments. Cities are more than postcard vistas or the images of shiny happy people that you see in the visitor center. A city reads like a novel. Every brick, pane of glass, every bridge, water tank, smoke stack, every factory, greasy spoon, every home from balloon frame cottage to palatial mansion, every inch of the city holds a piece of that story. Who would want to read a novel that had no tension, no conflicts to resolve, (or not resolve), a novel where all the characters were forever content and nothing ever happened, a perpetual Lawrence Welk Show?

Great cities are like great novels. The stories they tell are not always pretty, they're often filled with pain and the struggle to survive against all odds. There are stories of desperation, of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, of unspeakable tragedy. On the other hand, there are times of triumph and joy; of great plans, some little, some not, conceived and occasionally carried out. Some people will be tested beyond their limits, responding with dignity, selflessness, and charity they never thought possible of themselves, just like we saw in Boston this month.

There lies the poetry of the city.

Lincoln Tower as seen from Garland Court, 2010
But mostly the story of the city is told in prose. It's the story of people going about their daily lives, getting up, feeding the kids, going to work, to school, to play, to church, to the tavern. Most of the story centers around the banality of life that takes place all around us, fixing up the house, mowing the lawn, shooting the breeze with the neighbors, the things we take for granted. In my career as a photographer, that part of the story interested me the most, as it continues to this day.

Those of you who have followed this blog no doubt have noticed posts that describe my commute to and from work. Unlike others who see commuting as wasted time, I enjoy that part of my life, two hours a day that belong to me alone. Each commute is a story within a story, no two are ever quite the same.

I have a several options to get to work, I can either come into the city through the front or the back door. From the front side I ride my bike along the lake; it's about as beautiful a trip as one can imagine, 'nuff said. As you can imagine, it's usually more interesting to come in through the back door. When I want to arrive that way, I can either take the elevated (the L as we call it), which runs through residential neighborhoods above the alleys of the north side, or I can take the commuter train that takes me along the old Chicago and Northwestern RR right of way through the guts of the city, past industrial sites, some thriving, some moribund. That train deposits me at the other end of the Loop from work meaning I get to walk about three quarters of a mile through one of my favorite places on earth. I've often said, hardly a day goes by when I don't discover something new about the city. But the old stuff thrills me too, especially some of the amazing vistas through the streets of the Loop.

Garland Court, April, 2013
On my walk from the train I pass several iconic Chicago views, first down the canyons of LaSalle Street which terminate with the magnificent Art Deco Board of Trade Building. Next comes the view up and down Dearborn Avenue with its collection of architectural gems, and State Street, punctuated on the south with the bombastic facade of the Harold Washington Library and to the north, the vertical marquee of the theater proudly bearing its name and the name of its city, Chicago. Perhaps my favorite street in the Loop is Wabash Avenue covered by the L structure, and above that, a wonderfully eclectic collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century facades. That view has remained virtually unchanged for a century until the recent addition of Trump Tower north of the river. The contrast of the new and the old makes the view up Wabash not unlike of the view up the Yellow Brick Road toward the Emerald City of Oz. Lastly the walled-in city opens up as you hit Michigan Avenue, kept forever open (for the most part) thanks to the efforts of A. Montgomery Ward who wanted to keep his view of the lake from his office in the tower he built at Six North Michigan.

But my favorite view of the city, until just a few weeks ago that is, was up an alley. North of Madison Street, the alley is known as Garland Court. It is lined with the buildings that front on Michigan and Wabash Avenues, but you'd never know it. Instead of a few feet to the east where men and women in their Gucci loafers and Balenciaga sandals stride up and down the avenue, on Garland, Sears work boots are de rigueur. On the "Court" you won't see taxicabs depositing people in front of expensive restaurants, but trucks hauling dumpsters and restaurant staff sneaking away for a quick cigarette break. Rather than ornate limestone and terra cotta facades, gothic tracery and Louis Sullivan ornament, the backs of these buildings are sheathed in common brick and support exhaust fans, air ducts, smokestacks, HVAC units and fire escapes. One would be hard pressed to identify these well known buildings from their backsides.

Downtown Chicago is filled with such alleys. My friend Bob Thall published a book of photographs on that very subject. As these alleys all lead to a commercial street, the views of them are punctuated by a building front, providing a dramatic visual contrast: the dark, sinister alley framing the facade of a glorious building. It's the perfect illustration for the complexity of the city, and I believe our city is all the more glorious because of these views.

Anyway, the alley in question terminates at Randolph Street and the Italianate facade of an 1870s post-Chicago Fire structure. Beyond that was a layered texture of buildings at varying heights, (another one of my favorite visual themes of the city). Topping off the view was the glorious Lincoln (originally Mather) Tower, the eccentric 1928 Herbert Hugh Riddle building at 75 East Wacker Drive. Its design was influenced by Chicago's zoning ordinance of the time which stated that a building could be any height so long as the surface area of the top floor did not exceed 25 percent of that of the ground floor. The "set-back" ordinance, similar to New York City's, resulted in the construction of some of the most iconic American skyscrapers of the twentieth century. There is another aspect of many of these towers such as the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings in New York, Terminal Tower in Cleveland, and Lincoln Tower. Since forests of trees have been sacrificed dedcicated to writings on the subject, I'll leave it at that, other than to say that their thrusting, vertical erection, er... construction, may evoke something other than pure architectural form, if you catch my drift.

Alas, that view is disappearing for as we speak, a new building is being constructed at 73 East Lake Street. The future luxury rental apartment building will top off at 42 stories. It's probably half the way there now and as you can see from the photograph made last week, it has already covered up the buildings immediately to its north and is about to eclipse the view of Lincoln Tower. I bet the views from that building, especially to the north and to the south will be fantastic. Lucky those folks who will live there.

Still, I'm not happy about this turn of events. The view up Garland Court will still be interesting, but never the same. The wannabe king in me would have prevented this new building going up from the get go. But the wheels of progress keep on turning and change is inevitable.

After all, that's life in the big city.

1 comment:

Pete said...

Citing the lakefront and Millennium Park shows she has the perspective of a tourist, not someone who has lived here 13 years (as she has).