Sunday, June 30, 2013

St. James

St. James Roman Catholic Church, July 2, 2013
As someone interested in preservation and keeping this city's architectural legacy intact, I'm deeply saddened by the demolition of one of Chicago's oldest churches, St. James, a neo-Gothic house of worship on the south side at 2942 S. Wabash, just north of the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. The building is the work of Patrick Keely, one of this country's most prolific ecclesiastical architects. Keely was adept at many architectural styles; examples of his work in Chicago include the neo-Romanesque Nativity of Our Lord Church in the neighborhood of Bridgeport, about one mile away, and the neo-Baroque St. Stanislaus Kostka Church on the north side. Gothic however was his bread and butter and Keely is responsible for over 600 churches in the United States, most of them Gothic in style and Roman Catholic in denomination.

Keely designed what would become the most important Catholic church in Chicago, Holy Name Cathedral, which was built in 1874 to replace its predecessor which was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. From its soaring tower and Joliet limestone cladding, to its plan and interior details, St. James, built one year later, is essentially the cathedral in miniature. The big difference is that St. James strikes a more dramatic profile than its larger cousin as it dominates the vista of its near south side community. St. James has a proud history, the church was built by well heeled, "lace curtain" Irish Catholics in 1855. Despite building a lavish church with rich appointments, the parish was in the black by 1895. St. James spawned several mission churches and was at one time considered the mother church of all south side Catholic parishes.

The community of Douglas in which St. James resides, once the domain of Victorian era mansions, was named after Senator Stephen A. Douglas who owned a large tract of land along the lake shore. The community's 19th century prosperity was bolstered by nearby meat packing and other industries, excellent transportation, and the establishment of institutions such as Michael Reese Hospital and the Armour Institute which later became IIT. Things began to change during the 1890s, when apartment buildings began to appear. In 1892, the South Side Elevated, Chicago's first such line was constructed above the alley directly behind St. James. From that point on, priests at St. James had to pause during mass while noisy trains rumbled by just feet away from the altar. Gradually, light industry began popping up around the church further altering the residential character of the neighborhood. Along the New York Central tracks a couple of blocks to the west, an Italian working class neighborhood became the Federal Street slum, mentioned in a previous post. During the period of the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern states to the north in the first decades of the 20th century, Douglas became the heart of Bronzeville, the center of Chicago's black community, with the nearby intersection of 35th and State Streets its heart. Important African American institutions developed in the community such as the Douglas National Bank, the Chicago Defender newspaper, and the Mount Olivet and Pilgrim Baptist churches.

The church rectory on the left is a good example of the style
of architecture common to the community of Douglas at the time
St. James was built in 1875
During the Great Depression, most of the single family homes around St. James were converted to multiple family units and the economic climate of the community declined. After World War II, St. James was directly in the center of a transformation that can only be described as breathtaking. Roughly 700 acres of densely populated city land were cleared for massive urban renewal projects that took on many forms. The neighborhood directly to the south of St. James was cleared and taken over by the expanding Illinois Institute of Technology. Further south, the Federal Street slum was cleared to make way for the Stateway Gardens and Robert Taylor housing projects. To the north were the Dearborn and Harold Ickes Homes. To the east, Prairie Shores and South Commons, two middle income high rises were built. And the area to the west of the NYCRR tracks, formerly part of the neighborhood of Armour Square, was cleared to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Somehow through all that St. James survived. It even survived a devastating fire in December of 1972. The fire burned for hours in the basement but eventually worked its way up into the sanctuary. Firemen gained access into the church by breaking through the Tiffany stained glass windows that had graced the church for almost 100 years. The marble altar crumbled in the heat of the fire but amazingly the rest of the interior including the walnut and white oak pews survived.

Signs of change: In 1892, less than twenty years after the building of St. James, the South Side Elevated
was constructed and ran directly behind the church. From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same.
The Dearborn Homes public housing project which opened in 1950, can be seen behind the green fence.
Immediately, parishioners raised funds to restore the church. Just as its cousin the cathedral downtown, conforming to the new liturgical decrees of Vatican II, the interior of St. James was stripped of most of its ornament and a simple table replaced the old marble altar in the sanctuary. The number of pews was reduced and a large, informal greeting area with a baptismal font was created in the back of the church. Some of the treasures of the pre-fire St. James made it back into the newly created church including a scaled down replica of Michelangelo's Pieta, the Roosevelt tracker-pneumatic organ which won first prize at the Columbian Exhibition of 1893, and a twenty bell carillon housed inside the tower.

The small parish community of about one hundred members continued to worship in old St. James until about four years ago. At that time, an assessment of the structural integrity of the building was conducted after a fire at Holy Name revealed dangerous flaws in the cathedral. The assessment determined that St. James had similar problems and was unsafe. The structural problems were cleared up at the financially secure cathedral, but the costs to repair St, James were more than the congregation could bare and the old church has been closed to the public ever since.

The community has since been worshipping in the parish hall, the auditorium of the parish's long closed school. In August of last year, the Archdiocese of Chicago purchased land to build a new, smaller church and announced the old building would be demolished.

Ancient symbols of the Christian faith and the
saint for whom the church was named,
contrast with more banal, contemporary symbols.

This got the attention of Preservation Chicago and other preservation groups who have since waged a campaign to save the church.

I won't go into the details of the ensuing struggle to save St. James, much of which have been detailed in Lynn Becker's blog, on the site of Preservation Chicago, and elsewhere.

I have great respect for Preservation Chicago and their work, and am devastated by the apparent fate of this beautiful, historic building. But there is another side to the story. Here I'm going to let an articulate response to one of Becker's posts from an anonymous member of Chicago's preservation community on the subject speak for itself:
I am very, very sympathetic to the cause of saving this building. It truly is a beautiful piece of architecture that represents the collective identity of the neighborhood and Chicago Catholicism.
However, this building is also home to a real community of real people. A very small, poor community that tries to minister effectively to those in the area.
I recently read this "inside story" from a parishioner of St. James with great dismay.
It makes me very sad to hear of the division and infighting that this issue has caused. 
It's instances like this that make those of us in the historic preservation community look bad. If we really want to save historic church buildings like this, we need to come alongside the folks that worship and minister there. We need to truly help them - not lead protests and write scathing editorials. 
It's clear that no one in the parish really wants to demolish the church, but at the same time they don't have the resources to maintain it either. They see the Archdiocese's sponsorship of a new church building as their only alternative to straight-up closure. And they're right.
Why weren't we in the preservation community there back in August when this was first announced? Or really, why weren't we there four years ago when the church was condemned in the first place? Just think of how this situation could have been different if we had stepped forward to HELP right away. What if we would have said something like: "We know you don't want to see your church demolished, and neither do we. Maybe with our contacts, resources, and expertise we can work with you to help restore this building and make it more suitable to your needs." We could have helped St. James Parish re-imagine their built environment to better serve the entire neighborhood. But we weren't there. We didn't decide to show up until the wrecking ball was looming on the horizon. 
The real work of historic preservation means far more than simply saving a building from demolition and then walking away. We have to let those involved in these decisions know that we have their best interests at hear. That means walking with other people on their own journeys and seeing the situation through their eyes.
Four years ago, if we could have only had the eyes to see St. James as a small, poor congregation that needed help, we wouldn't be in this situation today.
This very well stated response references a blog post from Jerry Galipeau, a member of the St. James community who articulates what he feels is the untenable position of preserving old St. James. It is well worth reading and in case you missed it above, here is another link.

In a nutshell, Mr. Galipeau claims that despite its history and beauty, not even considering the expense to bring the old building up to code, the parish community would be better served by a much smaller building built in a place "where people actually live." While it's true that there are parishioners who support saving the old church, Galipeau questions their sincerity and conviction, saying those folks never spoke their minds four years ago, back at a time when their opinions could have had an impact on the building's fate. They only came to the forefront after the preservationists got into the act and started to make some noise.

This is precisely what makes architectural preservation a such difficult issue.  Buildings do not exist as works of art in a museum, they are a living part of the fabric of a city. Churches pose an especially difficult problem when it comes to preservation. We can't landmark them, the first amendment to our constitution which mandates the separation of church and state explicitly prohibits that, as well as government money earmarked toward their rehabilitation. Then there are the ethical and practical issues. Simply put, the mission of the Church is saving people, not buildings. It is certainly true that church buildings themselves, especially in the Catholic faith, play a very important role in the liturgy; to the faithful they are considered houses of God. Beyond that, a church building represents the continuity of a neighborhood to both believers and non-believers. I can think of few more gut wrenching sights than the demolition of a church.

In the many articles concerning St. James, the current archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George and the Archdiocese of Chicago are singled out as the prime antagonists in the story. Cardinal George and the organization he leads are painted as little more than a bureaucrat and a faceless institution concerned not with the feelings and needs of those most closely affiliated with the church, but interested only in the bottom line. Amazingly George is even compared unfavorably to his predecessor, Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, who presided over the greatest number of church closings and parish consolidations in the history of the city. During Bernadin's tenure, many churches, some more architecturally significant that St. James were demolished.  One particularly jingoistic comment I keep hearing is this: "If St. James were on the north side, you can bet it would be saved." Well, St. Boniface is on the north side and although it has yet to be demolished, it has stood vacant, allowed to face the elements and deteriorate for almost thirty years. I think in many ways, quick demolition is a much kinder fate for a beloved building than a slow, painful death.

Workers begin the somber task of dismantling St. James.
A "church", at least as described in the Catholic faith, is defined as the community of people gathered together in the Lord's name, not a building. In a transient city like Chicago, parishes and church buildings come and go as a community's ethnic and religious makeup changes. As we saw with St. Boniface, a neighborhood once saturated with immigrants belonging to the Catholic faith built far more churches than could reasonably be sustained after those new arrivals moved on to bigger and better things. The situation with St. James in Douglas is only slightly different as the community that built and supported that church vanished decades ago and was replaced with a community belonging for the most part to different faith traditions.

It has been proposed that the community of Douglas has the potential of another great wave of change. They say that demolishing old St. James is shortsighted, that one day it may be at the center of a newly vibrant community as happened to Old St. Pat's, Holy Family Church, and St. Mary of the Angels, three old churches once slated for closure and demolition that are now thriving. The problem in Lynn Becker's words is this:
For the Chicago archdiocese, gazing into eternity - no problem. Looking a few decades down the road, not so much.
Perhaps. But the Roman Catholic Church is not in the speculative real estate business. If it were, it would be an unmitigated failure and would have been forced out of business years ago. While I am at odds on a number of issues with Cardinal George, on this particular issue I have a great deal of sympathy with the position he is forced into. I have no doubt that the last thing he wants is to drive people out of the church in which they have worshipped, were baptized, received their sacraments, married, and buried their loved ones. Yet even an institution that specializes in the eternity has to exist in the real world, and the here and now must be taken into account. The faith community must ultimately be the one to determine the fate of its house of worship.

As a city is not just about buildings, those of us who are concerned with preservation, must endeavor to preserve communities as well as buildings. Personally I hope against hope that an eleventh hour compromise satisfactory to all parties can be drawn up to save St. James from the wrecker's ball, even as at the time of this writing, crews have already poked a hole through the building's roof.*  Frankly it's looking quite bleak.

The loss of Patrick Keely's St. James will be sad and felt within the sound of its bells and the sight of its magnificent tower. But the community of St. James parish is still very much alive, if not particularly well at the moment, and they are the ones we should concern ourselves with.

One block away, the message on the sign of a church built in a much different time says it all: "God Bless St. James Parish."
If it is within you, please keep them in your prayers. If it is not but you care about them just the same, feel free to send them your well wishes and better still, a check.

*The photographs above were made after this post was written and as you can see, the demolition crew is well on its way to sealing the fate of this beautiful church.

Friday, June 28, 2013

From the morning commute...

Finally, something to cheer about.

This is Washington Street, about one and one half hours before parade time.

A mass of humanity walks down Michigan Avenue from the first parade down Washington Stret toward the rally in Grant Park.

I didn't get to see the actual Stanley Cup today, this home made one had to do.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Goodbye old friend

Thillens Stadium, c. 1984
Recently we inducted another member into the club of iconic landmarks that now qualify as lost Chicago. I don't know exactly how many years this oversized baseball held court on the border of Lincolnwood and Chicago on the city's far northwest side, but it was demolished a few weeks ago as the current owner and operator of the venerable facility formerly known as Thillens Stadium, the Chicago Park District, feared that years of neglect  might cause the beloved sign advertising both the ballpark and the company that built it, to come down on its own, perhaps taking a little league ballplayer with it. Thillens Stadium which consists of two reduced sized baseball fields, grandstand seats, announcers booths, and scoreboards, was built by Mel Thillens Sr. the owner of a check cashing business, in 1938. Ever since, Little Leaguers from all over the Chicago area have played at this miniature version of a big league ballpark, turning it into their own field of dreams. One of them is my son who can be seen in the photo below, taken at Thillens with his team three years ago.

Both the stadium and the big ball that advertised it have been local landmarks for years. Recently, the Park District removed all traces of the Thillens name from the stadium and its environs. The facility is now officially known as "The Stadium at Devon and Kedzie." Before its destruction, the ball was whitewashed, removing the seams and the Thillens name. On the scoreboard, the words "Thillens Checashers" were removed, but not the words above, leaving a very perplexing message. The armored truck above the sign sadly was also removed. Back in the day, little sluggers who hit the truck with a ball from home plate would be awarded a cash prize, not unllike the famous ad for Abe Stark the Taylor at old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn that offered a free suit to any player who could hit the sign.

Thillens Stadium does have at least one historic distinction going for it that should be enough to qualify it at the very least for a mention it the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, if not official landmark status. Back in the fifties, WGN TV, the local Chicago station, televised little league games from Thillens. One of the station's cameramen suggested placing a camera in the scoreboard (only 200 feet from home plate) in order to capture the face of the batter and catchers flashing their signals. That was the first time this now standard shot was used in televising a ballgame.

The stadium, still called Thillens by locals, is very much alive. The CPD and the Chicago Cubs dropped two million dollars to repair the place a few years ago. It's still a big deal any time a kid gets to play there and hear his or her name announced over the PA system. But without the big ball, which once was lit up at night and spun upon its spindle, the plywood truck, and the name Thillens splashed all over the place, something will forever be lost.

Corny as it all was, the little and not so little bits and pieces that made Thillens Thillens, were themselves a link to games past; of warm afternoons or pleasant summer evenings at the ballpark, playing ball, or rooting for your sibling, child or grandchild as they lived out their, and possibly your dreams.

Driving past that silly ball on Devon Avenue evoked all those memories for Chicagoans who had a direct connection to Thillens. And for those who had no connection, it evoked at least a smile.

Now, countless smiles have been removed from Chicago as driving past Thillens today you barely notice the place; from the street it's just another parking lot in a sea filled with more parking lots.

What a shame.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Be careful what you wish for

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words are two pictures worth? Long time Chicagoans looking at the picture on the right taken in 1963 should immediately recognize Stateway Gardens, the high rise buildings on the upper right of the photo, and old Comiskey Park on the upper left, with the Dan Ryan Expressway and the New York Central/Rock Island Railroad tracks separating them. The expressway has been around so long that now folks take it for granted. Like it or not, it is a crucial transportation conduit for the entire metropolitan region and today it would be impossible to imagine the city without it. Likewise for the tracks which have been around way longer than anything else in the photograph; nobody thinks much about them at all, one way or the other. Stateway Gardens which date from the same time as the expressway on the other hand, stir up a whole bag of opinions, mostly negative. 

Some believe that the buildings known today as "housing projects" were built as a means to concentrate poor people into an easily manageable, contained and segregated space, out of sight and out of mind as far as the rest of the city was concerned. Others say the political establishment at the time relished such a concentrated block of citizens whose votes could be easily procured and manipulated. 

Whether there is merit to those opinions or not, there is no question that the experiment of high rise projects built to house the poor was an unmitigated failure. The buildings, originally a highly sought after clean and modern refuge from the slums they replaced, eventually came under the control of gangs who terrorized residents who would not cooperate with them. Crime skyrocketed and poverty stagnated. Things got so bad that firefighters and other emergency personnel refused to enter the buildings without police escort. The projects became places where hope came to die.

Stateway Gardens and the larger Robert Taylor Homes just to the south, formed the longest unbroken chain of high rise projects in the world. Just barely over forty years after they were built, most of Chicago's major housing projects were demolished in favor of low rise, scattered site, mixed income housing. The last building of the Stateway/Taylor amalgam, was demolished in 2007.

It's easy to overlook the fact that these developments were considered at the time they were built to be a progressive, dare I say cutting edge approach to housing. I've written before about the two major twentieth century movements to rethink the way we built our cities. Cities, the reformers insisted, were over-crowded, dirty cesspools of filth and disease, which led to social ills such as crime and poverty. They could only be improved, so they said, by drastically rethinking the way we approached their design and planning.

The photograph on the left, made from exactly the same vantage point as the one above, perhaps fifteen years earlier, would seem to illustrate that point. The dilapidated cottages to the right (east) of the tracks with the garbage strewn back yards were part of the notorious Federal Street Slum, one of the most forsaken parts of Chicago. To the west of the tracks is the neighborhood of Armour Square. At the time this picture was taken, that neighborhood was in transition as African Americans who traditionally lived east of the tracks, began move into the more desirable housing to the west. Of course, no homes built adjacent to railroad tracks were ever that desirable, especially during the age of steam as night and day, noisy locomotives belched smoke and cinder in the wake of their path, leaving the homes covered with a patina of dust and ash.  It would be difficult for the most ardent Chicago nostalgia buff to see anything appealing in this photograph; even the light towers of Comiskey Park at the upper left, and the distant towers of Chicago's Loop appear more ominous than beckoning. 

Chicago would be transformed shortly after this photograph was made. After two world wars and a great depression, folks turned away from the past, and gladly toward he future. The future meant for most, a house of their own and a car or two for each family. For many, it meant getting the hell out of the God forsaken city. The G.I. Bill provided the means for returning veterans to realize that dream, and there was plenty of space outside the cities to build the homes. All that was needed was a way to commute from those new suburban homes back into the city where most people still worked. 

The American Interstate System of highways was conceived in 1939, but by necessity was tabled as World War II and the ensuing peace took place. During the fifties the project of constructing a system of super-highways that spanned the country finally gained steam. President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which authorized 25 billion dollars of federal money to build 41,000 miles of roads over a period of ten years. It would be the largest public works project in the history of the United States at the time.

While Eisenhower used national defense as an argument for the massive federal spending on roads, in reality most of the reasons for building the system were economic development, improved highway safety and the relief of traffic congestion. Part of alleviating congestion meant that beltways were built to bypass major cities, while the main roads fed into those cities. These roads make up Chicago's expressway system. Clearly, one of the greatest expenses in building the Interstate System was the procurement of land necessary for the rights of way for highways in already developed cities. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that those neighborhoods containing homes whose values were compromised because of their proximity to railroad tracks, were the most logical ones to clear to make way for the roads. Indeed if you look carefully while driving along Chicago's expressways today, you'll notice that more often than not, the expressways run adjacent to railroad tracks. 

In this fashion, the fate of many neighborhoods, tens of thousands of homes and businesses and the lives of their owners, workers and residents, was sealed by the enforcement of eminent domain which enabled the construction of the expressways. As you can see by comparing the two photographs above, Armour Square was one of the communities decimated by the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Clearing the land for housing projects proved to be far less of a problem. The homes on the east side of the tracks, little more than shacks and cottages, most in terrible shape, were lost without much opposition. As I said earlier, the new buildings were anticipated as models of a better life and a hope for the future for Chicago's poor. The same pattern was followed in many of the poorer sections of the city as all the major Chicago projects that were built upon the sites of former slums. The most famous of these was the notorious Cabrini-Green project built on the near north side on the former site of a neighborhood known for over a century quite accurately as Little Hell.

Here I think it might be useful to look at those photographs again, this time together:

c. 1950


If you were to put yourself into the perspective of someone living in 1963 not knowing what we know today, you might likely see the later photograph as a vast improvement, a bold example of progress, a new frontier in the design of livable cities. The photograph on the bottom represents in fact the very embodiment of the Radiant City, the design of the utopian city of the future put forth by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and others, that would do away with the traditional city. In their view, the street as we know it would have become a thing of the past. Here is what Le Corbusier had to say about the traditional street:
Rising straight up from it are walls of houses, which when seen against the sky-line present a grotesquely jagged silhouette of gables, attics, and zinc chimneys. At the very bottom of this scenic railway lies the street, plunged in eternal twilight. The sky is a remote hope far, far above it. The street is no more than a trench, a deep cleft, a narrow passage. And although we have been accustomed to it for more than a thousand years, our hearts are always oppressed by the constriction of its enclosing walls. 
This comes from the introduction Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin, the architect's unrealized plan to reconfigure central Paris into something not altogether different from the Stateway Gardens/Dan Ryan Expressay example above.

In Le Corbusier's Radiant City, instead of integrating the functions of a city, everything would have its own place; homes would be grouped together in large buildings which faced parks, turning their backs on the transportation corridors which would be placed either in trenches or high above grade level. In a similar fashion, the functions of recreation, commerce, business and industry would be separated into their own enclaves. Had Le Corbusier gotten his way, central Paris today would look something like this:

It's not exactly fair to use the failure of the American high-rise housing project experiment as the one example to condemn the Radiant City. In Le Corbusier's mind, the housing towers of his utopian city of the future were intended to house people at all economic levels, not to be segregated prisons for the poor. There have indeed been successful mixed income high rise projects in Chicago and other major American cities based loosely upon the Radiant City model, but in each case they have been mixed in with elements of more traditional urban design.

One can find the influence of Le Corbusier and the Radiant City all over suburban America in the areas that author Joel Garreau defined as Edge Cities. Here is an essay on the (stultifying) life and (his expected) death of the Edge City by my friend Peter Hales.

Le Corbusier's vision was realized to its fullest outside of the United States. Brasilia, the capital of Brazil for example, is a city conceived in the 1950s and built along the lines of the Radiant City. Brasilia is praised for specific buildings, mostly government buildings designed by Oscar Niemayer, but its plan is panned for its sterility and inhuman proportions.

In a comment that bookends Le Corbusier's thoughts on the traditional street, Simone du Beauvoir said this about her visit to Brasilia:
What possible interest could there be in wandering about? … The street, that meeting ground of … passers-by, of stores and houses, of vehicles and pedestrians ... does not exist in Brasília and never will.   
A brief disclosure: as far as I'm concerned, wandering about freely without the hindrance of obstacles or barriers is the single greatest attribute of the urban experience, and Mme. du Beauvoir has in that one simple thought, expressed everything that I find objectionable in the Radiant City.


China can't seem to get enough of the Radiant City. That country is building speculative cities in anticipation of tremendous urban growth in the future. Today however, most of these cities sit unoccupied, the photographs of them look more like architectural renderings (like the one above), rather than living, breathing cities, which of course, they're not.

Here is a blog post about a Radiant City built in Hong Kong, one that is anything but unoccupied. Whether it's a living, breathing city on the other hand, is debatable.

Regardless, the vision of Le Corbusier and his followers is alive and well; its strong, top down system of planning fits perfectly in societies that are ordered a similar fashion.

Here in the United States well, not so much:

Demolition of last building of Stateway Gardens housing Project, April, 2007
As you can see in the above photograph, turning itself back to the traditional street, (in this case State Street), the low rise, mixed income development of Park Boulevard has replaced Stateway Gardens on the south side of Chicago.

Most of us today see this as a vast improvement.

It would be interesting to come back in fifty years to see if we still feel that way.

One can only hope.

The two historical photographs made at Federal Street, come courtesy of the Gordon Koster Collection. My thanks to Al Krasauskas for posting them on the Forgotten Chicago Facebook site and inspiring this post.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Quality vs. you name it

A lot of thoughts have been going through my head this past week since the Chicago Sun Times dismissed its entire photography staff. As a photographer, this has hit close to home as you can imagine. The major daily you'll recall, decided rather than maintaining a staff of photographers, it will rely on wire services, free lance photographers, and reporters armed with smart phone cameras to take up the slack. Presumably they will also solicit photographs from the general public as well, who would be more than thrilled to see their photographs published and would happily do it for free. The paper also states that they will place more emphasis on video and "multi-media" over the still image as that's what their readers want, or so they say.

At the moment I'm listening to a radio interview with one of the laid off Sun Times photojournalists who says this experiment is doomed to failure because no business succeeds when it takes quality away from its product.

I'm not quite so sure.

I can't think of any product that is of a higher quality today than its counterpart from the past, but many that are vastly inferior. Take photography for example. When I was a young photographer in school back in the seventies, black and white photographic papers had a thick paper base with an emulsion loaded with silver, the active ingredient in most photo sensitive materials. Then the price of silver skyrocketed and by necessity, papers were made with less of the precious metal and quality suffered. Going along with that, to keep the price down, what used to pass as single weight paper back in the day, now is marketed as double weight. All this kept the price of paper from going through the roof, and people simply accepted poorer image quality on a flimsier base.

This is true with virtually every product we buy. Most of us give up or simply overlook quality in favor of keeping the price down.

Quality also suffers in favor of convenience. Think of music. Again, when I was in college, virtually everyone had an analog multi-component stereo system in their home capable of reproducing sound at a very high fidelity. The digital compact disc came along in the eighties and revolutionized the recording industry. The two sided, extremely fragile long playing disk (the LP), was replaced by a virtually indestructible disk that you just popped into a machine without worrying about it until it was finished playing. You could even insert multiple CDs into a device that could play tracks at random so you wouldn't have to listen to the same order of songs over and over again. CDs were a fraction the size of LPs and they could be played on portable devices. Never mind that the sound coming from those machines paled in comparison to the old fashioned stereo system, and digital recording by its nature lacks the depth of analog recording; the general public loved the convenience and for the most part, didn't care about or even notice the decline in the quality of sound. The size of the CD meant you could store far more of them than your old LPs. Lost was the "canvas" for the artists who designed classic album covers, and the platform for the occasional album notes that people of my era grew accustomed to.

Today, CDs themselves are nearly obsolete, they have given way to music downloaded onto a computer. There are iPods about the size of my thumb, capable of holding thousands of songs available through little more than a click of a button.  Streaming audio and video services are available on the web that enable you to access virtually any song or video imaginable on demand. Instant access has become the driving force of modern technology, and new breakthroughs in that direction occur virtually overnight, as witnessed by those incessant commercials where fourteen year olds gripe about how good their younger siblings have it as far as access to media goes. To make it possible to store all that music on such small devices, and to transfer information at an acceptable rate, the digital files are compressed, meaning less information and you guessed it, lower sound and image quality.

Instant access has governed the way we get our news. The development of the internet and social media has led to an explosion of information gathering conduits, and people are just as if not more likely to get thier news from Facebook, Twitter, or blogs as they are from traditional news sources. As we saw during the police crackdowns of protesters in Istanbul last week, the upside to this trend is that we learn of events around the world that may have fallen under the radar back in the day when news gathering was limited to a select number of services. On the other hand, the non-stop reporting of the Boston Marathon bombings for example, and the rush to report something, anything about the story, led to the reporting of dozens of stories, little more than rumors, that were either misleading or outright wrong. Professional journalists were once expected to get the story right before letting it go public, but now in competition with amateurs who are not held to such scrutiny, the modus operandi in the news business is publish first, ask questions later. The more wild cat reporters we have covering the news, the more errors we can expect in news coverage.

Strangely enough, this may not be altogether a bad thing.Years ago, most folks got their news from a handful of respected sages who delivered it up to them on a silver platter. Hardly anyone questioned what Walter Cronkite or his peers told us. My father, definitely a man of his generation, believed if something was printed in a newspaper, it had to be true. Today most of us understand that any knucklehead (like me) can have his own blog and write anything without the restraint of professional standards or scrutiny. The result is that the public, at least those with any sense at all, have to question everything, and not take anything they hear or read as the gospel truth, as people like my father once did.

The same is true with photography. Because the medium by its nature is so faithful at depicting the "real world", people mistakingly believed that a photograph could not lie. Despite the fact that photographs have been manipulated since the earliest days of the medium, it wasn't until the invention of digital photo editing software such as PhotoShop, and their facile method of manipulation, that the public at large began to question the veracity of the photographic image.

The one thing that technology cannot change, is the effort and talent it takes to tell a story with a still photograph. I can't tell you how many times I've cringed at the question: "Can such and such a camera take good pictures?" "Yes..." I tell them, "if there's a good photographer behind it." It's ridiculous to assume that because today's cameras are so easy to use, everyone can be a good photographer. As pointed out countless times in print and over the air this past week, so many memories of the important events of our times are imprinted in our brains by iconic photographs. The tragedy at the Boston Marathon was brought up many times as an example. We all saw over and over again the smart phone photos and videos of the bomb blasts and ensuing chaos. We saw the images made by surveillance cameras at the scene that showed the perpetrators. But the images most of us will take with us from the event, are the ones that touch our heart, the ones that brought real meaning to the tragedy. They are the still photographs made by photojournalists that documented the selfless reaction of the first responders and some members of the general public who in the face of great danger, cared for the dying and the wounded. As the former Sun Times photographer mentioned above pointed out: "where a normal person might run away from danger, a photojournalist runs toward it."

The trend away from publications that feature photojournalism has gone on for quite some time. Look and Life Magazines both played a major role in my understanding of the world when I was growing up. Look folded in 1971 and Life, as a weekly publication, did the same the following year. The print edition of Newsweek Magazine, gave up the ghost last year. Newspapers have been closing up shop at an alarming rate. In a way it's a minor miracle that the Chicago Sun Times still exists at all.

In the comments section of one of the internet articles I read about the Sun Times letting go its staff photographers, someone wrote: "I'm so mad I wish I had a subscription so I could cancel it", to which someone else replied: "That's exactly the problem, you and thousands of others DON'T have a subscription." Let the truth be told, neither do I.

In the end, we're all to blame for the demise of the newspaper and the news magazine. Which leads me to ask and answer a few questions:

So what's to become of the Sun Times without its staff of photographers?

Without a doubt, the quality of its photography will suffer, especially if they expect reporters who are busy enough with their own jobs, skills they've developed over the years, to tackle the extra responsibility of an entirely different job for which they have no experience.

Will the paper be able to pull it off?

Well they'll certainly save a good deal of money which will enable them to hang around for a little while longer.

But won't their readers, the few they have left, be put off by the changes?

As much as I hate to say it, after this blows over, in all honesty I don't think most of them will even notice much of a difference.

That's why I've been so depressed this week.