Sunday, January 31, 2016

Photographs of the Month

My new year's resolution late last December was to kick-start my photography career which has been all but dormant since my son was born fifteen years ago this Wednesday. So far so good, I've even worked in the darkroom for the fist time in oh, about five years. On New Years Day I resolved to take one picture a day and post it on my Instagram account. The point of that exercise is to instill the discipline of thinking photographically every day and then the hard part, to act upon it. I must say having a smartphone has helped tremendously since I have no excuse not to take at least one picture a day as I always have a camera with me. Again, so far so good.

Now its the end of month one of the new year and I've made another resolution, to post some of my favorite pictures of each month here on the last day of the month. Furthermore they will not be the same images that appeared on my Instagram account, although they may, as is the case with a couple of these images, be alternate shots of the daily images.

Yes I am making up the rules as I go but what the heck, it's my resolution so I can do with it as I please. Let's see how it goes.

Here's my entry for January:

January 1
The first day of the year had me out and about testing my new camera. It was a pretty cold day so I stuck close to home and took this picture of a typical Chicago bungalow with a very atypical fence.

January 2
Again testing out the camera, this time in Maggie Daley Park. As with all digital cameras these days, this one is capable of shooting very high quality video. Here's a still image of the Chicago skyline made during a test of the camera's video capabilities.

January 5
Combining urban architecture and the industrial landscape that supports it, I've been a sucker for images of the city such as this one since God knows when. Expect to see more of them.

January 16
Except for the plastic horse and some of the businesses, everything in this picture has been around for a very long time, I just never quite saw it this way until the other day.

January 29
A snapshot I made this time as a passenger in the car. After I saw it, I wanted to crop the photo to straighten it out, which killed all the tension in the picture . This is the un-cropped version.

January 29
A construction site I visited twice this month,I was especially drawn to the white tarps billowing in the wind contrasted against the blue, or in this care, medium gray sky. And finally...

January 30
Lake Michigan looking very tranquil yesterday.

Finally one last resolution, well at least one more thing on my to-do list, was to clean up the web links section in the right column of the page as several of the blogs I've linked to have ceased to update. Some of the those I've decided to keep as their archives alone are notable, including "blogsolomon | Confessions of a Renaissance Hack" written by my late friend Jeremy Pollack. That link will remain on this site as long as this site remains.


Friday, January 29, 2016

The Blame Game

As if comedians didn't have enough material from this election season, who should come along but Sarah Palin, sent to them from on high like manna from heaven. In her latest attention grabbing stunt, Palin made a public appearance to announce her endorsement of Donald Trump for the Republican party's nomination as their candidate for president. As Trump stood next to her at a campaign rally in Ames, Iowa with a dumbfounded expression on his face, Palin went into one of her trademark stream of consciousness rants of gibberish that sent the pundits' hearts all a flutter. So much nonsense came out of her mouth that it was truly hard to make sense out of what she was saying, other than she thinks Donald Trump is really good and all of his opponents, and especially Barack Obama, are really really bad.

One thing she did make crystal clear is her contention that the current president is directly responsible for her adult son's behavior problems.

Palin's son Track has had numerous run-ins with the law, and the former governor of Alaska contends her son's issues are a direct result of post traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD), resulting from his service in the military in Iraq. Whether there is a connection between the two is debatable as A) young Mr. Palin had behavior issues before entering the service, and B) there is serious doubt as to whether he actually saw combat during his time in Iraq. What is certain is that President Obama has made veterans' health care a priority of his administration, making Governor Palin's accusations that the Obama administration turns a blind eye to veterans' needs, absurd. Of all the legitimate criticisms of the Obama administration, this is not one.

At lunch with a wise old friend the other day, I asked him why he thought President Obama when compared to all the other US presidents, is reviled by so many Americans. I expected my friend to bring up the easy answer of race, but instead he said that people right now in this country are simply angry because they are dissatisfied with their lives. They may be un-employed, under-employed with poor job prospects, in the hole with their mortgage, and/or headed toward retirement without enough put away. Some Americans may have plenty of money but are just struggling with that ol' ennui. Regardless, who better to blame for your funk and anger than the man sitting in the White House?

With her ridiculous accusations that have been panned, even by the right, Palin is tapping into a current trend in society that has reached epidemic proportions, namely blaming public figures, especially the president, for personal problems.

The good news for him is that Barack Obama is not a bi-partisan scapegoat. The grumblers and whiners on the left blame all the problems of the world including their own on the the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, the Bush family, the police, Dick Chaney, the one percent, Monsanto, evangelical Christians, and white people, especially if they themselves are white.

Of course Obama is not the only scapegoat for the other side. Minorities, immigrants, the Clintons, political correctness, homosexuals, gun control, atheists, universal health care, little league participation awards, big government, and scores of other concepts and individuals all give the president a run for his money as the favorite scapegoat of the right.

One may ask, we've gone through bad times before without having to resort to blaming government officials or everybody with whom we disagree for all our personal troubles, why now?

Here's my half-baked answer:

In the past, no matter how desperate the situation, Americans used to believe in the promise of this country, as they looked toward a brighter future. Sadly for many of us today, The American Dream has become an ironic term. We no longer believe in ourselves, our country, or really very much at all for that matter. True, the Trump campaign uses the slogan, "time to make America great again." but the greatness they are espousing is not meant for everyone to share. They're not alone. Gone from the vision of both sides of the political spectrum I'm afraid, is the idea that all of us, no matter how divergent our backgrounds or beliefs may be, make up this country. You heard me say it before and I'll say it again, our great strength as a nation is born out of our differences. At least it used to be.

I heard a radio story this afternoon about people who date folks with different political opinions from their own, (spoiler alert: there aren't any these days). One woman interviewed for the piece said she would never date a person with different beliefs because "conservative ideas are ignorant." It seems the only thing we respect these days is keeping a tenacious grip on one's own ideology, come hell, high water, or rational discourse.

We've all become cynics, not too surprising since most of us get our news from the late night comedians. Politics, and by extension, government, has become a three ring circus, nothing more than a punchline for Steven Colbert and his peers. Nothing is sacred anymore, not school, not the church, not our families,  not our country, and least of all, not politicians and the pinnacle of their profession, the office of president, and the person who happens to hold that office. I've used this quote before but I think it's worth mentioning again. It's attributed to Oscar Wilde but I believe he lifted it from an old Irish proverb:
A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Since you can't put a price tag on hopes or dreams, they have no value to cynics (here I'm quoting myself), that is until they're gone. And when they're gone, the price we pay as we have seen in recent years, is that instead of being a nation of builders, makers and doers, we've become a nation of worriers, whiners, and complainers.

And we wonder why no one in their right mind wants to be president.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

1550 S. Hamlin

On January 26, 1966, fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King moved into an apartment on the west side of Chicago. As a part of the "Campaign to end slums", Dr. King came here to listen and learn, working to improve the lives of the poor people of this city, both socially and economically. He also came to help integrate Chicago, working to end the housing covenants of the time that restricted black people from living wherever they pleased in the city. That apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin in the neighborhood of North Lawndale would be King's home address for almost one year.

During that year, Dr. King and his associates marched in the (at the time), all white communities of Gage Park, Cicero and Marquette Park, where a brick thrown presumably by an unappreciative resident of that community hit him square in the head. Of that experience, Dr. King said:
I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today.
Dr. King was more measured in his feelings about this city in a radio interview on the black radio station WVON, when a listener asked him if he really felt Chicago was worse than any other city he had visited. You can listen to his response here in an excellent report filed this morning by Linda Lutton of Chicago's public radio outlet, WBEZ.

The WBEZ piece takes pains to differentiate the larger than life, carved in stone, Nobel Laureate hero whom we celebrate each year on his birthday by playing soundbites of his I Have a Dream speech, from the Martin King who lived in Lawndale in 1966. The Chicago King was no dreamer, here he was nothing short of a revolutionary bent on changing the very fabric of American Society from the ground up. In the name of ending poverty, Dr. King advocated collective bargaining not only for workers, but also for tenants and welfare recipients, a 60 percent increase in the minimum wage, and a guaranteed minimum income for all.

The Linda Lutton piece quotes King as saying in Chicago:

“If there is to be genuine equality, there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power."

Fifty years later in a much more conservative time, it's hard to see King's ideas for the elimination of poverty gaining much steam. Clearly, Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963 proclaiming his dream is a much more palatable symbol for most Americans than the real man, shirtsleeves rolled up, working in one of the bleakest neighborhoods in the country, and advocating the kind of radical change that would make even Bernie Sanders uncomfortable.

For me the saddest part of the piece is an interview with Irene Powell, an elderly woman who still lives across the street from 1550 S. Hamlin as she did nearly a lifetime ago when Dr. King called that address home. Things haven't gotten much better since his visit fifty years ago, in fact Lutton ironically describes the time when Martin Luther King lived there as the neighborhood's "good years."

Two years after he lived on south Hamlin Street, Martin Luther King was assassinated and much of the neighborhood burned to the ground. The scars still exist today in the form of entire blocks still vacant after all these years.

It's impossible to say what might have happened had Dr. King been allowed to live a full life. As I mentioned in a previous post, his death and the urban riots that ensued, hardened the hearts of many black people who no longer saw non-violence as a viable solution to poverty and racism, and those of white people sympathetic to the cause, who fled major cities in droves out of fear for their personal safety.

Despite the fact that we live in a completely different world than the one we lived in fifty years ago, best illustrated by the man who currently resides in the White House, race continues to be a defining and polarizing issue in our country.

Perhaps the moral authority and leadership of an elderly Dr. King would have made a significant difference in the way white and black people live together in this country. Perhaps not.

Sadly, we'll never know.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

White Elephant

The great pop idol David Bowie died this week and social media has been abuzz with tributes, memories and laudatory comments about him. That is except for one friend who posted on her Facebook page that she never liked the dead rocker or his music.

I felt a little like her a couple months ago when it was announced that Illinois governor Bruce Rauner was planning to sell the James R. Thompson Center. a move some believe signals doom for Helmut Jahn's bombastic government building , for thirty years the tangible symbol of the State of Illinois in the center of its largest and most important city.

The news caused a tremendous uproar among the city's preservation community who see the Thompson Center as an important architectural landmark in the city.

Swimming upstream against the current, like my friend the David Bowie detractor, I had to admit that from day one, I never much liked the building. It's not that I objected it appearing to have been dropped into the cityscape from outer space, sticking out like a sore thumb in Chicago's Loop which was and still is dominated by architectural boxes. I wasn't too upset that the State of Illinois Building as it was known when it was built, took the place of the old Sherman House Hotel where I spent many happy times with my grandparents at what I once considered the classiest restaurant in the world, The Well of the Sea. And it didn't really bother me that the building's design with its enormous open atrium and bird cage elevators, trumpeted as being unique and original, actually parroted the work of John Portman, the famous neo-futuristic designer of hotels in the decade before the Thompson Center was built. Well all those things did cross my mind but...

One of the several thousand handrail joints
 in the James R. Thompson Center.
Today the edges and corners of the metal rails
are rounded off, sparing the hands of the
tens of thousands of people who use them
every day.
What really bothered me was the complete lack of attention to detail in a building that was first and foremost a grandiose statement on the part of its architect and the governor of Illinois who commissioned it, for whom it is currently named. Much has been written about the building's notorious heating, ventilation and air conditioning problems which resulted in a complete overhaul of the HVAC system shortly after it was built. But the detail that pissed me off above all was the design and execution of the sheet metal hand rails that line the terraced balconies and stairways. At each joint, instead of the pieces coming together smoothly, there was a gap of about one half an inch, leaving exposed metal edges. When the building was new, it never occurred to Jahn or the staff working under him to sand down those edges. Consequently, anyone who held onto the rails as they used the stairs or walked along the balconies, cut their hands bloody (as I did), on the sharp exposed corners and edges of the sheet metal.

I suppose the very real blood letting of visitors gave a new meaning to the term "brutalist architecture". Another brutal aspect of the building to my eyes anyway was its color theme which juxtaposed two starkly contrasting colors, blue and red. As the eye focuses slightly different on each color, the effect of the two colors side by side meant the eyes were continually adjusting to each color, producing a dizzying effect which only accentuated the enormous atrium, the death defying heights as viewed from the terraced balconies of the higher floors, and the kaleidoscopic design of the terrazzo floor below. Thirty years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock may have pre-visualized the building when he made his great film Vertigo.

This was of course no accident, I believe that Jahn intended the building to be the architectural equivalent of an amusement park ride, terrifying and wonderful at the same time.

Looking up into the cavernous atrium of the Thompson Center,
a view a friend once compared to the view from inside
a salt shaker.
Did I say wonderful? Well yes, the building was not without its merits. First and foremost, it was not boring, there was nothing anywhere quite like it. For all its flaws, the Thompson Center was always a featured highlight on my tours of the Loop. It was impossible to be indifferent about the TC, you either loved it or hated it.

These days, even though I find myself inside the building quite often, I hadn't given it much thought until the governor made his announcement. Truth is, after all these years, it has settled on me. Like the old afghan on your couch, I came to appreciate it for its comfort and familiarity despite the ugliness, which was exacerbated by neglect over the years. Time had worn off its edges; the garish colors of the walls faded and even the sharp edges of the hand rails had long ago been sanded down. Despite that, or maybe because of it, the building developed something it never had before, charm. Dare I say, in its decrepitude, the Thompson Center became cozy, which is probably why Helmut Jahn hasn't been very outspoken in defense of saving his building.

A couple months ago I had lunch with a friend at the Thompson Center food court on the lower level, perhaps at the exact site where the Well of the Sea once stood. In the central area of the ground floor, a political rally was going on emceed by Jesse White, the Illinois Secretary of State. As my friend and I were about to dine on our Panda Express Mandarin orange chicken and Szechuan beef, a color guard entered the space followed by a girl belting out the Star Spangled Banner. Feeling uncomfortable chowing down on Chinese fast food during the strains of our national anthem, we grudgingly stood up as did most of the diners around us. As the girl finished singing, we sat back down and settled into a rather serious conversation, trying best as we could to ignore the goings on around us. It was impossible. At the height of our seriousness, in walked a twelve piece Mariachi band, belting out an old Jalisco standard as loud as they could. We felt like we were in an episode of Seinfeld.

Neither of us could be upset however, in short, this brief Dada moment personified the very essence of the urban experience.

The best part of the Thompson Center is all the open space devoted to the public; like it or not, pure and simple, this is our building. Walk in during the week and there is always some kind of exhibit set up on the main floor attracting scores of people representing the diversity of the city of Chicago. It could be an exhibition touting a new book on a local subject, a benefit for some noble cause, or a flea market. These exhibits seldom are professionally constructed, often they're hastily put together, resembling an elementary school book fair. What the exhibits lack in style and grace, they more than make up in the human touch. The Thompson Center is perhaps to Chicago what the agora was to the ancient Athenians, the great public gathering space in the heart of the city. One can almost imagine two citizens of Athens, Plato and Aristotle perhaps, being interrupted mid-conversation in the agora by a 400 BC Greek version of a Mariachi band.

The Thompson Center is no longer as public as it was intended. You could once take an elevator to the top of the building as my ex-wife and I did the day it opened. From there if you chose, you could make your way down through the building one floor at a time either by escalator or by the stairs with those dreaded hand rails. The terraced balconies serve as hallways, connecting the government offices which have no walls sealing them off from the balconies and the atrium. Every noise coming from the public space below reverberates through the building and into the offices. Another friend who worked in the building for a time had his work interrupted twice by the crash of a person falling to his or her death after jumping off one of those balconies.

From what I understand, most of the employees in those offices understandably hate the distractions and lack of privacy, but the design is very symbolic of the idea of the openness of government, a concept that was perhaps unique to the moment in time that the Thompson Center was built.

Sadly, today, unless you have the proper credentials, you can no longer roam through the entire building, thanks to Mr. bin Laden and his suicidal charges. But what the September 11 terrorists couldn't take away was the feeling of openness in this particular building. Restrictions notwithstanding, the Thompson Center remains the most publicly open interior space in Chicago, with its millions of cubic feet devoted to the atrium, which through the ample use of glass in the exterior walls, provides a stunning view of the city outside.

If Governor Rauner gets his way, all that space which now belongs to us, will be gone. The sad thing is that Chicago's Loop is losing its public space at an alarming rate. Around the time of the announcement that the TC might be sold, the company that owns for former Marshall Field State Street store two blocks away, announced that it plans to rethink the current Macys, and most likely will drastically reduce the public area of what in my opinion is one of Chicago's greatest public spaces, second only perhaps to the Cultural Center. What once was a neighborhood of infinite interest to the general public, the Loop is fast becoming a neighborhood of walls and closed doors, sealing off private offices and residences.

The Thompson Center was considered the first twenty first century building in Chicago. Now that it actually is the twenty first century, we don't build over the top buildings like it anymore. Given the desperate financial state of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, Governor Rauner's plan to sell the TC may well be fiscally prudent, but not without a price.

The speculation is that what made the Thompson Center such a remarkable public space, most likely will lead to its downfall. If the building is sold to a private concern, most likely all that open space will be deemed very expensive wasted space. By itself the building would probably be considered a white elephant to any private developer as realistic adaptive reuse of such a structure would be quite formidable. On the other hand, demolition would be relatively inexpensive as most of the cubic feet comprising the building consists of glass and air. Unfortunately the writing is on the wall for the Thompson Center and at the moment it doesn't look very good.

Despite its flaws, the loss of the Thompson Center would be nothing less than a crushing blow to the very meaning of the Loop as the vital heart of this city. It's possible loss, combined with the other losses we've experienced bring us closer to the day when the Loop will be virtually indistinguishable from the downtowns of almost any other big American city.

Perhaps we don't care. 
And if that's the case, perhaps we'll get what we deserve.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A White Fourth Day of Christmas...

We had no snow on Christmas Day this year but Mother Nature heard our moaning and answered with a vengeance. From the be careful what you wish for file, this is a little film I shot last week on one one of the most God-awful weather days I can remember: