Monday, February 29, 2016

Photographs of the Month

Thank God for leap year as I don't think I could gotten this post in on time were it not for the extra day in February. Here are some of the best pictures which haven't made it yet to these pages, all taken this month. Unless otherwise noted, they were all made in Chicago:

Michigan and Jackson, February 5
Old fashioned street photography on Michigan Avenue made while testing out another new lens.

Santa Fe Building, February 5
Same test, this one indoors of the fabulous Chicago Architectural Foundation 3D map of central Chicago in the equally impressive lobby of the Santa Fe Building.

St. Adalbert Church, February 16
I went down to Pilsen after I heard the Archdiocese was planning to close the historic and beautiful St. Adalbert Church. This picture which I didn't use for my post, is one example of how the church dominates the neighborhood it inhabits.

Adams Street, February 18
Tired and uninspired, yet still needing to take my picture of the day, I have to credit this serendipitous shot to the photo gods.

South Clark Street, February 19
The following day with my picture of the day already in the bag, I hopped off the bus early when I saw the late day, golden hour light hitting Harry Weese's Federal Prison, otherwise known as the Metropolitan Correction Center in the South Loop. Then...

La Salle and Van Buren elevated stop, February 19
...I followed the light down Clark Street and climbed up to a station I rarely use to make a photograph from the platform looking east. I posted that shot to my Instagram account. This one looking west was just as good. Thanks again to the photo gods.

Maple Avenue, Evanston, IL, February 21
This one on the other hand I sought out entirely on my own, driving up to one of the top floors of a parking garage to get some images of the Downtown Evanston skyline.

Devon Avenue, February 26
Perhaps the most fascinating street in Chicago is Devon Avenue in Rogers Park and West Ridge. I took this picture of the gentleman after I dropped my daughter off at school.

Western Avenue Overpass, February 27
A pilgrimage with the kids to see and drive up for one last time the Western Avenue Overpass at Belmont that is about to be demolished, which will reveal this house in its entirety to the west side of the street for the first time in 55 years.

Richard Clark Park, February 27
We also paid homage at the site of the late-great Riverview. The kids weren't too impressed by the police station, strip mall or school campus that currently occupy the site. But they did have a blast at the dare-devil bike trail that now sits on the old site of the Chute-the Chutes. More pictures from that visit to come.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Last Trace

The only thing I remember from an urban studies class I took in college nearly forty years ago was a discussion that dealt with urban archeology. The professor brought up the topic of incongruous features in the urban landscape which are perfectly logical, only if you know the history of the neighborhood. He was from Detroit and used the example of an expressway that inexplicably veered off course by several feet. Anyone coming across this odd feature of the road that had been otherwise straight for miles would have been perplexed. Long time residents of the neighborhood of course remembered the old brewery that stood in the path of the new superhighway which was built to skirt around the long gone building.

There is a similar incongruous road feature on the north side of Chicago, an overpass on Western Avenue that takes the street over Belmont Avenue. The overpass is convenient for drivers along Western as it enables them to bypass one of the hundreds of stoplights on the longest street in Chicago. Its elevation also provides motorists with a nice relief from the otherwise pool table flat topography of Chicago, as well as a terrific view of the surrounding neighborhood and the Loop, about six miles away. But why is the overpass here and not say a few blocks farther south over the much busier six-way intersection at Elston and Diversey, or perhaps a dozen of other seemingly more logical places?

Unless you're old enough to remember as I am, or at least know a little about the history of that particular patch of land at the northwest corner of Belmont and Western, you're likely to be stymied by the seemingly arbitrary bit of roadway that sadly is about to disappear forever.

Before the police station, the campus of trade colleges, and the non-descript strip mall that currently occupy the area, from 1904 until 1967 that 74 acre site bounded by Western, Belmont, the Chicago River and Roscoe street was the happiest place in Chicago, and perhaps the entire Midwest, Riverview Amusement Park. So popular was Riverview that the overpass was built in 1961 for the benefit of the few drivers along Western Avenue who were not headed there. That roadway is one of the last remaining traces of the park.

Riverview holds a special place in the hearts of anyone my age or older who grew up in Chicago and could count on spending at the very least, a few summer days and/or evenings at the park. Folks from the south and west sides made the trek either by car or bus, usually two or three of them. It was within walking distance for many north siders, in fact that's what lots of kids did on their way home after they spent all their bus money inside the park. As I was only eight during its final summer. I never experienced Riverview without an adult chaperone, still I have nothing but sweet, happy memories of the place. Because of my age, (well I like to think that anyway), I never rode the most famous and terrifying rides in the park, the roller coaster with its advertised 85 foot 90mph drop known as the Bobs, and the heart stopping Pair-O-Chutes; more on them later. I did ride the tamer Jetstream roller coaster which still was a little out of my league. More my speed was the fun house known as Aladdin's Castle, pictured on the right, the arcade, and the Shoot-The-Chutes, where a gondola would take you and perhaps eight other riders to the top of a tower, then be released down an enormous water slide into a pond below.

As wonderful as the park was during the day, it was spectacular at night. With everything lit up, it was a dreamland, a place far removed from the serious everyday business of school, work, or anything else the city had to offer. To get a feeling of what Riverview de nuit was like, check out the carnival scene from Alfred Hitchcock's great 1951 film Strangers on a Train. That scene doesn't end well for poor Miriam, the estranged wife of the protagonist. But with the lights of the carnival reflected in the broken lenses of her glasses, Miriam's death at the hands of the sociopath Bruno Antony played brilliantly by Robert Walker, is probably the most beautiful murder scene ever captured on film.

I bring that up not because murder was a regular occurrence there, but because like all carnivals, circuses and amusement parks of the time before our safety conscious, uber-hygenic, politically correct, self-absorbed, litigious era, there was indeed a darker side to Riverview.

Take the freak show. No self-respecting carnival or amusement park back in the day would have done without one of these, and Riverview's was right there on the midway, smack dab in the middle of the park across from the entrance to the miniature train ride. You simply couldn't avoid it. The best part of the freak show, sorry folks, that's what it was called, was its presentation on the outside. There you'd have the classic barker, whose job it was to entice passersby to spend their hard earned money to come inside and witness some of the strangest, most bizarre and unbelievable sights known to man, or something of that nature. Giant hand-painted banners, which today command top dollar, would advertise the amazing sights inside. Usually as a tease, one of the performers would come out and give a little presentation of his or her talent. There might be a contortionist, a sword swallower, a tattooed lady, a fire eater, or the human blockhead, a guy who would pound nails into his nose. I specifically remember a fellow called "the two-faced man" who was portrayed on his banner as a man who had two separate, distinct faces. The real two-faced man had in fact only one face, one side of it was what most people would consider "normal" while the other side was greatly deformed.

Once the suckers, I mean patrons, paid their money to get inside, they'd get a little routine from the performers, usually giving their life story then explaining their condition, if their talent was something unusual about their body, or a little demonstration of something they could do that was unusual. David Letterman used to call acts like these, "stupid human tricks." They weren't done sucking your money after you got inside the sideshow, there was always another opportunity to tease you with something even more unbelievable, beyond another door or obstacle. Here's a link to a page, on a site devoted to sideshows, featuring one of the Riverview performers, Sylvia, the Girl with the Elephant Feet.

It seems that no discussion about Riverview today would be complete without at least a mention of the dunk tank. You still see these at carnivals, somebody, usually a guy sitting on a plank suspended above a tank of water, hurling insults at passersby, encouraging them, for a fee of course, to toss a ball at a target. If the tosser if successful in hitting the target, the plank collapses, sending the guy into the drink. At the Riverview drunk tank, all the performers sitting on the planks, inside of cages no less, were African American men. The attraction was called "The African Dip." Unsubstantiated rumor has it that once upon a time it was called something else, much worse. In 1963, Mike Royko the great Chicago columnist, wrote an article stating the attraction "was disgraceful and racist... provided whites with malicious joy, while demeaning Negroes, stripping them of dignity" and "had no place in the 1960's the era of the civil rights movement." There was a public outcry (although none of the organized boycotts you may have read about) after the story came out and in a short time, the attraction was closed. Years later, Royko while still rightfully proud of the article, noted that after the amusement closed, well I'll just let him describe it:
The only problem was that about six black men showed up at my office, stood in front of my desk and demanded to know why the hell I had caused them to lose their well-paying jobs. 
As one of them said: ``I was making good money for shoutin` insults at a bunch of honkies and gettin` a little wet, and most of them couldn`t throw good enough to put me in the water one out of every 25 throws.` I explained that there were greater moral and social issues involved. 
And he said something like: ``Yeah? Well, what about the moral issue of you getting me fired? What kind of job are you going to get me now?``
Today, outside of the syrupy nostalgia pieces, you cannot read anything about Riverview that does not comment about rampant racism in the place, and about how uncomfortable black visitors were made to feel there. This includes a nice little piece that the local public radio station WBEZ did a few years ago. It's interesting to note however that of all the black people they interviewed for the piece and the several more who made comments on the accompanying web site, to a person they said how much fun they had at Riverview and how they kept coming back. They may have been taunted on the way to and from the park as at the time it was in an all white, working class neighborhood, but at least the folks in the piece insisted they felt safe inside the park.

As many of the people said in the radio piece, that was simply the way it was at the time. The black kids at the park in the fifties and sixties may have felt uncomfortable with the dunk tank, but it apparently didn't prevent many of them from participating in the amusement by taking turns at attempting to dunk their well-paid taunters. Not to excuse any of it, it was a horrible and disgusting attraction. We can blast Riverview all we want from the safe distance of fifty or sixty years, but the truth is, the amusement park was a microcosm of society and frankly it's a little silly to single it out for being a product of its time.

Riverview's time ended on October 3rd, 1967 when its owners, the grandchildren of its founder Wilhelm Schmidt sold the land under it for six and one half million dollars to a local investment group . It was announced to the public the following day that the doors to Riverview that closed for the season one month earlier, would never open again. It was the first time anyone without direct involvement in the sale had heard about it. Despite showing its age, throughout the sixties the owners of the park continued to invest in infrastructure and new rides. In the summer of '67, its final year, Riverview had 1.7 million visitors, more people than attended Cubs and White Sox home games that year combined. The news of its demise took everyone by surprise. I cried when I heard the news, it was my first experience of the loss of a part of the city that I truly loved.

The reasons given for the closing were the ever increasing cost of upkeep and the escalating problem of violence inside the park.

What made Riverview different from other amusement parks was there was no admission charge to get in, you'd only pay for the rides or other attractions. This may have led in part to its decline as shall we say, a certain undesirable element, what today we'd call gang-bangers, entered the park freely reeking their own brand of havoc (albeit tame havoc by today's standards), causing a certain amount of uneasiness among its patrons. As a kid, I was blissfully unaware of that, and doing some reading on the subject recently, have come to the conclusion that much of the violence reported was overstated. Had the owners sincerely wanted to keep the park open, much of the crime problem could have been addressed, simply by charging admission at the gate. a move the Museum of Science and Industry successfully instituted in the nineties.

It's more likely the owners, perhaps tired of the amusement park business, preferred the quick payout, about 47 million in today's dollars.

On October 4th, 1967, the day of the public announcement of the closing of Riverview, Mike Royko published his tribute to the park in his daily column in the long defunct Chicago Daily News. The column was titled: Riverview Park: A Coward's Tale. You can find an excerpt of the piece here. The column describes Royko's profound fear of the Parachute ride mentioned above. Here's how it starts:
It was the red badge of courage, the moment of truth. It was put up or shut up.

There could be no conscientious objection - no draft card burning - when you faced the Parachute in Riverview Park.

This was it. You had what it took or you didn't.

And for those who didn't, the chance is gone forever. They will have to live with the knowledge that they couldn't do it.

Oh you can say: "But I rode the Bobs, and the Bobs was really something."
I once rode the Bobs eight times without getting off.
Sure it was rough, that first dip, and it took extraordinary courage.
But it wasn't the Parachute. You couldn't see it miles away. It didn't rise into the sky, warning you that soon you must look deep into your soul to see what, if anything was there.
The parachute tower stood about 200 feet in the air, about the equivalent of a 20 story building. The riders, two to a chute, strapped to wooden benches were slowly hoisted to the top of the tower, whereupon the operator would throw a switch sending them into a free fall for about twenty feet before the parachute would open up for a gradual decent to terra firma. My mother who was an avid rider of the Bobs, rode the Parachute ride once, that was enough for her. As mentioned above, I never rode it and neither did Mike Royko.

My mother loves to tell the story of something that happened one day when she was in eighth grade. It was late in the school year, close to graduation and the kids were antsy to get out of school. A couple of boys who were known for their antics, didn't return to class after lunch. Now her school was located about one and a half miles from Riverview and the Parachute tower, at least the top of it, was visible from her classroom. In the afternoon, a kid in my mom's class noticed that one of the parachutes was stuck at the top of the tower. Minutes passed, then hours. When the kids left school that day, that parachute and its human cargo were still stuck nearly 200 feet in the air.

On the way home from school, my mom picked up a copy of the late edition of the Daily News to see if it had anything about the malfunctioning ride. Sure enough it did. Turned out it took over three hours to release the chute with its passengers. Those two passengers were, you guessed it, her classmates who had ditched class that afternoon.

Riverview's motto for many years was "laugh your troubles away." My mother said those two boys got a good laugh out of all the attention they got. That is until they came back to school. It turned out the nuns saw their picture in the paper too.

"Laugh your troubles away" was coined by the Rivrview PR Department (if there ever was such a thing) during the Great Depression. There's a certain poignancy when you think about people on the brink still having the outlet of Riverview to let loose, if just for a few hours, escaping the dreadful realities of life at the time. It was then that William Schmidt, son of the founder, invented the foot long hot dog, a novelty that was successful because in Schmidt's words, "it was cheap and filling." In our health conscious time many of us might cringe at the idea of eating unidentified animal products stuffed into a twelve inch casing made of beef intestines, but to the many visitors of Riverview in the thirties it was the one extravagance they could still afford.

Until its sudden demise, Riverview with its free admission, was a place teenagers could go and hang out without getting into too much trouble. If there were normal teenage anxieties, frustrations, or any other pent up feelings that needed releasing (if you catch my drift), it was nothing that a few rides on the Bobs couldn't fix. Here's Royko again:
Much later, I discovered the secret of riding the Parachute. Go there with a girl.
A boy has to suggest the Parachute to prove he is a dashing fellow. A girl has to say yes to prove she is a good sport. I'm told they still have this arrangement, except now it is sex instead of the Parachute.
I suppose one could say that Chicago or any other big city is by necessity, a victim of its own success. The ever increasing demand for land translates to ever increasing property values which means that trivial venues such as amusement parks, miniature golf courses, drive in theaters or just about anything that is a remotely interesting place to just hang out and have a good time without spending half a paycheck, is doomed. Perhaps society pays a price when the only place teenagers can go on their own is the shopping mall.

Despite the dark side that we like to dwell upon these days, I don't know a soul who spent any time there who has anything but fond memories of the place. Googling "Riverview" the other day, I came across this video produced by WGN TV which is a tribute to the long lost park. It closes with a shot of Bozo the Clown, as portrayed by Bob Bell (the inspiration for the Simpsons' Crusty the Clown), walking into the sunset along Riverview's midway. I'm sure to anyone who didn't grow up in Chicago in the sixties, that shot has to be unbearably creepy and corny.

But to those of us who did, that one shot sums up our collective childhood.

You just had to be there.


Here is a fascinating account of the Riverview Parachute ride, written by a man who helped run it.

Here's my subsequent post on my family's visit to the site of Riverview and our last ride on the Western Avenue Overpass.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Could There be a Silver Lining?

Shortly after it was published in 1982, I bought a copy of the book Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, written by George Lane with photographs by Aligmantis Kezys. It covered a subject that had always interested me and frankly, I was a little pissed that it came out before I had the chance to work on a book like this myself, at least the photographic part of it. I was assuaged only after learning that the two authors were Jesuit priests, and resigned myself to the fact that they were probably the right men for the job.

As its secondary title indicated, the book centered around church architecture, with entries chosen for their historical and architectural merit. Another sore point, none of the churches I ever belonged to made the cut. But that's all water under the bridge, the book inspired me to visit a great many of the 125 houses of worship covered, especially the Catholic ones which I felt the most comfortable walking around and taking a peek. 

Last week I broke open my copy to get some information for a piece I wrote on the possible closing of the painfully beautiful St. Adalbert Church in Pilsen. Flipping through the pages of the thirty four year old book is heartbreaking as a good number of the churches that Kezys photographed and Lane so eloquently wrote about are now gone, some destroyed by fire, but most of them demolished.

Since the book was published, a massive purging of Catholic parishes took place, initiated in the late eighties and realized in 1990 under the episcopate of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin. In one fell swoop, Bernadin closed 28 parishes and several more schools. I don't have evidence to support it but I think it's safe to say the Catholic Church in Chicago lost a good number of members then as many people who had the only church they ever knew taken out from under them, simply gave up on the faith rather than join another parish.

Here is an article from the New York Times written in 1990 that describes the final mass at one of the churches featured in the book, St.Bridget on the south side. That parish was supporting itself just fine thank you very much; it was in the black when the archdiocese in its infinite wisdom deemed it had to close. The church survived big time urban renewal, being smack dab in the path of the planned construction of the Stevenson Expressway, which jogged a little to the north to avoid it, but it could not survive Cardinal Bernadin. The building was demolished in 1992.

Over the years, the number of young men entering seminary has plummeted. The archdiocese now ordains an average of 10 new priests per year, many of them, middle aged men. The average age of a working priest is currently about 60 years old and rising. One report I read predicted that if the current trend continues. by the year 2030. there will be approximately 230 priests serving in the Archdiocese of Chicago. When you consider there are now 351 parishes in the archdiocese, something has to give. That something it appears will be many more church closings, making the 1990 purge look like a tea party.

Then there was the seven times seven times seven hundred pound gorilla in the room, the priest sex abuse scandal. It's impossible to quantify the damage the combination of child abuse at the hands of priests and the subsequent cover-up by bishops has caused the Church. Beyond the obvious damage to the lives of the children involved, the collateral damage to the Church includes the understandable lack of trust of church authority that has developed among the faithful. More serious is the damage to the vocation of the priesthood. What once was considered a profession that garnered the utmost respect, since the sex scandal, priests are often treated with scorn and derision. Tens of thousands of hard working, dedicated, good priests and bishops have had to pay the price for a handful of sick individuals, the criminal negligence of some of the higher ups, and the general public's eagerness to lump them all together. I wouldn't be surprised if because of the tragedy, the projected numbers of the ratio of priests to churches in Chicago fourteen years from now, will prove to have been optimistic. 

There is another issue in the Church that hasn't been covered much in the wake of all the really terrible stuff, but is lying just below the surface, ready to rear its ugly head at any moment. Many people don't realize it but the Catholic Church does not speak with one voice, but is as divided along ideological lines as much as the society in which we live. One would find it difficult to find common ground between the left and right extremes in the Church, other than both calling themselves Catholic. That's not to say you won't find Catholics with nuanced beliefs that don't fit neatly into an easily defined ideological camp; in fact more than likely they constitute the overwhelming majority of Catholics in this country. If so they are truly the silent majority, it's the extremes on both sides who seem to be getting all the attention, (sound familiar?), and I don't think it's at all out of the question that there will at some point in the near future be a movement to split the Catholic Church along ideological lines.

Given all that, I'm afraid the recent announcement of the plans to close one of the most beautiful and important churches in the city of Chicago is only the tip of the iceberg for the bad times that lie ahead for the Roman Catholic Church, in the United States anyway.

With the very existence of the Church at stake, it may seem trivial to fret about church closings in a city with an over-abundance of Catholic churches. But if you believe that, you just don't get it. Chicago is still in many ways nothing more than a large collection of provincial villages. Folks may know their own neighborhood-village like the back of their hand, but drop them in another part of town and you may as well have dropped them off in Timbuktu.

They say that all politics is local. The same is true for religion but with much narrower constraints. We like to think Catholicism (as the word implies) is a universal religion. The reality is that for many Catholics, faith begins and ends at the front door of their parish church. As I pointed out in my last post, many native Chicagoans identify themselves more with the parish they grew up in than the neighborhood. Lifelong bonds are formed there. Church buildings were built with the blood, sweat, and tears of folks for whom many of the current parishioners can trace their own roots. Likewise, rivalries sometimes friendly, sometimes not, exist among neighboring parishes. Having an administrator come from out of town (like Cardinal Bernadin or the current archbishop, Blaise Cupich), and tell parishioners to give up their own church and go worship at a neighboring parish is somewhat akin to the commissioner of the NFL coming to Chicago and telling fans of the Bears to give up their team and root for the Green Bay Packers.

Obviously, this strong connection to one parish at the exclusion of all others is not how it is intended to be. Much as I hate to admit it, there is a very compelling argument for church consolidation in Chicago. A good example is a non-Catholic church found in the Lane/Kezys book. It was the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany on the near west side. This Richardsonian-Romanesque building was one of the loveliest churches in Chicago, with a small but devoted congregation, whose former pastor is the wife of a friend of mine. Sadly, through death and attrition, the dwindling congregation could no longer afford to pay their pastor and decided to go it alone without any clergy. Eventually with less than ten parishioners showing up on any given Sunday, the Church of the Epiphany closed its doors in 2011.

Sad and touching as the story of the tenacity of that congregation is. I strongly believe that a church community needs to be connected to the life of the greater community. That's a little hard with a congregation numbering in the double digits, let alone single digits. I can't count the number of sermons and homilies I've heard over the years that centered on the need to extend one's faith beyond the front door of the church. As they often do, those sermons fell upon many deaf ears. 

If there is a silver lining to all this, perhaps the inevitable shakeup that is coming to Chicago and other archdioceses across the country, will serve as an awakening and a renewal for the lives and faith of many Catholics. Closing parishes will be a bitter pill to swallow, especially if the guys with the fancy robes and the big pointy hats approach the sensitive issue of the displacement of parishes without compassion, as if it were merely a business decision regarding the bottom line. If they expect to have any flock left, Catholic bishops will have to do some compromising themselves. Perhaps they could start by addressing the shortage of priests by challenging the centuries old practice of forbidding married men from entering the priesthood, an issue I still have a few reservations about, but what the heck. They might even take the radical step of ordaining women, something I cannot for the life of me see any good reason not to do. These steps certainly will not solve the problem of the shortage of priests by themselves, they might even drive some ultra-conservative Catholics away, but I think they would be positive actions in the direction of the revival of the Church, something it desperately needs.

Here I'll take the lazy man's way out and give the last word to Martin E. Marty from an article for Boston College Magazine, lamenting the passing of the urban Catholic Church. Dr. Marty who says it so much better than I possibly could, concludes his piece with the following:
Whoever cares about the Church and the city, the soul and the spirit, has to hope that within the changes Catholicism in America has undergone there can be resurrection. We will not again see "the Church confident," or "the Church triumphant," but we can hope to see the Church well-poised to help gather people of God on their pilgrimage to the eternal city, inspiring them to help build a more humane temporal city along the way.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

St. Adalbert

Approaching Pilsen, and the church of  St. Adalbert from the north.
Outside of the Loop, Chicago's skyline is punctuated by towers that represent the prevailing forces that drove the city during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, namely industry and the Church. You see it all over town but it is most apparent when you are on the expressway or the elevated tracks on the near south side where old residential neighborhoods stand cheek by jowl with the industries and railroads who once employed their residents.

The churches that anchored those communities are numerous, sometimes you see two or three of them within the space of a block or two. These buildings represent different denominations to an extent, but the vast majority of them are Roman Catholic. There are so many Catholic churches in Chicago because despite sharing a faith and a liturgical language (at least until fifty years ago), every Catholic ethnic group who came to this city felt compelled to build churches of their own.

It's well known that in Chicago, long time residents, even non-Catholics, are more likely to identify themselves with the local Catholic parish, rather than the neighborhood in which they grew up. One of those neighborhoods is Pilsen on the city's lower west side, which currently boasts six Roman Catholic parishes. As the community wears it's heart on its sleeve, it doesn't take much of an urban archaeologist to read Pilsen like a book. The sunken yards of sturdy working class homes date those buildings to the time in the 19th century before the streets and sidewalks were raised several feet above grade level. The simplified baroque ornamentation of those homes, the Czech names spelled out on the entablatures of commercial buildings, even the very name of the community (the Anglo/Germanic spelling of a city in western Bohemia best known for its delicious beer), are a testament to the ethnic group who once called the neighborhood home. The bodegas, taquerias, and storefronts of 18th Street, and institutions such as the National Museum of Mexican Art and Casa Aztlan. testify to the ethnic group for whom the neighborhood has been closely identified with for at least the past half century. And the trendy coffee shops, bars and art galleries speak of the current state of the community which is once again facing change, a condition not entirely welcomed by the folks who have been around for a while.

Through all the changes, since 1874, the parish dedicated to Adalbert of Prague, Bishop and Martyr, has stood at 17th Street and Paulina, in the heart of Pilsen. St. Adalbert was instrumental in evangelizing the Bohemains, Poles and Hungarians in the 10th century, and is venerated by all three groups. Despite that, the church of St. Adalbert was founded as a Polish parish, it is in fact recognized as the mother church of all Polish parishes on the south and west sides of the city. In true Chicago fashion, Bohemians in Pilsen, built a church of their own, St. Vitus, a block away.

The current St. Adalbert church building was consecrated in 1914. It's architect was Henry Schlacks, the pre-eminent architect of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Schlacks was a master of the contemporary interpretation of historical styles. As such he is responsible for several of the most beautiful Catholic churches in the city, including the High Gothic St. Ita, the Renaissance Revival St. Ignatius, and a 20th century version of a Roman Basilica, St. Mary of the Lake, all on the far north side. The south and west sides were even more blessed with Schlacks churches, unfortunately many of them have closed their doors and have either succumbed to, or await the wrecker's ball.

I've written extensively about two of them. St. Boniface Church on the near west side was Schlacks's most intimate church, a lovely building in the Romanesque style which at this writing continues to stand despite its increasing decrepitude, still proudly framing the northern boundary of Eckhart Park. An adaptive reuse plan that was in the works unfortunately fell through and the future of the de-consecrated church building is very much in doubt.

The church of St. John of God at one time sat on perhaps the most prominent site of any church in the city, just past the northern boundary of Sherman Park. Its twin towers, much like those of St. Adalbert's once defined the still gorgeous park and the neighborhood it served. Sadly that church was demolished in 2012, leaving a gaping hole and a sad reminder of what once was.

Scaffolding today hides the magnificent twin towers of St. Adalbert,
making them even more prominent features of the Pilsen skyline.
There was more promise with St. Clara, later St. Galatius, and finally known as The Shrine of Christ the King in Woodlawn. An Italian Renaissance inspired church that endured many indignities over the years, the building survived intact until suffering the cruelest fate of all, a fire that started during its latest restoration last October. That fire all but destroyed the church. Its ultimate fate is still to be determined but despite a congregation who is strongly in favor if saving the burned out building, there is a chance the structure may be too far gone and will need to come down.

Arguably, Schlacks's two finest works are on the lower west side, only about a mile from one another. Visible for miles are the twin spires of St. Paul Church in West Pilsen. Schlacks's St. Paul is Gothic to the core but with a twist; the church is built entirely of brick. It was lovingly constructed by German craftsmen who belonged to the parish in the 1890s and to this day you will find no finer brick work in the city. Modeled after the cathedral of the French commune of Quimper, the spires of St. Paul, the church's most distinctive feature, give the building its imposing silhouette, dominating the two story homes of the surrounding neighborhood. Of all the churches in Chicago, St. Paul comes the closest to resembling a Medieval European cathedral.

St. Adalbert's inspiration is much older. Schlacks modeled his great Polish cathedral in Pilsen after one of the four papal churches of Rome, St. Paul Outside the Walls. That fourth century church, (with subsequent alterations), was built above the site, so it's said, of the final resting place of the apostle whose name it bears. St. Adalbert, like its Roman counterpart, is based upon the plan of the ancient Roman basilica which features a wide nave, flanked by narrow aisles separated by rows of columns. In contrast to the ethereal feeling of a Gothic church where the eye is naturally drawn upward by means of the vaulted ceilings, the flat ceiling of a basilica grounds the visitor whose focus is ever forward, toward the altar. The interior of St. Adalbert rewards that natural inclination by featuring richly carved marble and exquisite stained glass work at the front of the church, including a dome executed by the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany.That dome sits above the altar covered by an elaborate marble baldachino (the canopy above the altar), supported by ten spiral columns. The stained glass windows along the sides of the building were executed by F.X.Zeitler of Munich, who supplied the windows to a great many Chicago churches. The interior also features magnificent frescoes that frame the sanctuary, and an enormous Kimball pipe organ.

As glorious as the interior is, it is the imposing facade and towers of St. Adalbert that makes the church such an important landmark in the community. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune quoted a lifelong parishioner of St. Adalbert as saying: "When you get off the 'L' and stop and see the towers, you know you are home." That article unfortunately was written to spell out the Archdiocese of Chicago's plan to close St. Adalbert. As you can see in the photographs, the two towers of the church are covered in scaffolding which was constructed over one year ago as a precaution against bricks coming loose and crashing to the ground. As you can imagine, St. Adalbert like any old building, is vulnerable to time, gravity, the elements, and above all, differed maintenance. Repairs to the facade of the towers which have suffered significant damage due to erosion, are estimated to cost three million dollars. When that assessment was made, parishioners hung huge banners from the scaffolding urging passersby to "save the towers", and launched an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign to raise the repair funds. This past Saturday, Valentines Day, the Archdiocese announced its plans to close St. Adalbert and reorganize the remaining five Catholic parishes in Pilsen, including St. Paul which is to remain open, at least for now. In addition to the cost of the necessary repairs, the ever dwindling number of priests available to serve shrinking congregations were sited as the primary reasons for the planned closure.

Depressing as that sounds, it gets worse. Speculation is running rampant that in the next decade, up to 100 currently active churches in the Chicago Archdiocese will close, and their congregations, at least the members who choose to stay aboard the sinking ship, will be absorbed into neighboring parishes. According to the Archdiocese of Chicago web site, there are currently 351 parishes in the archdiocese, so doing the math, nearly 30 percent of its parishes would close. The archdiocese while not denying there will be draconian cuts in the future, claims the number of 100 hundred churches closing is high.

"When you get off the 'L' stop and see the towers, you know you are home." 
This is the view of St. Adalberts as  described in that comment.
I've gone on record in this space expressing both sorrow, and understanding of the need to close some churches. Much as we'd like to think that money should have little or no influence in the lives of the faithful, it takes money, lots of it, to keep a church building going. Even in the case of a benefactor or congregation successfully raising the money to keep an old church running, a compelling argument could be made for putting that money to better use by spending it on ministering to people and feeding the poor rather than throwing good money after bad on old, crumbling buildings. If consolidation of parishes and/or new buildings could be more efficient than decrepit churches filled to a fraction of their capacity the argument goes, it would certainly be prudent to close the old, mostly empty buildings and move their remaining worshipers someplace else.

Of course a church is more than just a building. As we've seen, church buildings anchor and define neighborhoods, both visually and historically. Some of the  most important moments in the lives of a community take place inside its church. Families welcome new members there, and say their last goodbyes to loved ones as well. Countless people go there to seek peace, guidance, solace, shelter, or simple companionship. Church buildings are often used as community centers where neighbors can vent their grievances about injustices taking place within their neighborhood. Most churches run food pantries and clothing drives to feed and clothe the poor. Many people send their children to schools run by the churches. Even people outside the faith have a special relationship (not always a happy one) with the neighborhood church, simply by living within the sound of its bells. Above all, a church is a community tied together by a bond forged by belief, and ideally, love, compassion and forgiveness. Consequently the church building is the spiritual home of the community.

As a community of believers who places a great deal of importance in signs and symbols, Catholics of all people should never take the closing and demolition of a church lightly, least of all its leaders. The symbolism of the closing of a church is so serious, Catholics hold a de-consecration rite, performed inside the church about to close. However, that rite does not erase history nor the memories of the people who once called it home. Nor does the rite take away the very real impact a church building has upon the community in which it inhabits.

St. Adalbert reflected in the window of a home across the street.

There's a different story behind every church closing. St. Boniface closed because it was located in a largely Catholic neighborhood that was still over-saturated with Catholic churches. There were viable options presented for adaptive reuse of the building, but all fell through. St. John of God closed because it was located in a poor, mostly non-Catholic neighborhood. Another church I wrote about, St. James in the Bronzeville neighborhood, closed because the 150 year old building was deemed structurally unsound and its parishioners decided (though not unanimously), they would best be served by a new and smaller building. In each case, well-intentioned preservationists threw up their hands and said this should never happen and what a shame it was to lose these magnificent buildings. Unfortunately they presented no viable solutions to keep those churches going.

A sign urging the community to contribute to the restoration of the towers of St. Adalbert.
So far the effort has failed.
In St. Adalbert's case, a combination of all of the above issues apply. Lots of churches built by different ethnic groups who have since moved on make it difficult for any one church in a neighborhood to attract enough parishioners. That wasn't so much of a problem in Pilsen for a long time as its predominantly Mexican-Catholic population virtually assured a steady stream of bodies in the pews for Sunday and weekday mass. Slowly but surely the tide turned as the neighborhood began to change. People still came to mass at the Pilsen churches, but more and more of them lived in other neighborhoods meaning they were there on Sundays, but didn't contribute much to day to day life of the church. Then came the three million dollar repair bill and the inability of the congregation to come up with the money.

Despite the issues with the towers, the rest of the building reportedly is in good shape bringing into question the decision by the Archdiocese to close the church.
Three million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a parish to come up with on its own. Since individual parishes are responsible for paying their own way when it comes to building maintenance, we can expect to see many more problems like this in the near future. From what I know, the issues facing the structure of St. Adalbert are mostly superficial; yes the bricks of the facade of the towers are in jeopardy of falling off, but the towers themselves are structurally sound. As far as I can tell, there are no other major issues with the rest of the building which recently underwent restoration. In other words,with the scaffolding in place, there seems to be no reason to suspect there is an urgent need to shut the building down due to safety concerns, as was the case with St. James. That brings us to another thorny issue that has been brought up. Could it be that the church now sits upon valuable land that developers are itchy to get their hands on?

Drawn by cheap rents and property, for decades artists and "urban pioneers" have moved down to Pilsen, That bohemian atmosphere, (in the other sense of that word), has turned Pilsen into an attractive neighborhood for many young professionals. Only fifteen minutes away from the Loop on the "L", Pilsen could not be more convenient for the crowd who works in Chicago's financial district and the burgeoning West Loop. Sitting two miles below Chicago's literal and psychological north/south barrier Madison Street, means that the price of land is still relatively cheap. It's a good time to buy in Pilsen and some have speculated that at least part of the incentive to close St Adalbert over the other Pilsen churches is that by virtue of its proximity to the "L" and 18th Street, the commercial heart of the neighborhood, the land the church sits upon would command a large return.

Could it be all about the money? Well of course it is. The question we have to ask is this, is it moral and ethical to treat church property just like any other property?

I have to say that church leaders, just like others responsible for the well being of any institution large or small, have to concern themselves at least at some point with the bottom line. Simply put, financial issues will not go away by willing them to do so. The Catholic Church, just like any other institution needs a steady stream of income in order to survive. The question is, if the Archdiocese does close St. Adalbert and sell off its property, would it not be foolish and irresponsible of them not to seek the greatest return possible?

Could it be that the sacrifice of St. Adalbert would ultimately benefit the Catholic community of Pilsen as a whole? I would like to think that is exactly the mindset of Archbishop Cupich and his auxiliary bishops, and have no reason to believe it is not.

Having said that, I believe there are more compelling reasons to keep St.Adalbert open and functioning as a Catholic parish than there are to close it and sell the property. First and foremost, there is the tremendous history of the parish and the connection it has to the community. The south side Polish community began right at the doors of St. Adalbert and as the founding church of that community, all of south side Polonia owes it a debt of recognition and gratitude, whether they know it or not.

The same goes for the Mexican community who have made the church theirs for the past fifty years. Of all the annual events that take place in the church, perhaps the most significant one takes place on Good Friday, where St. Adalbert has traditionally served as the culmination point of the annual Passion Play or Via Crusis that winds through the streets of Pilsen. Born out of the poverty, drug abuse and violence that have plagued Pilsen for so many years, the play which reenacts the final hours of the earthly life of Jesus, consciously draws a parallel between that story and the ongoing story of the suffering of the community which exists to this day, despite the changing population. Traditionally following the Via Crusis, the archbishop of Chicago shows up at St. Adalbert. to lead the faithful in prayer. This should be so as St. Adalbert is the largest and most important church in the neighborhood.

Beyond its historical significance. St. Adalbert's physical presence in the neighborhood cannot be overlooked. It is a landmark of Pilsen much the same way the Water Tower is to North Michigan Avenue and the Marshall Field clocks are to State Street. You could not draw an illustration of Pilsen without including an image the towers of St. Adalbert. Just as the parishioner told the Tribune, whenever he sees those towers, he knows he's home. Distinctive buildings are what give a neighborhood a sense of place. Take them away and you destroy a piece of the identity of that place.

Finally there is the architecture. Chicago prides itself of its architecture, it uses it as a drawing card to lure tourists, and as a piece of evidence to bolster its claim of being a "world class city", whatever that means. But the truth is we don't take very good care of our buildings and seem to be willing to let them go whenever it's convenient. Granted churches present a whole different set of problems when it comes to preservation, as no governmental body can make laws or contribute any sum of money toward the preservation of a church. That doesn't mean that individuals or groups not affiliated with the government cannot contribute to the cause. Clearly we can't save every church that cannot support itself, but I strongly believe that as a community that values its built environment as we claim to do, we have to come together to save certain buildings, even churches. St. Adalbert is one of the most important works by the most significant architect of ecclesiastical buildings in the  city of Chicago. Everyone who cares about architecture in this town should be aboard the save St. Adalbert bandwagon.

The first thing the preservation community needs to do is make a compelling case to the people in power, that is to say church, community and civic leaders, that in the long run, the benefits to  Pilsen, its Catholic community, and ultimately the city of Chicago, of saving St.Adalbert will in fact be much greater than the costs.

Once that is hopefully accomplished, I believe it's time for preservation groups, the city, and the Catholic Church to work together to save this magnificent building and others, not by marching or wringing hands and saying what a shame, but by coming up with creative solutions to make it possible for the building(s) to be around for future generations to experience and enjoy. Perhaps some of the work needed to be done on the towers could be accomplished by enlisting local youth in an apprenticeship program that would teach them practical and valuable skills in the building trade. Perhaps a better effort could be made to reach out to other parishes in town to help out, especially Polish and Mexican ones, for whom this particular church is so important to their history. Maybe these are dumb ideas that are unworkable, but they're a start.

There is a precedent for this sort of thing. Two churches immediately come to mind that were slated to be closed by the Archdiocese but were saved through the will and hard work of the community. One was Holy Family Church, also on the Lower West Side, which survived the Great Chicago Fire but almost didn't survive the massive wave of church closings of the 1990s. The other is St. Mary of the Angels, the great Polish Cathedral on the north side, instantly recognizable to drivers along the Kennedy Expressway for its massive dome.

Another survivor is Old St. Pats in the West Loop, Chicago's oldest church. While I believe it never was officially slated to close, at its lowest point in the seventies it was down to a mere handful of families. Today with the residential boom of the neighborhood, and with considerable PR effort from the parish and its community, the church is so full at times, they have to turn people away.

In all three cases there is no evidence that other parishes suffered because these three churches were saved. On the contrary, there has been a resurgence of faith in those communities, and the open and I might add, thriving churches are great assets to the neighborhoods they serve. Being historic and architectural landmarks as well as works of art, Chicago itself would be all the poorer without them.

There's no reason to believe the same cannot be true for St. Adalbert.

So what about the argument that money spent on an old building would better be used to help the poor? There is an interesting passage in the Gospels that sheds some light on this question. Jesus and his disciples were visiting a home in Bethany when a woman came up to him and anointed his head with precious oil. His disciples were troubled that Jesus allowed the woman to do this as she could have sold the oil for a great deal of money and given that money to the poor. Jesus told his disciples:
She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. (Mark 14, 6-9)
My point is this, money spent on preserving a magnificent building with an important history is an investment in the future. Once a building like St. Adalbert is gone, it can never be replaced. The building and its parish represent years of tireless work and devotion of people of many different backgrounds who built something beautiful, meaningful and profound. St. Adalbert's is a work of art as well as a sacred space and an important landmark not just for Pilsen, but the entire city.

As symbols are meaningful to the secular world as well as the spiritual one, we have to ask ourselves this question: What will the symbol of a wrecking ball smashing through the beautiful rose window of St. Adalbert's be, the inexorable march of progress, a difficult but necessary sacrifice for the betterment of the community and its people, or simply a misguided act of wanton destruction?

The answer lies somewhere in the future.

Like it of not, we will be judged by our actions by those who follow us. Will we be remembered for taking the time and energy to preserve an important part of our past for future generations, or for destroying it as a matter of convenience?

We should choose carefully and wisely.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


A couple posts ago I wrote about how our political process is being affected by the combination of few credible candidates, a preponderance of citizens receiving the majority of their news through late night comedy shows, and above all, anger. My conclusion was that all of the above have turned Americans into cynics, but this op-ed piece in the Washington Post ups the ante a hundredfold. The author, Dana Milbank interviewed Nazi Holocaust survivors who see frightening similarities between the xenophobic, race bating rhetoric of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and other candidates and the reaction from their supporters, to what they heard and saw in the twenties and thirties in Germany.

Now I'm very leery of comments equating contemporary individuals and issues with fascism and the Nazis, and need to state unequivocally that I as much as I dislike their platforms, I don't believe that Trump, Cruz, or any of the other candidates spewing hate speech, espouse to be junior Hitlers. To the best of my knowledge, none of them have published an equivalent of Mein Kamf or have gone on record, as Hitler did, advocating genocide as a solution to the problems of their nation. I'm not even sure they truly believe some of the words coming out of their mouths, they're simply telling people what they want to hear. And what they want to hear is what scares me.

Phrases like "let's take this country back, carpet bomb the enemy, go after their families, then build a fifty foot wall to keep them out", are music to the ears of many Americans who feel threatened by people coming into this country, (and many who've been here a very long time), who have different values and opinions. Of course this feeling has only been exacerbated by the threat, both real and imagined, of terrorism.

Desperate for votes, these candidates find tailor-made audiences in angry, frustrated, predominantly white, Christian Americans who feel that privilege, power and success in this country are their birthright. That birthright they feel, has been stripped of them in recent years, and it doesn't take much reading between the lines to see the slogan, "let's make this country great again", coming out of the mouth of a Donald Trump, as a call to arms to restore that birthright to its proper place.

Trump supporters find their candidate's willingness, even glee in trampling upon currently accepted standards of decorum and decency, refreshing. When he attacked Mexican immigrants calling them thieves and rapists, much of the country was aghast at his insensitivity, but not Trump supporters. When he made his statement that no Muslim should be granted entrance into the United States, even his staunchest right wing critics flinched at the un-American-ness of that idea. Meanwhile his supporters jumped for joy. And most recently, Trump's on-going feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly has brought to light the many repulsive and degrading comments he has made about women. One would think that insulting half the population of this country would make a dent in his poll numbers, but not so, in fact a recent profile I read of the Trump crowd claimed a typical supporter of the billionaire real estate tycoon turned presidential hopeful, more than likely is a woman. To those supporters, Trump stands out as a beacon of light amidst a sea of that old bugaboo, "political correctness."

Ted Cruz is going after a different angry crowd, specifically evangelical Christians who in addition to the domestic issues that irk Trump supporters, are particularly upset about moral issues like the legalization of abortion and gay marriage. In his speech after winning the Iowa caucuses last week, Cruz pointed out that his campaign was guided by the "Judeo-Christian values that this country was built upon." However he didn't ingratiate himself too much with the Judeo part of that when he blasted Donald Trump recently for his "New York values", what many consider a thinly veiled reference to Jewish values. 

What both campaigns share is their apparent disdain for government and the characterization of their candidates as political outsiders. It would seem that Trump is the bigger outsider of the two as he has never held elected office, but both try to outdo the other in proudly claiming themselves to be the one most unqualified for the job.

In another Dana Milbank piece for the Washington Post this week,  he wrote:
I followed both Cruz and Trump this week at multiple campaign events across New Hampshire. It was, in a sense, a pleasure to see them use their prodigious skills of character assassination against each other. It was demagogue against demagogue (emphasis mine): lie vs. lie. Both men riled their supporters with fantasies and straw men. 
Getting back to the original Milbank piece I sited at the top of this piece, it is the sheer demagoguery of the candidates that sends shivers up the spines of some Holocaust survivors. Here he quotes Irene Weiss, a survivor of Aushwitz:
I am exceptionally concerned about demagogues, they touch me in a place that I remember. I know their influence and, unfortunately, I know how receptive audiences are to demagogues and what it leads to... 
...“It has echoes, and maybe more so to me than to native-born Americans, I’m scared. I don’t like the trend. I don’t like how many people are applauding when they hear these demagogues. It can turn.
To my ears it's not the demagogues per se that Irene Weiss fears, it is the applause of the audience. I couldn't agree more. This current election season has brought out a tremendous ugliness that once resided just below the surface in our country. The current front running Republican presidential candidates don't scare me very much as their popularity is limited. After all, demographics show again and again that white people will not be in the majority in this nation for very long, and there will always be a lot of white people, myself included, who wouldn't vote for a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz if their life depended on it. Consequently, appealing ONLY to right wing whites is not a recipe for success in winning an American presidential election anymore. Along those lines, here's a critique from the right of the current Republican  front runners in this article in The New Republic.

What truly scares me is that this country is only one or two terrorist attacks and another financial crisis away from being pushed over the edge. If that happens, it wouldn't take much for a group with truly nefarious intentions to forge a much broader coalition of angry people, focusing upon one or two groups of minorities as scapegoats for all the problems of the country. That minority could be Muslims, it could be black people, or it could be that age-old scapegoat, the Jews. Yes, it could even be white Christians who will soon find themselves in the minority of this country.

We may like to think that could never happen here, as a nation we're better than that. But these last few months unfortunately have proven otherwise.