Monday, November 30, 2020

Something Discovered While Looking Up Something Else

Once upon a time there was a fixture in U.S. downtowns usually found near theaters and other high traffic pedestrian areas. They were folks, most always men, who snapped photographs of passersby, then handed them an envelope with a number that corresponded to the negative that was just shot. That was normally the extent of the contact between the photographers and their subjects, in my experience anyway, few if any words were ever exchanged. The hope was that a certain number of subjects would stick money into the envelope, throw it in the mail, then a few weeks later receive a print of the photograph that was taken.

As a child I was the subject of dozens of these photographs made both in Chicago and Milwaukee, but my parents, grandparents, or whichever adult I was with at the time, never took the time to send back the envelope.

It was understandable at the time because many people feel uncomfortable about photographs of themselves, especially caught unawares as most of these subjects were. But it was a shame as well because years after they are made, these photographs, many of which are discovered after spending decades inside a shoebox, become precious artifacts, historic records of people and places often long gone.

I know this to be a fact because at the wake of a dear friend's beloved aunt, one of the photographs displayed was of the two of them walking together hand-in-hand on Chicago's Randolph Street, made perhaps forty years earlier when my friend was about five years old. The woman obviously loved her nephew so much that she not only took the time to send in the money for the keepsake, but also managed to preserve it for the rest of her life.  

The other day as I was searching the web collecting tidbits for my previous post, I came across this post which features photographs taken along Wisconsin Avenue in Downtown Milwaukee, some of them made by these "street photographers" such as this one: 

On its own it's a compelling image of a young couple out on the town. From their attire and hairstyles, one can date the photograph fairly accurately. Someone familiar with the city in that particular time could pinpoint the exact location where it was made.

The young man has a determined look on his face, to me his body language suggests he's in a hurry, maybe they were late for a show. The woman on the other hand looks like she hasn't a care in the world, taking in the sights of what must have been a lovely evening. Or maybe not, not knowing these people we can ascribe all sorts of meaning to this photograph which is one of the joys (and dangers) of the medium of photography. 

But in this case we do have a story. From the blog post, here's Shirley Ann Huberty's account of the photograph of her parents: 
My mom and dad in 1946 taken in Downtown Milwaukee on Wisconsin Ave. In those years they had street photographers that would snap pictures of people walking. After taking the picture they would hand you a piece of paper where you could order the picture. I love this picture of them! My mom was 21 years old here!
Shirley's sister Bonnie adds this:
The picture is of our parents Robert L. Watson and Jeanne S. Stephan. They married in September 1947 and went on to have three daughters, ... five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Mom passed away just before Christmas at 95 years. She lived alone in their home after my dad passed in 2008.

In a typical studio photographic portrait, subjects and photographers usually do their utmost to create a flattering "respectable" image, one in which the subject feels best represents him or herself, one in which they'd like to be thought of or remembered. These are the images usually chosen to represent people in yearbooks, annual reports, and in many other sorts of publications, yes including obituaries. In that sense they are not unlike the death masks that used to be made of prominent people.

By contrast, these random street portraits capture the subjects living their lives. They may not always be flattering like this one is, but there is never the artifice of a posed portrait, they are always real, at least real insofar as depicting a split second of a person's life.  

In this photograph lovingly preserved by their family, Robert and Jeanne are alive, forever in their twenties, a young couple in love with most of their lives still in front of them. 

Which only confirms something I've realized for a good long time, photography is truly magic.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Grand Avenue

The title of this post makes me think back to the smile I used to get upon hearing a particular recorded announcement on the Red Line Subway in Chicago. When the train approached the Grand Avenue station, the canned voice of the CTA would call out the stop with a hearty: 


Unfortunately about ten years ago, someone saw fit to change the announcement to a more subdued: "this is Grand and State", the official name of the station. 

I always wondered how Grand Avenue in Chicago got its name. Granted, it is a major street, an east/west thoroughfare that extends the entire width of the city and well beyond into the suburbs. The fact that it doesn't run perfectly due east and west for its entirety is a sure sign that the street is older than Chicago itself and its rigid street grid system. As is the case with about a dozen major streets in this city, Grand Avenue follows what was once a Native American trail. 

Grand is an interesting street, especially for a lover of all things urban like me. It's neither pretty nor glamorous.  In its course it runs through a wide variety of neighborhoods from the trendy River North section of town, to the more rough-and-tumble sections of the West Side which themselves are going through transformations as city neighborhoods are wont to do. If you were to travel the entire length of Grand Avenue east to west from Navy Pier to where it exits the city proper at Harlem Avenue, your general impression is that the street is, and especially was, predominantly industrial.

Interesting as such, but what exactly is grand about it?

How DID it get its name?

Through many hours of tireless research, (wink wink), I learned that in the year Chicago was incorporated, 1833, its first chief executive Thomas Jefferson Vance Owen declared his toddling town to be "a grand place to live." One of the main streets at the time in the town of Chicago was you guessed it, and the name has stuck to this day. 

Granted, not a terrific story but it's the best I could come up with.

Grand isn't the only street in Chicago history to boast that lofty title. If you travel down Martin Luther King Drive on the city's south side roughly between 35th and 63rd Streets, it's not too difficult to understand why that stretch of road was once named Grand Boulevard. In stark contrast to its north side namesake, the former Grand Boulevard, part of this city's magnificent Park and Boulevard System,  is still one of Chicago's most beautiful, historic and significant streets. Decades of hard times and neglect due to segregation caused by systematic racism hasn't changed any of that. 

For reasons unknown to me, perhaps just to avoid confusion with the north side street, Grand Boulevard was re-named South Park Avenue in 1923, then South Parkway in 1940. In July of 1968, it was re-named to honor the memory of the recently assassinated civil rights leader.  

Much like Chicago's Grand Boulevard, ninety miles to the north, Milwaukee's Grand Avenue was once lined by the mansions of the wealthy, but even more so. In fact, many of the most prominent Milwaukeeans of the 19th Century, the folks whose names you still see all over town by the things named after them, had Grand Avenue addresses.  

Originally named Spring Street, the east/west thoroughfare was so opulent that perhaps as a marketing gimmick by local burghers to lure tourists (which succeeded), the street was re-christened Grand Avenue in 1876. According to this article in the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, some Milwaukeeans at the time rolled their eyes and scoffed at the notion, saying a more appropriate name might have been "Snobby Avenue." 

Milwaukee's Grand Avenue ran from what was then the western border of the city, east to the Milwaukee River. Wisconsin Avenue, the street which continued east of the river to the lake, was the heart of Downtown. As Downtown Milwaukee expanded west of the river, a new streetcar line was built making The Avenue (as it is still affectionately referred to) a commercial thoroughfare. This encouraged the construction of apartment buildings and commercial enterprises increasing population density. As Grand Avenue became a trifle less grand (in other words, exclusive), and the original Cream City movers and shakers began to die off, their offspring pulled up stakes and moved to the tony suburbs, still exclusive to this day. 

In 1926, Grand Avenue ceased to be (in name only) as the city merged the east and west portions of the street into one Wisconsin Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare, Milwaukee's equivalent of Chicago's State Street. Today there is barely a trace of the opulence of Grand Avenue of old as virtually all of the mansions that lined the street are long gone. One exception is the Wisconsin Club, housed in the former mansion of railroad magnate Alexander Mitchell (whose grandson General Billy Mitchell was influential in the development of US military aviation during WWI, AND for whom Milwaukee's airport is named). The other is a museum in the former mansion of Frederick Pabst, a name that is perhaps familiar to you if you know anything about beer.  

If you know your Chicago history, the fate of Milwaukee's Grand Avenue might sound familiar as the stretch of Michigan Avenue originally known as Pine Street north of the Chicago River, concurrently underwent a similar transformation. Another example of typical early 20th Century American urban transformation albeit fictitious, is portrayed in Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. 

As I've mentioned time and again in this space, I have a particular love of Milwaukee as it's a city that I've been visiting all my life. My grandparents, (well my grandmother and surrogate grandfather) used to take me there every summer, starting when I was about four years old. Why Milwaukee I'm not certain, we had no family there. My guess is that my Hannover born surrogate grandfather, Mr Willie as we all called him, must have felt at home with the German culture of the town. We'd always stay at the Schroeder, (today Hotel Milawukee City Center), a massive 1920's hotel located on Wisconsin Avenue and 5th Street, five blocks west of the river, and make a pilgrimage to at least one of the classic German restaurants, Maders or the late, great Karl Ratszch's. And certainly no visit to Brewtown was ever complete without a brewery tour. 

Visiting a place periodically as we did, makes one particularly aware of change. Over the span of the years of our visits, roughly 1962 through 1974, I personally witnessed dramatic changes to the neighborhood immediately surrounding our hotel.

One of my earliest memories of Milwaukee was the frenetic energy of Wisconsin Avenue which by the time I first came on the scene in the early sixties, was probably already on the decline. Wisconsin Avenue really did mirror State Street in Chicago's Loop in many ways; one was that the further you moved up the street, in the case of Wisconsin Ave., the closer you got to the lake to the east, the more upscale things got. East of the Schroeder was the major retail section of the city with the big department stores such as Gimbel's and the Boston Store. The really refined shopping, I suppose Milwaukee's version of The Magnificent Mile in Chicago, was between the river and the lake. The Avenue west of the Schroeder had a slightly more working class feel. From the get go, my grandparents and I explored the Avenue both east and west of the hotel.

Something that really caught my attention as a four year old and have never forgotten, was an enormous illuminated billboard attached to the side of a tall building which I believe was the 1930 Art Deco Wisconsin Tower (originally the Mariner Tower), just west of the hotel. Here is a photo pulled off the Web, made around 1935 which shows in the background, the tower on the left with an early iteration of its billboard, and the Schroeder Hotel in the center. 

An interesting testament to the dual nature of the Avenue east and west of the hotel is that viewed from the posh east, the sign-less silhouette of Mariner Tower, made for an elegant contribution to the skyline whereas from the day to day west, the enormous billboard gave off an entirely different vibe, especially at night when it evoked the feeling of film noir or a hard boiled detective novel.

Incidentally, advertised on that sign c.1963 was Canfields 50/50 Soda which is still produced. To this day every time I pass a six-pack of 50/50 at the store I'm immediately transported back to that time and place.

Another indelible memory of the Avenue west of the Schroeder is that of the Holloway House Cafeteria, which we frequented every visit until its closing. Back in those days, before restaurant cream came in packages hermetically sealed at the factory, it was served in little glass containers made to contain exactly one serving of cream for a cup of coffee. At that particular establishment, those little shot glasses had the image of Elsie the Cow, the symbol of the Borden Milk Company imprinted upon them. I'm not sure how one came into my possession, either we asked for it or my grandmother just slipped it into her purse, something she wasn't beyond doing, but that little cream container became one of my most cherished possessions as a small child. Call it my Rosebud moment, it disappeared long ago, but the memory remains. If my last word on this earth happens to be "Elsie", you'll know what I'm referring to.

At the same time, I remember the construction of a twenty story office tower just west of our hotel. The construction took place over several visits and I remember being fascinated by the progress of the tower from visit to visit. Unfortunately the completed building, once known as the Clark Building, now referred to simply by its address, 633 Wisconsin, has to be one of the ugliest buildings in the city, if not the nation. Built in a truly uninspired Modernist style, soul-less buildings such as this one I believe, contributed to the general public's repulsion for contemporary architecture. Making matters worse, the building housed the city's Greyhound Bus terminal which I have no doubt contributed to the steady decline of the neighborhood west of the hotel. By the time of our last visit, that part of the Avenue, what remained of it that is, became seedy and run down. 

By our last visit, (Mr. Willie died in 1976),  the shopping avenue east of the hotel remained intact albeit in somewhat faded glory. Again it's a story repeated time and again in major urban areas all across the country as downtown shopping districts began their slow and steady decline after WWII when the middle class began to follow the well-to-do into the suburbs. The advent of the suburban "shopping center" attracted customers by their readily available parking and the one quality that reigned supreme in those days, they were new. Nonetheless, in the sixties and into the early seventies when I was still a child, going downtown with the theaters, the big stores and their fancy restaurants, was still special. 

Unfortunately not special enough to make it feasible to keep those establishments afloat. In Downtown Milwaukee as in virtually every other big city downtown in the United States, one by one, stores, restaurants and theaters that had been fixtures for decades began to shut down.       

Clearly thought the urban planners, something was drastically wrong with the design and even the concept of Downtown as we knew it. The idea was that the heavy street traffic on major shopping avenues was not conducive to a pleasant shopping experience. One of the earliest and most successful attempts to transform an American central business district was Niccolet Mall in Minneapolis. There, eight blocks of the main thoroughfare, Niccolet Avenue, were shut off from vehicular traffic, except for public transportation. Trees were planted making for a park-like atmosphere. In addition, indoor arcades were constructed to connect adjacent shops, and skyways were built to traverse streets, enabling visitors to roam from shop to shop in virtually all of Downtown Minneapolis without having to go outside, something very welcome especially during the brutal Minnesota winters. 

Eventually cities all over the country emulated Niccolet Mall in one or more of its features. In Chicago, the commercial section of State Street like Niccolet Avenue, was closed to vehicular traffic except for busses. The sidewalks were widened somewhat, public sculptures were installed, and trees were planted in the median. One problem was that so many busses still ran up and down State Street, that the steady stream of them in addition to the reduced width of the roadway, created a constant traffic jam and pollution, even worse than before, completely defeating the purpose of a supposedly user-friendly pedestrian mall. Another problem was that the mall was created during the period that was probably the nadir of design in the United States, when architects had little or no interest in creating work that had any respect for what existed before. Consequently the thing looked awful, even when it was new. Thus the State Street Mall was doomed from the outset and removed in 1996.

Milwaukee took the opposite approach. Like State Street, Wisconsin Avenue was the major artery for bus traffic, which is the only form of public transportation in that city. So they turned inward and created and indoor mall which connected all the shops on the south side of the Avenue with bridges and skyways. They already had a head start as the lovely Plankington Building, named after another former resident of Grand Avenue, banker an industrialist John Plankington, was designed in 1916 with an indoor atrium that (nearly but not quite) rivals the Cleveland Arcade in its beauty as an interior space.   

Plankington Building
as part of the Grand Avenue Mall, c. 1983

The indoor mall which extended from the Boston Store all the way east to the old Gimbel's which was by then re-branded as Marshall Fields, was given a very appropriate historical name, The Grand Avenue.

Unlike the State Street Mall, which was not only hideous but barely transformed its surroundings, The Grand Avenue, indeed something completely different, was a rousing success from the outset, drawing people back downtown, not just from the Milwaukee area, but from all over the state, as my wife can testify. 

Not surprisingly, much of its appeal, something Chicago never addressed, was the ample parking created to accommodate the new mall. A massive parking lot with an indoor connection to the facility was built, and an entire square block at Wisconsin and 5th, across the street from the Schroeder was levelled to provide even more parking. 

One unfortunate result of the mall is that it sapped all the life out of Wisconsin Avenue. Consequently the businesses that existed on the north side of Wisconsin, across the street from the Grand Avenue, were left to wither and die, which they eventually did. 

Within about a decade, the novelty of the Grand Avenue wore off, and it too began to fade. Unlike the State Street Mall which could be simply swept away returning the street to some semblance of its past, the damage wrought upon Wisconsin Avenue between the river and 5th Street thanks to the Grand Avenue Mall was much more profound. 

Here is a link to a thoroughly depressing 2017 YouTube video made by a guy who created a series of videos of dying shopping malls. 

Despite my family's continued visits to Milwaukee through the years, the Grand Avenue Mall fell off my radar about thirty years ago. After all was said and done, it was just another mall; we have lots of them here in Chicago just like it, so there was absolutely no reason to visit it because as I've pointed out time and again, there's plenty to see and do in Milwaukee. But in our most recent visit last week, my sports fan son wanted to see Fiserv Forum the new Milwaukee Buck's stadium downtown. After that we decided to take a drive west on Wisconsin Avenue before heading home. 

Sure enough much to our mild dismay, the Grand Avenue is no more. Turns out, one year after the dying mall video was made, the doors were finally closed and currently the space is being redeveloped as a mixed use business-residential-retail center. That means the grand old Wisconsin Avenue I knew as a child, save for the Schroeder Hotel, is gone for good. 

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Cities need to re-invent themselves from time to time in order to survive. In addition to being a hub for business and government, Downtown Milwaukee is still thriving as a sports, entertainment and convention center and as such, an economic engine for the rest of the city. Needless to say it took a hit during the pandemic. Hardest of all I'm sure was the cancellation of the Democratic National Convention which was scheduled for this past summer. 

But if by chance it doesn't bounce back from that hit, Milwaukee I'm sure will re-invent itself yet again, it just does that. 

Milwaukee, more than any city I know, seems to live its life inspired by these words of the character Eugene Morgan from The Manificent Amersons:
There aren't any old times. When times are gone, they're not old, they're dead. There aren't any times but new times.
For those of us who are not pleased with that, well we always have our memories to comfort us. 

Speaking of which, Elsie, where are you?