Monday, May 1, 2017

Springtime in Chicago


Tony and I had a good reason to meet in Chicago last week. This is his home town and he offered to give me the "deindustrialization tour" of the Second City. So on a splendid spring day he drove me around while I observed. Not surprisingly, some parts of Chicago have absorbed the economic shock of globalism / neoliberalism far better than others.

Some observations:
  • The number of places to buy or eat good food seems limitless. The large ethnic populations like the Poles or Italians have their own supermarkets with an astonishing variety of offerings. While all this abundance of good eating appears to herald prosperity, the fact was that none of these establishments had many customers. The restaurant / supermarket business seems hopelessly overbuilt.
  • Even the high end retailers along the Miracle Mile seemed to lack sufficient customers.
  • Chicago built some pretty amazing public venues in recent years. One spanking new convention center looked to cover at least 5 city blocks. My guess is that the supply of convention space wildly exceeds the need world wide.
  • Considering all the talk of corruption in the Chicago construction business, some magnificent building has been done (see below). This pretty much validates Veblen theories in his Instinct of Workmanship.
  • The detritus of the South Side steel industry is gone. In its place are large empty fields covered in a lumpy soil that because it is spring, had a pretty good cover of grass. Some of the old industry remains. The Ford Torrence plant was still loading new Lincolns into rail cars. A solitary (but huge) Cargill grain elevator was still operating near the lakeshore—when we drove past it was maybe two miles away separated by a large expanse of grass waving in the wind. If you held your head so you could not see Lake Michigan, it looked astonishingly like North Dakota. One attempt at redevelopment produced a flat and treeless golf course with a overbearing clubhouse built on a hill that was probably the remains of a slag heap.
  • The South Side of Chicago where the housing is, is a scene of near hopeless devastation. Both the housing stock and people appear extensively damaged. The neighborhood businesses are in the beauty salon/tattoo parlor/small markets variety. The auto repair business seems safely in the hands of people advertising that they are Mexicans. Even though it was only 5:30 pm., many of those on the streets looked like they had gotten a head start on being wasted for the evening. Whatever it was, it conveyed an expression of profound aimlessness. What was so distressing was that this urban damage went on for miles.
  • Tony could not resist taking me back to the motel by way of Wrigleyville—the neighborhood surrounding the stadium where the long-hapless Cubs won the World Series of Baseball last fall. This is the North Side, home to an astonishing number of what we used to call Yuppies, and NO, I have no idea what supports such lifestyles. After eating at a sports bar maybe 50' from the entrance to the bleacher section of Wrigley Stadium, we found ourselves blocked in by a police SUV. I cringed a little but soon discovered the young cop was admiring my 21 yo Lexus. In my 67 years on earth, I have never been so kind and gracious to a cop before.
  • Tony stopped at one more sports bar because he has known the owner for years. There we got to watch the Preds-Blues game along with a handful of still-disappointed Black Hawk fans. In spite of the fact that Tony claims this bar serves one of the best pizzas in Chicago, it was also suffering from too few customers.
Chicago's economic ennui is likely shared across the world. But one thing is still abundantly clear—this was once a city of energy, distinction, and vast industrial power. This was a city built by folks of great imagination. Deindustrialization is the proximate cause of the widespread destruction of this city. But more importantly, most of the destruction demonstrates a failure of imagination. Of course, it requires SOME imagination to build a golf course on a slag heap but compared to what was once there, it demonstrates the imagination of a child playing grown-up. In my darker moments I am convinced that we are doomed because we have passed "peak imagination." I hope I am wrong.


On passing through the center of the city

Cloud Gate (the Bean) has some interesting neighbors. The building with the steeply pitched roof is officially the Crain Communications Building but the locals call it Vagina Tower because it is such a contrast to the phallic buildings that surround it.  If you look closely, that roof is being worked on by some crazy-brave people.



The Bean seems very popular in spite of the hassles to see it up close—including parking that costs $21 for the first 20 minutes. The main reason is that unlike most public art (which looks like it was constructed by metal shop troublemakers), its execution is so perfect, it borders on miraculous. Most of us cannot conceive of making stainless steel so shiny, much less shaped so perfectly that it becomes a very expensive fun house mirror. The trick is grind the plates and welds to 1000 grit and then polish everything with jewelers rouge. I get weary just thinking about it. The most interesting reflections are seen from underneath. Tony and I can be seen in several places in this shot.



The older skyscrapers on Michigan Ave. are in excellent shape—some are quite beautiful. Tony checks his smart phone.



The Chicago Cultural Center is housed in the old public library. It has been superbly restored and maintained. Shown here is the Tiffany dome.



Wherever you look, there are monuments to the instinct of workmanship. Not only did world-class artisans come to Chicago to build such magnificent structures, but it's obvious that some of their descendants must still work in the city.



Hard to remember when public libraries were accorded such respect.



And this is the new Public Library—a post-modernist monstrosity. Those sculptures on the corners are supposed to depict owls. And no, they are not made of aged copper—that is painted aluminum.



The First Impression is a tile header over the door to what was once an important print shop on Printers Row. It is fabulously maintained / restored.

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