FAIR IS FAIR
Let’s begin on a point of justice about a city famous for speaking truth to power. For after all, it was the home of the first gay rights organization (1924), the Society for Human Rights; the location of the Haymarket Affair (1886) that led to the start of international May Day; and its German Waldheim Cemetery holds the graves of a plethora of anarchists and radicals, including Emma Goldman. So, for those still nursing a grudge against Mrs. O’Leary and her cow for causing the Great Chicago Fire (1871), it has now been proven that the witness who blamed them was fibbing and O’Leary was released from responsibility by the City of Chicago in the 1990s.
Chicago is a young city, founded in 1833, and rendered even younger from an architectural point of view, by the all-consuming Fire that is part of every Chicago narrative. The city had to be very quickly rebuilt after the fire, due to its key waterways-based trade position in the middle of the country and the threat of a scarred Chicago to the rest of the American economy.
The cheapest hotel I could find was the Days Inn on Diversey Parkway in the somewhat yuppified Lincoln Park. The hotel is across from an Urban Outfitters and a Trader Joe’s, and the Trivia contest in the “Michael Diversey” - the neighborhood tavern and restaurant down the block – is run by a leftie who asks questions with a progressive slant. Diversey, the man, was a German immigrant who built up a beer company and became a philanthropist and local politician. The Great Chicago Fire destroyed his Brewery.
A stroll around this Lincoln Park neighborhood shows it to be like too many American cities: there is a pretty façade – like a Hollywood set – and then behind it there is the majority of the town. Near the hotel are streets filled with young white folks out for the evening along a few blocks of tarted up retail. However, a couple of blocks beyond the center, the pawn shops, the fast food, and the drunks screaming at themselves start to dominate. It reminds me of my long-ago hometown Pittsburgh, which is now lauded for transitioning from a large industrial city to a medium service-based town full of new cultural excitement. In a visit to Pittsburgh last year, I got lost a few times and found myself in debased and profoundly poor neighborhoods, where two out of three buildings were boarded up. Is it any different in Baltimore where the Johns Hopkins community just loves their fancy town, while the majority of residents are struggling in neighborhoods undermined by that university?
Chicago has a bad reputation, but in fact it does not even appear on the list of the 10 “Most Dangerous Cities in America” compiled from FBI stats. I ran into no problems at all. Chicago, the urban center of the entire Midwest, ranks third in population behind New York and LA. Home to late 19th and 20th century waves of immigrants – both from Europe and from the US South – Chicago is now 45% white (31.7% non-Hispanic white) and 33% Black. The Latino population across races is 29%.
The first non-native trader to settle Chicago was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, apparently from the Dominican Republic, who married a native American woman and built a farm on the side of the river. “Chicago” is a word from her Potawatomi tribe that means “land of stinky onions,” although Chicago is also known as “the windy city.” It was given that nickname by NY politicians who were in a bidding battle with Chicago for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. They felt the Chicago politicians were full of wind.
If you’ve only got a limited time to see Chicago, go ahead and do your duty. Tour the skyscrapers downtown, where you may get the inaccurate impression that the mass of residents are white people living in fancy high-rise buildings with large balconies and private parks. Then get to the lake: it is gorgeous. Take the bus to the Nature Museum, rent a bike for an hour for a couple of bucks, and ride the bike path along the shore. Get to the blues clubs: they’re very cool. I saw the great Billy Branch and the Sons of the Blues at the locally loved Rosa’s Lounge for a mere $15 door charge. Not only were Mama Rosa herself and her son Tony, the owner, hanging out, there were other blues legends in the house, just to dig the music with the rest of us. Eat with the locals. Friends took me to Wishbone for big plates of southern food, although I unfortunately never made it to any of the classic Chicago pizza parlors.
I bought a three-day bus pass at the pharmacy. The magnetic strip didn’t work, but the drivers are used to that and let me ride without a problem. A single ride is $2.25, so it is well worth your while to get a pass and not think about each fare. The cabs are ubiquitous and fairly reasonable, so at night, it’s easy to flag one down and go. Note that the fares statement lists a “Vomit Clean-up Fee” of $50.00.
And definitely go to the theater: you’ll have 25,000 seats to chose among – and that’s just in the theater district. I saw one of the best, most exhilarating shows of my life at the Black Ensemble Theater, in the ethnically diverse Uptown community. Established in 1976 by Jackie Taylor, a visionary actress, producer, and playwright, it gained its own permanent building in December, 2011. The theater itself seats 300 in an intimate U shape, and the atmosphere is charged with friendly excitement. I saw their fabulous production of "Ain’t No Crying the Blues: In the Memory of Howlin Wolf," starring Rick Stone. The talent on the stage blew me away. High quality singing, dancing, and acting was combined with a great script, riveting staging, and gorgeous costumes, starting with the lead’s powder blue satin suit. In the past they've done tributes to Dionne Warwick, Nina Simone, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, and so many others: next up is Curtis Mayfield. My visit to the Black Ensemble Theater was without a doubt the high point of my time in Chicago.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF CHICAGO
The river is still a crucial element of the city’s life. The river trip given by the Chicago Architecture Foundation is widely reputed to be superior to its competitors. My volunteer docent Barry is himself an architect and throughout the 90 minutes asked us to say, “Kiss the architect!” every time he taught us about a building that succeeded in making a lot of money for owners, not an accomplishment that impressed me personally. The architects and the engineers found clever solutions to eliminating pesky columns and multiplying corner offices in order to produce higher rents.
Since cleaning up the lake and river through an engineering trick that reversed the river’s direction, the stink has decreased and the property values have increased. Massive empty factories and warehouses have been transformed into condos, apartments, and offices – and these are among the most appealing of the river buildings. I loved the fact that GroupOn now has its offices in the former warehouse of Montgomery Ward – the mail-order champs. I was less enthusiastic about the modern and post-modern skyscrapers that we most associate with Chicago. The development of steel and concrete structures ended the need for weight-bearing walls, giving builders the possibility of constructing skyscrapers. Chicago tour guides believe the skyscraper was invented in Chicago and see Mies van der Rohe as the pioneer of a Modernism based on the idea that “less is more.” Modernism and the subsequent post-Modern architecture dominate the skyline.
My favorite building is the neo-classic Jewelers Building from the mid-1920s. Because of security concerns among the original inhabitants, the building features internal car elevators so that the jewelers could drive in and go straight up to their offices with their baubles without getting out of their cars. Now we know where Romney got the idea.
The ugliest is the horrific Trump Tower (2009), in a style, the docent admitted, that does not yet have a name. I could suggest a few X-rated terms. It stands next to the magnificent round towers with 900 apartments and petals for parking (at left) designed by Bertram Goldberg in the early 1960s. The unforgettable mixed-use tower, Aqua, is the tallest woman-designed building in the world. Jeanne Gang invented a way to extend Aqua’s sensuous, wavy balconies so that many more units have views. When she won a MacArthur genius award, she donated her prize to the city of Chicago to build river boat houses.
The most interesting building from an engineering point of view is the Sears Tower (1973), now known officially as the Willis Tower. At 108 stories, it is the tallest building in the country (used to be in the world) although it may soon be beat out by NYC’s Freedom Tower. Because Sears wanted a variety of uses out of it – for maximum monetization of course – the architects came up with the idea of bundling together nine separate tubes (towers) of varied height, meeting all the needs of the owners and making it singularly stable.
The whole river architectural cruise is strictly from the commercial point of view, leaving me with no sense of how or where most Chicago folks live. None of the massive modern developments are required to provide low- or medium-cost housing, although some have been asked by the city to pay for a new bridge or a little park – to serve its own comfortable residents. There is a numbing sense of sameness – all steel and glass and concrete – and of luxury.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers a variety of tours and I took about ¾ of their tour on the elevated train system that services the Loop and the commercial interests of the businesses in the Loop. The transportation perspective was interesting, but I got sick of the earpiece and receiver I had to wear, and the struggle to hear the volunteer docent over the background noise of screeching trains.
THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO
The Art Institute of Chicago brags that Trip Advisor rates it as #1 among American museums and #3 in the world. A free one-hour tour of the museum leaves one breathless and impressed. Carol, another volunteer docent, takes our group to portrait highlights from a range of periods and styles. American Gothic by Grant Wood was acquired by the Museum reluctantly for $300 in 1930 because the artist won a contest. We stop by a stunning Singer-Sargent portrait of one Mrs. Swinton (1897), who was made to appear more beautiful and wealthy than she really was – perhaps the main reason why Sargent was so in demand as a portraitist. We see a Van Gogh portrait heavily influenced by Seurat and then we see Seurat’s massive masterpiece “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (1884).
The Impressionism collection is broad, including many paintings from two women artists, the prolific Berthe Morisot (1841-95) and Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). There are uncounted, wonderful works from James Tissot, whose perspective as a tailor’s son gives him an uncanny grasp of fabric and fashion.
A special exhibition called Undressed: The Passion of Privacy includes a rare if small exhibition of male nudes by such artists as Gustav Klimt, Eugene Delacrois, and Paul Cezanne. The art featuring women subjects seems like an excuse to explore the world of corsets. Nakedness can only be understood by its context: Many of the nudes are meant to be sensual; many just point towards everyday moments of undress; and some of them show violence towards nude women.
Margaret Hicks is an improv comedian and a tour guide. She has meshed her two talents in order to guide the tours offered by the famous improv comedy club, Second City. It is the place that Loren Michaels comes to find new Saturday Night Live cast members. In fact, of the four people on SNL hired this year, three are from Second City. Just a few famous alumni from both the Chicago and the Toronto Second City: Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Jane Lynch, and Mike Meyers. Here’s a fuller list.
Margaret takes us around Old Town, where the theater itself is located in a lovely building adorned with a façade taken from another building marked for demolition by the hero of architectural preservation Richard Nickel. Nickel died while trying to salvage some period scraps from the floor of the demolished Louis Sullivan Stock Exchange when it collapsed on him.
Old Town (once called “the cabbage patch” due to so many German immigrants) is one area of Chicago where the neighborhood has not been razed for skyscrapers. When it was rebuilt after the Fire, speed was of the essence because of widespread homelessness. The buildings are a unique style called balloon frame houses, with a stone downstairs and wood pre-fab upper living area. They were only constructed over a period of three years between the 1871 Fire, until the imposition of regulations on the use of fire resistant building materials. The balloon houses were for the workers doing the rebuilding, but today they are worth over $1 million.
The truth is that despite some high points around music, I never really felt Chicago, try as I might. The truth is that I never managed to connect with folks on the streets or in the shops, as I usually do when traveling, and I never found the city’s charm. The truth also is that I was in the midst of an unrelated organizational crisis that kept insinuating itself into what were supposed to be days of vacation and became instead a period of stress, so maybe it’s all on me. Finally, here is my advice: stick to the music, the theater, and the lake if you’re going, and you’ll have a great time.
Photos courtesy of Barry Hock (not including vintage postcards)