Chicago’s most valuable natural asset is its lakefront, forever free, public, and protected by law. This lakefront is so valuable, argues the architects at Port Urbanism, that we need more of it to pay off the city’s massive debts. Or (if you ask the designers at UrbanLab) newly built islands in the lake must be drafted into relieving pressure from an overstressed storm drain system by filtering and cleaning the city’s water. Read the rest of this entry »
Episode 2: Cabrini-Green Dreams and Nightmares
Depending on who’s telling the tale, the Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago’s Near North Side are either patient-zero for urban dysfunction and decay, or a humble high-rise utopia, Corbusier’s Radiant City with soul. But at the end of the day it was home to 15,000 people. Cabrini-Green was mostly demolished by 2011, but its legacy both haunts, or enriches, the city, depending on who you ask. Read the rest of this entry »
A Lot You Got to Holler is a new Newcity Design podcast. Hosted by Newcity design editor Ben Schulman and Chicago architectural journalist Zach Mortice, the podcast will explore Chicago’s singular history of architecture, design and urbanism, with an emphasis on pop culture. Schulman and Mortice will invite artists, designers, and architects into the studio for conversations about Chicago’s past and ongoing role as a proving ground for American culture. Read the rest of this entry »
By Bill Savage
Even when Chicago was “Chekagou, ” this locale at the southwest edge of the Great Lakes was part of a system of globalization.
The first non-indigenous people to pass through this area—so far as we know—were Frenchmen Joliet and Marquette, the entrepreneur looking to make money and the priest hoping to save souls, who wintered at the Chekagou portage in 1672-73. They sought a water route to China, to expand French trade worldwide, and to evangelize for Catholicism.
As these two Frenchmen travelled with Native Americans, they saw that Chicago was an ideal spot for a canal to connect the North Atlantic/Great Lakes trading system with the Mississippi River, which they thought emptied into the Pacific. That this vast expanse of land and waters included scores of tribes and different indigenous cultures was not of much concern to them.
A century or so later, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable established his trading post near the mouth of the Chicago River. But du Sable and his successor, John Kinzie, were not just colonizers in a crude sense. As Ann Durkin Keating shows masterfully in her book “Rising Up From Indian Country,” they were part of a sophisticated network of global trade between European-Americans, Native Americans and Europeans. A multilingual and mixed-race métis economic culture thrived in the Great Lakes region before and after the War of 1812, based on elaborate systems of personal relationships, credit, bookkeeping and the delivery and exchange of goods. Manufactured items from Europe and the East Coast flowed into the Middle Border, and raw materials supplied by Native Americans, like beaver pelts, adorned the fashionable in European capitals. Read the rest of this entry »
Pink Floyd’s “Money” was haunting the airwaves, Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks” was making the soon-to-divorce lonelier still, and Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” only intensified our despair.
These remain my “divorce songs.” Hearing them instantly summons memories of the winter of my discontent, separated from my wife and two children. I am propelled back into the offices I shared with a business colleague, clandestinely bivouacked until early mornings when I broke camp like a Scout, erasing evidence of my nighttime residency accompanied by my radio sound track.
I finally rented a flat, and friends began stepping up, extending me tender mercies. One such was Lynne. We had worked together at the newspaper in our small but bustling county seat deep in Southern Indiana hill country. On the TV she had seen trailers for a promising new cop drama. She knew of my ties to Chicago during college and my early working years, and though “Hill Street Blues” was supposedly set in a generic northern city, its production links to the Windy City were not cleverly hidden. Read the rest of this entry »
By John Greenfield
I’ve walked the whole length of eleven Chicago streets in order to experience aspects of local geography, architecture and culture that I might have overlooked using faster modes. So when Rob Reid, who writes the history blog Avondale Time Machine, invited me to join him and friends to hike all 9.5 miles of Elston Avenue last month, I couldn’t refuse.
The street’s namesake was Daniel Elston, a London merchant who immigrated to Chicago in the early 1800s. By 1830 he’d bought a 160-acre parcel in River West, located along a crooked wagon road. The multitalented settler established several businesses—making soap, candles, bricks, beer and whiskey—he also served as a school inspector and alderman.
While Elston was first living by the thoroughfare that would later bear his name, it was a plank toll road owned by Amos Snell, who charged travelers two-and-a-half cents per mile to use it. Displeased with this, local farmers staged a Boston Tea Party of sorts—they dressed up like Indians, chopped down the toll gates and burned them. Read the rest of this entry »
By John Greenfield
When I was a bike messenger in the early nineties, the State Street pedestrian mall was the bane of my existence. In 1979 under Mayor Jane Byrne, the city closed the Loop’s main retail corridor to all forms of traffic except buses, taxis and delivery vehicles in an effort to bring back customers who had been drawn away to suburban shopping centers and the burgeoning Magnificent Mile. That meant I had to detour around State and access addresses along the strip via intersecting east-west streets.
Ultimately the pedestrian mall was judged a failure, and in 1996 under Mayor Richard M. Daley the wide sidewalks were jackhammered to make way for private automobiles again. That renovation, the $24.5 million State Street Revitalization Project, which included attractive Beaux Arts street lamps, ‘L’ entrances and other fixtures, is credited with turning the historically prosperous street back into a bustling retail district.
Laura Jones from the Chicago Loop Alliance provided background on the rationale behind creating the State Street mall. “When downtown started to empty out in the early seventies, business leaders from the Greater State Street Council went to the city with the idea of creating the pedestrian mall. They wanted to make State Street more like a suburban shopping mall, and also people were becoming more energy conscious, so they decided to try a transit mall.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Harrison Smith
To design buildings, says Tim Samuelson, you have to be able to see things as one great complicated whole, “to think as one creative act.” The great ones, architects like Chicago’s own Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, were able to “imbue part of themselves” in their work, to design buildings that functioned as both useful spaces, as homes or auditoriums, and as works of art, objects that could move a person as much as a line of poetry or a beautiful painting. Sullivan had a concise way of expressing this point, writing in 1896 that “form ever follows function,” a quote that has long been misinterpreted to mean that form is secondary to function.
“What it really means,” says Tim, “is that the two work harmoniously together.” From this idea, architecture is “like creating poetry. Form follows function, as Sullivan intended it, is pure, beautiful, creative poetry. All the parts harmoniously and beautifully relate together. They stir the emotions.”
Tim Samuelson, no architect, says he was never able to imagine buildings this way, to see a building in his mind’s eye before any foundation had been laid and construction had begun. When he sees a great building, however—the Auditorium Building on Michigan and Congress, or the old Federal Building on Dearborn and Jackson—he is struck; he is in rapture; he is in love.
Samuelson has been the city’s cultural historian for the past ten years, functioning as a one-man office of the Department of Cultural Affairs. His job is that of a spokesperson, consultant, historian and storyteller, a wide-ranging position that requires him “to tell the spirit and the history of Chicago” through exhibits, public programs, and collaboration with other cultural institutions, museums, and governmental agencies. Read the rest of this entry »
By Harrison Smith
Rose Laws stands five-feet four-inches, with red hair, glasses and a strong Southern accent she’s retained from a childhood in Tennessee. She once had thirty-six-triple-D breasts, which she lost purposely because they were too big, and a tiny waist, which she lost with age because that’s how things go. She looks and talks like a grandmother, is gracious and warm like the best grandmothers, and at age seventy-seven is, not surprisingly, a grandmother.
Tonight she is without her grandchildren, though two of her sons are with her at the Everleigh Social Club on West Randolph. The club is pretty empty this early in the evening, and most of the people who are there—just about all of whom are friends or family of Rose—are sipping the night’s signature drink, a “Gold Coast Madam” cocktail mixed specially for the occasion. Read the rest of this entry »
By Harrison Smith
Early Wednesday evening, when the first guests start making their way inside the Ben Hecht house on 53rd and Kenwood, Kelly Custer is sitting out on the porch with a friend, asking if “maybe it was too much.” Earlier that morning she had called someone over to her family’s historic ten-bedroom bungalow for a little house cleaning; eight hours later, the job was done, or done as well as could be expected for a short notice cleaning of a four-floor house in transition. The person was paid, but Custer—whose family is selling their home of nearly fifty years—is concerned that things still aren’t clean enough: there are boxes lying around in corners, books and papers piled on desks, and for the next couple of hours a hundred-odd visitors will be walking through it all, taking a look at the house and its history. And, she figures, its mess, which probably should have been cleaned a little better anyway.
Prompted by Op-Shop and Southside Hub of Production organizer Laura Shaeffer, the Custer family had decided to open up their home to the community before saying goodbye for good. Shaeffer, like many others at the “Ben Hecht House Party,” is dressed in full 1920s garb, greeting guests as she walks through the building in flowing white pants and a rustling jewel necklace-piece her friend Victoria, a psychic, found in Chinatown. “The family was so worried” about the mess, she says, “but I said that’s fine, we’re going to clean up the front room, make it really nice and comfortable, and let people roam around and see that this is a space in transition.” Read the rest of this entry »