Street Smart Chicago

No Small Plans: Celebrating GO TO 2040, Chicago’s first major regional blueprint since Burnham

Chicago History, Media, Politics No Comments »

It’s pouring, but that doesn’t dampen the spirits of a thousand sharply-dressed politicians, urban planners and other civic leaders crammed into a tent on top of Millennium Park’s Harris Theater. They’re here to launch GO TO 2040, a blueprint for making tough development and spending choices in the Chicago area’s 284 communities, for the next few decades and beyond.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) will lead the implementation process, and stakes are high. As the region’s population balloons from its current 8.6 million to an estimated 11 million by 2040, the decisions we make now will determine whether the Chicago area becomes more prosperous, green and equitable or devolves into a depressed, grid-locked, smog-choked dystopia.

The plan, developed by CMAP and its partner organizations over three years and drawing on feedback from more than 35,000 residents, includes the four themes of Livable Communities, Human Capital, Efficient Governance and Regional Mobility. It makes detailed recommendations for facing challenges like job creation, preserving the environment, housing and transportation. Read the rest of this entry »

Field Day: Keeping the green dream alive on State Street

Chicago History, Loop No Comments »

Chicago lost an international icon in 2006 when Marshall Field’s was officially changed into a Macy’s, a company largely associated with New York. And despite the time that has elapsed, to many Chicagoans, including Jim McKay, this change was an insult that will not go on without a fight.

So fight is what they have done, even as the years have worn on. McKay’s Field’s Fans Chicago (, a non-sponsored, non-commercial and non-profit group that is not affiliated with Marshall Field’s or any of its previous owners, began organizing and sharing its opinion on the matter as soon as the change was made. Field’s Fans has been keeping its ear to the ground to keep up with the general opinion of Chicago shoppers on the question at hand. Read the rest of this entry »

Because They’re Airplanes: Exploring an enduring fascination, this time found on a farm

Chicago History, Sugar Grove No Comments »

Henry “Hank” Winkler (yes, that’s his real name), says that most people discover Sugar Grove’s Air Classics Museum by chance. This is certainly understandable. A slew of warplanes locked up behind a metal fence in the middle of seemingly endless farmland is not an easy site to miss.

Now in its twentieth year and still run entirely on a volunteer basis, the museum offers a diverse and dedicated clientele an extensive look at aviation history.

The planes are the main attraction. Replicas donated by locals and retired aircraft acquired through the military, including a Bell UH-1H chopper used regularly in vertical envelopment operations in Vietnam, greet visitors. Other highlights of the collection include the massive restored Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat—relocated from O’Hare—and the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom with a menacing skull painted on its tail.

Two additional buildings feature sizeable collections of military garb and model planes donated by the families of aviation enthusiasts. A barn plastered with Polish Air Force paraphernalia houses two massive jet engines, one of which powered a B-52 bomber. Read the rest of this entry »

Bummed Out: How Skid Row went from “The Land of the Living Dead” to cappuccinos and condos

Chicago History, West Loop 2 Comments »

By David Witter

It’s a Friday afternoon and two young men from the suburbs are looking for a place to crash later that night, after hitting up the bars in Andersonville and Uptown. A friend recommended The Lodge Motel at Foster and Sheridan. Yet as they drive by it all they see is a vacant lot. Looks like nobody figured to tell them it was torn down to make room for a new Dominick’s.

Time ticks away. They search for the nearest hotel on their iPhones and see the Wilson Men’s Hotel at 1124 West Wilson. Across the street is Truman College, but the area around it is no ivy-filled campus. People hang out on the street corners. The homeless push shopping carts filled with Aldi bags. A man with a pockmarked face lays sprawled out across a nearby bench, face down, arms and legs dangling on the sidewalk. This is the outside. Entering the Wilson, the lobby smells of forbidden fumes. They take a quick look at one of the cheaper rooms—a pen, eight by ten feet with no ceiling, with walls elevated off the ground, making it susceptible to theft and a continuous onslaught of noise: arguing, muttering, swearing, snoring and shouting at all hours. There is no shower, only a shared bathroom at the end of the hall. They leave the place in a half-trot and don’t stop until they get to The Green Mill, a jazz club a few blocks north at Broadway and Lawrence. Shocked and out of breath, they mutter, “Damn. That was Skid Row.”

A short, pink-faced man lifts his head from down the bar. In a gravely voice he tells them, “Skid Row? You think that place is Skid Row? Kid, you have no idea what Skid Row was….” Read the rest of this entry »

Architecture Capital? What we’ll lose if we lose our mid-century modern buildings

Architecture, Chicago History 5 Comments »

Northwestern's Prentice Women's Hospital

By Ella Christoph

If archaeologists wanted to excavate Chicago to discover its history, they would quickly realize digging down is far less productive than just opening your eyes and looking at the panorama of a city block. The sediment of Chicago reaches left and right, not down, and it’s by noticing one building next to another that Chicago’s turbulent history jumps out at us. The city is a jumble of homes, storefronts and skyscrapers that bring us back to before the Great Chicago Fire, back to the golden age of railroads, back to the time when internationally acclaimed architects fled Europe for the safety and capitalist progressivism of the Second City.

For archaeologists in Pompeii, the volcano was a gold mine, freezing the city in time. But imagine a different kind of destructive force, with the accuracy of a pencil eraser, deleting just one moment of a city’s past at a time. A bulldozer, tearing down what we believe future generations won’t miss—the now-ubiquitous square glass boxes of Mies van der Rohe’s protégés, the harsh concrete of Brutalism, the strange contraptions of architects excited by new materials that became ordinary almost instantaneously. This isn’t a new eraser; its sights are just set on a new comma in the paragraph of our city’s history. Read the rest of this entry »

You Killed the Car: The Rose House is both mid-century modern landmark and a bit of pop-culture history

Architecture, Chicago History, Highland Park No Comments »

In the late eighties and early nineties, hip, affluent trendsetters rediscovered the aesthetic of mid-century modern homes and flocked to Palm Springs in search of homes designed by Albert Frey, Richard Neutra and their peers. It was a godsend for the homes, which were “somewhat disheveled-looking, and worn out,” says Joseph Rosa, director of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art. Read the rest of this entry »

Grain of Truth: Taking stock of the relics of Chicago’s era as the world’s “Stacker of Wheat”

Architecture, Chicago History 3 Comments »

By David Witter

Grain elevators were the city’s first skyscrapers, rising up as high as fifteen stories along the Chicago River and Sanitary and Ship Canal from downtown to the South Shore, supplying the nation’s bakeries much in the way that the stockyards of the Armours, Oscar Mayers and Swifts gave us steak, bacon and hot dogs. Along with being the “Hog Butcher for the World,” they gave rise to Carl Sandburg’s description of Chicago as the “Stacker of Wheat.” Poured from trains and barges, wheat, corn, barley and other crops were stored within before being sold at a “new” market called The Chicago Board of Trade. Today, only two grain facilities, the Archer Daniels Midland Plant, and the Illinois International Port Grain Elevators at the Port of Chicago, remain in operation within the city limits. Dozens have been demolished, while still more sit vacant. Too large and expensive to tear down, they are slowly deteriorating like Egyptian ruins in an urban desert, standing as a final reminder of Chicago’s agricultural past amid the modern skyscrapers, condos and highways that are now Chicago’s landscape. Read the rest of this entry »

Museum Review: Burnham 2.0: A Patchwork Plan

Architecture, Chicago History, Museums No Comments »

In 1909, Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett imagined the restructuring and beautification of a contemporary American city, “The Plan of Chicago.” A hundred years later, the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Architectural Club and the Chicago History Museum have composed “Burnham 2.0.” This competition and exhibit takes “The Plan of Chicago” to the next level: in the new century, what would a utopian, sustainable and pluralistic Chicago look like as the hub of a high-speed rail network? The gallery space is small and simplistic, but the ideas within are big, dense and complex. Though some of the entries approach the challenge analytically, the majority are far-fetched, science-fiction speculations about utopias, heavy on the metaphors and light on plausibility. Joliet, Cicero and the fragmented districts of the Loop and South Side are given super-duper green makeovers. Vacant lots and auto dealerships are replaced with multifaceted parks and civic centers. Notable entries include a comic-book-style walk-through of a high-speed railway station and the replacement of the Presidential Towers with a series of gothic, counter-culture artist bungalows. The most impressive entry belongs to the winners of an international design competition, an imaginative yet realistic re-envisioning of Union Station as an intermodal transportation hub. (Laura Hawbaker)

“Burnham 2.0: A Patchwork Plan” runs at Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark, (312)642-4600, through April 12.

Fall Forward: Museum exhibit previews 2008

Architecture, Chicago History, Museums No Comments »

Twisted Into Recognition: Clichés of Jews and Others
Historical artifacts, material culture and modern art and film can reveal the existence and perseverance of stereotypes. Stereotypes and clichés comfort us in facing the unknown, but can also have ugly side effects. Explore how these images and objects represent us and affect us and how we respond to their resolve in this progressive multimedia exhibition. Opens September 26 at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies

Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures
Take the opportunity to look deep into the chests of some of Chicago’s most notorious women in history. The Chicago History Museum will have more than sixty significant couture pieces on display providing an intimate glance into Chicago’s elite past, from 1861-2008. Opens September 27 at the Chicago History Museum

Fast Forward … Inventing the Future
Join in on the celebration of the Museum of Science and Industry’s seventy-fifth anniversary by looking to the future. The museum’s newest rotating exhibit displays cutting-edge technologies and innovations developed by the world’s brainiest inventors and scientists. Opens September 3 at The Museum of Science and Industry

The Aztec World: A Unique View of a Mighty Empire
After centuries of investigation, experts are finally beginning to understand the culture and history of the Aztecan people. Take this opportunity to enter into the everyday lives of their compelling Mesoamerican culture. Observe rare Aztecan artifacts, such as sacrificial altars and royal treasures, amassed for the first time in history. Opens October 31 at The Field Museum

Boom Towns!
With a thick influx of immigrants, industrial advance and social regulation, Chicago underwent a colossal, unprecedented population boom at the end of the nineteenth century. Discover how Chicago’s experience compares to the modern day booms in China and the Middle East by evaluating iconic works of architecture in each region and era. Opens September 23 at the Chicago Architecture Foundation

Cranes and Conversations
Sandhill cranes, the oldest birds on Earth, follow a similar route from north to south each year. Two avid admirers and good friends, Jill Metcoff and Diane Farris, also pursued the route. Jill, of Wisconsin, trailed the birds in the north and Diane welcomed their arrival in Florida. Metcoff and Farris, thirty years later, have reunited in Chicago to compile their inspiring migration photographs, collages and film montages. The exhibit may even inspire you to get outside and admire as the fleet soars along our lakefront from mid-October to mid-November. Notebaert Nature Museum starting October 17

Hands in the Air: John Dillinger robbed banks for a living

Chicago History, Events, Lit No Comments »

Although recent inquiries may prove that J. Edgar Hoover was not a transvestite after all, he still doesn’t have anything on John Dillinger, whose following, either from sheer devotion or anticipation for the release of Michael Mann’s newest feature, couldn’t be stronger. As far as Mike Flores, a local playwright, is concerned, “J. Edgar Hoover was a prude,” and tonight, perhaps all of Lincoln Station will agree, for today marks the seventy-fourth anniversary of John Dillinger’s untimely, unarmed death alongside the Biograph Theater at the hands of a sloppy FBI job.
At least that’s how the latest installment of the story unfolds by the ones who love to tell it. For the past several years, the “John Dillinger Died For You Society,” fronted by Flores and folklorist/ghost-hunter Richard Crowe, has been keeping the Dillinger tradition alive. “I became a Dillinger fan when I found out his real story,” Flores remarks, and the joke is on the FBI. However, until the real story is revealed at the 10pm ceremony in front of the Biograph Theater, where Dillinger was reported to have viewed his final talkie, fans and locals alike gather at the bar. A man in a kilt downs the last from his flask while enthusiasts talk about anything ranging from their MySpace fan sites dedicated to Chicago’s very own Robin Hood or about their first-hand experience as an extra alongside Johnny Depp on the set of Mann’s upcoming movie.
But when 10pm rolls around, the crowd is escorted to the front of the bar where a bagpipe procession leads a true “rebel” jaywalk across the street to the notorious theater in front of which Flores delivers Dillinger’s story, which, to put it frankly, isn’t what will be appearing on the silver screen any time soon. “If the new Dillinger movie had told the truth, it would have made an incredible impression on people and also let people understand the control that J. Edgar Hoover had over the media,” Flores proclaims. “We have been bullshitted so long about the Depression Era and are living in a matrix reality created by J. Edgar Hoover.” Slightly too intoxicated, or possibly indifferent, to rally at this statement, the procession meanders to the adjacent alleyway for a rendition of “Amazing Grace” sung painstakingly slowly to bagpipe accompaniment just before Crowe provides an account of first-hand paranormal experiences at the death site. Recapturing the audience’s attention, a line of ladies clad in red—dressed in the true fashion of Dillinger’s culprit Anna Sage—form a straight line hoping to bag a $100 prize. When the winner, aided by her sideline companion, is chosen after having answered a trivia question correctly, she is praised with an uproar of applause and an honorary pouring of a can of Miller on the hero’s death site. “Johnny Boy, we’re doing this for you!” (Elise Biggers)