Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Chicago's Greatest Memorial? "Monument to Our Stuff" Rises on Division

 "That's the whole meaning of life, isn't it?  Trying to find a place for your stuff."

- George Carlin, 1986

George was on to us nearly decades ago, but I'm betting even he would be amazed at how managing our stuff has metastasized into a building boom of previously unimaginable proportion, sometimes called the Warehouse Nation, a triumvirate of self-storage for all the stuff we no longer have room for, data centers for the endless corridors of servers allowing us to order stuff from our sofas, and, to keep all stuff from the manufacturers at ready for the final drop at our doorstep: warehouses.   Since 2011, we've built 2.3 billion square feet of them, which, to put it into perspective, would fill up more than a third of the total surface area within the city limits of Chicago.

By 2022, Chicago had 44 industrial buildings under construction totaling 23.7 million square feet, with a vacancy rate under 7%.  Throughout the metro area, structures over a million square feet have become as ubiquitous as 7-11s.

To be sure, there have been larger warehouses built, and often, but in some ways, the massive structure rising at 1237 West Division may symbolize some kind of apogee.   It's not in the suburbs, but in the city.  At over 11 acres and the third largest industrial construction currently going up in Chicago. it's not just sprawling, but the first new warehouse in Chicago to be double-deckered.  Huge trucks will drive multiple 300 to 400 foot long ramps, including one coiling inside a round structure at the corner, to access and depart from a second floor 36 feet up. (You can read the Chicago Department of Planning's full document on the project, with floorplans and illustrations, here.)

The overall dimensions are staggering:  a quarter-million square feet on each floor, 28 docks on each, plus two 32,000 square-foot mezzanines.  The complex stretches a block and a half down Elston, with a 48,000 square foot office component at the warehouse's southeast corner, connecting via a skybridge to a five-level, 431 stall parking garage at the corner of Cortez. Renderings show the main structure's massive roof also devoted to parking.  Owner Logistic's Property Company secured $150,000,000 in construction funding for the project.  Irving, California based Ware Malcomb, with offices in Oak Brook, is the architect.

Soon - if it's not happening already - they'll start pouring the concrete for the second level, but on the day of my visit, the full 70-foot height of the interior was visible as a single volume encased in an intense steel grid.  It's a truly overwhelming sight, echos of Escher at pharaonic scale.

The life of the site extends all the way back to 1883, when a precursor of Peoples Gas built a manufactured gas plant there.  That lasted until 1962, when gas production ended, with the aboveground infrastructure that supported it dismantled and removed.  Thereafter Peoples Gas also used the site for a service center, warehouse, and vehicle repair shop.. The bulk of the property was a surface parking lot.  In 2020, the buildings providing utility service were moved to a new Logistics Support building, designed by Epstein, on the old Commerce Clearing House site on Peterson west of Pulaski.  Peoples Gas razed the buildings closest to Division and sold the property for $55 million.

Remediating the toxic elements that accumulated on the site over more than a century - soil, sediment and ground water contamination - proved a massive project in itself.  A 2015 clean-up under the State of Illinois Remediation Program excavated to a minimum depth of 3 feet below ground.  About 164,000 tons of material and one million gallons of water were removed and disposed of. Total cost exceeded $25 million before any construction could even begin.

Although the project is at the confluence of three major modes of transport, it's not using either its nearness to the river or adjacency to Metra tracks.  On the other side of the tracks, however, is the Kennedy expressway, with full on and off ramps both north and southbound.  As always, commissioned studies found that there are no projected problems with either added traffic or air pollution.

In renderings, the facades are grey and utilitarian to the extreme.  The original spandrels and openings in the garage structure have, according to the city's Department of Planning, been replaced with metal screening and "public art", still to be unveiled.  The DPD claimed credit for changing the color screen from tan/beige to a "modern, neutral palette." A/K/A: grey.  

The only consolation to the crushing drabness on epic scale is that it fits right in with its surrounding industrial neighborhood, where the only relief, across Elston, is the Goose Island Overlook and Azul Mariscos.

A Brief History of Stuff

Image Courtesy The Chuckman Collection

Today, we expect the stuff we order to be at our door the same day, or even within a few hours.  It's a back-to-the-future kind of thing.  A century ago, a store like Marshall Field's had a fleet of delivery trucks ready to speed purchases to customers' residences.  The development of the automobile culture changed this dynamic, as department stores, and later shopping malls and big box stores became the new warehouses.  The customer relieved the retailer of the cost and took over the burden and expense of delivery, popping our purchases in the trunk for the quick trip home.

Then Amazon and the internet age changed the equation again.  Once upon a time, salespeople were required to take merchandise from behind the counter for our inspection.  Then self-service put it all out front.  Once, encounters with other people, often annoying and indifferent people, was considered a normal part of life, whether it was dealing with a crowd in a movie theater, or a check-out clerk who could be indifferent or in a snit.  

For the supply chain was about to change that. Efficiency was all. Manufacturing developed the concept of "just-in-time" delivery, receiving materials and parts only hours before they're actually needed.  That would have seemed to eliminated the middleman, with delivery direct from one manufacturer to another, but in reality it often meant more warehouses to bring the parts within striking range for "just-in-time" delivery.  It required a perfectly humming supply chain.  And then the pandemic tore it all to shreds.  Ships backed up for weeks in port, supply chain disruptions, delays, shortages.

By that time, the internet had changed the consumer equation still again.  We no longer have to deal with the "other".  We simple fire up our browsers, where algorithms seamlessly guide us from choice to choice, an infinity of selection, of every product, from every store, without ever leaving our computer.  And we can get it almost instantly, in a lovely cardboard box, without ever having a physical encounter with another human being.  Have a craving for Vanilla Fudge Carmel ice cream or to replenish the liquor cabinet at 2 a.m.?  There's an app for that.  And an almost unimaginably massive supply chain behind it.

Once, the retailer was the middleman.  Now the warehouse is the middleman, the clearing house where everything from everywhere converges all at once for the final journey to slake our desires.

A century ago, in Chicago and any other major city, it was common to find factory and warehouse building of six stories or higher.  With suburbanization, the evolution of car culture, and the availability of cheaper land, these became obsolete.  The new paradigm was the sprawling one-level structure, with no elevators, stairs or chutes to impede the frictionless flow of goods and material through space

"Oh, yeah?" counters 1237, with its proud five levels.  But you have to wonder if the Great Gray Whale of Division Street is the kind of over-the-top expression that marks an era's giddy peak.  Block Club Chicago reports no tenants have yet been signed.  Elsewhere in Chicago, Amazon has pulled back on two large facilities it commissioned in Bridgeport and Addison, part of a general national retrenchment.  It has also indefinitely postponed a planned 26-acre delivery hub warehouse in West Humboldt Park.  It's a national trend.  Will 1237 be a case of, "Suppose they had a great party, but nobody came?"

Often, buildings are at their most interesting when under construction - the finished product can't compete.  I'm thinking that'll be the case with 1237.  So if you can free up the time, make a trip to Division and Elston while the wonder of the bare bones can still be seen.

Digressive, Depressive Epilogue

"Why the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder", says James Tyrone in a rare, fleeting moment of self-awareness of his compulsive skinflint ways.

Today, the answer would be: "everything". We spend prodigious megawatt hours in searching for bargains on-line, but we're far from cheapskates.  Even in our increasingly virtualized world, we remain ever more fecund in the art of physical accumulation.  We fill up our ever larger houses, park in the driveway to free up the garage, and then move the overflow to self-storage units - another booming industry.  Why?  Because we can!  Because we must.  Marx was off-point.  Man is not an economic animal, but a consuming animal.  And a hoarding one.  Is it because we think if we save everything, it betters the odds that it'll include that one thing we'll need to surrender to buy off death?

And so we fill the oceans with trash, draw down the water of our rivers, despoil and deplete the earth mining its treasure, fill the air with exhaust that gets our planet closer to the boiling point.  Not sure the ultimate destination, but, as long as it lasts, it's an amazing ride.

"What the Hell was it i wanted to buy, I wonder" said Tyrone, "that was worth . . ."

Monday, May 15, 2023

Chicago: Where Today is Tomorrow's Paradise Lost

    Redefining Redlining, an installation by Amanda Williams of 50,000 red tulips in vacant lots along Prairie Avenue

Brandon Johnson becomes Chicago's mayor today, and already we're being flooded with facile commentary - especially and reliably in the Trib - that this event clinches the doom of the city, an alarmist narrative bullhorned through social media, where the often fact-free snark once confined to exchanges at the corner tavern are blasted out like a National Enquirer headline twenty times a second, everywhere all-at-once.  

Teens run amuck one Saturday on Michigan Avenue? It's all over!  Stores close on Michigan Avenue?  The apocalypse!  Crime and violence?  It's never been this bad!  Doom! How far have we fallen from paradise!

Which raises the questions:  when exactly was this Lost Paradise from which we've apparently now irremediably separated? 

The 1920's, the boom and then the bust, bank runs, mass unemployment, a city overrun with gang violence and rampant corruption? That lost paradise?

The 50's and 60's, when there were seven department stores on State Street, and numerous local chains like Charles Stevens, Lytton's, Maurice L. Rothschild, Chandler shoes, and Evans furs that employed thousands?  That bought the ads that sustained the dailies, and made the contributions that kept numerous civic and cultural institutions viable? 

photo: Library School Dropout on Twitter

 Those same 50s and 60's when segregation was rife?  When Mayor Richard J. Daley made a deal with the devil in taking the millions of dollars and countless jobs that came with Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System initiative, which, contrary to its name, mostly became a giant vacuum that sucked hundreds of thousands of middle-class whites out of the city for the short trip to suburbs and the promise of spanking new, single-family houses, broad lawns and few or no minorities?  Panic peddlers' self-fulfilling prophecy that the blacks were taking over and you had to sell now - at whatever price - before it was too late. And then those same panic-peddlers turning around and making more millions overcharging Afro-Americans for what soon too often became overcrowded, overpriced housing with little or no maintenance, thereby creating the very same new slums they were warning the bilked, fleeing whites of.  Large swatches of which were then burned down in the 60's riots. That lost paradise?

after the city demolished all the buildings, including several landmarks, on Block 37 in 1989, it remained a vacant lot for over a decade and a half.

Or maybe the 70's and 80's? Water Tower Place opened, along with luxury and flagship stores all down Michigan Avenue, a sparkling "new downtown", and one safe for white people.  Because suburban malls were killing off both the Loop and the neighborhood shopping centers that once rivaled it in sales volume.  The department stores closed one by one, the local chains were killed off by huge national discount chains and their generic big box warehouses. Where once every new movie had an exclusive-run in one of the Loop's stunning movie palaces, films now opened in first-run circuits of dozens of theaters all across the suburbs, where population was shifting. Kung-Fu and "blaxploitation" double-bills kept the party going for a few more years, and then the theaters downtown simply went out of business. That lost paradise?

photograph:  It's a Beautiful Day in Chicago on Facebook

Those touting the "good old days" invariably invoke the eras of the sainted name of Daley as their vanished "golden age" when a safe city prospered under their authoritarian but benevolent thumb.  They cite 2021's 797 murders as proof that it's never been this bad, and conveniently forget that the number was exceeded in six of seven of Richard J. Daley's last 7 years in office, and six of Richard M. Daley's first seven, hitting an all-time peak of 974 in 1974.  That lost paradise?

Cities have always been built out of conflict, which often turns violent.  Nothing new here.  There were draft riots in cities all across the north during the Civil War.  There have been race riots in cities all across America throughout history, with an especially infamous one in Chicago 1919 after a black kid wandered over into the "whites only" section of Lake Michigan and was stoned to death.  729 people were slain "gangland style" in Cook County from 1919 to 1933.  "Gangs of New York" wasn't just a movie.

Yet, no matter what Trump and the MAGAs would tell you, it's not a problem exclusive to Democrat-run "hellholes". In 2021, the vast majority of the twelve states with the highest firearm mortality are red states.  The rate in Illinois was less than half that of the most dangerous state, Mississippi.  To be clear, violent crime is a major problem in Chicago, but the number of murders declined in 2022, and are declining even more so far this year.

As the growing rows of products kept under lock and key attest, shoplifting remains a major problem for Chicago retailers, but even Walgreen's recently admitted to their shareholders that they may have oversold that narrative.  Crime is usually cited when a store pulls up stakes, but most often it's a last straw rather the decisive one.  

The reality is this:  Compared to all other regions of the world, the United States has had a surplus of retail for decades.  Shopping and strip malls were massively overbuilt, eventually resulting in mass retrenchments, closures and even demolition.  The local department store chains that were the bedrock of each city have all but completely disappeared, closed or absorbed into Macy's or another of a shrinking number of mega-chains.  Lord & Taylor pulled out of Water Tower Place seventeen years ago, long before Covid or crime became issues.  

Borders Michigan Avenue superstore closes after only 16 years in business

For a brief period, North Michigan Avenue was heaven for book lovers.  In Water Tower Place, there was the iconic Kroch & Brentano's, and the two-level Rizzoli store with its handsome wood furnishings and beautiful art books.  Down the street was the idiosyncratic bookstore of Stuart Brent, with his ties to local authors and great selection of stuffed animals in the basement.  Britain's Waterstones added a huge flagship just off Michigan.  Then, in 1995, a Borders superstore set up shop across from Water Tower in what was originally the Bonwit Teller department store.  Within 18 months, all the other bookstores were gone.

This is how it works in this, our age of the supply chain.  It's all about consolidation, commoditization, and supersizing.  Sears and Wards and their catalogues wiped out thousands of Mom & Pop general stores, just as the great Chicago department stores would wipe out the small retailers along Lake Street.  Big box discounters destroyed most department store chains.  Louis Sullivan's ornate Carson Pirie Scott is now a Target. Amazon caught Sears and everyone else napping, and pretty much ate their lunch. Small, quirky bookstores were decimated by the rise of chains like Kroch's, which, in turn, were destroyed by superstores like Borders, Crown and Barnes & Noble.  And then Borders collapsed under its own weight, and we're back to quirky bookstores again.  And LPs outselling CD's.  Go figure.

Just as in Manhattan, where the Ladies Mile emporiums were replaced by Macy's and Gimbels at Herald Square, Chicago's retail center shifted from the Loop to North Michigan, and - no matter what anyone may claim - no one really knows where it goes next.  For what it's worth, the luxury retailers along Oak and Rush appear to be doing fine.

Transitions in cities are, inevitably, worrisome and painful, nowhere more cogently expressed than in our current disconnect between the city of Chicago getting ready to hand hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks to developers to make apartments out of emptying 1920's towers on LaSalle street, while a completely new city full of skyscrapers rises in Fulton Market. As always, the demand from banks and law firms for offices in sparkling new buildings is usually less a matter of necessity than prestige and vanity. (see: the destruction of Natalie de Blois's 52-story, recently completely rehabbed 270 Park Avenue in Manhattan for Jamie Dimon's $3 billion Ozymandian tower.) 

photograph: Vanished Chicago on Facebook

Paradise?  I try not to live in the past, but memories endure..  When I was a kid, we lived on Racine near Belmont, in an attic apartment atop a frame three-story.  On the first floor were the Lagenbergs, of whom we no longer spoke other than about the parties they used to have in the unfinished basement.  On the second was Mrs. Johnson, an elderly Swedish lady who lived there with her son, who after getting kicked in the head in a fight kept pretty much to himself.  Nearby, Lincoln & Belmont was our downtown, with Wieboldt's and Goldblatt's department stores, Maurice L. Rothschild, Stylebilt Hilton, and Hirsh, name in huge letters on its vitrolite corner sign.  There was a Woolworth and a Kresge's across the street from each other. Once, I decided to run away from home and called our number from the Meyer's pharmacy on Ashland to let my mom know.  She never picked up the phone, so I just went back.

While our entire extended family - grandparents, aunts and uncles - made the move to the suburbs, my folks bought a house in Albany Park, where Lawrence Avenue was lined with great deli's, the Terminal movie palace, Dutch Mill candies, Bresler's Ice Cream (run by a lovely older couple for whom the shop was obviously a lifelong dream), Maury's Hot Dogs, clothing stores, Schwartz's girdles.  And as soon as we moved in, the Jews began moving out.  (I didn't take it personally.) Little by little, all those wonderful places were gone, many moved to Devon Avenue which, after a few decades, they abandoned as well. So it goes.

still from the 1964 film, Goldstein

Almost every Saturday I took the L downtown to see a movie at the one of the Loop's incredible palaces.  The projectionist's union was strong, so there was always a 9 a.m. show.  My grandmother took me to see It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at the McVickers and I never recovered.  The theatre was clean, modern, and luxurious. The seats were reserved and sold in advance.  Ushers still guided you to your seat.  I waited expectantly for the start, but there was no image, only the sound of an overture with the full L.A. Philharmonic coming through the state-of-the-art stereo system as vividly as if they were in the room.  Then, the plush red curtains parted to reveal the bold, saturated colors of Saul Bass's brilliant line-art title sequence filling every inch of the massive, three-panel Cinerama screen, leading into stunning copter shots of a speeding car on a California desert highway.  My lifelong love of both The Movies and classical music began on that day.

Paradise is a narcotic, an idealized vision of a perfect past from which we're always in free-fall.  Time is like a river flowing endlessly through the universe and, Helen Heraclitus notwithstanding, you can't step into the same river twice.  Things change.

What William Goldman once said about Hollywood - "Nobody Knows Anything" - holds equally true when it comes to Chicago's future.  With all we've gone through since our founding, I seriously doubt Brandon Johnson will single-handedly be our final undoing.  He's just one part, good or bad, of a much larger, infinitely complex dynamic shaping what's to come, what might be.

One thing I do know - 100%. There is ZERO value in letting intelligent commentary about Chicago's problems and future drown in the bottomless sea of unrelenting, mindless snark, even if out of such narratives, political movements grow.  

MAGA metastasizes rural America's traditional distrust and hatred of cities.  The small-town America Paradise where everyone looks like yourself, and acts like yourself, and differences aren't a problem because they're neither encouraged or even allowed. Spurn the immigrants. Jail the drag queens.  Bully the transgenders. Burn the books.  We are all alike.  We will not be replaced.   Chicago is one big shooting gallery; it's emptying out as everybody moves to New Jerusalem Paradise (Florida, Texas, et. al.)

The polemic spun from such a mindset is not to be trusted. By its very nature, it abhors cities, which, like Chicago, are created to reconcile the irreconcilable:  different races, different nationalities, different religions, different genders, different viewpoints, different priorities and goals.  Not perfectly, often with brutality, sometimes with violence, but cities contain multitudes.  We are not all alike, but we are all together.  And that's worth fighting for.

Restoration, a sculpture by Milton Mizenburg Jr. "named in honor of the recent transformation of its surrounding Oakland community."

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

On a Neglected Landscape, Amanda Williams Creates a Powerful, Beautiful Statement - with Tulips


Traveling on the CTA's Green Line means looking at greystones and other classic buildings standing amidst vast tracts of vacant lots, most empty since the destruction of the 1960's riots.  

On several of those vacant lots around Prairie and 53rd, Chicago artist Amanda Williams has created a remarkable installation of sprawling beds of 100,000 red tulips. Lovely in themselves, the work's title "Redefining Redlining" tips off its greater meaning, the long era where banks deliberately starved of investment the areas most in need of it.

"We're planting the tulips in the shape of houses that should exist, "Williams told the Chicago Sun-Times, adding that she also took her inspiration from Dutch tulip mania of the 1600s, a craze in which, at is peak, a single flower sold for the price of a house, before values collapsed.  

A few blocks away from the plantings is Alfred Alschuler's 1914 B'Nai Sholom Temple, which became Greater Bethesda Baptist only decades later. Nearby is the George Maher designed mansion that eventually became home to White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.

Good bones" exist in the area's surviving buildings. Slowly, very slowly, new infill construction is filling in the gaps, but the emptiness remains. In Williams's flowerbeds, in its symbolism of past injustice expressed in visual delight, a terrible beauty is born, and a better future foreseen.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

On Chicago's Mayoral runoff

A very long time ago, I sat in the 39th ward headquarters and watched George McGovern give his last pre-election speech on TV. And I began, inwardly, to cry. Not because he spoke eloquently and from the heart about what was at stake, about the lives lost and mutilated by a senseless war, although he did. I cried because it suddenly hit me. It didn’t matter. Justice, healing, stopping the slaughter – it didn’t matter.

What mattered was that George McGovern had a high-pitched voice and spoke like you imagined a teacher in a one-room schoolroom would.  He spoke to the better angels of our nature.  He was a loser.
Richard Nixon was a master in speaking to our fears and appetite for vengence.  He was a realist, the emperor of silent majority "normal".  He was a "capable administrator." He was a winner.  (Like Al Capone and tax evasion, he would be brought down not by his mass murders, but for common grift in violating the niceties of democracy.)

Last night I was hit once again by that same emotion as I thought of next week's election.  We're afraid of crime.  I get it.  We're all for the underdog, but uneasy about what might happen if the usual elite isn't in charge.  I get that, too.  Everyone loves a winner, and a guy only a handful of voters could stomach when he ran for governor has become the Great White Hope now that's he's running one-on-one against an uppity, Afro-American official of a powerful union.  I get that, as well.

That there are real differences in policy between the two candidates may explain why so many political establishment figures are falling over themselves to get on the Vallas bandwagon, but not the warmth of the embrace.  It takes a large dollop of basic dishonesty to make-believe you don't see the facts of a "life-long" Democrat who seems most comfortable exchanging MAGA slurs with far-right radio hosts, or the "able administrator" who tends to leave behind messes each time he jumps from city to city like a traveling salesman keeping one step ahead of a process server, or the "take-charge guy" who says he knows nothing and blames everyone else each time his campaign is exposed endorsing racist and offensive statements.  

The Paul Vallas supported by public education destroyer Betty DeVos and Trumpist FOP head John Cantazara?   The man who called Trump's impeachment a "witchhunt?  Hey, that's some other guy.  The false Dimitri.  

We want to be safe.  We want to be sure. And once we buy into a pitchman's spiel that his elixir is the only thing standing between us and affliction, we're disinclined to look behind the curtain.

So, yeah, I'm betting Vallas will win comfortably next Tuesday.  And, yes, a part of me will be relieved Brandon Johnson didn't get in.  The rest of me will just be disgusted.



Friday, December 09, 2022

A Letter to the GSA Opposing the Proposed Demolition of the Century and Consumers Buildings

I am writing to strongly oppose the proposal to demolish two classic skyscrapers in downtown Chicago.  This proposal is unacceptable on several levels.

1.  The Consumers and Century buildings are indispensable landmark-quality structures that typify Chicago architecture. The Consumers is from the distinguished Chicago firm of Mundie and Jensen, and is an elegant terra-cotta clad tower that typifies the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan 's definition of a skyscraper as "a proud and soaring thing".  The Century Building is from another historic firm, Holabird & Roche, and marks the transition from the original Chicago School or architecture, to Art Deco. It's Neo-Manueline terra cotta ornament is unique.  It holds down its corner with power and grace.

2.  The Security justifications for demolition of these buildings are, to be frank, specious.  While one never wants to minimize the concerns of members of our Judiciary, those concerns cannot be allowed to govern policy solely on the grounds, not of reality, but of power.

The Consumers and Century are claimed to be an existential threat to Federal employees, yet only yards from the Dirksen building stands the Berghoff restaurant building, whose roof would provide a dangerous staging area for those looking to inflict harm.  More to the point, directly across the street is the Citadel Center, a glass-clad tower whose south facade opens vistas directly into the windows of the Dirksen Building.  As Citadel is winding down its Chicago operations, the possibility of unoccupied floors grows.

Even more importantly, the range of a common hunting rifle extends up to 400 yards, a long-range rifle double that distance, which means the same threat claimed to be presented by the Consumers and Century is also presented from a large number of tall buildings, privately-controlled, on the periphery of the Dirksen Building, including the glass-facaded former Home Federal Building on State (which ironically would have a clear view of the Dirksen Courthouse should the Consumers and Century be demolished), the Bankers Building (many floors of which are dedicated to transient hotel rooms), the Edison, Marquette and former Continental Bank buildings.  This, of course, would also apply to a terrorist seeking to launch an incendiary device.

The Consumers and Century Buildings have lived in peaceful co-existence for over half a century, ever since the Dirksen building opened in 1964.  There has never been, at least in Chicago, a single federal judge or employee killed or injured from a sniper shooting from outside their building.  The sad reality is that in the one case where the family members of a judge were tragically murdered, it was not at a work site, but at their residence.  In the case of incendiary devices, it should be remembered that Timothy McVeigh did not drive into the Alfred P. Murrah building to destroy it, but simply parked next to it on the street.

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that a nation willing to trade away liberty for a little temporary safety deserves neither Liberty nor Safety.  To apply this to the present case, what is being proposed is trading two essential pieces of Chicago's urban fabric for a "security" that is both illusionary and dangerous.

3. Both structures are essential contributors to the State Street Streetwall.  Although the promise is to replace them with a park, their demolition would be the equivalent to the wholesale damage done to the center cities of the United States by destroying historic structures for parking lots, like pulling front teeth and replacing them only with painted gums.  More to the point, the proposal to change the Dirksen Building entrance to one off of that State Street park would destroy the entire concept another famed architect, Mies van der Rohe, developed for the Federal Center, in which all three buildings - the Dirksen Kluczynski and Post Office - revolve around the great plaza on Dearborn Street to create a sustaining civic space.

4.  The GSA was already at the point of approving a developer's plan to restore the Consumers and Century buildings as residential structures, when, inexplicably, the rug was pulled out from under them at the last minute.  Despite the GSA's long, often indefensible, laundry list of provisos in its request for comments, I still believe that was a viable plan, with security requiring approval - or even control - by the GSA.

However, local preservationists have presented proposals that meet all of those provisos, turning the buildings into document archives and other back-office operations, with the GSA in full control of security including removal of windows and other modifications where required that do not vandalize basic design integrity.  The GSA should accept these proposals.  The $52 million already earmarked for their destruction should more than cover the cost.

5. Conclusion.

Even a quick glance at the GSA's massive portfolio of properties demonstrates its proud history of enhancing America's cities with superior buildings, including both Mies's Federal Center, and, more recently the award-winning replacement for the Murrah Building designed by another great architect, Carol Ross Barney.  The destruction of the Consumers and Century would stand in stark opposition to everything the GSA's historic legacy stands for.  

We can do better.  We must do better.  Save, repurpose and  restore the Consumers and Century buildings.


Lynn Becker

Illustration #1: distance between Dirksen and Berghoff buildings

Illustration #2: distance between Citadel Center and Dirksen Building (Century Building in far distance right)

Friday, January 28, 2022

It's Delicious! It's Colorful! It's Fun! It's Plastic! Only through Sunday, The Plastic Bag Store comes to the Wrigley Building.

You have only through Sunday to see weird, wacky, very fun, but far from frivolous The Plastic Bag Store at the Wrigley Building. The "anchor attraction" of this year's Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival,    The store is stocked entirely with very real looking fruit, vegetables, fish and pastries, and packaged goods for parody brands - all made of washed and repurposed plastic bags and trash.

The creation of a team headed by Brooklyn-based designer, puppeteer and filmmaker Robin Frohardt, the installation also includes showing of puppet films - unfortunately sold out - in which an anthropologist far in future works to reconstruct the lost culture of the civilization of "the ancient customers", guided by a note placed in a bottle by Helen, a Met Museum custodian living today, and by the "millions of found artifacts" that are predominantly plastic, which, because plastic doesn't biodegrade, are the most common remnants of our culture to survive.

The Plastic Bag Store that you can visit at the Wrigley is, in concept, that future anthropologists reconstruction of what our society was like.

There's also magazines, and a "time machine" that allows you to put in a plastic bottle today and see what it will evolve into in a thousand years.  (Spoiler alert:  it's the same plastic bottle.)

The level of creativity is amazing.  The vegetables look just like vegetables, flowers, flowers, cakes and cupcakes, real pastries.  There's even a deli counter . . .

... and a prodigious selection of packaged goods (be sure to look at the backs)  that is truly impressive and inventive . .

It took me back to my childhood, and to the Wacky Packs that were a really big deal among 7-10 year-olds of my generation.  

They were inserts trading cards - later stickers - that came with nickel packs of Topps bubble gum that offered up parodies of popular brands and their packaging.  For my demographic, they were snarky-fun high-culture.

Originally exhibited in Times Square, it took a year to create the over 10,000 objects in the installation. "I collected bags from friends and family members," says Frohardt in her Youtube video.  "I had people save things, I rescued bags the street, I pulled bags from the trash, I pulled them from recycling bins. And then we designed all the packaging.  We had to wash every bottle, and label them."

"My aim, "she says, "isn't to make people feel bad. My aim is holding up the mirror and highlighting the absurdity of all this, and fueling the fire of public outage over all this."

Indeed, you won't find any any numbers or charts at The Plastic Bag Store.  "I didn't want to overwhelm with statistics," says Frohardt, "but more just wanted to create a kind of familiar, visually tactile experience that [people] could relate to or understand in a more visceral way than just a bunch of numbers."

Still, the facts are staggering:

The world produces 5 trillion plastic bags a year.  No more than 3% are recycled. Plastic doesn't biodegrade.  It breaks down into ever smaller pieces of itself, with an increasing toxic effect on living things.  Parts of north Pacific are estimated to hold six times more plastic than plankton.  Ingested as food, often increasingly scarce, it can kill from blocking the digestive system or poking holes in organs.  UNESCO estimates 100,000 marine mammals die each year from plastic pollution.  Of 61 dead whales found in the Phillipines, 45 of the deaths were traceable to plastic ingestion.  One young whale was found to have 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch floating landfill, twice the size of Texas, is mostly made up of plastic.

There are alternatives.  I have my own collection of David Lee Csisko reusable bags, "made from 100% post-consumer recycled content . . . the equivalent of three plastic bottles" to cut down on plastic bag use, but sometimes I forget to bring one with me, and I'm back to sin.  New York City passed a controversial ban on plastic bags in 2020.  In Chicago, we have 7 cent "plastic bag indulgences".

Will we ever get our act in order?  Doubtful.  Remember that decades ago we had a perfect recycling system for pop - glass Coke, Pepsi, etc. bottles that you paid a deposit on, and returned to the store for a refund, but we were too cheap and lazy to lug the bottles back and forth once we could get our beverages in eternally polluting plastic.  "Efficiency," they said.  "More hygenic," they said.  And we said, ".... yeah, why not!"  

So, in summary, we're killing our fellow animals, the environment, the planet, and, eventually, ourselves. But what a way to go!

Again, you have only through this Sunday, January 30th, to see the spectacular The Plastic Bag Store at the Wrigley Building.  Frohardt and team will show you a really good time, and you won't even have to think about the sobering implications of her non-guilting, deliciously colorful fun-ride.  But plastic leaves an aftertaste, and odds are, sometimes afterwards, you will.