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."