Archive for 2007

Angelo Testa’s final work

29 December 2007
Categories: Chicago

I know nothing about Angelo Testa.

I am a railfan and historian, and as such I’m fascinated by the forgotten and defunct rail lines of Chicago. One of these is the Lakewood Branch, a fragment of an old line that runs north from Goose Island. At right is a shot of the Lakewood’s current terminus as it fades out into a pair of cracks in the asphalt of Diversey Parkway. Until recently, the sole remaining customer along this branch was the Peerless Confection Company, manufacturer of a wide assortment of hard candies.

Via this rail line, once or twice a week, Peerless took deliveries of sugar and corn syrup to feed its large, shiny copper kettles. Here is an excellent photo essay describing a delivery in 1999. The travail of running trains through rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods is illustrative of how far rail-supplied industry has declined in Chicago.

Chicago was once one of the nation’s biggest candymakers, but decades of ill-advised tariffs designed to protect the American sugar farmer have made it utterly untenable to be a large-scale American confectioner. Peerless was one of Chicago’s last surviving confectioners, but it finally gave up the fight earlier this year.

A few days ago I took a camera to the Peerless factory to see what was left and maybe catch a few interesting shots. I was unprepared for its sheer size. The factory is an entire city block long, running along the east side of Lakewood Avenue south of Diversey. The buildings at the south end, along Schubert Avenue, are the oldest part of the factory, a seemingly random assortment of common-brick boxes, painted white, with simple corbeling at the cornices. To the north are a pair of much newer precast-concrete behemoths, utterly nondescript and indistinguishable from each other at ground level.

The land where it stands, at the boundary between Lincoln Park and Lakeview, is prime territory for Chicago’s continuing, go-go, mindlessly unstoppable condo-building boom, so what I found that day was no surprise. The entire factory was surrounded by Jersey barriers, and the walls were spray-painted with fluorescent orange No Parking warnings. A similarly coloured sticker on the main entrance showed that the city Department of Water Management stopped by on Christmas Eve to remove the building’s fire meter “before demolition,” but found no one home. Across Lakewood to the west, the site of a former baking company building was already a moonscape of brick and concrete rubble. The Peerless factory is doomed. It may already be gone.

Yet what’s this object mounted on the northwest corner of the building? A jumble of red and black square aluminum tubing, perhaps meant to symbolize the crystallization of sugar, with a name in jaunty lowercase cursive displayed below: angelotesta. Surely it’s artwork. Abstract, modern, minimalist, and totally not my style. But artwork none the less.

Who was Angelo Testa? I’d never heard of him. The web has plenty of listings of his works for sale, so I guess he was fairly prolific, but it’s kind of thin in the biographical department. According to the one decent article I found online—notably, available only via Google cache—this sculpture was Testa’s last. In response to a commission from Peerless, Testa designed five different maquettes in the late 1970s before succumbing to cancer in 1984; another artist completed this work and it was installed in 1986. One of the other maquettes, for a design that was not chosen, is up for auction and expected to garner four or five thousand dollars. This implies that, despite my ignorance of him, Angelo Testa was apparently not an unimportant artist. In addition, it seems that most of Testa’s work was in textiles—so a giant metal sculpture is fairly unique in his portfolio.

The wall on which it is mounted is going away—so what’s to happen to Angelo Testa’s final work?


[Follow-up for August 2011: Thanks to a niece of Angelo Testa, I have learned that the Elmhurst Art Museum was able to acquire the Peerless artwork. However, the work remains in storage pending an expansion of the museum which would require a substantial fund-raising effort. According to curator Aaron Ott, the museum is amenable to speaking with any “individuals or companies that may be interested in installing the work on their location.”]


Watching the beer wars

16 December 2007
Categories: Chicago

Larry Bell has big, big hops.

Last year, as described in this excellent Chicago Reader article, the Illinois distribution rights to the Bell’s Brewery brands were sold from one distributor to another. This was a perfectly legal transaction made possible by an outmoded but fully active law that protects distributors’ rights over those of the breweries, a law that made sense when all breweries were gigantic megalopolies, but which is utterly skewed when it comes to microbreweries and small craft brewers such as Bell’s.

In meeting with his new distributor, Larry Bell became concerned that his wide variety of brands would not be adequately marketed in Illinois, and that they would get lost among the Very-Big-Name Brands the distributor also carried. Rather than (as he saw it) suffer under this new regime, Bell chose to exit the Illinois market entirely, effectively killing around 10% of his total business (most of it in Chicago) for the sake of principle.

As a Michigander I’m a fan of Bell’s beers. Now an expat living in Chicago, I was saddened by the loss of the opportunity to purchase Bell’s here—a choice I had long taken for granted—but respected Bell for his stand against the distributors, who in my opinion have grown to be as all-powerful as the breweries were back when the Beer Industry Fair Dealing Act was written. In solidarity, I tried to remember to pick up some Bell’s whenever I returned to the Great Lakes State.

Now, a year later, Bell’s has returned to Chicago—sort of. Larry Bell (and his legal team) found a loophole in the law, one that implies new brands—not merely extensions of existing brands, as Heineken found when it tried to bring Heineken Premium Light here under a different distributor—are not subject to prior distribution deals. With that in mind, Bell’s Brewery has created three new brands under a “Kalamazoo” name: Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale, Kalamazoo Porter, and Kalamazoo IPA. By leaving the Bell’s logo as well as the Bell’s name off the label (except for the “Brewed and bottled by Bell’s Brewery, Inc.” at the bottom), and by using new brewing recipes, they have followed the letter (and perhaps the spirit) of the law and have managed, so far, to bring the Amber Ale into the city via a new distributor.

Of course, the former Bell’s distributor has threatened not only to sue, but to make the legal battle as protracted and expensive for Bell as they can.

This evening we stopped at one of the dozen or so purveyors of Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale and sampled a couple of pints. It’s very tasty. Heavy on the hops, like most Bell’s creations, making for a somewhat bitter finish that’s close to an IPA. But leading into that is a rich, creamy smoothness that I think is superior to Bell’s standard-issue Amber Ale. It is well worth seeking out. I’m looking forward to Kalamazoo Porter—and especially Kalamazoo IPA—coming to town.

What impresses me most about Larry Bell is not his fearless stance against the distribution syndicates, nor his audacity in creating new brews specifically for the Illinois market.

It’s the fact that the new label for Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale depicts a close-up shot of the classic 1887 Michigan Central Railroad depot in downtown Kalamazoo. Clearly visible in the shot is the sign over the depot’s main platform which reads, in part, “Kalamazoo—Chicago, 138 miles.”

Big hops.

Yeah, right

7 December 2007
Categories: Rants

Okay, tin-foil hat time. I try not to get political, but this just bugs me.

Yesterday the President George W. Bush announced the phone number of a hotline that offers counseling to people who are at risk of losing their homes because they’re caught in the subprime lending crunch. He said the phone number to call was 1-800-xxx-HOPE.

Except the actual number is 1-888xxx-HOPE.

The 1-800 number is really for the Freedom Christian Academy, which “offers religious-based curriculum for home schooling and is located in Ponder, Texas, northwest of Dallas.” Oops.

A simple mistake? Maybe.

But I think not.

Bush is heavily into grassroots-style, Bible-thumping Christianity. He purports to be from Texas. His “No Child Left Behind” initiative has so screwed up the education system in public schools that expensive private schools and home schooling are the only real options remaining for parents who don’t want their children to grow up to be idiots or terrorists.

One is chance. Two is coincidence. Three means, you should have ducked the first two times.

A train crashes, and then so does the press

5 December 2007
Categories: Rants, Transportation

On Friday morning, 30 November 2007, Amtrak’s Pere Marquette arriving at Chicago from Grand Rapids crashed while passing through Norfolk Southern’s 47th Street freight yard on the south side of town. Preliminary reports suggest that the engineer was speeding in a reduced-speed block and was unable to stop in time when the tail end of an double-stack wellcar train appeared in his path.

This story has so many aspects I want to address, it’s hard to know where to begin.

I’m sure heads will roll for this incident. Probably the engineer, who had only three months of certification. Possibly even some of the other people in the locomotive cab, if they provided distraction or are found to have sat idly by without commenting on the excessive speed of the train.

Yet I think it illustrates more the trouble today with the American passenger rail system. There are dozens of different signal aspects an engineer has to learn, many of them completely different from one railroad to another. The Federal Railroad Administration should have long ago mandated a nationwide unified signaling system—and allocated some federal funds to put it into effect. Meanwhile, our passenger trains are sharing the rails with freight trains. Traffic conflicts will easily delay a passenger train, while the wear and tear of heavy freight trains makes it impossible to run passenger trains at a decent speed along those same tracks.

We should have had a high-speed passenger rail system in this country long ago, and not just the half-assed experiment of the Acela trains on the east coast. I could go on and on about everything that is wrong with the American rail system, but I would rather go into the other thing that bugs me about this story: the bad press coverage.

I wish I could find the article I read a couple of weeks ago, I think in the Chicago Reader, about reporters parroting the version of the story told by officials in press conferences, never bothering to think for themselves or take the time to make a few phone calls and ask a few questions and determine whether maybe, just maybe, the officials are telling the story in a way that puts themselves in the best possible light.

For one thing, many sources reported that there were five people in the locomotive cab at the time of the crash, including a fresh relief crew that had just come on board at Hammond, Indiana. If so, the press failed to mention, this apparently would have been a violation of FRA rules. However, railfans on the Yahoo IlliniRail discussion group noted, among plenty of other complaints about poor press coverage, that there were only three in the cab (a rail foreman, the engineer, and a student engineer) and the relief crew was seated elsewhere in the train.

More significant to me, the local papers were told by the NTSB about a police security camera at the yard that had recorded the crash, but said that the video had not been released to the press. As late as Monday their online sites were echoing this official line, but by mid-afternoon there was breaking news: the video had been posted on the Internet. This was suddenly the hottest topic for the evening news, and every local TV station (and now, both the Sun-Times and Tribune web sites) carried clips of the wreck.

Even today, the latest article on the Tribune web site (dated December 4, by transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch) says, “A Chicago police surveillance video of the crash… made its way onto the Internet on Monday.”

I found the video online, by going to YouTube and typing “Amtrak crash.” Guess what, folks—according to the posting itself, the video was posted on December 1st! Saturday! A day after the crash itself!

“Sorry,” the news outlets must be saying to us. “Weekend. Sleeping.”

One thing no one has yet seen fit to mention is that the time stamp on the video, assuming it’s accurate, shows the crash happened at 11:25 AM CT. According to Amtrak’s schedule, the Pere Marquette was due at Chicago Union Station at 10:30—so the train was running more than an hour late. (Yes, the numbers show only 55 minutes, but 47th Street is nearly six miles south of CUS. With the intervening yards and slow zones, there’s no way a train could get there in five minutes.) By the way, the Pere Marquette is a less than four hour trip. By my accounting that means the route took more than 25% longer than it was supposed to.

I’m hoping this will be addressed by the NTSB’s investigation; after all, their vice chairman was quoted as saying, “We will be looking at what the engineer was doing and what he was thinking and … [we’ll] try to get an idea of his mental state at the time he went through the signal.”

Maybe the engineer was thinking, “Last run of the week, time to go home, but I’m late late late… gotta go, gotta go.”

Still, why anyone would cruise into that “box canyon” of moving freight cars, with sight distance severely reduced by the walls of steel on either side, at forty miles per hour, is beyond me. Let the heads roll.

But don’t expect to hear the whole story in the news.

A plumbing saga

30 November 2007
Categories: Narratives

We have a house with two-pipe forced hot water heat. I think it’s the best. It has consistent warmth, it’s virtually silent, and it doesn’t reduce the humidity in the air like forced air does even when a humidifier is attached to the blower. Plus the big cast-iron radiator in the bathroom is a great way to dry bath towels and keep them warm for the next use.

Recently, I had to do some maintenance work on the boiler. This house and I have a karmic attachment, so whenever I perform work on it, the house responds positively and the result is beyond satisfying. Of course, each job still usually requires more than one trip to the hardware store, and is never complete until I’ve managed to draw at least a little blood… but that’s par for the course.

Anyway, I discovered the boiler had some plumbing issues when I stumbled across a quirk of its operation while firing it up in the fall. If the control system at the boiler has no power, and the thermostat upstairs is sending an “ON” signal, when the control system is powered up the boiler will immediately start firing—but the control will then ignore any subsequent signals from the thermostat, most notably the “OFF” command. This of course can lead to the boiler firing continuously.

I discovered this the hard way, by leaving the boiler unattended for a few days. When I returned, I found the radiators hot to the touch, the room temperature about 20 degrees above the thermostat setting, and the boiler running dangerously over pressure.

Obviously, the pressure relief valve, which should have opened wide at 30 psi to dump hot water all over the floor, was shot. To replace it, I had to drain the entire system, which took a while but not nearly as long as I’d feared. Then I pulled the valve off and drove over to my local Home Depot.

The Home Depot takes a lot of flak, much of it justified, for killing off mom-and-pop hardware stores. But that’s not my issue with them. My issue is that if you’re looking to build something new, Home Depot is an adequate place to start; but if you’re looking to repair or restore anything in a house more than about ten years old, you’re probably going to be SOL there. I’ve even been unable to find something as simple and basic as a round cover grate for a basement floor drain.

I showed the dead valve to two Home Depot associates, one supposedly the “plumbing department guy,” and neither had a clue as to what they were looking at beyond guessing that they didn’t have one to sell. They pointed me toward an Ace hardware several blocks up the road. The folks at this Ace had to shrug too.

So then I did what I should have done in the first place: I went to my favourite hardware store in town, Clark–Devon Hardware. This place is a sprawling collection of interconnected smaller buildings, seemingly cluttered but really just stocked to the rafters with everything a homeowner or contractor might need. The staff there is usually very helpful—there’s even one guy who hangs out in the nuts and bolts section, ready to spring into action to help you find exactly the nut or bolt or screw or washer that you need to complete your job.

That day was no exception. I showed the valve to the guy in the plumbing department, he took one look at it, said “OK,” and went to a cabinet where he pulled out an exact replacement. No problem at all.

I took the valve home and installed it on the boiler, only to discover the problem was bigger than I had imagined. When I opened the shutoff valve on the supply pipe, the sound was not one of rushing water but rather the quiet hiss of a mere trickle through a constricted opening. Turns out a pressure reducing valve just downstream of the shutoff valve, meant to fill the boiler at 12 psi and then act as a check valve in case of a drop in supply pressure, was barely functioning. A lever on the valve to force it open (i.e. “fast fill” mode) would not budge. It would have taken hours, probably days, to fill the entire heating system with this valve in place, and the fact that it was incapable of correcting for low system pressure was dangerous as well. I had yet another valve to replace. (A later autopsy showed the valve’s innards to be caked solid with rust.)

Knowing better than to waste time again, I returned to Clark–Devon directly. Actually, my wife went for me, since it was rapidly getting cold outside and I was unwilling to wait until the weekend rolled around again before continuing work. Unfortunately, she did not have the valve with her, since I had left it attached to the boiler—I’d found that the shutoff valve was also worn out and passing water, so I felt it best to allow it to drain through the system rather than directly onto the floor. She found a guy who seemed helpful, and she put me on the phone with him, and between us we were able to determine that they didn’t have an equivalent valve in stock, but could get one in within a day. So I gave him the go-ahead, and he said he’d call when it came in.

That was the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. The following Sunday morning, not having heard from them (but having been out of town during the holiday) I headed to Clark–Devon. There I found a service desk with no trace of the part nor any paperwork on it, and a guy in the plumbing department—oddly, the same guy who had found my relief valve in about two shakes—who was utterly unresponsive and unwilling to help us, suggesting we come back the next day when the guy who had placed the order would be in.

This is the first time Clark–Devon has ever dropped the ball on me, and I’m not going to let it colour my overall positive opinion of that store. I’ll go back there in the future, but probably not for plumbing parts. Likewise, a small neighbourhood hardware store that I stumbled across on my way home was also unable to help. (It seems like part of the problem is that in order to compete with the big boxes, mom-and-pop hardware stores have had to shrink their basic hardware supplies and now try to bring in customers by focusing more on housewares and small appliances.)

So on Monday, instead of dealing further with Clark–Devon, I called a local plumbing supply house. The place opens at an ungodly early hour, and is one of those places that caters almost exclusively to working tradesmen, a dingy brick building with a decrepit sign out front and a heavy steel door that rings a shockingly loud klaxon bell every time it’s opened (in case everyone is in the back and not manning the front counter). I won’t mention the company’s name, not because they weren’t helpful—ultimately they were, and had the part I needed—but because I’m going to have to mock them a bit to tell this story, which in my opinion gets a little goofy now.

I called them and explained that I had a feeder valve for a boiler that needed replacing, one that reduces the inflow pressure to 12 psi, with 1/2-inch threaded fittings on both sides. I called it a “boiler feed valve” because that’s the term the original manufacturer used for it. I had the tag from the original valve and told the guy on the phone the manufacturer’s name and all the specs I had. The guy said they didn’t carry that brand and started talking about a powered feed valve, i.e. one that would need an electrical connection to operate. This didn’t sound right to me, so I explained further what the valve did and where it was located in the system. He said, “you’re talking about a pressure reducing valve.” I said, “yeah, I guess I am,” and he replied that they had plenty of those in stock, so there would be no need for him to set one aside for me. I said I’d be right over and hung up.

When I got there it was still early, the dawn clouds making a gorgeous pink-and-purple display down Milwaukee Avenue toward the city. In front of the place an overweight guy was standing in the alcove, having perhaps his first smoke of the day. That he was nearly blocking the entrance and had a distinctly unwelcoming mien is neither here nor there.

A Bell & Gossett FB-38 Pressure Reducing Valve, looking beautiful in fire engine red... too bad mine came in plain, unpainted brass.Inside, I explained—again—what I needed. The young man at the counter deferred to an older guy, in his forties, who better knew the ropes. I said, “it’s a pressure reducing valve.” He pulled out a valve that didn’t look right at all, with 3/4-inch fittings that were oriented all wrong and with specs that didn’t add up for my application. I said, “this looks more like the relief valve I already have, except the direction of flow is reversed.” He said, “this is on a steam system?” and I said, or rather repeated since I’d already told him this, “no, two-pipe hot water.” He said, “and this valve is where, exactly?” I said, “on the supply side, just downstream of the city water cutoff.” He said, “oh, you need a feeder valve,” and handed over the exactly right part.

One which, according to the box it came in, is a Bell & Gossett FB-38 Pressure Reducing Valve.

I felt like I’d been dope-slapped, or had fallen through the looking-glass. It was one of those situations where specialists (and this is true in any field) have their own argot, a specialized language that they think only they understand, and when a civilian (i.e. non-specialist) appears, speaking the specialists’ own language, the tendency is to think that they don’t know what they’re talking about, even if they do. Which would mean I was caught in the trap of knowing exactly the specs of what I needed, and calling it by its proper name, and having everyone I spoke to hear something completely different.  It didn’t help that the specialists were inconsistent in the terminology of their own specialization.

Either that, or I was dealing with a bunch of idiots.

Anyway, following the replacement of a few other pipes in the feed line that were quadruple-bypass-sclerotic from rust, I succeeded in putting the boiler plumbing back in working order. With the new feeder—ahem, pressure reducing—valve, the system was quickly filled and bled of air, and I fired the burner up once again for another bitter Chicago winter.

It’s now Friday. The boiler has been happily cooking away—and shutting off on cue—for two days now, and all is well. Meanwhile, my supposed parts order from Clark–Devon still has not resulted in a phone call from them.