Archive for the ‘Chicago’ category

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Ballpark, in Six Easy Steps

14 June 2013
Categories: Chicago, Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

Step 1: Acquire a professional sports team that plays in an aging but hallowed and much-beloved stadium.

Step 2: Declare the team incapable of financial solvency if it doesn’t receive a new stadium.

Step 3: Threaten to move the team out of town if it doesn’t get everything it wants.

Step 4: Hire a top-dollar design firm to create a stadium plan that pays lip service to “tradition” and “history” but satisfies neither.

Step 5: Demand millions of dollars in public funding to build the new stadium.

Step 6: Overhaul—or raze—the old stadium, replacing it with something that is both an architectural monstrosity and a soulless fan experience.

Am I joking? Let’s see…

Comiskey Park, built in 1910 for the Chicago White Sox. A classic of the early modern era albeit with its share of obstructed views. Itasca and Addison, Illinois are among the threatened move-to cities. The replacement, U.S. Cellular Field, is built at a cost of $167 million by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, a government agency. For supposedly historical reasons, the new stadium puts home plate nearest 35th Street—since that’s where it was in Comiskey, which stood a block to the north. As a result, the view toward the outfield faces some of the city’s most notorious housing projects (now razed and vacant lots) instead of the spectacular skyline to the north. A dozen follow-up renovations in as many years can never fix that.

Soldier Field, originally built as a memorial to fallen American servicemen following World War I, and home of the Chicago Bears since 1971. After a proposal for a domed replacement tanks, Hoffman Estates and Aurora are floated as options. The Chicago Park District, which owns the stadium, pays about 62% of a $660 million renovation. The resulting transformation retains the original colonnades but dwarfs them beneath an enormous and incongruous silver alien-spaceship-looking structure. Meanwhile inside, the stadium *loses* 5,000 seats, so that after a two-thirds-billion-dollar reno it is the smallest in the NFL.

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule… that being Chicago Stadium, home of the Blackhawks since its opening in 1929, and the Bulls since 1967. A grand old edifice and site of many historic events—but really not much more than a glorified barn. You know, the kind of place hockey is meant to be played in. Owners Reinsdorf (Bulls) and Wirtz (Blackhawks), neither one a saint, nevertheless do not (so far as I have found) threaten to pull out of town. They build the United Center without using public funds, getting only various tax breaks in return. I say “only” because the estimated $5 million per year in property tax savings seems a pittance compared to… say, Soldier Field’s cost to the rest of us taxpayers. And the UC is not a bad arena, though it’s much, much better for sports than it is for concerts.

So be prepared for the worst, Cubs fans. Because the Ricketts have already completed steps 1 through 5 like clockwork, as if they have read the Gimme a New Stadium Handbook cover to cover. Step 6 is inevitable. And as much as they want to pretend that their Wrigley Field overhaul will be sympathetic to the landmark structure, that it’s a “restoration” to some supposed (but unprecedented) historic ideal, that it’s all for our benefit, nothing about a massive Jumbotron is meant to improve the fan experience—it is purely for profit.

This for a team that is “incapable of financial solvency” (my words, but strongly implied by numerous public statements by the owners), despite having the highest operating income—and fourth highest revenue—in Major League Baseball.

The Trib’s Cheryl Kent wrote a well-reasoned overview of the Wrigley Field plan from an architectural and urban-planning standpoint, revealing that despite including several good improvements it suffers from a severe lack of authenticity and a shortsightedness that runs counter to any claims by the owners of being “in it for the long run.”

 

Canning the “smart cans” for a while (if not longer)

10 April 2012
Categories: Chicago

Vanishing actEarlier this week, the trash can disappeared from the street corner near my office. The only sign of its prior existence: two quartets of severed bolts protruding from the darkened pavement, their shiny tops a bright testament to their recent rendezvous with a reciprocating saw.

Chicago Tribune article explains the disappearance: it was a BigBelly “smart can,” and it was deemed a potential hazard to next month’s NATO summit.

This raised all sorts of questions for me.

Are the BigBelly cans a good idea?

Yes, I think so. They’re solar-powered, so they require no infrastructure to install: just plant and go. Their internal compactors mean that they have much greater capacity than ordinary cans, and their output will take up less space in a landfill, which is a huge issue for the city these days. Also, according to the Trib, they send an email when they get full, a system that appears to result in quick response—in addition to its labor-saving benefit to workers that only have to empty cans that need emptying. Fuel savings and reduced air pollution are other positive factors. This is a technology that works.

How much of that labor-saving benefit is now being negated by having to remove the BigBelly cans, and later re-install them?

A lot, I’ll bet. Most of it, maybe—the cans were only installed a year ago. And yes, the work is being done by city workers so we’re all paying for it. Meanwhile who knows when, if ever, the smart cans—which cost nearly $4,000 each, part of a $2.5 million deal—will return to Chicago’s downtown streets. (“When the city’s public safety departments have deemed it appropriate to do so,” says the Streets&San spokesperson. Uh-huh.)

But isn’t the city right in thinking them less easy to check “for anything dangerous”?

Are we safe yet?Well, yes, I suppose so. With their drop-box hatches it’s not all that easy to view the contents of BigBelly cans. But aside from that, they’re not all that much more opaque than old-fashioned wire baskets, as the photo at right shows—the wire baskets house solid plastic inserts. Let’s be realistic: it is, unfortunately, not that difficult to make an effective, er, “dangerous anything” that can be readily camouflaged as innocuous-looking garbage, such that any wire basket more than half-filled with trash will conceal it from all but the most thorough checks (i.e., dumping everything out and sorting through it).

So, if it’s not likely to make much of a safety difference, why do it?

Here’s the rub: if something hidden in a wire basket goes bang and hurts people, the word is that it was hidden “in a trash container.” If it goes bang in a BigBelly can, that brand name is splashed all over every headline—right above a big colour photo of mayhem and destruction. In short, this is all a matter of pre-emptive face-saving on the part of the city, which has an option to buy many more BigBelly cans in the future.

I don’t blame the city for doing this; I really think it’s in our best interest, although I’m still a little disappointed to see these neat pieces of smart tech vanish from the streets. But let’s not pretend it’s going to make anyone any safer. It’s no substitute for what’s really needed, which is for every member of the public to take personal responsibility for public safety: to maintain awareness, to report suspicious activity, to “see something, say something.”

And finally, the big question few in this town ever seem to see fit to ask…

Which of former Mayor Daley’s friends and/or family made a buck off the BigBelly deal?

Come on, you know that’s what makes this “The City That Works.”

Da city dat works

7 October 2011
Categories: Chicago

There’s a famous quote by longtime Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, spoken to the press during the mayhem in the midst of the 1968 Democratic Convention:

“Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all: the policeman isn’t there to create disorder—the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

It’s a popular quote among many factions. Those who view the chaos in the summer of ’68 as a “police riot” will cite the quote as an example of a brutal fascist’s detachment from reality. Fans of the late mayor, or those taking a broader view of Chicago history, are amused by it: “oh, that Boss and his malapropisms,” they’ll say.

But this morning my wife had an epiphany, when a different interpretation suddenly occurred to her: maybe Hizzoner didn’t misspeak—maybe we misheard him.

We’ve seen the “Superfans” on Saturday Night Live, with their famous catchphrase: “Da Bears.” And I often hear cops on the police band radio saying they’re headed to gas up the patrol car at “Nort an’ Troop”—i.e., the city maintenance facility at North Avenue and Throop Street. That hard plosive (‘d’ or ‘t’) in the place of a softer fricative (‘th’) is a large part of the Chicago patois.

So maybe what Mr. Daley said was:

The policeman is there to preserve dis order.

“Dis” as in, “this.” As in: my order, my office, my administration, my regime.

It still falls into the realm of cocky, self-confident bluster, but that was King Richard for you.

To the Onion A.V. Club: You’re welcome

28 July 2011

The Onion A.V. Club recently began airing a series of short films titled Pop Pilgrims. Their intro sums up the purpose of Pop Pilgrims better than I could:

“When the A.V. Club travels, we always make time to visit pop culture landmarks. If something memorable happened in the world of film, TV, books, or music, we want to go there. We’re not just tourists, we’re pop pilgrims.”

The series is a lot of fun, and very informative. Yet up to now, I hadn’t really given much thought to how they were getting their information.

Most of the shorts include interviews with local “experts,” people with firsthand (or at least close secondhand) knowledge of the sites: a pastor from the church in the final scene of The Graduate, say, or the former special counsel who helped to bring Animal House to the University of Oregon campus. That’s a great way to add to the pop lore, especially when the interviewees let us in on some lesser-known facts about the site. The short about Friday Night Lights was particularly illustrative on the ingenious use of a single physical location as many different on-screen places.

In their latest installment, the first of three in Chicago, they take on The Blues Brothers. And beyond the location interview at the Music Court bridge in Jackson Park—site of the Nazi rally in the movie—it would appear that a major portion of the three-minute short was put together by someone sitting down with some editing software, a DVD of The Blues Brothers, and a web browser displaying my site: Chicago Filming Locations of The Blues Brothers.

I say this because of the similarities in the captions that accompany several of the locations—not merely addresses, but phrasings that are somewhat distinctive due to my choice of words and their order. A standout example is their “Jackson Park between East Lagoon and 59 Street Harbor, Chicago, IL,” a near-verbatim copy of my notation, plus a typo and minus “South of Museum of Science and Industry.” (For whatever reason, both in their location shots and the caption, the A.V. Club has obfuscated the proximity of the bridge to MSI—just as the movie did.)

I’ll even go so far as to suspect that all of the on-screen captions, even the addresses, were cribbed from my site. Of course it’s impossible to say that for certain, unless the folks at the A.V. Club fess up—which is why, despite my desire for 100% perfect accuracy, I realize now in hindsight that I should have included a few “ringers.”

In the excellent book by Jeopardy über-champ Ken Jennings, Brainiac, he describes how trivia writers will often add ringers: little bits of unique, often incorrect data, used as markers to let the writers know when their work has been borrowed by others. The classic example Jennings cites is that of “Columbo’s first name: Philip,” a falsity inserted by Ken Worth into his Trivia Encyclopedia in the early 1970s—and which subsequently appeared in the first edition of the Trivial Pursuit game.

Worth’s subsequent lawsuit, and its dismissal in court, made clear that factual data, raw information, is not copyrightable. I’m not complaining about infringement or anything like that; that would be silly. I didn’t create the data—I merely compiled it from numerous sources (which I credited) and built on it with quite a bit of legwork (i.e., on-site location scouting).

An offhanded credit by the A.V. Club, for saving them from that same legwork—even just in the accompanying text, not on-screen—would have been the forthright, ingenuous thing to do. No matter, though; I remain their avid reader and fan, and I get pleasure out of knowing their little secret: that they visited my site and found it useful, regardless of how they used it.

You’re welcome, A.V. Club. Sincerely.

[Follow-up: Less than three hours after I posted this, I wound up in a friendly email exchange with A.V. Club general manager Josh Modell, who admitted that he “most definitely” used my site as a resource and offered to add a note and link to the bottom of their piece (now already in place). If you’ll pardon a cliché, I must say this: The Onion A.V. Club—too cool for school.]

CTA does something right. Very, very right.

12 January 2011
Categories: Chicago, Transportation

I have complained a lot about the Chicago Transit Authority in the past. Mainly my complaints have not been with CTA service itself—because the service, while less than exemplary, has been consistently mediocre, and therefore predictable and usable. My complaints have been about CTA’s public image: in particular, its continual threats about service cuts and how they create a self-fulfilling death spiral. These actions only serve to feed the frustration and anger of Chicago riders, and cannot possibly do the agency any good.

CTA Train Tracker mobile beta. Image ©2011 Chicago Transit Authority.But now CTA has come out with what might prove to be its greatest public-image boon in decades: Train Tracker, a website that tells riders exactly how long they’ll need to wait until their next train arrives. It’s still in beta, meaning that bugs are still lurking and a full feature set is yet to be deployed. But even in my first few uses of the site, it’s clear they have a winner here.

A lot of thought went into the site. The interface is pure and simple: pick a train line, then pick a stop on that line. The estimator then displays all the trains arriving at that stop, in all directions, within the next 15 minutes or so. The list auto-updates once a minute. Only a tiny selection of display options are available—sorting by route, time to arrival, or platform side; and number of results to show—but the CTA has pledged more features to come out as the beta testing progresses.

However, it’s the layout of the site that really gets me going. It all feels so immediately familiar, because it closely adheres to CTA’s current graphic design standards for the system as a whole. Station names are displayed in white Helvetica on a dark grey background. All the colors of the train lines are spot-on likenesses of their printed versions, not just web-standard blue, green, orange, etc. The O’Hare and Midway terminus names include the little airport graphic. I especially like the little detail of how the “Back” and “Next” buttons include an arrow-in-circle image that matches the directional signs in the stations.

CTA Train Tracker mobile betaThe mobile version of the site is a clean, stripped-down version of the same, and fits nicely onto a first-generation iPhone screen. It’s so neatly arranged, in fact, that I doubt an actual iPhone app could improve on its appearance. It’s quick to load, and doesn’t bother with any fancy interface tweaks that would complicate the layout.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the data as yet, not having tested it thoroughly. I will, of course. But I think it suffices that the site tells me that my train is coming soon even though I can’t see it yet, and if it arrives in, say, 6 minutes instead of the estimated 4, that’s still close enough for my needs—and far better than knowing nothing. Plus, the tracker enables me to see if the train has a follower which, as I’ve said before, is the train I almost always prefer to take instead.

Of course, now that they’ve ironed out most of the kinks in the estimator system, CTA needs to start displaying these same data on the LED signboards they mounted in many stations years ago and which have shown little more than warnings to “watch out for unattended packages” ever since. All riders, not just those with web-enabled cell phones, deserve to have this information. But for those of us living in the 21st Century, this will do just fine.

Kudos to the CTA developers who put together this excellent site. CTA riders have been waiting a long time for this, and I have been among those to complain about its seemingly never-ending development. Train Tracker is, I am pleasantly chagrined to say, well worth the wait.