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.

A change of heart

22 August 2011
Categories: Chicago, Narratives

About five years ago, a builder in our neighborhood announced his intention to knock down a house on our block and build a three-story, single-family home on the site. This triggered a spasm of consternation among the neighbors. The house to be demolished wasn’t particularly significant—just a solid, brick two-flat, around ninety years old, like all the others on the block. In fact, that similarity was what caused the greatest worry: The houses on the block made a tidy, unified whole, each house with its own distinctive features but close in appearance and age to the rest. And this guy, a local to the neighborhood, was proposing—what? It wasn’t clear, but the proposal implied something quite divergent in style and mass.

A meeting with the alderman was called, and soon a push for the establishment of a “Landmark Historic District” was under way. It would actually be an extension to an already-existing district, and would unify two non-contiguous areas of that district. The executive director of Preservation Chicago was a strong advocate for its creation, since he lived within the extension area too, just around the corner from the lot in question.

At the time, I was firmly in support of landmark status. My biggest reason for support was the very real possibility that this one new construction would be the vanguard in a wave of knock-downs, much like occurred in the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the east. There, in the course of just a few years during the height of the pre-mortgage-crisis building craze, similar workman’s cottages—some mediocre and dilapidated, but many solid and stylish—were razed en masse and replaced with dull, enormous multi-unit condominiums. The loss of rental property forced most of the lower-middle-class residents to be priced out of the area; population density skyrocketed, and the neighborhood lost most of its character, both architectural and demographic.

The city council approved the landmark designation four years ago. It couldn’t prevent that one piece of new construction, which is at the very least not a complete eyesore on the block. (I’d still be more appreciative of the house had it been built on any of the many vacant lots within a three-block radius instead.) Nevertheless I liked the fact that I lived in a Landmark Historic District.

That was then. Today, however, my house is in need of tuckpointing. Badly in need, if truth be told. I have a brickmason—a local guy, who does good work at a fair price, and who has worked on many houses in the neighborhood. He’s ready to go. So ready that he calls me every other day to ask, “can we start?”

But this is the city, and I need to pull a permit. Fair enough. The city has an online site for permit applications. It’s not the best user interface in the world—particularly when it responds “exception error” without explanation and forces a total restart of the application process. But ultimately, after several attempts, it allowed me to complete a permit application.

Except—of course—when I printed it out, it contained the troubling notation:

Holds: Landmark

So I have to go to City Hall, and provide the Landmarks Commission with all sorts of documentation on the work to be done, including photographs, to get the hold removed. I pray that won’t be an arduous process.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that, with a few more years under my belt, I now understand this fact: In the city of Chicago, landmark status is meaningless. The landmarks ordinance—and, for that matter, the commission—lacks the teeth to prevent demolition of any building in the city, no matter how historic it may be. Developers are free to do as they please, as long as they have the savvy to file the correct paperwork and to say the right words to the right people. (And, if need be, to grease the right palms… or so it’s said.)

Meanwhile, the one thing that’s preventing me from engaging in actual historic preservation, from performing sympathetic repairs to keep a (nominally) historic building from crumbling into dust, is a historic-preservation ordinance. How ironic.

A smooth-sailing surprise

Now, I wrote the preceding while staring down the gauntlet of the city’s permit process—which, by all accounts, is an arduous journey, fraught with arcane rituals performed before secretive committees that meet in hidden chambers with no doors in or out. I would need architectural plans, notarized letters of intent from all contractors, samples of bricks and samples of mortar and a full accounting of any tools that might be used during the job. Oh, and bring along my first-born—and those of three of my neighbors—neatly wrapped in banana leaves in order to feed them to the Sarlacc.

I called the Landmarks office and spoke to a friendly woman who told me where to go and what to bring: specifically, photographs of the building that illustrate the work to be done. I asked if I should include a close-up of the bricks and mortar joints. “Yes, that’s a good idea,” she said. “Do I need samples of the new mortar?” I asked; I was certain I’d been told this by someone in the permit office when I’d been thwarted in my initial, desultory attempt to secure a permit one year ago. “No, that’s not necessary. Be sure to bring actual photos, though—not print-outs of images taken from the Internet or anything like that,” she said.

Her advice carried a modicum of reassurance, but I still had my doubts. There’s no way this could be easy. And yet…

I arrived at the Landmarks office and was told to wait while the receptionist called to the back office for someone to handle “a walk-in.” After a few minutes a guy came out and I showed him my permit application and my photos—two of them, one the full front façade of the house, the other a close-up of eight or nine courses of bricks (as shown above). He looked them over quickly but intently.

“Now, what we’re concerned with is this: We want to be sure that the replacement mortar is of a similar type and color, and we don’t want the width of the mortar joints to change. You see how narrow these joints are?” he asked.

He pointed at my close-up. I was already well aware that the joints were narrow—typical construction style of the era—and I assured him that I have every intention of matching the existing work, to the very best of my contractor’s ability.

“Okay,” he said. “Let me just go and write this up, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Five minutes later he returned, with a signed, typewritten letter stating that the Landmarks office had released the hold on my permit application. “Take this to Permits, you’re all set.”

I was gobsmacked. “That’s it?” I asked.

“It’s good that you brought those photos in. That makes our job really easy.”

Easy. No kidding.

Off to the Department of Buildings and Permits, in an upper floor of City Hall. As I walked through the door, I found myself in a perplexing space. The waiting area was full of people who obviously knew the ropes. Architects toting thick rolls of blueprints and diagrams. Builders and general contractors with satchels full of file folders, folders full of cut sheets and specifications. People whose job it is to navigate this very office; people who do this every day.

There was no “take-a-number” system; no clear sign of who was next and where the end of the line was. I wasn’t even sure that anyone was staffing the counter; if anyone was in charge, they had gone in the back for something. I stood in the middle of the waiting area for a minute or two, pondering my next move. Then I saw, off to one side, a wide desk with three people facing me, each appearing to look busy at a computer terminal. Each had a chair facing them; each chair was empty. The big sign above their heads read, “Easy Permit Applications.”

I looked at my online permit application. “Easy Permit Application,” it read across the top. I strode over to the middle of the three workers, smiled, and set my paperwork in front of him. “I think I’m supposed to bring this to you,” I said, with just a hint of questioning in my voice.

He looked it over, punched some info into his terminal, looked at the screen, looked at my papers again. He scribbled a couple of numbers onto a slip of paper. “Take this to the cashier, you’re all set.”

Holy shit, I thought, suppressing the desire to do a happy dance. There’s light at the end of this tunnel—light I had never expected to see so readily. In all, my time in City Hall totaled less than 45 minutes.

I went to the cashier. I didn’t care what it cost; I didn’t care—though I still wonder—why the amount I paid was $25 less than the amount written on my slip of paper. I stood there with bald amusement as I watched the cashier, who between each step of the payment process would write something on a notepad next to her keyboard. This woman must have figured out long ago that her job entails a lot of brief interludes of downtime: waiting for the computer to call up the correct data; waiting for applicants to complete their payment by filling out a check or using the credit card terminal; waiting for the old HP LaserJet printer to spit out the completed permit. Twenty- or thirty-second pauses, interspersed throughout her day.

So to fill that time, she writes. And writes, and writes. She filled half a page of the steno pad while I stood there, never wasting my time—I could see the printer doing its thing behind her—but not wasting her own time either. I tried to read her handwriting upside-down, but only got the barest gist of it. It was either a personal journal, or she’s writing the next Great American Novel. I’m hopeful it’s the latter.


The work is now complete, and we couldn’t be happier with it. The house looks absolutely gorgeous—like new, if only they built new houses today as pretty as they did ninety years ago. The job cost a lot, but we feel that we got every penny’s worth.

All in all, I’ve learned not to be daunted by the city’s permit process. If you have your stuff together, it’s a breeze. (I’m told it also helps to have a cheery, friendly, and mildly deferential attitude.) And I definitely now have a masonry contractor that I trust and would strongly recommend to anyone in the Chicago area.

During the job, we had the chimneys rebuilt from the roofline up. I asked the contractor to include a bit of corbeling at the top—nothing fancy, just something similar to what one of the original chimneys had had. One of the other chimneys was ugly beyond sin, extended with a bare ceramic flue to reach above a nearby rooftop. We corbeled that one too, something that is not quite in accordance with the landmark district ordinance since it doesn’t match the pre-existing conditions as seen from the street. But it’s oh-so-much better. The chimneys suit the architectural character of the house and the neighborhood, and add just a touch of interesting detail to what would otherwise be boring shafts of brick.

The result: Our new chimneys are the talk of the block, and more than one neighbor has asked for our mason’s business card.


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.]