My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Right Thing

Friday afternoon I'm sitting there at a hot dog and gyros joint at, the one those Mexican twin brothers run, at Chicago and Wood. Whichever brother happens to be working (who can tell?) Always makes me a big styrofoam cup of coffee with cream and sugar as soon as I walk in. But Friday I asked for lemonade, and got a huge cup full of weird tasting pink stuff. Strange and tangy stuff, tasting almost but not quite entirely unlike lemons.

What is it? I wondered. Has any of it ever been near a lemon? What's the sodium content? In short, is drinking this crap really any better for me than coffee? And what about lunch? The fries tasted much, much better than the pink substance did, but I knew they were high in fat and salt and bad for my blood pressure. And the cheeseburger was great as always. But healthy? In the end, I ate the cheeseburger, left the fries, but drank the pink stuff. What can I say, I was thirsty? You try to do the right thing, but you gotta eat something, and right now I gotta eat whatever it is and get back to the action in 20 minutes before people start doing things without telling me about them, leaving me to do damage control the rest of the day.

In the same way, it's hard for me to find the time to post anything at all these days, let alone take the time to do what the So Called Main Stream Liberal Media calls "fact checking." So mistakes are made, you know?

Anyway, a few weeks ago I made a crack about Preservation Chicago, implying that they weren't making such a good-faith effort at preserving Chicago neighborhoods. I even alleged that a prominent architecht on the board helped design a building to replace a historic landmark that the group was fighting to save.

The trouble is, I was wrong. Or rather I had them confused with the Landmarks Preservation Council, a completely separate and less militant group which I feel caves in too often and is more concerned about cultivating friends in high places than it is about saving historic Chicago from destruction. For the record, Preservation Chicago does great work and you should all give them lots of money right now.

The group was founded by a couple guys named Michael Moran and Jonathan Fine. The two staged an inventive protest before the demolition of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 2003, featuring women dressed as flappers and several 1930s automobiles. It didn't work, of course, but at least it woke up a broader swath of the public. They have been getting loud enough to make enemies, which is a good sign. This from the March issue of Chicago Magazine:
Jack Guthman, a lawyer who often represents building owners and developers, argues that the preservation movement has lost its sens of perspective. His most direct run-in with Preservation Chicago came a couple of years ago when Fine and Moran were battling to save a 19th Century house in the 900 block of North Pauline Street from demolition.
This was my neck of the woods, I was crushed when the house, one of the oldest structures left standing in Chicago, was demolished.
Guthman represented the developer, who wanted to build townhomes on the site; eventually the developer won.
It was three-flat condos, not townhouses, but why quibble? Because it's fun, that's why.
"In Chicago, we've gotten away from landmarking the best," Guthman argues. "Preservation Chicago and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois are comfortable with landmarking mediocrity. The mantra seems to be, 'If it's old, it ought to be saved'"
This attitude stems from the Modernist view of building as hero, bold, independent, innovative. Blah, blah, blah. Neighborhoods shouldn't be preserved as a tribute to the brilliant lone artists who designed them, it's not about that. It's the look, feel, and charm of old neighborhoods that were built back when people cared about atmosphere and appearances, and built on a human scale. The monstrous, brutalist condos being built on the rubble of the East Village may well be innovative and bold. But charming? Human?
Guthman claims "nostalgia is being landmarked, not quality," and he sees a particular danger in preserationists' growing fondness for landmarking whole districts at wonce. "It's a recipe for disaster for a city," he says. "If you're landmarking large areas of the city, then you will not have new development. . . Cities are either going to develop, or they're going to atrophy. If we'd had this broad-brush landmarking 50 years ago or 70 years ago, many of the buildings that are here now would not have been built.
One can only dream of such a beautiful possibility. A world without Mies?
What's more, Guthman says, "Preservation Chicago plays fawst and loose with the economic interests of others. They're not balanced - theyhave no concern or consideration fo other people's property rights."
Buddy, your right to use your money to make more money does not trump the public interest. That kind of thinking is exactly what's wrong with this country.
Fine and Moran have also been working in Logan Square, Hyde Park, Sheffield, and Lake View. They believe too much history has already been lost. "Chicago's architectural renaissance is over," Fine says. "I think that's one thing we fail to realize. It lasted from 1871 to about 1930, and it's quite disturbing to watch that renaissance be replaced by mediocrity. Chicago is looking less and less like Chicago and more and more like Anytown, U.S.A. There's good stuff going up in the Loop, it's the neighborhoods suffer most. Poor neighorhoods are suffering from fast-track demolition, and rich neighborhoods are choking on their own success."
I couldn't say it better myself, but I'm going to try anyway. The reason I want to preserve our neighborhoods is to keep alive the knowledge of how to build decent, livable places designed for people instead of cars, for that future day when the spirit of modernism in architecture is finally taken out back and shot like an old blind dog.

One more thing: Trope asked me to inform everyone that my last title was a reference to Nelson Algren who said "Loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose." Personally I prefer to trust people to figure stuff out on their own, but I wouldn't want anyone to walk away thinking there is something wrong with Trope's nose. There is not - it is as cute as ever.

1 comment:

Heidi said...

Thank you for bringing her cute nose over yesterday.

I am right with you on development for a human rather than automotive scale. There's nothing more unlivable to me, in any town, than that wide swath of road full of parking lots and the same chain stores for miles and miles. You could be anywhere, or nowhere, because it's all the same.

Though I'm not a fan of Modernism there are a few quirks that I kind of like: quonset huts and the Lustron/Eichler homes.