Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Happy Birthday Dear Chicago, and Bob Ray

It's a perfectly acceptable early March day in Streeterville, 47 degrees at the Mini under sunny skies. The shadows of the high rises are very long and majestic this afternoon. The lake is still frozen as far as the eye can see though. When is that crap going away? Just asking.

This is a special birthday edition of Views. Today, the City of Chicago is 172 years old. Today my brother Bob is 64 years old, so don't feel so old bro. My city is a lot older than you and she looks great. Doesn't look a day over 125 to tell you the truth. As for you El Bobbo, well you look great in that Spider Pig outfit on Facebook. Happy birthday to the both of you.

Anyway, the City of Chicago is celebrating its 172nd birthday. For the math impaired in the group, that means that Chicago was incorporated in 1837. A lot has happened to her since then. Based on her location where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan, Chicago became a major shipping and industrial center and grew rapidly. Then she burned to the ground in 1871. Learned a lesson there about building everything from wood. Lots of brick after that. Oh, and developed a serious fire department too.

By the time the 1890's rolled around Chicago had become a major player with a population measured in the millions and an opera house and the whole shebang. Somebody or somebodies, Daniel Burnham among them I believe, decided that Chicago needed something to really bring the world's attention to it, a World's Fair or something. The plan was hatched to put together an exposition, the likes of which the world had never seen to celebrate the 500 years since Chris Columbus's arrival in the Americas in 1492. I have a sense that the Native Americans weren't as excited about celebrating this as the white guys. Anyway, the Columbian Exposition was created. It was just a year late in arriving. 500 years would have been 1892. The Columbian Exposition arrived with a bang in Chicago in 1893. It was a smashing success. The Museum of Science and Industry still occupies a building that was a part of it. There is a big ditch at the University of Chicago where the Exposition's Midway was. The one way streets along the two sides of the big ditch are oddly enough called The Midway Plaisance. No water in it now. It's a big grassy playground for U of C students.

Somewhere along the way Chicago decided that if New York and all of the other major cities had subways and electric trains, then by golly Chicago would have one too. The El was born. Mostly above ground, but it goes underground downtown in the loop. "The Loop" is so-called because there is an El track that loops around the central business portion of the city. Still there and functioning with brown lines, purple lines, and who knows what other odd shades of lines.

Then there is architecture. Early on, the effort to prove that Chicago was more than just America's "Second City," the city attracted a lot of cutting edge architects. The skyscraper was born here in Chicago, not in New York. William LeBaron Jenney made that happen. A little later Louis Sullivan made skyscrapers lovely to the eye. A guy named Otis invented elevators that were fast, safe, and functional. The rest is history. Louis Sullivan from Chicago? Oh yeah, and later there was Frank Lloyd Wright and an immigrant named Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, and a host of other people no one but architectural scholars know of, who made the City of Chicago an architectural wonder second to none.

Oh, and there is art, a lot of art, a lot of public art. There is the Art Institute of Chicago that has a lot of world class art. There are pieces by Grant Wood (American Gothic, remember that one?), Edward Hopper (That Night Hawks guy, you know?), and Pablo Picasso, and oh some of those French impressionist guys, and oh that big pointillist piece by Seurat, "Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grande Jatte." My favorite Art Institute piece is, of course, the big Chicago Bears helmets they put on the concrete lions out front in 1985-1986 when the Bears won the Super Bowl. Public art at its finest.

Anybody can go inside to an art museum, though. Chicago has great outdoor art. Pablo Picasso loved the City of Chicago so much that he donated a 50 foot tall sculpture to the city. It sits at Daley Plaza to this day. Some guy named Calder did another 50 foot tall sculpture that sits in front of the State of Illinois building. There are sculptures of note all over the city, and the latest, greatest sits in Millenium Park, which like the Columbian Exposition was a wee bit late in arriving (Not at the millenium like it was supposed to.). It is called "The Cloud Gate." In Chicago we know it as "The Bean." It is big and exceptionally shiny and is shaped like a bean.

Then there is the park system. The City of Chicago owes a great debt of gratitude to Daniel Burnham, who planned the City of Chicago for the future. In doing so, he saw to it that the land along the edge of Lake Michigan would forever be parkland for all the citizens to use, and never to be opened for commercial development. New York has its Central Park. Chicago has a stretch of parkland along Lake Michigan that stretches for roughly 26 miles. In that stretch there are harbors with docking facilities for boats, beaches for all comers, tennis courts, softball fields, running tracks, one golf course, soccer fields, a running and biking path, facilities for barbecuing, places to fish, places to row, places to learn to sail, a protected wetland for migratory birds, and amazing views of the Chicago Skyline.

I am happy to live on the 14th floor of a high rise that is on the National Historic Registry as the first all steel and glass facade high rise ever. No internal steel beams. Mid-century modern. Mies Van der Rohe. On a clear day I cannot see the state of Michigan. The lake is too big. On a clear day, or night for that matter, I can see Indiana. There is much history here. There is much beauty here. It's a great place to live. Happy birthday Chicago, and oh happy birthday brother Bob.

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