What Makes A Great Urban Park?

Yesterday we decided to spend some time at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the premier art museums in the United States and home to pieces like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and a vast collection of impressionism and 20th century artwork. Because it was on our way, we walked through Millennium Park, which has to be one of the finest urban parks in the world. Chicago definitely got this one right.

As we walked through Millennium Park, I thought about what makes a great urban park. Of course, you want to have some green space, like the lovely garden area shown in the photo above. And you also want to include some interesting large-space artwork, like the gleaming reflective sculpture nicknamed “the Bean” that is shown in the first photo of this post. It draws people like a magnet, as they search to find themselves on the rounded, mirror-like surface, and probably has become, over the years, one of the most photographed objects in the city’s history.

One of the big questions for urban park planners has to be deciding how to treat the surrounding city. Do you plant a lot of big trees, to block out the skyscrapers as best you can and try to create a quiet, green space, or do you focus instead on creating vistas that frame the towering spires in interesting ways? The Millennium Park designers took the second approach, and I think it was a wise decision. Everywhere you look–even in the reflection in the Bean–you can see Chicago’s skyscrapers. And why not? This is some of the best urban architecture in the world, and it makes sense to show it off. But I appreciate the little touches that the planners have created, like the wooden walkway through the garden area, shown above, and careful thinking that the bridge shown in the photos below.

The BP pedestrian bridge, which links two parts of Millennium Park, is a good example of how creativity and attention to detail can add so much to a park. The designers needed a bridge to allow park visitors to easily cross over a highway. They could have made a simple overpass, but instead they created a shimmering, serpentine structure that winds around and makes you forget that you are on a bridge at all. You walk along, dazzled by the glint of sunlight on the sides of the walkway and gaping at the skyline and surrounding buildings, and before you know it you’ve reached the other side and have a hankering to walk back over the bridge again, just for the heck of it, because crossing it in the first place was so cool.

I’m confident that most of the tourists who visit Millennium Park end up leaving with the thought that they wish that their hometowns had a place like it. What better testament is there for a successful urban park?

On The Chicago River Walk

The Chicago River cuts through the heart of downtown Chicago as it heads out to Lake Michigan. The river has clearly been a focus of civic improvement over the past few decades–which is a big change from the days when the river was an industrial waterway and the big effort was to dye it green on St. Patrick’s Day. One improvement has been to work on the Chicago Riverwalk, which you can see along the river to the right of the photo above. We got a chance to explore the Riverwalk yesterday on a glorious autumn day, when the temperature was in the upper 40s under blue skies and bright sunshine.

The Chicago Riverwalk, like any urban path or trail that it left uninterrupted by crossing streets and traffic lights, attracts a significant number of joggers, dog walkers, and casual strollers, like us. If you like to get a close-up view of urban infrastructure, and I do, it’s a great walk that takes you under multiple bridges and past boat docks. I can happily report that the bridges looked to be well tended and in good shape, other than an inevitable coating of rust, and there were lots of boats out on the river, including both tour boats and smaller craft. You could also rent kayaks and take them out on the river, although it was a little cold for that. You know you are in Chicago when the tour boats tout that they are the one recommended by architects or offer the best architectural cruise.

Along the Riverwalk there are lots of places to eat and drink and get a hot cup of coffee and a doughnut on a brisk morning. Given the number of tiki bars and signs identifying the boundaries for alcohol consumption, I’m guessing that the Riverwalk is a favorite place for partying during the summer. We were mostly interested in checking out the older buildings and new skyscrapers as we walked along. You’ve got to give credit to the Chicago architectural authorities: the new, gleaming towers blend seamlessly with the older buildings, creating a very attractive cityscape as you move along the river. You can see the familiar clock tower of the Wrigley building in the photo below, nestled among the more recent additions to the skyline.

By the time we reached the end of the Riverwalk, the colossal office buildings had given way to condominiums and apartment buildings, and some boats were out patrolling the waters. I was impressed that, along with the tiki bars and beer joints, the Riverwalk planners had ensured there were lots of trees, some small green spaces–the dogs being walked certainly appreciated that–and playgrounds and plenty of benches where you could sit and enjoy the view. Because it was chilly, though, we kept walking to stay warm.

Our Riverwalk exploration ended after we passed through this cool tunnel, which features colorful panels depicting various scenes from Chicago’s history. With our coffee cups empty, we decided to turn around and head back to the hotel. Because the Riverwalk was such a pleasant stroll, we elected to retrace our steps along the lapping water rather than head up top to street-level and the hurly-burly of big city traffic. And the Chicago Riverwalk was just as pleasant and interesting on our return journey.

Under Wacker

Yesterday we drove to Chicago–at about an eight-hour drive, it’s at the outer limits of the fly/drive decision point–and our final destination was a hotel on Wacker Drive, which runs along the river through the heart of downtown. The GPS brought us in to the downtown area on the under Wacker path, which meant our first exposure to downtown was in the dystopian bowels of the city, shown in the photo above. Kish aptly described it as looking like a scene from one of the dark Batman movies.

And here’s the thing: the GPS doesn’t distinguish between above ground and below ground. As we drove in, it was pretty clear that the GPS thought we were above ground, and was instructing us, in increasingly insistent tones, to take left turns and right turns that simply didn’t exist in our little underground tunnel of concrete. And it didn’t help that there seemed to be construction on all of the ways out of “under Wacker” and back aboveground. I was incredibly happy when we finally figured out a way to get back into the daylight.

I’m a big fan of Chicago, and always have been. If I were in charge, I’d be sure that people visiting this great city don’t get their first exposure through a dark, creepy, underground tunnel with a bossy GPS voice advising about taking non-existent turns.

Rediscovering Chicago

We’re in Chicago for a wedding weekend, and it’s giving us a chance to rediscover the City With Big Shoulders, the Second City, the Windy City, and that Toddlin’ Town. I used to come to Chicago regularly for work, and we visited often when Richard was in college here, but more recent planned trips were cancelled when the pandemic intervened–so it’s been a while. But now people, myself included, are deciding that we’re just going to have to live with COVID and all of its variants and get on with our lives–in a prudent way, of course.

It feels good to get out and get back to a really big city. When you haven’t been to a really big city in more than a year, the experience seems fresh and new and exciting. And Chicago is such a great place, for so many reasons–like the cool view from our hotel room window, shown above–it’s a good destination for those of us who want to shed the outer protective coating of COVID Caution and start to get out more.

We drove in, and the first sign that the pandemic has created significant change in the world is that, when we reached the Dan Ryan Expressway, it actually functioned as an expressway rather than a snarled traffic disaster seemingly designed to cause the blood pressure of drivers to go through the roof. Astonishingly, there wasn’t much traffic on the road, and we were able to get to our destination without any stoppage. That’s literally never happened before in countless driving trips to Chicago. For the first time, perhaps, Dan Ryan (whoever he is, or was) is glad that the highway was named after him.

Downtown Chicago was not as bustling as the Chicago of yore, but there were still a lot of people out and about, on the River Walk, on boat rides, and just walking the sidewalks and enjoying some crisp fall weather. We appreciated being out among people, and revelling in the taste and feel and smell and sound of pre-pandemic activities. You still need to mask up when you go into buildings in Chicago, but the great outdoors, and the terrific views of cool buildings that Chicago architecture affords, can be enjoyed blessedly mask-free.

If you’re interested in breaking out of your personal COVID zone, and feel like it is high time to reintroduce yourself to our great American cities, Chicago is a good place to go.

Good Capitals, Bad Capitals

An apartment search service called “Rent Hop” has declared Chicago the “Rat Capital” of the United States.  Rent Hop did a study of rat complaints and concluded that Chicago received far more rat complaints than other American cities — 50,963 in 2017 alone.  That’s a 55 percent increase since 2014, and factors out to 1,876 complaints per 100,000 people.  Even worse, the neighborhoods with the most rat complaints also tend to be the neighborhoods with the most uncollected dog droppings.

6432106That’s really a lot of rat complaints, when you think about it.  If you’re a renter in Chicago — particularly in some neighborhoods — you’re pretty likely to have a rat encounter.

The Windy City blew New York City out of the water in the Rat Capital race; the Big Apple logged only 19,152 rat complaints last year, which put it well down on the list on a per capita basis.  Second place on the per capita list went to Washington, D.C.  That should come as no surprise, although it’s not clear whether the D.C. count was limited to only four-legged rats, or also included the two-legged variety.

Fortunately, Columbus didn’t make the Rat Capital list.

Cities used to declare themselves “capitals” as a mark of civic pride.  When I was a kid, Uhrichsville, Ohio — where the Webner part of the family hails from — had a sign boasting that it was the “Clay Capital” of the United States.  (I’m not sure any other municipalities were vying for that distinction.)  Akron was the Rubber Capital in those days, and even now on the highways you’ll see corny signs saying that one town or another is the Friendly Folks Capital or the Smile Capital or the Lobster Capital.

I doubt that Chicago is going to put up a sign about the Rat Capital designation.

Getting “Bumped”

We’ve all been in this situation:  we’re at the gate, waiting for our plane, and the gate agent makes an announcement that the flight is overbooked and they’re looking for “volunteers” to take a later flight in exchange for a travel voucher.  If there are no immediate volunteers, the value of the voucher can go up . . . and up . . . and up.

But what if there are no volunteers, at any price?  I’ve never bitten on any of those offers because I would much rather get to where I’m going.  What if everyone on a particular flight took that approach?  I’ve always wondered about that scenario.

united-airlines-man-dragged-out-of-plane-253x189Now we’ve got an answer, of sorts.  On one overbooked United Airlines flight, from O’Hare Airport in Chicago to Louisville, an airport security officer physically assaulted a passenger who was in his seat on the plane and dragged him down the aisle and off the plane so United staff who needed to get to Louisville could take his seat.  Of course, other passengers had out their cell phones and took video footage of the encounter. The video is pretty shocking when you consider that the man who was mistreated was a ticketed passenger who had paid for the flight, checked in, and followed all of the rules.

United told passengers that four people needed to leave the flight and that it was selecting the people who needed to give up their seats to United staffers by random computer selection.  Three of the unlucky people apparently left voluntarily — but when the one passenger refused, he was forcibly removed.  One passenger said that the man had originally agreed to give up his seat, but rescinded his decision when he learned that the next available flight was not until the next day.

Of course, United officials and the Chicago Department of Aviation say that the actions of airport security were contrary to policy, and they’ve apologized.  United, meanwhile, is dealing with a PR nightmare.  How many people are going to think twice about choosing a United flight if, say, an American flight is available?  And for those of us who fly regularly, it’s an eye opener to think that you could be chosen randomly to give up that seat you reserve because an airline has decided that its staff needs to have that seat instead, and then mauled by airport police if you decline.

“Fly the friendly skies,” indeed!

Crossroads Of The Country


This morning finds me at the Hilton hotel at the Chicago O’Hare Airport.  And when I say “at the airport,” I mean at the airport — as in, right on the airport grounds, so that you see the Hilton sign dead ahead when your plane pulls into its gate at Concourse G.

How many thousands of people have been to meetings at the venerable O’Hare Hilton and roamed its sprawling, gently curving, utterly generic hallways?  It’s the perfect spot for business meetings of people from diverse locations, at one of our busiest airports, with great connections, smack dab in the middle of the country.  For that same reason, a visit to the O’Hare Hilton is the ultimate in transitory experiences.

Last night I flew into O’Hare, walked to the Hilton, and had dinner in one of its restaurants.  Today I’ll go to a meeting in one of its conference rooms, eat the conference room breakfast and lunch offerings, and fly out tonight — all without ever setting foot outside the airport grounds.

When I get back to Columbus and someone asks how my trip to Chicago was, I’ll say I didn’t go there– I just went to the O’Hare Hilton.

The Trump Campaign’s Chicago Shutdown

If you’ve watched the news this weekend, you’ve seen footage of protesters clashing with security forces and Donald Trump supporters at the site of a scheduled Trump rally in Chicago.  The Trump campaign ended up canceling the event due to security concerns.

The MSNBC website has an interesting story about how a bunch of activists — some from the Bernie Sanders campaign, some from other groups like Black Lives Matter and Fearless and Undocumented — organized a massive protest against the Trump event.  According to the story, a few key factors helped the protest gel.

kiro7dotcom-template_1457743926114_3192105_ver1-0_640_360The Trump event was on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus in the heart of the Windy City, where lots of Sanders supporters and activists are found.  Progressive groups were already well organized in Chicago, because they’ve been routinely protesting against Democrat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his police policies for months, so communications networks among groups were already established.  And Trump’s message has so alienated many people that large groups were eager to join in the protest.  The protest organizers came up with a plan, got thousands of protesters to show up and get into the Trump rally, and then when fights broke out the protesters got what their “#SHUTITDOWN” Twitter hashtag suggested — the Trump campaign pulled the plug and Trump himself never appeared.

How to react to people ripping up signs, throwing punches at political rallies, and shutting down a campaign event?  My reactions are decidedly mixed.  There’s no doubt that a lot of Donald Trump’s rhetoric is inflammatory — intentionally so — and he and his supporters shouldn’t be surprised when his strong statements provoke equally strong reactions.  If Trump wants to lash out against immigrants, or Muslims, he’s got to expect that, in some quarters at least, he’s doing to be harshly criticized as a racist and a demagogue and he’s going to encounter lots of protests against his positions and statements.

At the same time, I hate to see violence erupt and political events canceled because of security concerns.  The protesters had every right to advocate against Trump’s message, but Trump and his supporters had every right to speak, too.  One comment in the MSNBC piece was a red flag for me:  a protest organizer said, “We wanted to show Trump that this is Chicago, and we run Chicago, and we’re not going to take this.”  Some other commentators have said that Trump was to blame for the clashes because his campaign dared to schedule an event on a college campus in an urban area.  Such comments suggest — very uncomfortably, in my view — that there are “safe” areas and “unsafe” areas for campaign events to be held, depending on the political views and party affiliation of the candidate.  That’s a dangerous, precarious viewpoint in a country where the Constitution guarantees free speech for all, even if the speech is deeply offensive to many.

One other interesting point about the Chicago clashes is that the Sanders campaign seems to have tapped into a strong vein of anti-establishment feeling on the left side of the political spectrum that cuts across racial lines.  If you are disaffected — whether you are African-American, Latino, Anglo, or other — you’re going to notice that it was members of the Bernie Brigade, and not Hillary Clinton supporters, who helped put together the anti-Trump protests.  It will be interesting to see whether this development, which could seriously cut into the support Clinton expects to get from African-Americans and Latinos, changes the political calculus as big states like Illinois, Ohio, and Florida vote on Tuesday.

 

Paying In Advance For A Restaurant Reservation

Cancelled reservations are a curse for restaurants.  Reservations get made, the diners-to-be never appear, and a perfectly good table goes empty on a busy night while people wait impatiently at the bar or in the foyer, or leave altogether.

One restaurant in Chicago, called Next, decided to address the problem by replacing reservations with tickets.  You buy your ticket in advance for a table at a particular date and time, and the tickets are non-refundable.  Next’s website explains that “[u]nlike an a la carte restaurant with many walk-in customers and dozens of menu items, Next is creating a truly unique dining experience and doing so at an amazing price. By eliminating no-shows, requiring pre-payment, and varying the price by time and day we are able to create a predictable and steady flow of patrons allowing us to offer a great deal more than would otherwise be possible at these prices.”

Requiring diners to buy tickets dramatically reduced the number of no-shows; Next experienced only five full table no-shows last year and the number of tables where the full party didn’t come fell sharply, too.  Other restaurants are beginning to adopt the practice, so it may be coming soon to a restaurant near you.

I would be perfectly happy with this system at high-end restaurants on busy nights.  If I like a restaurant, I want it to succeed.  If cutting out the lost profits from reservation no-shows helps a great place to stay in business, I’m all for it.

I also think, however, that the reservation/ticket process should be a two-way street.  Kish and I aren’t the no-show types — our problem is showing up at the designated time and having the restaurant tell us that the table isn’t ready yet.  We had a bad experience at one restaurant where we waited for a long while and the hostess just shrugged it off.  If we buy a pre-paid, non-refundable ticket and the table isn’t available when we arrive, we should get a free drink and a significant discount.

Another Really Great Story

Richard continues to hit it out of the park in his internship for the Chicago Tribune this summer.  His most recent story is a really great piece about how the recession hit the South Side of Chicago especially hard and that, years later, the development efforts in South Side neighborhoods still have not recovered.  The piece includes a well-done and easy to use interactive map that allows you to look at the impact of the recession on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

IMG_2349This kind of story is really good reporting for two reasons.  First, it addresses a topic — the status of rich neighborhoods versus poor neighborhoods in America, with the impact of crime and teetering city finances thrown in for good measure — that is not frequently addressed in the media. It’s not a pleasant, or easy, story to report, but it’s essential to cover if we are to get a true sense of economic reality.

Second, it involves real shoe-leather reporting, which often involves digging into public records like construction permits and figuring out boring topics like tax increment financing districts.  It’s easy to call the head of a development agency, get his or her spin in a pre-packaged quote, and stop there; it’s much more challenging and time-consuming to sift through documents obtained from a municipal office and do the kinds of painstaking, but powerful and irrefutable, comparisons that Richard has done in this piece.  People might pitch things to advance their agendas, but the construction permits don’t lie, because without the permits nothing gets built.

Forgive me for a little proud bragging — although what’s a family blog for if not for a little parental boasting? — but I greatly admire Richard’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and tackle some of the tough and challenging issues found in the urban areas of America.  He has become a really fine reporter.

Farmers’ Markets Without Farmers

Richard has another good story in the Chicago Tribune today.  This one is about farmers’ markets in the Chicago area that don’t have enough participating farmers.

We’ve been hearing a lot about “urban food deserts” — that is, entire sections of urban areas where it is claimed that only fast food outlets, gas stations, and convenience stores sell food, and those outlets don’t stock fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and other healthy eats.  As a result, the theory goes, people in those areas eat only crummy, salty, fatty, processed snack foods like chips and soda rather than green beans and peaches.

In Chicago, some people have tried to set up farmers’ markets to address the issue.  The problem, though, is that there aren’t enough farmers to go around.  Farmers want to go to places where there will be lots of traffic and not too much competition for sales of the goods they will offer.  Inner-city farmers’ markets often lose out in the cost-benefit analysis, and offering incentives might not make up the difference.

It’s surprising that Chicago is having this problem, because once you get outside of the Chicago metropolitan area Illinois is primarily an agricultural state.  You would think there would be lots of farmers, cheesemakers, and other food artisans willing to load up their wares and take them to the big city for sale.  The fact that it isn’t happening suggests that addressing the “food desert” issue might be more difficult than people think.

Frank Lloyd Wright

The Frederick C. Robie House

The Frederick C. Robie House

If Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, then Chicago must be the Town of Frank Lloyd Wright.  His studio was in one of the Chicago suburbs, and homes he designed are found throughout the area.  In Richard’s Hyde Park neighborhood alone, a casual stroll takes you past two homes created by the famous architect:  the Isidore Heller house, built in 1897, and the celebrated Robie House, which opened in 1910.

On Saturday we took a tour of the Robie House, which many consider to be the pinnacle of Wright’s Prairie-Style Design.  As his work progressed, Wright’s home designs took on an increasingly geometric approach, and the Robie House certainly reflects that trend, with long horizontal exterior lines and crisp angles.  The interior rooms also are geometric and open, with large windows that open out onto second-story balconies that circle the front part of the structure.  The inside of the house feels very open and airy.

I don’t know a lot about Wright’s work, but I was struck by his elegant solutions to some basic home design issues.  He wanted to ensure privacy of the Robie family, so he decided to put the principal living areas on the second floor, where the Robies could look out the many windows but passersby on the ground below, blocked by the bulk of the exterior balconies, could not see in.  He also used wooden screens and beautiful decorative windows to partially shield occupants of rooms from view.  Wright also disliked open radiators and wiring, so he placed the heating and lighting elements behind attractive wooden structures.  His attention to detail included designing special light fixtures, built-in drawers and cabinets to decrease the need for bulky furniture, and a unique dining room table.

The Heller house, which we saw only from the outside, presages Wright’s developing style and is viewed as a key transitional point in his career.  It is marked by some beautiful ornamental work on the exterior but also reflects Wright’s love of geometric design.  According to the sign out front, it is for sale.  Imagine owning a Frank Lloyd Wright house!

Before our tour of the Robie house we watched a short video about Wright and the history of the house.  One point that was made was that Wright believed that America should develop and capture its own style, rather than borrowing the turreted, gothic designs of Europe.  His Prairie Style homes, with their characteristic geometric appearance, and his interest in designing not only structures but also windows, furniture, and light fixtures flowed from that deep belief.  The result is beautiful — but it failed to have the lasting impact that Wright hoped for.  In our subdivision you’ll find many Georgian homes but not many that borrow Wright’s lines or theories.  It’s too bad, but we should all still admire his effort, the sweep of his vision, and his interest in America staking out its own approach.

The Isidore Heller house.

The Isidore Heller house.

The Chicago Skyway Blows

The only bad thing about our short trip to Chicago this weekend was our use of the Chicago Skyway.  Coming or going, it blows.  I thought the inaccurately named Dan Ryan “Expressway” was bad — so bad that if I were Dan Ryan, I’d ask that my name be removed from that sorry, always-under-repair stretch of Chicago roadway — but I would take the Dan Ryan 10 times out of 10 against the Chicago Skyway.

IMG_2373For the uninitiated, the Chicago Skyway and the Dan Ryan Expressway are the two ways to get to Chicago from northern Indiana.  The Dan Ryan is a freeway, the Chicago Skyway is a toll road.  You’d think that would mean that the Skyway would be a better driving experience — better road, faster, and so forth.  That makes sense . . . but it would be wrong.  In fact, the road conditions from Chicago to the I-65 turnoff just east of Gary are miserable.  And, because you have to go through three separate toll stops, it’s clearly slower even than the orange barrel-filled Dan Ryan Expressway — to say nothing of costing almost $8.  What does the money go for?  Beats me!  My shock absorbers would say it’s certainly not used for road repair.

It’s also obviously not used for toll booth employees or upkeep.  Today we were infuriated because only two of six toll booths at the final turnoff were taking cash or credit card.  Three lanes were reserved for E-ZPass — which is irritating in its own right — and one was closed for unknown reasons.  Of course, there were long lines in the two cash/credit lanes, which were made all the worse by the fact that rather than a toll booth employee, we had to pay a machine, and the machine didn’t tell you how much you owed.  It was scrambled, and the screen showed nothing but gibberish, like this:  ###%^**##.  So, what to pay?  Not surprisingly, it took us forever to get past the toll booth.  It was like some satanic trick:  just as we were celebrating escaping the Chicago Skyway once and for all, a final bit of ineptitude trapped us in toll booth hell.  What idiot allowed this to happen?

If Chicago wants to improve its image, the Skyway would be a good place to start.

The President’s Old Neighborhood

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Richard’s apartment in Hyde Park is right across the street from President Obama’s old house. The President’s street is blocked off with barricades, and a Secret Service SUV sits at the narrow entrance. You can’t really see anything, but it’s an attraction nevertheless. During our visit to Richard’s apartment yesterday, At least two tour buses and one group on foot stopped by.

The President seems to be helping the local economy in other ways. As the photo above indicates, one enterprising dry cleaner has staked his claim to presidential commerce, and who are we to dispute it? The colonial strip of America is famous for claims that “George Washington slept here” — perhaps the south side of Chicago will some day be known for claims that “Barack Obama banked here.”