Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Walking the Windy City - Part 5

We’re on to part five of the series; for those you just joining us, check these articles out first. [1] [2] [3] [4]

Part 5

In Chicago, what would be big anywhere is just so-so here.

This skyscraper is a residential tower, and although it looks tall, its only because it stands alone.  True, it’s taller than the tallest building in Kentucky, but the surroundings of a building are just as important when it comes to determining the size of a building; One Museum Place, as it’s called, is half the size of the nearby Willis Tower, and one-fourth­ the height of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

The Metra line is related to, but distinct from, the normal CTA rapid transit train line.  Despite the size and age of the train, it didn’t make much noise as it gently rolled by beneath my feet.

I was walking across a pedestrian bridge that gave a flyover view of Grant Park below, with its handsome sidewalks, wide, grassy and tree-filled expanses, and some brave (or typical) Chicagoans braving the crisp March midday.  The shade of One Museum Place flooded the pavement from the south. 

Michigan Avenue marked the western terminus of Grant Park.  Again, Chicago sure does put a lot of its best property in the public trust as parks.  I remember reading somewhere that, if you sold Central Park in Manhattan for its estimated real estate value, you’d make some $300 billion dollars.  I wonder how much Grant Park and the Lakefront would be worth?  Alternatively, maybe being so close to the lake is actually a detriment, and the city planners are just clever little boogers. 

Admittedly, I’d picked 11th Street on a whim, but either way, it was shaping up to be a nice way to get into downtown.  A nice hotel on one side, a Best Western on the other, and a satellite college campus farther down the street.   I passed a middle aged woman trying to figure out the digital parking meter.  Much like Louisville, but on a grander scale, turn-of-the-century buildings crowded against newer architectural stylings. 

At the corner of 11th and Wabash, there was a small, “pocket” park as they call them that had this statue of three wolves standing erect with their faces downcast.  My first thought was, “oh, the three little pigs!”  Well, no, that doesn’t make sense, as there were three pigs, not wolves.  Little Red Riding…nope, wrong.  Hmm…

I stopped and tried to find a plaque or something that explained it, but after a few minutes of searching, I couldn’t find a bit of bronze that’d share these wolves’ story.  Apparently their origin is somewhat of a Chicago folk tale that originates from a eastern European story, but I’ll be darned if I’d ever heard of it.  Until then, they’ll just sit quietly on this corner, looking at the well-worn sidewalk.

Ah, the L.  Although most of the world’s largest cities have a rapid transit system of some kind, Chicago’s has a certain fondness associated with it.  Most establishing shots in Chicago either snag the Willis Tower or a shot of the L rolling through the street.  Before walking underneath the Red Line, a northbound train roared by.  On the other side of the L, I hooked a right on State Street, recognizing it as one of the cross streets from my directions. 

Newer architecture always catches my eye, and Chicago’s no exception.  I might have just written this as another avant-garde office building, but it didn’t quite have the shape of an office complex.  It was too tall for a museum, I’d wager, and too “together” to be a multi-unit building.

Oh, it’s a school!  Wow, how’d you like going there?  Nearby, the school boasted that it was one of the top three prep schools in the country for college preparedness.  Well, I could say so; you don’t get the money to build a fancy pants campus like that without being good at your job! 

At Congress Street, I decided to hook a left, as I was nervous I’d passed my original cross street (Van Buren) on this new route and didn’t want to drain any more phone battery to check.  It seemed just as well, as here was a mammoth of a building to gawk at.  This is the Harold Washington Library, the main branch of Chicago’s public library and one of the largest public libraries in the world by square footage.  The building was fairly new, finished within my lifetime in the early 90s.  It had a fantastic look to it, almost like a train station you might see in a Miyazaki movie.  Charming, really, and probably a killer view inside and upstairs; looks like the top floor is an indoor pavilion and you can look out from multiple locations onto the street below. 

Left on Congress Street, across the traffic, and down the walk we went.

What an odd building; this building, which housed some part of AT&T’s operations in Chicago, was nearly windowless.  It looked much like a cardboard box on end with strips of windows standing in for lines of packing tape.  I’d guess that means the center halls were lit by the outside, but that’d be about it.  Maybe it was an environmental decision; windows are big heat-suckers, so in the winter, being encased in stone, brick, or concrete may keep that bill down.  Still, bizarre.

Speaking of bizarre, here’s the Chicago Stock Exchange.  I couldn’t tell you a single company that trades here, but they’re here for somebody.  For me, they offer a cool tunnel to walk under.  It was noisy, to be sure, and every car that whizzed by on either side sent a rumble through the tunnel.  The tunnel was lined with purplish LED lights, which almost looked broken up close, as the effect they were going for was kind of lost on me.
On the other side, there was a significant amount of construction, but I looked to the Willis Tower for my bearings and I cut north at the next intersection where I came on, sure enough, Van Buren.  Just needed to be more patient, I guess.  I hooked a left, where I was slated to take the road until Wacker, the road that lined the river and that sidled against the Willis Tower. 

Now some of the buildings looked old, but this one looked downright Soviet to me.  I’m not sure if it was just the hard lines with an attempt at style or what, but I felt like citizens go and comrades come out.  Never did really figure out what the building was for, but a government building of some kind is a safe guess.

And there it is, the tallest building in the city, and one of the tallest buildings in the country, the Sears Willis Tower!  When I was born, this was the tallest skyscraper in the world, and it still feels like it.  Man, it’s tall.  I’ve seen both the buildings that beat it (the Petronas Towers) and even the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, in the flesh, but this still feels taller somehow.  I’m pretty sure that stopping and lining up a shot of the Willis Tower is the most touristy thing I’ve done while I’ve been here, but no matter. 

I never planned to go to the observation deck for three reasons: I’d already done it years earlier, I didn’t have time, and I’m sure it’d probably be pricey.  Going up to the top of Burj Khalifa set me back about 40 bucks, though, so I bet about everything is better than that.  One thing I do remember when I was there fifteen years ago is that civil servants (fire/police) and military personnel in uniform got either a serious discount or free admission, and I remember that was the first time I’d ever seen that.

I followed Wacker Drive along the western part of the skyscraper.  The lobby entrance was there, but it was locked, apparently for some construction or routine maintenance, but the lobby looked pretty neat from the street, and tall to boot. 

If this thing doesn’t cast some kind of shadow!  Rounding the corner, I was engulfed in the building’s profile, and the narrower streets meant the winds blew harder, reminding me of the stiff weather.  I was walking down Adams Street now, and people all around me had pulled their coat tighter.  Their gazes were all set forward, jaded to the impressive buildings and city that surrounded them. 

At the intersection of Adams and Dearborn, a festival was underway.  I’m not sure what it was for, but food was a pretty good blind guess; there were all sorts of really unique smells and sounds coming from the plaza, all sitting next to a bizarre red statue, apparently called the “Flamingo.”  It was specifically commissioned to contrast with the modernist skyscrapers around it, adding color and curved lines to an ostensibly drab environment.  The plaza beside it was now host to something called the “Nowruz” parade, which had all kinds of cultural displays and food, perhaps Middle Eastern or West Asian. 

At this point, though, I just had to press on.

Another three or four blocks and I emerged back on Michigan Avenue, which seemed to have widened a bit.  A large gathering of people on the western side of the street were waiting for the signal to cross, so I joined them and, when the light turned, we moved as one mass across the venerated Chicago road.  On the other side, we split apart, some off to the Art Institute right there, some south to another destination, but I went north, towards Millennium Park and the next mark on my list.

Millennium Park had a number of sculptures and installations that identify it as a significantly newer addition to the city than the historic Grant Park to the south.  I was here to see one of the most visually striking ones, Cloudgate. Before that, though, I encountered two large, rectangular pillars.  They didn’t look like much; they were tall, black, metallic, and separated by a couple hundred feet of empty concrete.  The northernmost one had a man inside it, accomplish work, and there were a couple kids and their parents that were able to see him behind the metallic mesh; the worker kindly waved and returned to his task.

Cloudgate looks like a super-sized drop of mercury suspended in an open plaza.

Lots of families, kids, teens, and college students were all snapping their picture against the sculpture or off the sculpture, capturing warped, fun-house pictures.  I actually was able to find my own reflection in the sculpture, even at this distance, by waving and looking for the little arm waving back near the top. 

They do concerts here, too; the angles of the pavilion, and perhaps the purpose of the venue, reminded me of the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, which features architectural stylings akin to a lotus in bloom; it even unfolds throughout the day and night.  It had a lattice that overhung the grassy area to the south of the pavilion, mostly as a way to hang lights.  Maybe you could even stretch some kind of roof over the lattice in case of rain?
I made my way back to Michigan Avenue, but just to cross it again; we’ll pick it up again on the north side of the Chicago River.  For now, it’s time to roll down Washington Street for a couple more sights.

I was amazed by how many paved, open spaces there were in the city; Chicago really knew the importance of having a lot of outdoor space, and that really surprised me.  I guess I always assumed Chicago’s weather would be bad, but I’m not sure millions of people would call the Windy City home if windy was all it was.  The other places I can think of that have this kind of atmosphere are Washington, DC and San Francisco.  The statue honored a former mayor, as I recall, but now, some kids were using its smooth, brushed edge as a slide.  More power to ‘em; it almost looks designed for it.

If you can believe it, this skyscraper was a church; churches are known for being spread out over large spaces, but this one has left a proportionately small footprint.  By using up the real estate of a modest sanctuary, this church has fit everything it needs, which probably includes its main worship space, offices, classrooms, nursery, and maybe even a rectory.  Never thought of a preacher living in a penthouse, but that might be the case here. 
I hooked a right along the open plaza and walked north along Clark Street where I encountered one of the odd buildings I’d expected to see on my route.

This is a government building.  Yeah, not an art gallery, movie theater, mall, or spaceship like I expected.  Beats the pants off Soviet Central a couple miles back, though.  This building houses the Chicago side of Illinois’ state government; Springfield, not Chicago, is the state’s capital, but they’ve got a lot to do here.

Just a couple more blocks and I was at the river again, ready to cross and see the city’s newest skyscraper, the Trump International Tower.  It’s the taller, silver building on the right, but the other tower in the shot fascinated me, too.  I wanted a closer look, so I adjusted my route to cross the river right there.

As I crossed Wacker Drive to get ready to take a bridge across the river, I was quickly reminded of the cold.  Having pavement that’s soaking up sunlight is one thing, but with the open air and cold river beneath me, it was downright cold again.  I tucked me hat down and stashed my hands in my pockets again, as I did when I’d first set out hours earlier.

I found my cross street and took the Dearborn Street Bridge across to these bizarre towers.

They’re parking garages; how novel!

It looks like, if you wanted to park there, you drive up a spiral center road and park along the edge.  I’ve seen enough action movies that I know what it’d look like for one of those cars to go careening out of its spot, hurtling down to the river below.  More than anything, I guess, they were made like a screw, and you drive up and down the threads to get to your spot.  Still, it’s a pretty fashionable way to do something as mundane as park your car.

The Trump Tower was tall and skinny, unlike the broad, blocky Willis Tower.  It was the second tallest building in the city, but it didn’t seem much taller than many of the other skyscrapers I’d come across, and it may be because its footprint was smaller.  After getting to the parking towers, I followed the elevated waterfront around to Wabash Avenue and walked alongside the supertall building.

It was certainly fancy; it made me think of Monopoly.  When you put a hotel on, like, Baltic Ave., this would be what it’d look like. You’d charge a ton of money, but you created the value.  In other words, if you spent a lot of money here, I just feel like it wouldn’t be a good deal, but I’m probably biased.  I mean, I’ll take a sleeping bag or a cot and I’ll be fine.  I’ve stayed in some really fancy digs and some shacks, and I’ve never seen the point; you wake up all the same the next morning.

Frankly, this building was just about as interesting.  Something about Chicago and their parking structures, I’ll tell you what.  This was another garage, hidden behind a vertical, metallic mesh.  You could see inside, but just barely.  It might keep the wind at bay without the trouble of building actual walls.  I’m sure some would call it ugly, but I think it’s pretty baller looking.

At Hubbard Street, I hooked a right and followed the elevated sidewalk to Michican Avenue, where’d I’d follow it north along the ritziest places in the city and out to the lake shore on the other side.

While I was given an option of going under or over the next bridge, I decided to stay topside, and the next block up was Michigan Ave.

They call the stretch north of the river “the Magnificent Mile,” but it would be more like “the Magnificent 3500 Feet” for me, as I picked up a bit into the game.  Still, there was already tons to see, and people were swarming over the sidewalks, sightseeing, shopping, and sharing experiences with their companions.

This may come as no surprise to you, but some of the most modern architecture I found was for the flagship retail stores based on Michigan Avenue, like this Burberry store, which was even so clever as to include their signature plaid pattern on the exterior.  I may not be a fashion guy, but I at least know that.  You don’t make a purpose-built investment like that unless you can really be sure that you’re going to be able to stay there for a long time.  I know most law firms or sanitation departments wouldn’t like a flashy, plaid-patterned building to house their offices.

Crate & Barrel was even being cute with their architecture, with a typical, square portion (the “crate” and a rounded foyer and atrium (the “barrel.”)  Truth in advertising!

Naturally, there’s lots of street performers too.  Any Saturday, regardless of weather, I’m sure you’re bound to find performers plying their trade for spare change and small bills.  It’s easy to write these performers off, but they are generally pretty good at what they do.  Just because they don’t have a 9-to-5 doesn’t mean they aren’t doing real, valuable work.

Amongst all the hip and the new, this historical water tower now houses an art gallery.  It’s nice that the kept the building though; Louisville also sports an historic water tower.  In fact, our wedding reception was there.

Speaking of my wife, this is for her; when we were dating, we picked up a Playstation game for $1 at the local Dollar General.  Although I can’t remember the full name, the title had “Topshop” in it.  It was a mix between Monopoly and a tycoon-style game, where you buy up space in a mall to sell different things and you can sabotage each other, take over floors and push others out, etc.  This actually looked like one of those kind of places, with several different kinds of stores jammed into one location, vying for space and customers. 

The last major skyscraper I’d pass before leaving the city proper was coming up on my right: the John Hancock Center.  This trapezoidal tower tops 1,000 feet and was, in fact, the first skyscraper outside of New York City to hit that milestone. 

Intriguingly, the Hancock Center seemed to take itself much less seriously than the other supertall buildings I’d encountered so far.  There was a little place to eat, several restaurants, and even in a Best Buy in the first few floors.  Admittedly, it is in a different part of the city, so it could just be they’ve adapted over the decades. 

As has often been the case, churches are some of the last remaining historical buildings in most downtown areas.  In this case, it seemed like it was only partially remaining; was there always only one spire, or did the right one collapse?  It looked unbalanced, but kind of awesome at the same time.  I guess I’ve got either the architect or mother nature to thank.

Finally, I reached the northern edge of Michigan Avenue where it collides with Lake Shore Drive.  My next target, Linkin Park, was still a couple miles away, so I wanted to ride the coast again.  There was a pedestrian tunnel at the intersection, so I followed it.  This one was longer than those I’d encountered on the south side of the city, and it certainly had something distinct waiting for me on the other side.

This is a beautiful mural; often Martin Luther King is depicted, either in photographs or artwork, as heroic, divine, or infallible.  The angel’s wings on either side might normally indicate that, too, but I actually see something else.  Dr. King’s here face is focused, somber, almost angry.  Dr. King’s efforts were so powerful because he worked.  He struggled, and he suffered, and he eventually died for those who had been treated as less than.  He was peaceful when it was appropriate, and he was baleful when that was appropriate; King was arrested more than two dozen times during his life.  Especially in these turbulent racial times, Dr. King’s approach to destroying both idealistic and legally enforced racism stands as an example of diligence, focus, and determination.

We’re more than halfway there; come back Wednesday for the sixth installment.  Until then, keep going!

- Matt

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