Friday, 3 September 2010

South Of The Loop: Lesser-seen Chicago

South of the Loop is where most visitors to Chicago don’t go, tied as they are to the Miracle Mile (Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River) or to the Art Institute of Chicago and its neighbors. Let me urge you to jump your rut on your next trip to the Windy City.
Walk south on Dearborn (past the Monadnock Building with its superb Archicenter, everyman’s guide to the architectural glories of the city with Big Shoulders and even Bigger Heart). In a few minutes you will run into the once-abandoned Dearborn Station, just now on the cusp of yuppiefication. It’s got a soaring Tuscan tower to give the railroad rider a clue to its whereabouts and a rough rusticated garnish on its red brick exterior-just a honey of a building, sweetly saved from the wrecker’s wanton balling.
I wandered inside, looking for visual highs. Alas, the first thing I ran into was a financial woe. The Caboose supermarket’s fiscal ass is draggin’. Its friendly but sad-looking owner recounted the story of his first 14 months in this two-year-old rehab job: “There are 15,000 people in this neighborhood, but they all eat out. Their fridges are empty. They don’t need a fully-stocked supermarket.” Lifestyles of the yuppie discretionaries and infamous noshers.
“How long will you hang on?” I asked solicitously. “Forever,” he replied morosely. “Everything I own is invested here.”
“Will the new Harold Washington Main Library up the street help when it’s finished?”
“I hope so,” he answered mournfully.
Who would have thought that a high lifestyle could undo a supermarket? Oh me oh my. The unanticipated (maybe unanticipatable) effects of our lightning-like lifestyle changes.
Now double back to Harrison and turn left until you see the lovely curves of River City hove into view like some super-spaceship beached at its own marina. It’s the latest work of Bertrand Goldberg, the most unacknowledged architectural genius of our time (that is, unknown in America but so famous in Europe that the Paris Art Center fielded a major retrospective to celebrate 50 years of his creativity). Everyone knows his twin Marina City towers as the landmark emblem of modern Chicago, but nobody knows his name but the cognoscenti.
I make a habit of pit-stopping with him and / or with Studs Terkel whenever I pass through town. BG has moved his atelier from Marina City to River City, making it harder for me to drop in on him but lovelier to see once you get there, south of the Loop. River City, like Marina City, is an exemplary mixed-use (residential and commercial) project inside the Inner City, a strong but not entirely successful blow against the suburbanizing, mallifactoring drift of our mindless “planners.”
The $60-million, 400-residential-unit River City blipped on its HUD mortgage last year, but HUD is not a vulture and remains steady, hoping that Goldberg’s dream will eventually pay off on the commercial side too. No restaurant yet, for example.
Visit it, by all means. I experienced the thrill of being shown around by senior partner Chen, a refugee from Taiwan who split from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill the year after he graduated from college “because it was a factory. Here at BGA you are a creating person, always in the thick of art decisions.”
Chen explained the covered atrium scheme, which is one of the most salubrious attractions of the place. It was minus-ten degrees Fahrenheit outside in howling Chicago winds when we walked cozy as rugged bugs through the six-story-high residential corridor, garnished with changing seasonal flora. Goldberg devised a deep ledge inside each wall facing the walk so that every tenant can have his own art / greenery display space, yet freeing the outside for the contract gardeners who now don’t have to deal with a formless jungle of spillovers from each apartment.
There is one major cultural attraction for visitors to savour at River City—the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Last spring, for example, the museum exhibited “The Glaring Light: Television Coverage of the American Civil Rights Movement—Selections from the Peabody Collection.” Its hours are irregular, so check with 1-312-987-1500.
The Peabody Award has recognized excellence in broadcasting for almost 50 years now. Named after banker / philanthropist George Foster Peabody (1852-1938), it represents the winnowing of nearly a thousand program submissions a year, of which only 20 to 30 win an award. It’s especially noteworthy because it doesn’t get bogged down in network clout, honoring “daytime-only” radio stations and independent program cooperatives, as well as large cable systems and the major networks.
There are already more than 25,000 items in its collection, ranging from 1940 to the present. Since programs are self-nominated, the Peabody awards represent what program producers themselves think of as their best work.
If you arrive overnight via Greyhound, as I often do, walk up Randolph a few doors to Garrick’s, where the breakfasts are blue-collar substantial and the coffee refills are infinite. I scoop up the morning papers from vending boxes (25 cents for the Trib and Sun Times and Christian Science Monitor—the new color Monitor is a leaner, finer medium) and while away the hours before the museums open up.
And when B. Dalton’s starts business on Wabash Avenue, scoop up a free copy of The Reader, which is the Welco of Chicago, an alternative weekly that will cue you in to a lot of last-minute art developments in the Chicago region. Fridays, the Trib and Sun Times have weekend guides.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 17, 1990

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