Monday, July 27, 2009

Sense of the City: History

(My bu-weekly column and Urban Coaster Article. Enjoy.)

History is liquid. It's always changing and, like air, tires to fill up the space surrounding it. On July 4th, I went to the Edgewater Historical society. Edgewater is the neighborhood north of Uptown, where I live. I love history. It's my minor in school. I think it's that adaptability that draws me in. You can look at the change over time, sure, but History itself also changes. I was taught in grade school that Christopher Columbus discovered America only to find out later that's not entirely true. He might have found it for Spain, but many other cultures knew about it long before, including the people who have been calling it home for thousands of years.

When it comes down to it everything is liquid. Given enough time, everything ebbs and flows like the lunar tide. Solid things we normally think of as unmovable change too. The earth moves. Land evolves, sometimes slowly sometimes very quick and violently. Erosion made the Grand Canyon, Volcanoes made the Hawaiian islands and If I stood outside my apartment before the 60's Lake Michigan would be about waist high.

That last example was man made. The north end of Lake Shore Drive was built up out of the Lake. Lake fill made the beaches and the foundations for the Sheridan Ave. condos. Before that houses were built right up on the beach. The beach made their backyard.

That all changed because the city wanted to continue the ideas started by the famous urban planer, Daniel Burnham. He is a bit of a hero in Chicago and we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the publication of his Plan of Chicago on July 4th. (A lot of history on that day.) He wanted the entire lake front to be free and open to the public. Burnham has been named in many a debate over the years and his goal is still not fully realized. There are about 4 miles of lake front that still is not public land and a group of people are trying to change that. A noble plan but probably not the best economically sound idea right now. (But that's just my middle of the road opinion.)

I recently went home to the farm to visit family. Things are changing there, too. Family came in from out of town and I showed them around Monticello. I was surprised to see so many different stores around the square. Even in small towns, which always feel slower, change. The slight changes aren't obvious until you are absent for a while.

People have always been afraid of change. It's something that has been passed down through the generations from our prehistoric mothers and fathers. Anything new for them was a gamble. A new fruit could be delicious or it could be poison, so it's best not to mess with it. Now it's much less dangerous and going against chance has brought us so many good things. It's time we brushed off the fear and nostalgia that is at the heart of our inability to change.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sense of the City

(This is a little late. I have been home with my family. It was a lot of fun. I took a lot of pictures, you will probably be able to see them on my Picasa page. Also here is my latest article in The Urban Coaster.)

There is an unspoken rule with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) that most everyone follows. With few exceptions, everyone is deadly quite. No one talks to each other and everyone finds something to keep themselves busy. Some read. Some listen to music. Some stare out the window.

I usually go the rout of looking out the window, unless I have class and need to read a long assignment. You see a lot of the city from the CTA. The bus runs down on the streets in the muck of the dirt and depravity. And the train runs high up in a pulled out view that shows a whole new set of problems.

The el train runs pretty high up. It’s high enough to look down on top of the smaller buildings. Two and three flat apartments that look beautiful from street level look a little silly from above. Their plain tar roofs are in stark contrast to the decorative walls and windows. That tar contributes to the heat of the summer. Asphalt and concrete surfaces absorb the suns energy and releases it as heat, as opposed to the grass and trees of the country that use the energy to grow. The farm of my childhood was cooler than the city I currently call home.

Even if everyone turned their tar roofs silver to reflect the sun, which some already have, I still don't think I would feel comfortable. It's still a lot of wasted space. On the farm we never really left an area with no purpose. Every place we wouldn't normally walk turned into a garden, or a flower circle, or left to it's own devices to grow wild plants and trees. These roofs are flat usable surfaces that are going to waste.

I'm not pretending that a few roof top gardens are going to save the world or even cool down the city, but it would sure be pretty to look at. I wish I had my own roof to plant fruits and vegetables on. It seems like it would be fun, and it would bring a bit of my old home to my new one.

These are just a few ideas that run through my head on the el. The train is the opposite of a sensory deprivation chamber, so much information comes at me that my brain turns in on itself and I get lost in my own thoughts. It gets even more true when the Red Line goes underground. The Click-Clack of the wheels echo off the tunnel walls and turn into a roar loud enough to drown out the children yelling behind me. The outside is so dark the windows turn into an almost perfect mirror, reflecting the reflections from the other side of the train.

I don't ride the train much any more. The bus has been able to take me where I want to go. But if absence makes the heart grow fonder, it also makes curiosity grow stronger. Little things I take for granted become much more interesting when I don't see them for a while.