Report from Chicago

I spent last weekend in Chicago, and had the privilege of touring the downtown lakefront, which has been going through some enormous changes in the past five years. If you don't know, or have never been to Chicago, the city's relationship to its portion of Lake Michigan is unique among big-city waterfront.

In 1909, the Chicago Plan Commission, chaired by Daniel Burnham, published its comprehensive outline for fiddling up the city and creating public space. It was the first urban planning document of its kind, and its effects upon the city's aesthetics and the everyday life of its citizens continues to this day. Perhaps the Plan's greatest gift to the city was the recommendation that the lakefront, from the border with Indiana to Wilmette in the far North shore suburbs, should be reclaimed from private use and set aside for the public's use in perpetuity.

To understand the depth of foresight present in that decision, one has only to look to New York City's waterfront, the vast majority of which has stayed in private hands, and is accordingly almost entirely inaccessible, decrepit, and crime-ridden. While a movement has grown in recent years around the issue (my slice of Brooklyn in Greenpoint is currently attempting to reclaim its waterfront) the process is hideously expensive and time consuming. The city must contend with both private developers who own much of the land as well as the highways which butt directly against the shore.

But back to Chicago.

The centerpiece of my lakefront visit was the just opened millennium Park, which corrects one of the great items of unfinished business in Burnham's original plan. Grant Park, the "front yard" of Chicago, has always been blighted by open sunken railroad tracks running the entire length of the park and driving away pedestrian traffic. millennium Park is the first attempt to cover the tracks and restore vitality to this neglected space in the heart of the city. And it is spectacular.

How remarkable in this day and age, when "leisure" has come to mean an experience either crass or consumerist or both, that the city of Chicago created an enlightened public space in the best tradition of high-minded urban planning: populist, yet profound; filled with humanity yet supremely sophisticated.

The centerpiece of the Park (besides Gehry's bandshell, which is super-cool looking as expected but not necessarily interesting) are two grand sculptures along Michigan avenue. The first is by Jaume Plensa, a Spanish sculptor, and consists of two 50-foot towers covered on facing sides by gigantic LED screens which display faces of Chicagoans. At 11 minute intervals, the faces become spouts and send water into a long shallow basin running between the two towers. I admit that when I first read a description of this, I thought it sounded pretty trite, not to mention foolishly impermanent, as the LED screens require a huge computer system below ground to keep them running. But seeing it in person, on a warm summer's day, with children and their parents playing gleefully in the shallow pool, while surrounded by photographs of warm, knowing faces of all different shades, is a marvelous experience. Indeed, the very realization that the sculpture has been completed by experiencing it, and the knowledge that that experience is only possible with others present, is its true brilliance as public art.

The same can be said for Anish Kapoor's massive jelly-bean of polished chrome, titled "Cloud Gate". The piece draws spectators into its center, where one stands with other passerby staring up slackjawed at the distortion pushed to its limit. Exiting the other side, one realizes that the side of the sculpture acts like a wide angled mirror, brilliantly reflecting the canyon wall of Michigan avenue, and inviting the viewer to examine and dwell on the skyline. A sculpture which would be compelling solely on its formal merits invites its environment in, blending stunning aesthetic satisfaction with the resonance of the familiar. And, for the kids, its a pretty sweet fun-house mirror.

I think these two pieces really bring home what is special and noble about the new park, and it extends to the Gehry bandshell and lawn, as well as the 'formal' gardens which should be spectactular when grown in with native Midwestern grasses and flowers.

In the grander scheme of things, millennium Park represents a new step in the revitalization of Chicago's center city. For too long, the city has allowed commercial development to stand in for true public space. While that is certainly necessary, more Old Navy's and Borders outlets can only make a downtown an intriguing strip mall. They can never create a destination that restores real urban dignity and vitality. While smaller cities like Baltimore or Cleveland perhaps must rely upon malls and cookie-cutter tourist schlock to bring people back downtowns, Chicago can do much better. And this is one big step in the right direction.

P.S. If you live in Chicago and haven't been, Meigs Field has been totally dug up and replanted now. Just go out to the planetarium and take a right. It is amazing. You can walk or ride for over a mile through prairie grass, and when you turn your back to the skyline, you could be on any deserted strip of shore on the Great Lakes. A really remarkable experience, and more proof that the arguments for keeping Meigs were completely lame.


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