Sunday, February 21, 2010

In Anticipation of Spring

Iiiit’s raining! Okay, so normally rain isn’t anything to write home about (although I’ve always been a sucker for those steamy summer nighttime rains), but it’s actually been warm enough to rain, and I’m pretty psyched about that. Although the weather forecast predicts about six inches of snow tonight, we’ve been having a string of days with 40-degree temperatures, which means that, even if it’s only a tease, a change of seasons is near. Who doesn’t love that little thrill of warm temperatures creeping up? It's that point where you say, okay, I can handle one more month of this, because it’s only a month. It just feels so comforting to know that spring is near.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

World’s Most Beautiful, Nation’s Most Miserable?

Forbes can’t seem to keep Chicago out of its “America’s Most Miserable Cities” top ten list. At least we dropped to tenth place this year, as opposed to third last year. Yet, when I see places like Canton, Ohio on the list, I can’t help but wonder. Canton’s so small that I wouldn’t think it would even be in the running, not to mention the fact that, well, Ohio has several cities in almost exactly the same situation as Canton; honestly, many Midwestern cities have been facing the shrinking syndrome, and the recession only helped to exacerbate the urban break-down. Most of them make the top twenty (Forbes listed Toledo, Akron, and Youngstown), but I'm surprised to see Canton so high on the list. And to see Cleveland at the top, ahead of Detroit…shocking.

Of course, how do you really measure the "misery" of one city against another? And I question Forbes. Case in point: Forbes declares Chicago the nation’s tenth most miserable city today; yet, less than a month ago, they named Chicago to their list of the “World’s Most Beautiful Cities.” Most Miserable and Most Beautiful? To me, this is contradictory (are homelessness and crime and congested traffic beautiful?). I’m willing to bet that Forbes only publishes these things to drive traffic to their site anyway. And really, I can’t blame them. It works.

In a city like Chicago, where outsiders look in on the frigid winters, crowded roadways, political corruption, and crime, and shiver, most people on the inside will still tell you how much there is to love about this place. The winters are harsh, yes, but then summer hits and it feels luxurious. And public transportation (even if it has its problems), or Lake Shore Drive, allows you to bypass bumper-to-bumper traffic. Then of course there’s the architecture, the events, the culture, the foood

True, Chicago is far from perfect. And I do not wish to poo-poo the level of crime and homelessness that exist here. We certainly have our problems. Yet, there is also much to love about Chicago (though I realize that you have to be in a position economically to enjoy much of it). The pride in this city is quite astounding (as an example, look at how people continue to support the Cubs and the Bears). If it were so miserable, I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be over three million people living here, and more clamoring to get here everyday.

Check out this slideshow from the Chicago Tribune, for some pieces of what's not miserable about Chicago.


This post has been updated several times. I did a little more digging into the Forbes list, and changed my original assertions a little bit. Oh, and I had some spirited discussion with friends through Facebook that made me realize there were some key factors missing from my post. :)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Desertion and (Self) Preservation

After some digging online, I finally found out what this vacant building is to the north of my apartment complex. It has always struck me as highly unusual that a historic building in such a prime location in Chicago sits vacant. It always felt to me as though it were some kind of school. Perhaps because of the way the building is centered around a courtyard, and the way the fountain sits. It reminded me a little of Oxford colleges, just on a much smaller scale. Anyhow, I kept forgetting to ask at the office to see if they knew what that building was, so tonight I started digging for information about Gold Coast historic buildings, and found it. Found it in a rather surprising way, actually, landing on this story: “Plans withdrawn for Gold Coast repository for cremains.” Apparently, in November, the plan to turn the place into a morbid site for cremated remains was withdrawn after great opposition from the entire Gold Coast community. I can’t believe I was living here when all that happened, and hadn’t heard a thing about it. But I’m so incredibly relieved that they didn’t go through with it: the place already creeps me out as it is, because it’s this huge, old, deserted building (the kind you read about in ghost stories), but to look out my window everyday and see a huge old building filled with ashes? No, thank you.

As you can see if you follow the link, it is the old Three Arts Building. It was built in 1914, and housed women studying the arts. Somehow, it seems utterly fitting that I would land close by. I think, someday, that building may wind up in a book I write.

Aside from my continued fascination with the building, I decided I should look it up before I leave the Gold Coast. Since I have decided (with 90% certainty) that I will move this summer to a neighborhood with ample parking and cheaper rents, it has suddenly dawned on me that I need to explore my neighborhood much more before I leave it (can you believe I haven’t been to the Newberry Library or the Chicago History Museum yet? Inexcusable, I know!).

It’s really a bittersweet decision on my part. This neighborhood is absolutely gorgeous. It has some of the most beautiful early twentieth-century buildings in the city of Chicago. It sits right next to the lake. I hope that maybe one day I will move back here, but into a place that I own. That is a big dream, but you never know—it could happen. It’s a very expensive neighborhood and the parking, well, I just can’t take it anymore. Today I drove around for about 20 minutes to find a spot when I returned from Ohio, and ultimately ended up several blocks away in an area with which I’m not as familiar, and I swear I looked at all the street signs carefully, but I’m still scared that I may have missed something and will walk out to move my car this weekend and find it towed. I’m so tired of having to walk by my car to make sure it’s okay (i.e., hasn’t been hit, broken into, or towed). Everyone keeps telling me to sell my car, but I refuse. It’s too convenient for me to get home to visit family in Ohio (and take my laundry, and bring back groceries). Besides, it’s my first car, and it has been wonderful. Even more importantly, I own it. I don’t own my home, and probably won’t own a place for awhile. It’s the only real thing of value that is mine. Paid for, owned, and extremely useful. Besides, what if I decide I want to leave Chicago? How would I get by someplace else without a car?

Aside from these factors, I also can get much more apartment space for cheaper somewhere else, and I’ve already got my next neighborhood in mind. But it’s leaving the proximity to the lake that tugs at my heartstrings. It sounds silly, but my runs by the lake were the only thing that really got me through last summer. I honestly don’t know how else I would have released all that negative energy and sadness if I didn’t have my runs, and the comfort of the tempestuous lake to my east. And it was all there for me, with so little effort. Maybe, I will get lucky and find a great little place near the lake with a parking garage, but considering my budget, I’m not holding my breath. Of course, if I can actually use my car because there will be parking when I return, I can always drive myself to the lake and then go for my run, or picnic, or tanning, or reading on a bench. And then, there’s always good old public transportation. Eh, it won’t be the same as living here. But every neighborhood has its assets.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mother Nature and the CTA Conspire against Commuters

Fully expecting a horrendous commute yesterday, after the CTA cut numerous buses and trains on busy routes, I trekked to my El stop with visions of sardine-can rides from now until, well, until some anonymous donor bails out the CTA (which is a lovely thought but will never happen). Yet, when I arrived on the platform and the first train came, I found, ironically, that I was able to get a seat—something that never happens for me in the morning. I stepped right on and sat right down, like nobody’s business. Okay, this must be a fluke, I thought.

So, today, with snow blustering and accumulating at an alarming rate outside, I thought, “Okay, Em, you got lucky yesterday, but today it’s going to be Stove Top stuffing in there” (I heard someone say that once, and liked the metaphor). As I slipped through the turnstile and headed down the steps to the open doors of an awaiting train, however, I found several open seats again. CTA cuts? Blizzard? You wouldn’t know it from this train.

The only explanation I could figure for this anomaly was that a whole lot of commuters, expecting the worst, arrived 30-60 minutes early as they were told to do on the news. And those of us who didn’t feel like rolling out of bed an extra half hour earlier were reaping the benefits. Of course, I do tend to catch the El a little earlier than most working people anyway, primarily because I like to avoid being crushed up against strangers, and getting my toes stepped on, or dodging gropers, which I have had to do on occasion.

So, the day proceeded and there I was thinking how lucky I am to be getting these great train rides this week, and then, well, I left work at 4:50 p.m. Um, yeah. A slightly different story. There was no "hopping" onto a train at five o'clock. It was pure pushing and shoving onto already packed train cars, in an attempt to escape a platform that was filling up fast. Yes, things are a bit different at rush hour. In a blizzard.

I'm wondering how much Chicagoans will put up with before we all start driving and both traffic and parking become an even greater nightmare than they already are. If we increase vehicular traffic, transportation in Chicago could fall into a vicious, frustrating, and environmentally-unfriendly cycle that, at best, would lead to the reincorporation of the buses and trains that have just been cut, or, at worst, would erode Chicago’s famed public transportation infrastructure. For good or bad, I imagine that we're all going to grin and bear it until it becomes literally unbearable.

But if it's this bad now, imagine what it's going to be like during baseball season. True, people won't be waiting outside in a blizzard to catch one in a handful of buses. But people will be waiting. Lots and lots of people. Now I’m really going to have to plan my entire life around the Cubs, and I don't even like baseball.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mmmmm. Chocolate.

Last night, I went to a chocolate tasting. Imagine an entire dining room table decked out with plates of chocolate and pastries. Then, add to that a regular stream of red wine. Oh, the decadence!

Liz’s friend Matt purchased all kinds of chocolate goodness from Vanille Patisserie, and hosted us at his place in Bucktown. Additionally, one of his friends is a former pastry chef, and she brought us six kinds of dark chocolate from her personal collection. We tasted each one, moving from your average, waxy chocolate chips, through to a smooth, 71% cocoa chocolate. Her expert narration accompanied the tasting, and it felt like a bona fide wine tasting, but with chocolaty goodness instead (although there was plenty of red wine, believe me).

Now, I will be the first to admit that my palate is not refined. I love food. In fact, I love all kinds of food, from Five Faces cheap gyros, to escargot and eel eggs. I just enjoy the varied tastes and textures, but I’m not exactly discriminating. I’m not sure I could tell an expensive chocolate from a cheap one, and, in many cases, it’s possible I might like the cheap one best (since it’s probably closest to the kinds of chocolate I ate as a kid). But having the chance to line up various varieties and really savor them, really compare them, I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I've gotten into the habit of eating too fast and not really tasting things.

Surprisingly, after declaring my distaste for dark chocolate, and love for all things sugary, I enjoyed the more bitter flavors. None of the chocolates in the tasting portion were milk chocolates, but the only one I truly disliked was very acidic-tasting Valrhona. It was fun to taste the nuances from one variety to the next, and I realized that I much prefer chocolates that don’t have the waxy paraffin texture of so many cheap chocolates.

Of course, I still gravitated to the milk chocolaty goodness of the Vanille Patisserie selection, and the tasty macaroons—mmm! But I enjoyed discovering that there actually are some dark (a.k.a. heart healthy) chocolates that I like. While the wine and chocolate mix left me with a strange, sugary, buzzy feeling, I have to say: Bravo, Matt! What a fabulous event!

Reactions to the Modern Wing

Last weekend, I finally made it to the Art Institute to see the new Modern Wing. It has that wonderful newly-constructed smell, and I found the layout and architecture very open and aesthetically pleasing. The third floor houses my favorite modern art, including the Picassos. The first two floors house some very enjoyable art, as well, but I sometimes have difficulty with modern art. Sometimes, I have difficulty accepting some modern art as “art,” and my friend Bala and I are like-minded on this point; frankly, we had a hard time keeping it together in there. We tried to keep our jokes to ourselves, but I’m quite sure I saw some exasperated glances shooting in our direction as we struggled to keep our laughter under control.

There’s a fine line between splattering paint on a canvass and calling it art, and creating a work that actually means something. For instance, some artists really know how to “splatter paint” in a way that creates a profound effect on the viewer—they are deliberate but make it look effortless. There is such a painting housed in the Walker Museum in Minneapolis. I wish I remembered the artist’s name, but it was a completely abstract painting about human atrocities and it created a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach before I even read the placard. That painting has always resonated with me.

But sometimes, I am wide-eyed at what we consider worthy of housing in a museum. During our stroll on the third floor, I overheard a museum guide discussing Duchamp’s famous fountain (which is where my ambivalence to modern art began at the Tate Modern in 2002), and the artist’s challenge to the question “What makes art art?” I never actually knew that the point of a signed urinal, according to the museum guide, was to challenge whether a signature on an object would make it a piece of art (in fact, from what I've read, that wasn't exactly the point of it). How ironic that a replica of the urinal (no one seems to know the location of the original) is now housed in a famous museum. Maybe a signature can make anything art.

Of course, strolling through other areas of the Art Institute, including the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Asian exhibits, many of those pieces of art are household objects that were used in day-to-day tasks in their respective cultures, as well. Were those household objects considered art in their day? Are they only worthy of that status now because they are rare? It makes me wonder if my manufactured plates, dug up hundreds of years from now, will be considered worthy of preservation in an art museum.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

CTA Mobile Garden: Say What?

Today I came across this article, "Mobile Garden Rail Car To Be Tacked on To Chicago Transit System," at Treehugger. I immediately recognized a green line train in the main picture ("green" line, how clever), but was baffled by the "garden car" rolling along behind it. The CTA has apparently approved a mobile garden rail car to add some green space to your commute. Whether a garden trailing behind you during your daily train ride can truly add green space to your life, however, is up for debate.

When I first saw this, I was angry, wondering who would pay for such an absurdity. I have already complained about the beautiful flat-screen televisions that popped up at a number of El stops after the CTA declared its insatiable debt. However, it appears that the CTA has told mobile garden (an organization that grew out of a UIC graduate course on sustainability) that they will have to raise the funds for the implementation and maintenance of the garden car themselves. However, I still feel that it's a waste of space and, even worse, energy to drag a garden car around behind the train. Tell me, why would you invest in such a thing? And how does this promote sustainability?

I think we'd be better off if someone invested in more rooftop gardens like the few scattered in the Lincoln Park/Lakeview area of town. Those gardens can provide insulation and food. What we have here is a useless plot of flowers whizzing around behind the CTA--um, what? So you'll actually look at the garden for about ten seconds as the train unloads and reloads at your stop (that is, if the train that happens to have the garden happens to roll past the platform at which you're waiting).

The choice of the green line is ironic (unless they only chose that line for the photo opp). Green line trains ride past the conservatory if you're headed west. I get more enjoyment out of riding past the conservatory than I ever would from a plot of flowers trailing the CTA. I get even greater enjoyment out of--gasp--walking through the conservatory, versus watching a preposterous mobile garden zip past me on the El platform. ( And oh the mockery other cities will rightfully impose upon us.)

The only real argument you've got for this one is art for art's sake (which hardly promotes sustainability). I think there are better ways to incorporate green space into city life.