Understanding the character of a city is about understanding yourself

Chicago Sun Times
The Sun Times building seems aptly named. Since this photo was taken a new building is under construction next to this one.

My first recollected trip to the City of Chicago was as a thirteen year old child. We drove from the tiny town of Elburn, Illinois (Pop. 1500 at the time) to visit the Museum of Science and Industry. That’s a trip of about 50 miles all told. At the time, it might has well have been a trip around the world.

Kids who grow up in the city know how it works. They take buses and a few even ride in cabs. The buildings do not intimidate them, nor the urbanity and pigeons and graffiti coloring them.

With so little knowledge to build upon, that trip to the museum was like boring into the core of something so foreign to me that it overwhelmed my thought processes. Back home in Elburn life seemed to make more sense. I went birdwatching in the fields and played baseball under a hot sun next to a cornfield.

The lines from the title song of an album I owned, that would be “Honky Chateau” by Elton John, seemed to mock my naivete.

When I look back
Boy, I must have been green
Boppin’ in the country
Fishin’ in a stream
Lookin’ for an answer
Tryin’ to find a sign
Until I saw your city lights
Honey, I was blind
They said, get back, Honky Cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And oh, oh, oh, oh, the change is gonna do me good
Truly, I did not know how to “quit those days and my redneck ways.” Even when I landed a job in the city at the age of 21 I stuffed my wallet down my pants on the first walk to work because I was not sure whether I’d be robbed or not.
Sun Streak
A sun line streaks across the face of a building in downtown Chicago. Such adaptations of natural elements are vitally important to the beauty of architecture.

You can laugh, but I bet I’m not alone in that delayed (retarded…as in delayed) response to appreciation of the city. Once I worked downtown it all fell into place. The restaurants and the architecture. The plays and the bars. Finally my redneck ways receded from my eyes.

Then I got transferred to Philadelphia for work and had the experience to soak in a whole city on entirely new terms. Philly was different from Chicago. It was low-slung for one thing. At the time no building was taller than the William Penn statue in the center of downtown. How odd, I thought, that people should agree on such a thing. How many architects longing to make their statement on the Philly skyline had to bite the bullet and build another grumpy testimony to anachronistic style?
While working in Philly it was once my job to cart 140lbs of AV equipment up to the Chemical Bank building in New York city and return the same day. All of this was done by train, then cab, then back to the train. It ranks as one of the most exhausting 12 hour periods of my life. Those four hours in downtown New York were little more than strange. Looking down from the upper floors of the skyscraper there was nothing but a river of yellow cabs grunting along the street below.
I would not get back to New York City until 32 years later. That was to visit my son at his home on Delancey Street in Manhattan. We wandered around under his guidance visiting some sites like the 9/11 Memorial. Then we rented Citibikes and rolled around the riverfront from 5th Avenue across the Williamsport bridge and more.
And it struck me. This is a big place. But it’s just a place. All the familiar landmarks are there just like in the movies. Someone built them and someone uses them. Yes, some of the biggest financial decisions in the world are made on Wall Street. But even that district was forced to stick protective barriers up in front of the buildings so that no one can ram them with cars or explosives. I had to laugh: Who are the rednecks now?
That’s been my experience over the years in visiting all sorts of cities. They are built on assumptions that urbanity is the ultimate expression of human development. Yet they also expose the weaknesses of all those who depend upon them. Some people can’t even bear the idea of functioning outside their given city. And it strikes me as odd that when they arrive in the country and look around them, they seem to think there’s nothing of interest there.
Trump Tower
The TRUMP name is visible on the lower face of the Trump Tower in Chicago.

I wonder most of all how that most urban and urbane of characters, Donald Trump likes to think about the world. Walking through Chicago yesterday on the way to a business appointment, I saw his name slapped on the building he chartered on the Chicago River. It is reported that sign pissed off the mayor a bit. Such personal branding seems out of place in a city where architecture prides itself differentiations of shape and style, not the five letters of a last name.

But in case anyone has refused to notice, Donald Trump is all about bluster and artifice in life. Even his reality shows focused on firing people as a sign of sophisticated management.
What do we really owe such people? Typically is is them that owes us. Public financing of giant buildings and especially sports stadiums are often highly leveraged deals. It’s quite rare that someone’s personal worth actually swings the hammer. I have a friend whose relative is a major builder of hotels. On paper he’s worth millions but in reality he owes millions. “They really can’t come after me because I owe so much it wouldn’t pay to take me down,” he admitted.
Our entire economy turns out to be just such a game. We’ve seen the cost when the chips come in. The City of Detroit has suffered as the financial house of cards caves in. Urban decay is much the same as backwoods, redneck existence in the country. It’s no coincidence that guns are so highly valued in both extremes.
Fear drives it all. Fear (or the lack of it) drives the market up and down. Survival in the big city is all about having the wits to grasp the real circumstance of life and not let the perception of urbanity be confused with the establishment of real character.
Despite what people like Donald Trump with his pile of vainly coiffed hair might have us think, there really is nothing magic in the supposed sophistication of the city. Certainly it’s a place to appreciate culture and conduct business. But that just proves that the real magic of the place comes from within yourself.
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