Capone and Kapoor
I never wanted to go to Chicago.
Despite having designed the lighting for a 2002 Australian touring production of the musical Chicago, and the lighting for a 1980s school production of Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone in the United Kingdom, the “windy city” had no appeal.
My only association with the place was when I sat in a snow-bound aeroplane on the tarmac at O’Hare Airport for three hours waiting for the weather to clear. Many years later, a US / Australian friend visited me in Thailand and convinced me that the city’s architecture was worth a visit.
OK – why not? It made a good stopover for a few days between my time in Boston and moving on to Belize in Central America.
I stayed in trendy and elegant West Buckingham Place – north of the city centre and just a stone’s throw from the famous Wrigley Field – although I did not get to see any baseball while I was there. The area is also just a block or two from Lake Michigan and the lovely Belmont Harbour and its Lakefront Trail, where I went jogging ignoring the freezing sleet and rain. The area is also known for its many little theatres – for stand-up comedy, improv or avant-garde productions – the Athenaeum, the Annoyance Theatre and Bar, the Laugh Factory, Under the Gun Theatre, the Briar Street Theatre (home for many years to the famous Blue Man Group) and …
Public transport is good in Chicago and frequent buses go from Lake View East and the Boystown area, along North Lake Shore Drive into the city, past the large 1860s Gothic revival Chicago Water Tower and into the “Magnificent Mile”. You will need deep pockets to do much shopping in this prime commercial district, but if you do have those pockets then Tiffany, Cartier, Salvatore Ferragamo, Omega and Chanel may tempt you. GAP and Levis are also there for those on a budget.
These shops are a long way from the Founding Fathers’ vision.
European occupation of the area dates from 1696 (1) when Jesuit priests established a mission. Fast forward through the Treaty of Greenville (1795) by which the Potawatomi Indians misguidedly gave the settlers a chunk of land at the mouth of the river. Forty years later the colonists’ population had risen to 4000. With a Jesuit background – did not Jesus turn water into wine? – perhaps it was not surprising that in 1920 a nation-wide ban on alcohol was imposed as a result of a decades-long temperance movement in reaction to the rise in alcoholism. (2)
- Enter Al Capone and Bugs Moran stage left, machine guns blazing
For thirteen years the city was a battleground, but it was also a time for great building projects in the Art Deco style: glamour, streamlined surfaces, linear and geometric shapes. The style captured architects’ imaginations and for several decades was the dominant influence in new buildings, and this is what makes a visit to Chicago worthwhile.
With the striking exception of the terribly ugly Trump Tower at 401 North Wabash, there are numerous fine buildings to admire: the Carbide and Carbon Building (1929), the Board of Trade (1930), the Chicago Athletic Association, the Riverwalk, Chicago Theatre, Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building …
Most architecturally interesting sites are quite accessible by foot or public transport, but I also took a river cruise that showed many more wonderful Deco buildings and learned how the Chicago River was taught how to flow in different directions … before scurrying back to Monroe Street and the 1906 CIBC Theatre to spend an evening with Alexander Hamilton.
I had heard that it was virtually impossible to get tickets to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hugely popular musical and was very pleased that as I popped into the CIBC Theatre I was offered a choice of seats at prices that went from a minor king’s ransom to a pocket-full of pearls. I should have paid the ransom – it may have meant that I did not have to spend the evening dodging the woolly head of the woman in the row in front of me.
Hamilton was the first US Secretary of the Treasury, round about the time that the Potawatomi Indians were foolishly giving away their land on the shores of Lake Michigan in the late 1790s.
- OK – a white guy, a bookkeeper, an illegitimate child, a lawyer, a man killed in a pre-dawn duel – surely not the stuff of a blockbuster musical?
The staging of the show was excellent with clever use of the space and with superb lighting design. But I found it hard to accept the white guy, Miguel Cervantes, I think, playing Hamilton and delivering most of his songs in a rather repetitive hip-hop rap beat. After all – white guys can’t jump … and black guys can’t swim – so why is there a white guy singing black music? Perhaps I was wrong … and needed to be a US citizen self-absorbedly wallowing in the creation of a nation to really enjoy the show.
Meanwhile, back in NY
A few kilometres east of my Chicago visit there were dramas of a different sort taking place on centre court at the USA Tennis Open. Nadal got bumped out by the Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro, who then got trounced by the lofty Djokovic winning his fourteenth Grand Slam.
The USA’s favourite mum – Serena Williams – was on court with 20th seeded Japanese player Naomi Osaka. Serena has won over twenty Grand Slam titles, and Naomi just two – with her second gong achieved in January 2019 in the Australian Open. Her first? Oh – yes – that was when she beat Serena in straight sets in about an hour, and when Serena displayed less than professional courtesy and honour as she abused the umpire. Even McEnroe did not go that far. Well … yes he did.
Some might say that the behaviour of these “greats” is nothing more than the actions of petulant children … but children who worked on the great Chicago Mural showed more maturity and more compassion than some pampered tennis prodigies.
In 1989, Keith Haring worked with five hundred kids from Chicago’s public schools to create a 150-metre mural on Masonite panels – so that the work could be displayed as a whole – or relocated in due course to the schools from which the kids came. The work originally stretched along Michigan Avenue by what is now known as the Millennium Park. Parts of the mural have been exhibited in many locations but I was lucky to find about forty of the original panels on show at the Chicago Cultural Centre, just over the road from where the mural had been originally installed.
Haring painted the outlines of his “petulant children” and the kids then filled in the rest, with personal messages, comments on school and society, and fun-loving graphics. Less than a year after the mural was completed, Haring died, but his work lives on in many international retrospectives and on the walls of major museums around the world.
It’s all about location
Just south of the Cultural Centre is the 1893 Chicago Athletic Association – a “Venetian Gothic landmark” – according to its website.
Neither blues singer Muddy Waters nor Johnny Weissmuller was there when I visited, but the feeling of a past not too distant was to be found everywhere. The leadlight glass in one display case (see featured image LEFT), the racks of old roller skates and the smell of liniment and sweat in the racquetball courts suggested that at any moment Johnny in his Tarzan loincloth would come swinging in from some vine … just in time for a healthy pomegranate juice at the modern ground-floor café.
Riverdale, in Chicago’s far South-east, may be the worst place in the city to live according to www.roadsnacks.net, with 21% unemployment, almost 8000 crimes per 100 thousand people and a median income of under US$16,000 per annum. West Loop, half a dozen blocks west of the Chicago Cultural Centre is probably the most expensive, but for me, Grant Park and Millennium Park are where I’d like to set up my tepee.
Dodging cars driving on the wrong side of the road, I scampered across Michigan Avenue and followed the sounds of music to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, where leading singers from Chicago’s Lyric Opera were rehearsing for a concert the following night. There is something rather nice about dodging occasional rainfalls and sitting watching informally clothed singers belting out airs from La Traviata on a grey Thursday afternoon.
The Pritzker Pavilion is a Frank Gehry-designed open-air concert venue with soaring stainless steel panels and stainless steel-wrapped concrete columns. There is tiered seating for about four thousand and open-air al fresco seating on the lawns for thousands more. Soaring stainless steel pipes arc out and over the seating on The Great Lawn.
- And then there is The Bean
I am sure that Sir Anish Kapoor would deplore the current nickname bestowed by Chicagoans on his huge sculpture – more formally known as Cloud Gate. This 2006 twenty-metre mass of yet more stainless steel reflects passers-by, the Chicago skyline, the sky and the clouds and all those who are trying for artistic selfies in front of it.
A couple of bridges lead away from The Bean.
There is the BP Bridge to Maggie Daley Park (I do not know who Maggie is or was, but the lovely bridge is another Gehry creation), and the Nichols Bridgeway to the Art Institute of Chicago. BP trumps – sorry! – Nichols in design, but the latter leads straight into the fourth floor of the gallery where among many other artists’ works are paintings by my favourite artist, Edward Hopper.
By a strange stroke of luck in 2007, I found myself in Washington DC when a major Hopper exhibition was presented. That was the first time I experienced so many of this great artist’s works “in the flesh” so to speak. I was running late … and had to sprint around the gallery … oohing and ahhhing as I gasped … and was then tossed out as the gallery closed.
In Chicago, one of my favourite Hopper works, “Nighthawks”, had hit the road a day or two earlier on its way to a major exhibition in Shanghai … so I had to make do with a bought ‘frig magnet …
- I could have bought the T-shirt …
And so …
I did not manage to reach Mark Twain Park (a bit further south) in my wanderings, and I did see strange signs outside pubs advertising “Growlers” which I have since learned are 64-ounce bottles of beer – almost two litres – and restaurants that are “BYOB” – Bring your own Brunette? Beware: You’re only Biscotti? But you owe billions? – and a few moments of Chicago television that seemed dominated by advertisements for cheeseburgers, Alzheimer’s cures and other mysterious drugs such as Truvada which is apparently a pre-exposure prophylaxis to be taken daily to provide safer sex practices.
My notes also include the line:
- Jimmy Hoffa “My Pres is SH”
… and I have no idea what that means … but perhaps it is part of the charm of visiting a city for the first – and last – time, and finding great buildings, terrible Trump towers, a lovely lakeside setting, theatres, rivers that flow in both directions, a great host – Thank you James – and some wonderful contemporary art.
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2019. Serena Williams cartoon, cast photos of Hamilton and Chicago from Internet
Journey September 2018
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