Friday, September 2, 2011

Everyday Sightseeing: Montrose Dog Beach at sunset

(This is part of a new series I'm doing here, mostly to get back into the habit of blogging, in which I post photos and short write-ups of various interesting things here in Chicago that I see on a regular basis during my ho-hum neighborhood errands.)

The dog-friendly area of Montrose Beach, the area of Lincoln Park closest to my apartment, spied at sunset one evening as I was biking home from Rogers Park. There are miles and miles and miles of views like these along the lakefront path here in Chicago.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Everyday Sightseeing: Ravenswood Baptist Church

(This is part of a new series I'm doing, mostly to get back into the habit of blogging, where I post photos and write-ups of interesting Chicago things I see on a regular basis here, when out doing just my usual ho-hum neighborhood chores.)

Over near Montrose and Damen, nestled in the middle of an unending series of upper-middle-class 19th-century mini-mansions (originally built for the first wave of German and Swedish immigrants in this neighborhood, who slowly over a century turned this from a lower-class to an upper-class area), is the charmingly bizarre Ravenswood Baptist Church. Built right at the end of the Victorian Era, it shares that period's fascination for "Oriental" touches -- it's hard to tell in these photos, but the building is basically an octagon fit inside another octagon and then twisted a bit, with double mini-octagons serving as its front and back foyers, already joyfully strange for this being essentially a Midwestern Protestant church, then doubly wonderful by it being built with those chalky red and brown bricks that were so favored in this neighborhood back then, and that Chicagoans usually associate in their mind with much more European, Christian-looking structures.

The specific street this is on is Sunnyside, two blocks north of and parallel to Montrose, which is my preferred street for bicycling between my home of Uptown and the neighborhood of Lincoln Square where I spend a lot of time. This street is just loaded with interesting things, so I'm sure I'll be posting more from here in this "Everyday Sightseeing" series before too long.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Everyday Sightseeing: Logan's Run house, Rogers Park

(This is part of a new series I'm doing, mostly to get back into the habit of blogging again, in which I shoot pictures and do a little write-up about interesting things that I see here in Chicago on a regular basis, during my usual ho-hum daily errands.)

Before the rise of postmodernism as the industry standard, and happening at the same time as the daring organic architects of the 1970s who got all the attention, there were also a series of designers who were stubbornly holding on to the Euclidean standards of 1960s Mid-Century Modernism, only were now trying to do funky things with their angles or material in an effort to stay hip in those countercultural times. Objects of scorn when I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, I find myself now with a much more charming admiration for such structures, or at least what few survived the mass destruction of them that occurred after their short-lived height of, say, the Ford and Carter years. Here's a complex of them, for example, right literally at the point where Chicago's massive lakefront bike trail has its official northern terminus, right at Ardmore where you turn west and re-enter the city proper; this is a common route I take whenever doing far-north stuff on my bike, and every time I pass them I think how these were designed in the same years that Logan's Run was filmed, and how that explains everything you need to know about them. There's a part of me (a small part, sure, but there) that thinks sometimes how groovy it'd be to live in one of these chrome-and-brick retro-sci-fi Way-Too-Late-Modernist funhouses, and especially one like this whose back door opens literally onto the beachfront, right here where Lincoln Park ends and the lakefront land reverts back to private ownership.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A loving ode to the crappy Dempster el stop.

So what's officially the crappiest station of the entire CTA system here in Chicago? Well, my money would be on the Dempster stop up in Evanston, part of the purple line that goes up and down that notorious collegetown, one of only three suburbs to have actual urban el stops (the others being Skokie and Oak Park). I've had occasion to go up to Evanston more and more often recently -- several writers I deal with through my arts center live up there, as did my intern this summer -- and I also like bicycling up there quite a bit whenever I'm looking for a day-long excursion, because as a collegetown it's not only very bike-friendly and full of funky shopping, cafes, etc, but also pleasantly reminds me of my own college experiences in Columbia, Missouri, which is never a bad thing to be occasionally reminded of.

The purple line was first established in the Mid-Century Modernist era, back when everyone was overly optimistic about technology and public transit and the like, and so there are just way more stations on the line now than the city really needs to have; and with this one serving the older, poorer southern side of town, and with there being other stops just four blocks north and four blocks south of this one, I suspect that this will be one of the first ones to be closed if the CTA is ever forced to start making decisions like this, which I imagine is why the CTA hasn't bothered to do any kind of major work on the station since literally the mid-1960s or so. It's like a little time capsule, a little crumbling post-apocalyptic Beneath the Planet of the Apes time capsule, which is why I always take such delight in entering and leaving Evanston here.

Plus, I have to confess that I simply like the funky, sorta worn-down section of town that's around the Dempster stop -- you know, that place in every collegetown not actually near campus and full of all the trendy bars and overpriced boutiques, but the quieter one full of the hippies and slackers who were never able to pull themselves away from the town, with that sort of shambling yet antique look that you also see in the Lower Haight in San Francisco. It's always great on a Saturday to start a bike trip around here, do a little sightseeing first, then wind my way through the Victorian mansion district to the east and along the lakefront, up north until hitting the main downtown, then up through the Northwestern University campus, then west to the North Shore Canal Trail and a straight shot all the way back to Lincoln Square, close to where I live back in the city. If I ever was to leave Chicago for some reason, there's a good chance that Evanston is where I'd land next, and very likely in this Dempster area that I've grown to like so much.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

I like Lakeview.

A recent shot of this lovely little detail from the neighborhood around where I live; to the left are historic townhomes, but there on the right is a big giant cemetery and chain-link fence, so in recent years the city has turned the extra-wide alley between the two, for decades abandoned and filled with trash, into an extra-skinny, extra-long city park, complete with jogging track, fenced dog path, playground and more.

The area right around where I live, Lakeview, is considered by many to be a boring section of town by now; it was gentrified way back in the '80s, after all, and is mostly now quietly middle-class, the kind of neighborhood where hipster retail chains open new stores when they're not opening them downtown. But I suppose that's why I like it over here so much, exactly for details like this -- because everything's so nice, so taken care of, with so much historic stuff that survived the years the neighborhood was a slum, and with the city finding interesting new things to do with everything else. When I imagined as a kid the urban fantasyland that city-living must be, Lakeview in 2011 is what I imagined, which is why it always amuses me so much to walk and bike through little details of it like this.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Algren's Chicago.

Although the city's done a good job over the last half-century of securing and closing off various unsafe sections underneath their system of elevated train tracks, especially up here on the north side, there are still sometimes big parts (like here for example, near the trisection of Clark, Sheffield and Roscoe) where you can easily get back into the nitty-gritty of the forgotten urban environment, the old-school city of dirty tenements and rickety back stairways. And every time I pass this little section, I always think of the Nelson Algren novel Never Come Morning, which I had a chance to review a few years ago; because it's centered around this "street gang" of sorts, in reality neighborhood kids in 1930s Wicker Park who have nothing better to do than hang around in groups and cause trouble, and in the book they're constantly spending the night in these dark, grubby little hovels they've created underneath the blue-line el tracks over there in that neighborhood, literally because they're in no worse condition than the crumbling immigrant tenements they'd otherwise be sleeping in that night, in that case sharing the apartment with twenty other people and an alcoholic dad who beats them.

And I don't know, I guess it just strikes me in locations like this just how organic and chaotic the maturation of a city actually is, how an urban space doesn't just smoothly all start to get better at once but rather with these little forgotten pockets of "how it used to be" constantly spotting the landscape, these little oases of dirtiness and danger that are literally sometimes just around the corner from a Starbucks, American Apparel, and all the other shiny happy goodness of New Urbanism, like is exactly the case in this photo. (We're just two blocks here from the famed intersection of Belmont and Clark.) It's one of the things I really love about Chicago, how I can experience first-hand almost 200 years of history literally on the walk from my apartment to the grocery store on a random Thursday afternoon, and is something about the city I simply never get tired of.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Photo tour: Google Earth 6 on a super-fast computer.

I've been putting this off, because I knew what a pain in the ass it was going to be to upload all these giant screenshots, but it's something I've been meaning to share for awhile -- that back in December when I first got my brand-new high-end screaming fast quad-core 27-inch i-Fucking-Mac, one of the first things I tried was Google Earth, which had just released version 6 of their application a few days before. I was very excited about this, in fact, because this was the first time I had ever owned a computer with the kind of graphics processing power needed for an optimal experience on a piece of software like this; and since I've never really been into first-person-shooter videogames, this is one of the only times in my life that I have a chance to interact with a persistent 3D CG-rendered environment.

As you can see, the big news about version 6 is that Google is now starting to insert millions and millions of trees into their database of 3D information about certain cities, that show up whenever you have the "Buildings" layer on and that purport to not just randomly fill spaces with greenery, but actually reflect the type and density of real foliage found there. And since Chicago has always been one of Google Earth's top-ten core testing cities (meaning that we get stuff implemented faster and bigger than many others), it means the city even right now has something like three million trees to go with what I think is somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 buildings? I think I read a number that was something like that somewhere. As you can see, then, when you combine this with a customized Google map, like the ones I do all the time for city bicyclists (, it produces just this stunning experience, for example like my map above of southern Lincoln Park.

And then to show off another good example, here's the Chicago Loop, one of the most skyscraper-dense areas on the planet, which I'm sure is one of the big reasons Google picked us as a testing city, so to have something really impressive-looking early on; and impressive-looking this is, when combining the thousands of buildings now with the smattering of greenery around the downtown district's various historic boulevards and parks.

It's while zooming around the Loop in my invisible little helicopter, in fact, that I most start thinking along the lines of, "My God, we really are on the verge soon of having an entire Second-Life-style real-scale explorable environment that literally recreates the planet Earth." I mean, just look at that image above, and realize that even now with our home equipment, you're able to tilt and pan and roam about in that environment in a fully real-time basis; it doesn't take much to extrapolate that into a day where all those buildings actually have explorable floors, and rooms within those floors that are decorated with furniture you can actually sit on. I'm astounded that we're as far along as we are in the first place just here in 2011, so have stopped taking guesses at when I might be able to start "walking" around this rendering with my tattoo-covered avatar. Could you even imagine if something like this was an alternate user interface for Facebook, where all your friends lived at unique points in that maze below and chat rooms were literal pubs where you all meet up? Google Metaverse, here we come!

And then to show off yet another great example, here's my bike map of the Prairie Avenue historic district, just south of the Loop, a whole six-by-ten-block area full of stuff worth visiting, which is why the whole zone is simply shaded in my map instead of a specific linear route drawn. Combine a rendering of the area like this with a good, detailed map, and you have the next best thing to a walking tour of that neighborhood you're ever going to have; and let me tell you, I'd almost be willing to pay money to get ahold of maps like this for various sections around London. If I've never mentioned this before, one of my bike maps has been featured before by Google on their Customized Maps front page, and has since gotten over 100,000 views in just a few years, so there are PLENTY of opportunities within a new technology like this to do something fun and hobbyist yet that a WHOLE lot of people get a kick out of visiting.

Once you get up to the edge of where Google's current database of 3D data cuts off -- which right now is around Wrigley Field, close to my place -- even though the tree data has long cut out by now, the amount of photo-realistic 3D buildings is still mighty impressive, giving you these sometimes breathtakingly realistic vistas when looking back towards the Loop. But in that bottom photo, though, you can see that by the time you do get up to my building -- about a half-mile farther north, near Irving Park Road and Sheridan -- the illusion of a persistent 3D environment starts breaking down heavily. Still, like I said before, I'm impressed that in 2011 Google has already managed to put together something like this, and especially can't believe that they've gathered up now so many real-life photos of the sides and roofs of all these buildings.

Google's getting pretty good at getting this 3D info collected and outputted to a growing number of American cities; that image above is of downtown St. Louis, filled in pretty nicely I think in comparison to what's actually there. But frankly, anything outside of major, popular cities still scarcely exists at this point; in that bottom photo, for example, you see that when you visit the sleepy St. Louis suburb of St. Charles where I grew up, there is literally only one 3D building to be found in the entire metropolitan area, which I just bet is only there in the first place because some enterprising entrepreneur convinced this cheap hotel chain to pay him $10,000 or whatever to do every single hotel in their system in Google Earth versions. Google makes it very easy to do this, by the way, providing not only a full-fledged powerful CAD/CAM standalone application called SketchUp, but also the grossly simplified Google Building Maker, specifically for making in just a few steps the kind of boxy, easy-to-render buildings that make up most commercial spaces and the like. (Just getting okay on the app should let you kick out a hotel like the above in a single afternoon, while pros can churn out four or five such buildings every eight-hour shift.) Google is then highly encouraging people to do 3D renderings of their own rural environments, part of their master plan to get all this info into their main database as quickly as possible; there are plenty of cases now, for example, of small-town chamber-of-commerces hiring some local college student to do their entire downtown districts in 3D, or high-school design classes taking it on as a semester-long challenge. This is extremely smart of Google, I think, and again makes me wonder just how soon it'll be before all that info actually has been filled in, and you can go to literally any podunk city in the nation and have a fully immersive 3D experience.

Anyway, I could go on all day like this, but I think I'll stop for here. How wonderful to have this computer that can render all this with so few problems! Ah, what a glorious future world we live in! EXCELSIOR!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My new mixtape, "Music for a Hipster Orgy," is now ready for downloading.

(Click on the thumbnails above for larger versions. If you're on a newer browser or iOS device, you should also be seeing an HTML5 streaming version of the mix above.)

Long-time readers know that among other activities in college, I was briefly a beat-mix-style club DJ; and so now that I do a podcast at my arts center that regularly features music specials, I allow myself twice a year now to do an all-electronic one where the beats have literally been mixed together, to produce what's hopefully one smooth track with unnoticeable transitions. Anyway, I just finished the latest, covering music from July of last year to now; and while the official version with the CCLaP logo will be going up at the site tomorrow, I thought it'd be fun to release a version with no voiceovers or center connections at all, which is the version you can download through this entry. The mix consists of mid-tempo numbers (124 to 131 BPM) that all have dark edges to them, hence the title; and of course I highly encourage you to drop me a line if you end up actually throwing a hipster orgy and playing this in the background, which will delight me to no end.

Anyway, here's the download link for the mix, which you can right-click on to save to your hard drive. Admittedly, both the songs and cover art are being used here without permission; but since I'm releasing this for free to just a few dozen friends, I'm hoping with fingers crossed that no one threatens to sue me for it. That said, if this entry suddenly goes missing at some point in the future, you'll know what happened.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Photo tour: The Chicago Pedway, part 1 (Thompson Center to Millennium Park).

(This is a stripped-down reprint of a photoset that I posted to my Flickr account this weekend. Click here if you'd rather look at the images that way, and see a lot more of them.)




Ever since 1955, when the first tunnel between the red-line and blue-line els was constructed in the Chicago Loop, various city planners have long dreamed of building a comprehensive system of underground walkways connecting together the entire downtown district, called the "Pedway" and serving as a nice alternative on those dangerously cold Chicago winter days. Unfortunately, though, the idea has never really caught on a big way, which has led to a spotty system that's been built just in little bits and pieces over the decades, and with many of the two-block sections still not connected to any of the other two-block sections; but still, there are some impressive long runs within the overall structure now, including a now uninterrupted stretch all the way from the Thompson Center to Millennium Park (now that the "Block 37" underpass is open), an entire vast indoor mall built in the bowels of the multiblock Illinois Center in the 1970s, and even a virtually unknown Minneapolis-style "skyway" system up on the far north edge of the Loop, connecting four or five buildings running along the river via glass hallways a hundred feet in the air.

I've long wanted to explore these miles of tunnels and elevators myself, so this winter am finally doing so, through a series of visits that will hopefully take me through the entire system by the end; I'm gathering all the photos up in this particular photoset as the winter continues. My first trip this week took me from the Thompson Center in the northwest corner of the Loop, down south until hitting First National Plaza, then back up and east through City Hall, the Daley Center, the brand-new Block 37 shopping complex, both the blue and red-line Washington el stations, the former Marshall Field's, the brand-new Heritage Center, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the Millennium Park Metra station, way over on the opposite side of the Loop, about a mile of walking altogether. There's a map of all this a little later in this photoset, or you can Google "Chicago Pedway" for a whole series of downloadable maps.

Here: The Thompson Center, also known as the State of Illinois Building, way up on the outer northwest edge of the Loop, designed in the '80s by controversial architect Helmut Jahn as a new headquarters for all of Illinois' state agency offices in Chicago, under the agreement that it would also house a long-needed central hub for nearly every el line that comes into the Loop. (The blue line pulls into the basement, while the green, brown, purple, orange and pink lines pull into a skyway station, with escalators directly connecting the platforms.) In the basement is a huge mall-style food court, as well as Chicago's official Department of Motor Vehicles office, which is always packed.





Here: Some parts of the pedway are brand spanking new; take for example the small hallway that runs from the southeast edge of the Thompson Center to the west edge of the Chicago Title and Trust Center, just across the street, quite obviously built sometime in the 2000s complete with lots of friendly 21st-century signage, and even a cute little gym in the walkway's center.



The Thompson Center is known as one of the major hubs of the Pedway, with three separate exits in its basement going in three different directions; the one due south leads across the street to City Hall, technically now known as the City/County Building. the only government building here in the northwest corner of the Loop still housed in its original grandiose Edwardian edifice. Much of this particular section of the pedway looks like something taken directly from a 1970s dystopian science-fiction movie, which of course I adore. I wonder if a student film crew could pull off shooting an entire guerrilla short movie down in these abandoned tunnels without getting caught?




The north tunnels of City Hall connect to the State of Illinois Building across the street, and were obviously constructed in the 1970s; the western tunnels, though, hooking up to the 120 North LaSalle Building across the other street, were obviously built in the '80s instead, even more delicious when the halls meet up with the ornate Edwardian staircases that take one upstairs to the century-old building above. What a lovely little sci-fi-feeling section of the Pedway!


The shot from the east windows of City Hall, looking across the street at the Daley Center (home of the city courthouse system), where we'll be heading next via underground tunnel.



Just east of City Hall is the third governmental building of today's walk, into the Daley Center where the city courthouse system is located. (Aboveground, this is the famed plaza with the giant Picasso sculpture, and where the climax of "The Blues Brothers" was filmed.) This section of the pedway is actually quite busy, since many of the city's offices and courtrooms are located in the basement, as well as even an art gallery and a few retail establishments like a Starbucks; but since this is technically the city's courthouse center, the place is swarming with cops as well, which made me very uncomfortable with the mere idea of taking my camera out in this section.



South of the Daley Center is Three First National Plaza, part of a larger complex that extends across its own southern street (Madison), although with one of the "First National Plaza" buildings (the big curved one) now technically known as "Chase Tower" because of its new owner. Both this building and this section of the pedway were built in the early 1980s, which absolutely shows in this charming, low-budget-dystopian-science-fiction-film kind of way, all the way down to the glass-cubed retail shops in the far basement.



Quick shots of the red- and blue-line Washington el stations, which fall right in the middle of the particular pedway tunnel I'm taking today. Ever since 9/11, the train stations in Chicago have been crawling with terrorist-obsessed cops day and night, which means you now get fatally hassled for even taking out a camera within the vicinity. PHOTOBLOGGING IS NOT A CRIME!


For a long time, this northwestern section of the Pedway we've been looking at never really connected directly with the east side of the complex, and on to the Illinois Center underground mall way up on the northeast edge of downtown; but finally just last year, the long-delayed "Block 37" complex was opened, a multipurpose commercial and retail center which will also eventually feature a cutting-edge CTA "hub" station in the basement, is the new headquarters of one of the local television networks, and has a basement retail mall that finally connects the western and eastern sides of the pedway. The interior is beautiful, but unfortunately is crawling with cops as well, making me uncomfortable merely with the idea of taking my camera out, which is why I have only this shot of the complex's west doors.



One of the Victorian men to have a heavy influence on the el system's creation in the first place was robber-baron and retail giant Marshall Field; not coincidentally, his famed department store at Washington and State was the very first business in Chicago (and still one of the only) to have a direct entrance right inside an el station's lobby itself, namely the eastern wall of the red-line Washington station. It's still there, as a matter of fact, although the store itself is now owned by a former competitor whose name I refuse to use; unbelievably, you can still walk right into the center of the retail action there in the store through this entrance, which by the way is I believe the only passage left in either the pedway or el system to still feature ornate century-old wooden bannisters. As a matter of fact, the former Marshall Field Building is just fascinating on its own, a system of smaller buildings that were slowly connected together piecemeal in their interiors over decades as the store expanded and expanded, which makes for a whole system of bizarrely-situated escalators and hallways that go nowhere inside the seven-story, two-square-mile complex.



In the '80s, the city and Marshall Field's decided to tackle a new major section of the Pedway, wrapping along the famed flagship store's western and then northern wall, opening on one side into the retail center in various locations, and with the other side supposedly dedicated to small mall-like retail shops, the entire thing done up in this Donald-Trump-grandiose, marble-covered-column kind of glorious '80s style. The entire thing was a financial DISASTER, and the quarter-mile-long tunnel now sits empty and broken (although with various entrances to the store's basement still open and being used), literally like a deliciously dystopian low-budget science-fiction movie, like so much of the pedway's entire system seems to be from block to block. (And seriously, some student film crew needs to do exactly that, and see just how much they could film in these abandoned, crumbling tunnels before getting caught. They're guaranteed in advance to be a YouTube sensation.)


Ladies and gentlemen, the sports bar where the mole people officially drink -- "InFields," located in this basement retail complex I've been talking about, which used to be owned by Marshall Field's which makes the name make more sense. I love that there's this cheery little wood-paneled sports bar here in the basement of the former Marshall Field Building, windowless and sunless and looking out only on the winter commuters trudging underground from the Millennium Park suburban train station to their government jobs on the Loop's west side.



The brand spanking new Heritage Center section of the pedway, located directly between the old Marshall Field Building and the Chicago Cultural Center on Washington Street (between Wabash and Michigan), which among other retail amenities includes a fancy expensive gym with a literal Olympic-length swimming pool right down there in the basement. Pretty sweet.


The sort of grandiose circular basement lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center, at Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Washington, which sort of mirrors in this postmodernist way the grandiose Victorian structure above, which for decades used to be the Tiffany-adorned main branch of the Chicago Public Library. The day I was there, a street musician was illicitly playing, getting away with it only here in this section I'm sure because we're just one more block from the large, chaotic Millennium Park suburban train hub.


And here we are right on the western edge of the giant and chaotic Millennium Park suburban train hub, which starts at Washington and Michigan and zigzags northeast until eventually hitting the Illinois Center underground mall complex. That whole area is technically the largest and most developed section of the entire pedway, and is going to take an entire day on its own to explore; so here is where I decided to stop day 1's look at this main Washington Avenue corridor of it all. I hope you found this useful and interesting; and in just a couple more weeks, you should see an entire new series of photos here, all of those numbered in the 200s.