The geographical improbability of Ferris Bueller and a limited view of Chicago

Ferris Bueller and friends see a lot of the Chicago region in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but their journey is improbable:

Chicago is a big city. Like, really, really big. The makers obviously looked at what they wanted Ferris to do and decided to leave geographic and timeline reality in the dust as Ferris and friends drove away in a red Ferrari GT California Spyder.

Case in point: Ferris begins his day on the far upper side of Chicago, in one of those fancy North Shore neighborhoods past Northwestern University. He convinces friend Cameron—who lives in a different fancy neighborhood—to borrow his dad’s Ferrari, pull the subterfuge with his girlfriend at the school and then drive into the city. The clock is already ticking!

But then! A longish discussion with the parking garage attendants. Sightseeing at the then-Sears Tower. Lunch (impersonating Sausage King Abe Froman). More sightseeing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A Cubs game! (Games typically last 3 hours, by the way.) Then more sightseeing back downtown at the Art Institute, followed by an epic parade crash. By this time, it must be nearly midnight! But no, it’s back up to the northern suburbs (presumably during rush hour) followed by an emotional discussion about life and love with friends, a ridiculously long footrace home and… Ferris is back in his bed by the time the folks walk in. By our math, those shenanigans would’ve taken roughly, oh, two days! Or at least 26 hours.

This would not be the first time a movie took liberties with geography (see another Chicago example here). It is easy to think why a film would do this: they want to have characters move in places that are well known, they do not necessarily have to adhere to rules of space and time, and the point of this film is about teenagers having a crazy day in and around the big city.

At the same time, films (and TV shows that follow similar logics) present a distorted view of cities. I could see this working out in two ways in Ferris Bueller. First, they visit the most well-known sites of the city. These can be fun locations, full of people, recognizable around the world. Ferris and friends have fun there. But, this reinforces only certain parts of Chicago and the surrounding region, missing out on a lot of other interesting sites. Second, their visits are quick in and out trips. They drop in, see the most important parts, and leave. In other words, not only do they primarily visit tourist sites, they are the ultimate tourists: they consume and move on and then return to mundane daily life.

These issues are on top of the time and space concerns of the film. Perhaps most viewers do not care about any of these; Chicago looks like a fun place in a time when the city (and other big cities) faced major issues. But, if viewers see enough films and TV shows that do this, they take in a limited perspective of cities and urban life.

Following (or not) the latest fashionable way to revive urban spaces

Blair Kamin dismisses a proposal to create a High Line like park along LaSalle Street in the Loop in part by appealing to history:

In 1979, as America’s downtowns struggled to meet the challenge of suburban shopping malls, the flavor of the month was the transit mall. Make cities more like suburbs, the thinking went, and they’ll be able to compete. So Chicago cut the number of traffic lanes on State Street from six to two— for buses only — and outfitted the ultrawide sidewalks with trees, flowers and bubble-topped bus shelters…

A recently issued study of the central Loop by commercial real estate brokers Cushman & Wakefield floats the idea of inserting a High Line-inspired elevated walkway through the heart of LaSalle Street. But unlike the High Line or Chicago’s 606 trail, which exude authenticity because they’re built on age-old elevated rail lines, the LaSalle Street walkway would be entirely new — more wanna-be cool than the real thing…

The pathway would combat the perception that LaSalle is a stuffy, “old school” street lined by intimidating temples of finance, the study claims. “With thoughtful modification,” it goes on, “LaSalle Street can become the live-work-play nucleus of the Central Loop.”

Kamin summarizes his proposed strategy:

In short, the way to confront the central Loop’s looming vacancies is to build carefully on existing strengths, rather than reach desperately for a hideous quick fix that would destroy one of the city’s great urban spaces.

A few thoughts in response:

1. Kamin cites two previous fashions – transit malls, linear parks – and cautions against following them. But, certainly there are other fashions from the urban era after World War Two that could be mentioned including: large urban renewal projects (often clearing what were said to be “blighted” or slum areas), removing above ground urban highways (see the Big Dig, San Francisco), mixed-income developments (such as on the site of the former Cabrini-Green high rises), transit-oriented development, waterfront parks, and more. Are all of these just fashions? How would one know? Certainly, it would be difficult for every major city to simply copy a successful change from another city and expect it to work in the same way in a new context. But, when is following the urban fashion advisable?

2. How often does urban development occur gradually and in familiar ways versus more immediate changes or disruptions? My sense is that most cities and neighborhoods experience much more of the first where change slowly accumulates over years and even decades. The buildings along LaSalle Street have changed as has the streetscape. But, the second might be easy to spot if a big change occurs or something happens that causes residents and leaders to notice how much might change. Gentrification could be a good example: communities and neighborhoods experience change over time but one of the concerns about gentrification is about the speed at which new kinds of change is occurring and what this means for long-time residents.

3. As places change, it could be interesting to examine how much places at the edge of change benefit from being the first or in the beginning wave. Take the High Line: a unique project that has brought much attention to New York City and the specific neighborhoods in which the park runs. As cities look to copy the idea, does each replication lose some value? Or, is there a tipping point where too many similar parks saturate the market (and perhaps this would influence tourists differently than residents)? I could also see where other cities might benefit from letting other places try things out and then try to correct the issues. If the High Line leads to more upscale development and inequality, later cities pursuing similar projects can address these issues early on.

Celebrating new development – and recognizing what is lost

Looking at a few 2010s retrospectives at Curbed, I enjoyed looking at one detailing some of the buildings and spaces lost in Chicago in the last ten years:

The losses in Chicago’s built environment go far beyond the buildings and their architectural features. These places are symbols of greater failures: vacant lots represent a dearth of affordable housing, church-condo conversions signal the absence of community spaces, and closed schools call attention to the city’s disinvestment in its neighborhoods.

This only covers a sliver of the demolitions and conversions that have occurred in the past decade. These spaces are still mourned today, and as we reach the end of a decade, let’s take a look back at what Chicago has lost.

This is an interesting collection. And it does not even address the significant changes that may have come to neighborhoods or smaller areas through new development. Addressing how a place changes in atmosphere and feel goes beyond just buildings.

What is the proper or best way to mark these losses? Growth is often seen as an inarguable good. Don’t residents and leaders want new buildings, new options, updated spaces? Here are a few ways buildings and spaces could be memorialized:

  1. Articles, books, and websites can help keep memories alive. A retrospective like the one above makes sense but such pieces need to keep coming, particularly as the years pass and new residents do not even know what used to be there.
  2. Some sort of public marker or display in certain locations. This would be hard to do for every structure that changes but imagine having both a new building or space and a public marker with an image and some text that records what also stood on that land. This would help future visitors visualize what used to stand there.
  3. How about a museum for a lost Chicago? I could envision exciting displays with pictures, videos, interviews, text, and immersive recreations (whether parts of buildings that are reconstructed or using virtual reality displays) that celebrate what used to be in Chicago. A history museum can do some of this as could a celebration of architecture but really focusing on buildings and spaces could be really interesting and worthwhile for a city that wants to celebrate its past.
  4. Of course, ongoing historic preservation efforts can help keep this in the public eye. While it may be difficult at times to agree on a balance between saving key structures and allowing for change and innovation, at least having public discussions about important structures helps provide reminders of how something can be lost even as something new looks promising.

Looking to define the first skyscraper

The ten-story Home Insurance Building constructed in Chicago in 1885 may or may not remain as the world’s first skyscraper:

New York’s proponents have long stressed that great height is the defining feature of skyscrapers. They point to the fact that lower Manhattan had tall office buildings on its Newspaper Row, like the clock tower-topped New York Tribune Building (a 260 footer), as early as 1875 — 10 years before the Home Insurance Building was completed.

But although the New York towers used commercial passenger elevators, which had been around since the 1850s, they were constructed of load-bearing masonry. Their thick exterior walls likely prevented ample amounts of natural light from entering offices. The walls also chewed up valuable interior space. The buildings were, in essence, dinosaurs — large and impressive, but, structurally at least, exemplars of a dying breed.

In contrast, Jenney’s Home Insurance Building did employ advanced structural technology, though the extent to which it did so is subject to debate. Jenney, who had earned the rank of major in the Civil War during his hitch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, appears to have improvised the structure, as he would have done when he designed fortifications at Shiloh and Vicksburg…

Highlighting a single building ignores the reality that American skyscrapers came into existence through evolution, not revolution. While there were decisive moments along the way, progress entailed steps and missteps, inspiration and improvisation, and an intense rivalry between Chicago and New York.

The rivalry between New York and Chicago continues, this time involving early tall buildings. Both cities are marked by iconic skylines and buildings: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building versus the Sears Tower and Hancock Building, the view from the Upper Bay or Hudson River on Manhattan versus looking from Lake Michigan at the Loop. (And this just scratches the surface of the architecture in both urban regions.)

The final paragraph cited above is more interesting: at what point did a completely new type of building emerge? Earlier parts of the piece suggested it had to do with the shift from masonry walls to a steel frame structure. And perhaps it will be very difficult to find the first building that truly did this and to what leading heights it rose. At the least, it will be worth bragging and tourist rights. At its best, it might help historians, architects, and others better understand how the modern city that we are so used to just 135 years or so later truly came to be.

And I’m sure ink has already been spilled on this but the fact that the Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 may factor into this. If the building was still standing, people would have a chance to see the structure. Though it lives on in books and memories, that it has been gone nearly ninety years probably does not help its cause in the court of public opinion.

Paraphrased future: “Love or hate McMansions, the ones in Chicago deserve to be recognized”

Brutalist architecture may have few admirers but this does not stop people from suggesting the style is worth examining or saving. Here is a recent headline from Curbed Chicago: “13 Brutalist masterpieces that every Chicagoan should know; Love or hate the style, Chicago’s concrete buildings deserve to be recognized.” And this is the argument made about why these buildings are worth looking at:

Popular during the 1960s and 70s, Brutalism should not be overlooked for its historical importance. Though Chicago lost a few Brutalist buildings—most famously Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which was demolished in 2014—the style might even be poised for a comeback.

“In many cases, concrete buildings captured the aspirations of the city at critical times,” Chicago-based architect Iker Gil said in a statement last year. “As we shape the future of Chicago, it is worth trying to learn from the lessons and opportunities represented by these remarkable buildings.”

If this argument is successful, then it is a short step toward a similar argument for all kinds of architectural styles and buildings. In particular, the same case could be made for McMansions. Even though many critiqued such homes, what buildings better capture the consumeristic exuberance and grandiosity of the 1990s and 2000s? What buildings better illustrate the sprawling of America and a dedication to private single-family homes that flaunt the status of the homeowners? Why not preserve at least a few McMansions for future generations to remember and learn from?

Somehow, I suspect the calls for preserving McMansions will be more muted or absent. Brutalism seems to attract the attention of enough elite or leading proponents that some of its most interesting buildings will survive. Few leading architects, critics, or designers will stand up for McMansions. Still, I would suspect enough of them will last 50+ years and the legions of McMansion buyers and builders may just come together to make sure some survive much longer.

The nuanced reasons for population loss in Illinois

With the problems facing the state of Illinois, how many people are actually leaving?

In 2018, the state had an estimated net migration loss of 6.5 people for every 1,000 residents, according to the most recent census data. Five years earlier, the net loss was about 3 people per 1,000 residents.

The latest number puts Illinois 49th out of the nation’s 50 states on net migration loss. Only Alaska had a worse rate, with a loss of 11 people per 1,000 residents…

Population decline is also happening in more parts of the state. From 1990 to 2000, 68 of Illinois’ 102 counties gained population. But so far this decade, only nine counties, including Kane, Will and DuPage in the Chicago area, have added residents…

In 2017, Indiana drew nearly 9% of the Illinois residents who moved out of state. Florida, California, Wisconsin and Texas were among the top destinations as well…

But the city’s black population has shrunk much more. Over the same time period, Chicago had a loss of about 35,600 black residents. Meanwhile, the number of white, Asian and Latino residents all grew…

But the biggest reasons people usually give for moving, Percheski said, are jobs (or shorter commutes), schools and to be closer to family. People also seek out available housing that fits their needs, she said, whether that is more space for a growing family, a smaller place because children are grown, or a more affordable option.

This is a well-done article: lots of good data with helpful commentary from experts. There is not an easy headline here but a full read leads a more complete understanding of the issues. A reader should go away from this thinking population loss is a multi-faceted issue that is more nuanced than “high property taxes mean people are leaving Illinois.” One piece that is missing: in an earlier post, I noted that there are also many reasons for people to stay in the Chicago region (including inertia).

This also means there are multiple ways to address the issue. Just from the numbers I pulled out above: is it about net migration loss or attracting more new residents? How could prospects be improved in most of the state’s counties? What do other states offer that Illinois does not? What might lead black residents to stay? Is this primarily about good jobs and available housing? Tackling all of these at once would be difficult. For example, simply adding jobs does not necessarily mean that they are located in places that many people can access, that those jobs can support a household or family, that housing is available nearby, or that such jobs are more attractive than jobs elsewhere. Yet, some targeted efforts at a few of these trends could help slow or reverse them.

Of course, this all comes amidst trends of population loss in Chicago and within a larger backdrop that American communities believe population growth is good. The reasons behind the population decline may be complex but this nuance may matter little if the trend continues.

 

Ronald Reagan lived in Chicago; conservatives for cities?

A Chicago Tribune story on the troubles facing President Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois includes some interesting information about where else Reagan lived when he was young:

However, Theodore Karamanski, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, said presidential birth and boyhood homes aren’t often historically significant, with the possible exception of presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Historians tend to favor places that were central during periods of power.

He pointed out that presidents often have several homes they lived in during childhood, including Reagan, who even lived for a time on the South Side of Chicago.

Instead, it is the local communities that generally push for a historic designation for birth and boyhood homes.

According to WBEZ, Reagan lived with his family in Chicago for a little more than a year:

Before Barack Obama, only one U.S. President had called Chicago home. As a boy, Ronald Reagan lived on the first floor of the building at 832 East 57th Street.

The Reagans moved into their apartment in January of 1915. They’d come to the city from the western Illinois village of Tampico. Jack Reagan, Ronald’s father, got a job selling shoes in the Loop. His wife, Nelle, stayed home with the two boys, 6-year-old Neil and little Ron–called “Dutch”–who was going on 4…

Sometime in 1916 the Reagan family left Chicago and moved to Galesburg. It’s not clear whether Jack quit his Loop job, or was fired. But their time in Hyde Park was over.

Reagan lived more of his younger years outside of the big city; but, imagine he lived there longer. Or, he chose to remember the Chicago experience as more formative. Or, the Chicago neighborhood put more effort into remembering him as living there.

Perhaps the biggest issue (besides the length of time the family lived in Chicago) is that this image of a big city boy does not match Reagan’s own politics or how he was perceived. Can a Republican leader in the United States claim to be from a big city, not from the metropolitan region but from the big city itself? Given the voting breakdown of recent elections as well as the anti-urban inclinations of conservatives, this does not sound likely. In a country that still idealizes small town life, claiming to represent those parts of the country can go a long ways.

Current President Donald Trump presents an alternative to this conservative small-town vision. Born in and still a resident of New York City, Trump is hardly a small-town or even a suburban conservative. As a real estate developer, he aims to bring large buildings with his name on them to big cities around the world. His policies do not align with a pro-urban vision even as he is clearly a city person. And, I would guess this big-city conservative is an anomaly rather than an ongoing trend for Republicans.

Ronald Reagan as a Chicago native is far-fetched but it does suggest an alternative vision: conservatives who are from and for big cities. This would require a massive shift in ideology but it is not unprecedented nor impossible. Perhaps it would just take a mythical icon of the party would saw the city as their home and priority.