My first experience riding Chicago’s Divvy bikes

On a rare 50 degree Chicago day, I rode Chicago’s Divvy bikes for the first time. I made three relatively short trips: from Ogilvie Transportation Center to the Art Institute, from the Art Institute to Navy Pier, and from Navy Pier to Ogilvie. Here is evidence of my rides:


My quick thoughts on the experience:

1. It is fairly easy to pay for and to get the bikes. It costs $7 for an all-day pass and rides under 30 minutes are free. There are lots of Divvy stations in the Loop so finding a stand near major attractions isn’t too hard. While it is a pain to have to wonder where other stations are when on the bike, I’m guessing $7 a day doesn’t cover a GPS with every bike.

2. The bikes themselves worked fine: big tires, nice fenders (otherwise I would have been quite splattered from all of the melting snow), good brakes, seats that are easy to adjust. The bikes only have three gears and this is limiting, but Chicago has a limited number of hills.

3. Riding near Millennium Park and Lake Michigan was easy. Riding in the Loop was not. I can handle it as I learned how to ride the mean streets of suburbia while a teenager (this may sound like a joke but we rode on a number of busy streets). Plus, traffic was pretty light in the middle of the day. However, I have a hard time imagining the average tourist wanting to do this. Some street have bike lanes but the only one I saw that was a protected lane was on Dearborn Street, a north-south street. Madison had a bike lane and I rode back to Ogilvie on Adams in the bike lane but both of these had plenty of double-parked taxis, cars, and buses. While drivers noticed me and took a wide berth, how tolerant would they be of slower groups of riders?

I would do this again, particularly in nice weather, as it is a different way to see the city and it can cut down on the time to get from attraction to attraction (less than 15 minutes biking from Navy Pier to the train). But, riding on busy streets is not for everyone and Chicago has a ways to go before having a street infrastructure that makes it easy for visitors to hop on bikes.

Quick Review: Julius Caesar at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is currently running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier in Chicago. Here are a few thoughts after watching the show this past weekend:

1. For me, the primary appeal of the play was in the modern retelling of the story. Several parts stood out. First, before the play started, there were a number of characters from the crowd out and about on the stage doing everything from running a hot dog stand, trying to get people to sign a petition, to holding pro-Caesar signs, to trying out a skateboard. This helped foreshadow the important role of the crowd in the play but also added some levity. Second, the comparisons to the United States of today are intriguing. The play was set in Washington, Marc Antony was cast as a prizefighter, and the battle scenes in the end looked like urban warfare you might see on the nightly news. Actually, the themes of power, honor, and the line between being a popular leader and a tyrant would resonant in many nations today. I don’t envy artists who have to freshen up plays and other cultural works that many people are familiar with but

2. The second act, which mainly consists of running conflict between Antony and Octavius versus Brutus and Cassius, was more like a war movie than a play. The scenes effectively looked like American military encampments, fighting in the streets looked like Modern Warfare (complete with a burned out and flipped over car on the stage as well as a defaced Caesar poster where he was made to look like the devil), and there was a real edge to the action. It is hard to pick up this kind of tension from simply reading the play (though this may be simply my recollection from first reading this in high school) and this kind of quick moving action can be hard to reproduce on the stage.

3. The favorable review in the Chicago Tribune suggested Brutus should have been played with a more tortured approach:

Brutus here is played by a very capable British actor named John Light, a handsome, hyperarticulate, brooding fellow whose speeches are filled with smarts and context. Light is making his American debut in an Americanized concept with a pretty pathetic American accent. That, one can forgive him. He could be doing a political Piers Morgan (a redundancy?). But it’s harder to see past the deeper problem: Light seems to miss one of the most fundamental aspects of Brutus: a good and decent man who loves his country. Light’s Brutus is certainly tortured by what is and is not expedient, fair enough, but tortured ain’t the whole picture of Mr. B.

Light doesn’t let you feel in your gut that requisite inherent decency and thus when J.C asks that famous question, one’s mind goes to, “Really? What makes him different from all the others? Where did we see that?”

However, I wonder if this doesn’t also feed into the modern interpretation of this play. Do our conflicted heroes of today really reflect on their emotions? Or do we expect them to grimly move forward and finish the job? I’m thinking of James Bond here and his more resolute nature. Tortured modern heroes may not have the time to be tortured; there are often more immediate concerns and the next action scene awaits.

4. There was a lot of blood in the killing of Caesar. Enough blood that most of the intermission involved several stagehands disinfecting the stage, scrubbing the blood out of the floor, and wiping things clean. (Note: there were no splash zone seats but it felt really really close in the third row.)

5. The setting for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is hard to beat. Even on a cold February day, Navy Pier was an enjoyable place to be with a decent crowd all throughout, places to eat, and good views of the city. (Note: parking in the off-season is noticeably cheaper and plentiful.) Here is a picture of the view out of the southwest corner of the theater (apologies for the glare):


In my opinion, this theater is one of the best things Navy Pier has going for it so I hope it does well and even expands its offerings.

What the future Navy Pier might look like

Navy Pier is in for a redesign and here are quick summaries of the redesign plans from the five competitors:

•AECOM/BIG — The Crystal Gardens would become a “vertical urban farm” to supply produce to restaurants at the pier. A grand staircase would sweep over a proposed addition to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and offer uninterrupted skyline views. On the pier’s far east end, a tiered platform would create a “lifted corner” that would rise above the Dock Street promenade, providing another lookout. A tier on the other corner would descend directly to the water.

•Davis Brody Bond/Aedas/Martha Schwartz Partners — A series of boardwalklike extensions on the pier’s southern edge would include a variety of features, among them slips for tour boats, an outdoor theater, fishing areas and a beach. A “flyover” ramp would connect Pier Park to the boardwalks. A gondola would carry visitors to the pier from Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive.

•!melk/HOK/UrbanLab — Curved platforms would extend over the pier’s southern edge, providing lookout points. Boardwalks at the pier’s eastern end would let visitors get closer to the lake; below the platforms, and visible to the visitors, would be underwater “fish resorts” where fish would congregate. The towering structure called the Glacier would rise out of the lake off the pier’s eastern end.

•James Corner Field Operations — Undulating steps would join Pier Park with the Dock Street promenade. The plan also suggests turning the interior of the Crystal Gardens into a striking display of hanging gardens and putting oval-shaped cabs on the nearby Ferris wheel. A swimming pool with a sand beach would run along the pier’s southeast corner at lake level. A stepped amphitheater would lead down to the eastern end of the pier, where a platform would extend into the lake.

•Xavier Vendrell Studio/Grimshaw Architects — Circular arrangements of trees and plants would be installed to soften Pier Park. They would enliven the South Dock with pocket parks, terraces and kiosks. A wedge-shaped “horizon walk” platform would extend outward and upward from the pier’s east end, creating another vantage point to gaze over Lake Michigan and providing another reason for people to walk the entire length of the pier.

The images give you some ideas of the interesting ideas in play here. Check out “The Glacier” that would jut out of the water at the east end, various ways of expanding into the walkways into the lake, and a raised eastern corner paired with a depressed eastern corner (image 6 and 10/12 and 13, respectively, in this gallery). The idea that looks the most interesting to me: images 14 and 15 show a grand staircase that would really transform the “roof” of the structure.

At the same time, I can’t imagine that the City will allow anything too crazy, particularly something that might mar the lake views. After saving Grant Park from major changes with the proposed move of the Children’s Museum, I think Chicago will play it relatively safe while trying to offer more consistent recreational opportunities along the pier. I imagine there is more room to play with the walkways/promenade along the lake though this still has to appeal to a broad swath of residents and tourists. Perhaps the best way to do this is to make the promenade greener while also better utilizing the existing structures.

I do like the fact that this process has been made public. While some of these ideas are quite unique, it gives the public a larger vision about public spaces and what is possible. We could benefit from thinking bigger about what these types of public spaces could be like and how we could all benefit.

Searching for a new vision for Navy Pier

Those in charge of Navy Pier have been searching for some years now for a new plan that will enhance this popular space:

In 2006, pier officials unveiled plans for a glitzy theme park-style remake of the 3,000-foot lakefront icon. The design (left) was tacky and backward-looking, relying on such gimmicks as a roller coaster and floating parking garages disguised as ships. We should all be thankful it was shot down.

Now, five years later, pier officials appear to have raised their sights and rightly recognized that Navy Pier is primarily a public space, not a shopping mall by the sea.

As they announced yesterday, they’re embarking on an international search for teams of architects and other designers to give the pier’s public spaces a new look.

As a long-range framework plan by the Chicago office of Gensler makes clear (above), Navy Pier 2.0 is not going to be one of those cutesy, festival marketplaces–a halfway house for suburbanites easing their way into the big, bad city. Inspired by the example of Millennium Park, it will strive for something more aesthetically daring.

This sounds like a good change of course: make sure that Navy Pier is a place worthy of a world class city like Chicago rather than developing a kitschy tourist trap. I would be interested, however, in knowing which “cutesy, festival marketplaces” that Kamin is referring to. Places like Reading Market Terminal in Philadelphia? Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston? The Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles? On what exactly place should Navy Pier be modeled?

I was down at Navy Pier a few weeks on a beautiful August night in Chicago. Having not been there for a few years, I was pleasantly surprised: the tourist aspect wasn’t too strong (granted, we didn’t go inside the shopping area at the front), the Ferris Wheel is an interesting attraction (with some good sunset views), the combination of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows gives the space some higher culture, and the weather, sunset, and happy but peaceful crowds made the stroll to the end of the pier quite enjoyable. Here was the view looking to the northwest:

Navy Pier Sunset Aug 2011

As many sociologists would argue, places like Navy Pier can and should be valuable public spaces that need to be available to all people.

Plans to revamp Navy Pier

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin takes a look at new plans to revamp Navy Pier. Overall, Kamin argues the plans lack coherence even as they offer a few nice ideas:

That’s what’s missing from the new report: A bold design framework for the future of the 3,300-foot-long pier (above, in its current state), which was envisioned by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, completed in 1916, and remains Chicago’s top tourist attraction, even if it’s not as popular as it used to be.

Drawn up for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority by the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate developers’ group, the report unveiled Wednesday has a certain urgency because Navy Pier’s annual attendance has fallen to 8 million from a peak of 9 million in 2000.

But the report’s principal recommendations lack flashes of insight about the great public work, which originally consisted of classically-inspired buildings framing freight and passenger sheds. The sheds disappeared as part of the pier’s $225 million makeover, completed in 1995.

My complaints about the space would be a little different and not focus so much on the design. My main issue is that it is primarily a tourist attraction that has little revisit value and is not connected enough to other Chicago attractions like Michigan Avenue or the Chicago River. As a tourist destination, it doesn’t actually offer much to do – the stores are limited, there are limited eating opportunities, attractions like the Ferris Wheel aren’t something you would come back to several times a year, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is a great performing space but doesn’t add much to the atmosphere. Additionally, Navy Pier is a bit of a walk from Michigan Avenue which features much more interesting shops and restaurants.

The contrast I would draw with Navy Pier is Millennium Park. The park doesn’t cost anything (outside of some concerts, ice skating, and food) but has attractive elements: interesting design, some great gardens to walk through, and great people-watching opportunities, as people converge from the train stations, State Street, Michigan Avenue, and the lakefront. Most of all, the park is not a mall or amusement park, which Navy Pier can often feel like. Millennium Park feels and operates like a real public space, not a controlled commercial environment.

What might be helpful are some low-cost options for boasting interest. Why not have revolving (and interesting) art displays or themes? Why not have more street performances? Why not work on connecting the Navy Pier streetscape with Michigan Avenue so it doesn’t require a drive to the overpriced Navy Pier garage? Navy Pier needs to offer more unique and cheap features that tourists and others can’t find elsewhere in Chicago.