Turning the reversal of the Chicago River into a jazz symphony

The Chicago Tribune explains how a new jazz symphony based on the reversal of the Chicago River came about:

That story has been told in history books and classroom lectures, but now it’s coming to life in a novel way: a jazz symphony composed by Chicagoan Orbert Davis and inspired by the revelatory photo book “The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond” (CityFiles Press). In effect, Chicago history will be told here not by academics but by writers and musicians.

Co-authors Richard Cahan and Michael Williams spent years unearthing 21,834 forgotten photographs documenting in luminous black and white the reversal of the river — and its triumphant and disastrous effects on the world around it. Their 2011 book in turn has led trumpeter Davis to tell the tale in “The Chicago River,” a major opus he and his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic will perform in its world premiere Friday evening at Symphony Center, with historic photos projected on a screen.

Neither the coffee-table book nor the symphony would have happened, however, if the precious photos hadn’t been discovered more than a decade ago in the basement of the James C. Kirie Water Reclamation Plant in Des Plaines. The stench of decaying film negatives attracted workers’ attention and drew them to an even more precious find: 130 boxes of glass-plate negatives spanning 1894 to 1928, with written records accompanying them…

Not everyone, however, would hear jazz when studying these vivid images of a rougher, more rambunctious Chicago of more than a century ago. Jazz, however, stands as the ideal music for this time and place, because the turn of the previous century marked the explosive beginnings of jazz in Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton, the first jazz composer, came here from New Orleans as early as 1910, followed by Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and a generation of New Orleans artists, making Chicago not only the next jazz capital but the exporter of the music to the rest of the world.

The work will be preformed this Friday. It sounds like a clever way to combine music, art, and history. These discovered photographs shed light on something that had only been written about before (see a recent summary here about how Chicago’s growth was fueled by excrement) but the music has the opportunity to add a new dimension.

The music is also a celebration of how a key infrastructure decision helped make Chicago what it is today. Many have heard the problems facing the city because the river flowed into Lake Michigan but what would have happened if the Chicago River hadn’t been reversed? How sustainable was the situation? What else could have been done at the time? People may not think much about sewers and water supplies but these are essential for large dense populations. In other words, you can’t be a global city without a decent sewer system.

Question: “What are some pictures of McMansions that some people find aesthetically pleasing and well designed?”

In contrast to looking for photos of the most garish McMansions, one Quora user ask the opposite question: “What are some pictures of McMansions that some people find aesthetically pleasing and well designed?

This is a fascinating question because it assumes such pictures could be found. The definition of the term itself tends to imply something is wrong with the home: it is too big (absolutely or relative to other nearby homes), it is not designed well, or it is tied to other issues (sprawl, excessive consumption). Beyond that, McMansions could be viewed less as a matter of bad taste and more as morally wrong. There are not too many loud defenders of McMansions though it seems like builders like Toll Brothers, who critics have argued have built such homes for years, are doing okay.

So if people can’t bring themselves to suggest a McMansion is well designed, I wonder if tweaking the question might get better results: “are there McMansions that are less problematic?” If phrased this way, we could place McMansions along a continuum of well designed to poorly designed or better to bad and see the range of possibilities.

Beautiful infrastructure: new image of the US from space at night

This is worth gaping at for a moment:

United States

Some of the details on how the image was obtained:

These super-high-resolution images, made possible by a new type of infrared sensor on the satellite, were revealed here at the American Geophysical Union conference Dec. 5.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite has a “day-night band” that can detect natural and man-made light with unprecedented resolution and clarity. It can resolve everything from the nocturnal glow of the atmosphere to the light of a single boat at sea. It can detect auroras, wildfires, the reflection of moon and star light off clouds and ice and the lights alongside highways. The sensor has six times better spatial resolution and 250 times better resolution of lighting levels than anything that came before it.

The VIIRS instrument works by scanning in 22 different wavelength bands. For each pixel, it uses a low-, medium- or high-gain mode to accurately depict the light from each source. Low-light signals are amplified and bright lights are kept from being over-saturated.

This could be an example of infrastructure at its finest. With a quick glance at this photo, you get an idea of the geographic dispersion of the American population. Of course, it could also tell you something about light pollution…

Mapping Chicago by taking a photo at every major intersection

Planner Neil Freeman found an interesting way to map Chicago: take a photo of every major intersection. A post on Atlantic Cities describes the map:

Freeman’s first project, called “Chicago mile by mile,” created an unconventional city map of the city based on 212 photos of strategic “mile” intersections. It was inspired by Chicago’s unique grid system, in which every eight blocks measures a full mile, and the city’s corresponding address system, which advances (for the most part) in increments of 800. If you begin at the zero-points of Madison and State streets and go west a mile, for example, you’ll reach the corner of Halsted Street at 800 W Madison Street.

“This arbitrary address system ends up defining what it means to live in Chicago,” he says. “These arbitrary systems that end up underlying our built environment of our daily life are really intriguing to me.”

On the webpage with the map, here is how Freeman describes the map:


Chicago mile by mile

Neil Freeman, 2002
213 color photographs
114 x 104 inches

These photographs maps Chicago’s uncomprimising street grid into 212 4″x6″ snapshots. The photographs document every intersection of mile streets, major roads on section lines. The entire city is traversed by this network of arterials. Photographs were taken in January 2002.

It would take a while to look at the thumbnails of all the photographs. However, I think doing so might start to reveal patterns. In other words, are the major intersection on the North Side more alike or different from major intersections on the South Side? Are there patterns across all intersections? I suspect there may be as these major intersections would tend to attract certain kinds of functions and organizations.

Extending this project in three possible ways could also add a lot of information. One way to expand this would be to start filling in more of the intersections between these major ones. A second way would be to track these intersections over time. If Freeman took all of these photographs again in 2012, how much would have changed? A third way would be to collect data on how people experience and visual these intersections and compare this to the photographs. How exactly do residents and visitors perceive these intersections?

Sunsets can beautify the suburbs and McMansions

I was amused to run into this Flickr/Instagram photograph of a beautiful sunset over a subdivision of suburban McMansions. The tag on the photo: “Suburbia has awesome sunsets too | #shareyoursunset #sky #McMansions.”

This short commentary can be tied to how suburbs are often portrayed. The suburbs are often caricatured as bland or ordered in a mass-produced way or messy places but rarely as beautiful. Even though the suburbs were originally intended to be a way to combine nature and residences (particularly compared to the dirty cities of the Industrial Revolution), this idea has been lost today. The newest subdivisions tend to be flat places where the existing trees and topography have been leveled for human residences. (However, it is interesting to look at older subdivisions, say those built in the two decades after World War II, and see their more mature trees. Are these neighborhoods now more beautiful simply due to the passage of time?)

This also goes beyond nature. Think of popular culture depictions of suburbs that tend to have a similar storyline: “this suburban family/street/community looks put together but once you dig below the surface, you find all sorts of flaws.” (This is not just limited to suburban stories.) Outside of home interiors (often the focus of magazines and television shows), where is there beauty in suburbs?

Yet, the sky is not completely obscured by suburban subdivisions so perhaps for just a few moments, the suburbs too can be a place where natural beauty is revealed.

Deconstructed images of McMansions

Check out this gallery of photos from a designer who has deconstructed images of McMansions. Here is a brief description of the photos:

Designer Michael Jantzen plays with perspective both literally and figuratively.

His photo collection, “Deconstructing the Houses,” rotates parts of buildings to give the appearance of fragmentation. Doing so is meant to change our view of McMansions from lifelong investment to money pit.

“I picked out houses that were very large and expensive to work with,” he told Business Insider in an interview. “The idea that these very expensive places, so many of which are in foreclosure, struck me. I wanted to play with the idea of stability.”

My take: these images are meant to show that the McMansions are falling in on themselves. While this could be commentary specifically regarding the recent economic and housing crisis, it could also refer to common critiques of McMansions: they are poorly designed and constructed homes that won’t last as long as traditional or well-built homes.

These images also remind of the occasional piece you can find about the idea of people in the future finding American ruins. I remember first seeing this idea in a David McAuley book where people were picking through an overgrown forest and finding pieces of Washington D.C. What would people two hundred years from now think if they found houses as depicted in these images?

Note: I like the addition in a number of the photos of people standing in the driveway or on the sidewalk in front of the house. I wonder what it might look like if people were running out of the house in fear or puzzlement…

Pictures of “uncontacted” Amazon peoples

There are still areas of the planet where people have little contact with the larger world. The country of Brazil has just released photos of some people groups with limited contact in order to draw attention to their condition:

FUNAI has released similar photographs in the past and acknowledged that Peruvian loggers are sending some indigenous people fleeing across the border to less-affected rainforests in Brazil.

The coordinator of Brazil’s Amazon Indian organization COIAB, Marcos Apurina, said he hoped the images would draw attention to the plight of the indigenous peoples and encourage their protection.

“It is necessary to reaffirm that these peoples exist, so we support the use of images that prove these facts. These peoples have had their most fundamental rights, particularly their right to life, ignored — it is therefore crucial that we protect them,” he said.

FUNAI says there are 67 tribes in Brazil that do not have sustained contact with the outside world. Some are often referred to as “uncontacted” tribes even though they have some kind of, albeit limited, contacts.

The future of a number of these groups has been threatened in recent decades primarily by people who want their land, either for its natural resources or who want to convert it into farmland. And there are some interesting discussions about how these cultures can continue to remain fairly distinct from outside influences, even if most now have had some contact with the larger world.

National Geographic amateur photo contest pictures

I wonder how many Americans would count photography as a hobby. In today’s world, it is easy for the average person to buy a decent camera and shoot some decent photos. To see some of the best of these photos, check out this photo collection of 13 pictures from National Geographic’s annual amateur photo competition.

I have always enjoyed the photographs in National Geographic, pictures of nature, places, and people. In this particular photo collection, I like #13 the best, the picture of a supercell thunderstorm. That thunderstorm looks like some weird spaceship has just lifted off.