Listening To The Ghosts Hiding Inside Chicago's Empty Places

McDonald’s will soon be opening its new corporate headquarters on west Washington Boulevard, replacing Oprah Winfrey’s old Harpo Studios. One more among thousands of ambitious real estate developments that have been pumping civic blood through Chicago’s arteries since 1837. This will probably do for the West Loop what the Mag Mile did for North Michigan Avenue.

But Chicagoan’s take pride in also knowing the back-stories to these ventures. Many played out beyond the headlines during the Boom of the 1920s, then later during the Bust of the 1930s. Epic examples include the ill-fated Eddystone Apartments in Lakeview; the Crane Towers proposed for over the Illinois Central Railroad as the world’s tallest building; also the little remembered 1937 proposal to turn the Lake Street El into a major highway from the same West Loop out to the suburbs and beyond.

Some of these still-born dreams have haunted our streets in the form of vacant lots. Like the 30,000 that dotted the Village of Skokie as late as 1948…. the long-empty Block 37 on State Street as late as the 1990s….the scores of closed Archdiocese churches with perhaps another 100 by the target year 2030.

It goes without saying the largest “vacancy” was the thousands of square feet gutted in the calamitous Chicago Fire of 1873. But then book-end that tragedy on one end of our architectural history with the innovative Millennium Park which opened in 2004. From a burned out wooden city to the century’s newest vision of the classic town square, Chicago stands broad shoulder to shoulder with any city in the world.

Carl Sandburg’s paean captures us best: “….fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, bareheaded, shoveling, wrecking, planning, building, breaking, rebuilding…”

Right now the city bends beneath the bleeding weight of record-breaking murders, shootings and violence; ironically many taking place inside the abandoned shelter of these very vacancies. The gangs and thugs know little of the architectural and human history embedded in those empty spaces. However, long after they and their crimes have been swept away by time, these spaces will surely by once more filled with the dreams and doings of those here who always make the difference.

You won’t find many statues to these dreamers and doers. They exist namelessly in the parks, boulevards, office buildings and high rises we all take for granted. But perhaps taking them so much for daily granted is a kind of tribute all its own. We continue to use what they accomplished, for it is always the builders not the breakers of cities who prevail in the long run.

Dismissing my octogenarian idealism would be the greatest tribute these miscreants could pay me….

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