Street Smart Chicago

Living Landmark: How Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson Became an Encyclopedia of Chicago

Architecture, Chicago History, Loop, Rogers Park 6 Comments »

Photo: Thomas Marlow

By Harrison Smith

To design buildings, says Tim Samuelson, you have to be able to see things as one great complicated whole, “to think as one creative act.” The great ones, architects like Chicago’s own Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, were able to “imbue part of themselves” in their work, to design buildings that functioned as both useful spaces, as homes or auditoriums, and as works of art, objects that could move a person as much as a line of poetry or a beautiful painting. Sullivan had a concise way of expressing this point, writing in 1896 that “form ever follows function,” a quote that has long been misinterpreted to mean that form is secondary to function.

“What it really means,” says Tim, “is that the two work harmoniously together.” From this idea, architecture is “like creating poetry. Form follows function, as Sullivan intended it, is pure, beautiful, creative poetry. All the parts harmoniously and beautifully relate together. They stir the emotions.”

Tim Samuelson, no architect, says he was never able to imagine buildings this way, to see a building in his mind’s eye before any foundation had been laid and construction had begun. When he sees a great building, however—the Auditorium Building on Michigan and Congress, or the old Federal Building on Dearborn and Jackson—he is struck; he is in rapture; he is in love.

Samuelson has been the city’s cultural historian for the past ten years, functioning as a one-man office of the Department of Cultural Affairs. His job is that of a spokesperson, consultant, historian and storyteller, a wide-ranging position that requires him “to tell the spirit and the history of Chicago” through exhibits, public programs, and collaboration with other cultural institutions, museums, and governmental agencies. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Turf and Surf

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Highland Park, Loop No Comments »

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

It always bugs me when people say Chicago’s a great city but complain that there’s no access to natural beauty or outdoor adventure here. True, there are no mountains or saltwater for hundreds of miles, but we have ocean-like Lake Michigan close at hand, making this one of the few major United States cities where you can work in a skyscraper and easily take your lunch break on a sandy beach.

And this is a great place to live if you want to commune with nature without polluting the environment to get there. The South Shore Line electric railroad takes you directly from Millennium Park to the campgrounds of the picturesque Indiana Dunes. And the bicycle-friendly Metra commuter rail system means that you can get to state parks like Illinois Beach, Fox Lake and Kettle Moraine via a relaxing train ride plus a bit of pedaling, instead of fighting traffic jams. Having a good time in the great outdoors near Chicago is really just a matter of attitude. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Open Streets, Closed Coffers

Bicycling, Bucktown, Checkerboard City, Green, Loop, Wicker Park No Comments »

Julia Kim at Open Streets on State Street/Photo courtesy of Active Trans

By John Greenfield

Last year I wrote a Newcity cover story with the subtitle, “Can Open Streets downtown sell City Hall on future ciclovias?” For this year at least, the answer was no.

Since 2005, I’ve been chronicling the Active Transportation Alliance’s valiant efforts to stage ciclovías, Latin American-style events that shut down streets to car traffic, encouraging healthy recreation, community and commerce. It’s hard to believe I still have to report on the relative lack of support from the city, especially since Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) commissioner Gabe Klein have generally been terrific on sustainable transportation issues.

Don’t get me wrong. All the ciclovias Active Trans has organized so far have been fabulous, with thousands of Chicagoans of all stripes coming out to stroll, jog, pedal, play, dance and relax on car-free streets. And I’m certain that this year’s events—Open Streets in the Loop this Saturday and Open Streets Wicker Park/Bucktown on Sunday, September 16—will be the best ones yet. Read the rest of this entry »

A River Runs Through It: With “Waterline,” McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum Contemplates the Future

Architecture, City Life, Loop, Pilsen No Comments »

Photo: Harrison Smith

By Harrison Smith

The new exhibit at the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum occupies a similar place in the museum as the river does in the city: presented at various points scattered throughout the museum’s five tight floors, the exhibit—extensive as it is—is easy to overlook. Unfortunately, the same could be said of the museum itself, which fills the southwest tower of the DuSable Bridge on Michigan Avenue and opens onto the Chicago Riverwalk at water’s edge. There are few signs identifying the museum at street-level, and few people walking along the Riverwalk to notice its entrance, something the museum and its “Waterline” exhibition are looking to change. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Gimme Shelter

Checkerboard City, Loop, South Loop No Comments »

photo by John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

This year when you walk to the Printers Row Lit Fest it’s a little less likely you’ll be killed by a car. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) is currently wrapping up the $18 million Congress Parkway Reconstruction Project, from Wells Street to Michigan Avenue. The rehab has already brought a slew of pedestrian safety improvements, including new “pedestrian refuge” islands, making it safer, easier and more pleasant to walk across and along the massive street that forms the southern boundary of the Loop.

Construction on Congress Parkway began in October 2010 and the road reopened to traffic on May 15, just in time for the NATO summit. CDOT expects the final tasks, including finishing planter medians and installing decorative trellises and lighting, will be done by June 30.
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Checkerboard City: Streetcar Desire

Checkerboard City, Green, Lincoln Park, Loop, Transit, Wrigleyville No Comments »

John Krause/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Acid jazz pulsed on the sound system as a group of stylishly dressed transit fans clinked wine glasses last week at Vapiano, a sleek Italian restaurant at 2577 North Clark Street in Lincoln Park. They were there to launch the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance, a campaign to create a world-class streetcar line on Clark from the Loop to Wrigley Field, and eventually add lines in other parts of the city.

“Our mission is to grow the economy and the population of Chicago every year while reducing traffic congestion and making the city easier to get around,” says John Krause, the architect who founded the movement, nattily attired in jeans and a dove-gray sports jacket. “That means every year there will be more people and fewer cars, more commerce and less congestion.”

He has a vision of the clogged traffic and the notoriously sluggish buses on Clark replaced by efficient, comfortable streetcars, more pedestrian traffic, on-street cafés and broad bike lanes. “The only way you can get rid of cars is to replace them with something better,” he explains. “In a car paradigm everybody assumes the city is going to grow more and more congested. But a public-transit system is the opposite. The more people use public transit, the better it gets.” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: The Southwest Passage

Bicycling, Bridgeport, Checkerboard City, Chinatown, Loop 1 Comment »

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

A local ordinance requires that all new developments along the Chicago River include public access to the waterfront, so eventually there could be a network of riverwalks to rival the Lakefront Trail. But for now it takes a little detective work to navigate the waterway by bicycle. I’ve researched a few “stealth routes” along the North Branch, connecting bits and pieces of riverfront path with quiet side streets—you can read about them at Last week I scouted out a fascinating route along the South Branch from the Loop to Bridgeport, but I should warn you that it isn’t completely legal. Read the rest of this entry »

The Path of History: City Running Tours of Chicago Offer a Healthy View of the Town

Chicago History, Loop, News etc., Running No Comments »

By Zach Freeman

Ask Marlin “The Reluctant Runner” Keesler what the best thing about running is and he doesn’t hesitate: “Stopping!”

With his thick athletic build, crew cut and well-groomed mustache, Keesler can cut an intimidating figure at first glance. But as soon as he starts talking, the tough-guy image quickly fades. Wearing an almost constant grin and slinging a pocketful of deliberately cheesy one-liners, the soft-spoken tour guide, 50 States Marathon Club member and Chicago manager of City Running Tours is friendly, talkative and always on the move, which is appropriate considering that six mornings a week he leads a series of historical running tours through the streets of Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Zero North/South

Austin, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Loop, West Loop No Comments »

By John Greenfield

Chicago’s Madison Street, named for one of the chief authors of the United States Constitution, runs through some of the most expensive real estate in town as well as some of the most underserved neighborhoods. As the city’s north-south bifurcating street, it forms the Mason-Dixon Line between the North Side and the South Side. Over the years I’ve hiked the entire length of several Chicago thoroughfares in search of fascinating sights and interesting people, so it was only a matter of time until I walked Madison, a relatively short street at eight miles, but one that’s dense with landmarks.

On a warm spring morning I start my walk in Millennium Park, where Madison T-bones into Michigan Avenue, 100 East Sunshine gleams off the Bean as I gaze past the historic high-rises of the Michigan Avenue cliff into the Madison Street canyon, then step off the curb and stride toward Jeweler’s Row. After passing the State Street intersection, Chicago’s Ground Zero, I cross the river by the grandiose Civic Opera House. Soon I come to Claes Oldenburg’s “Batcolumn,” 600 West, a 101-foot-tall Louisville Slugger made of gray steel latticework, symbolizing Chicago’s “ambition and vigor.” Read the rest of this entry »

Notes from the Underground: A Subterranean Safari in the Chicago Pedway

Chicago History, Loop, Transit 2 Comments »

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

As I make my way through the blizzard to the Blue Line’s Logan Square stop, seven pigeons are huddled on Evelyn Longman’s giant eagle sculpture atop the Illinois Centennial Monument. It’s a Thursday afternoon in early January, the streets are lined with slush and cars move at a cautious crawl. A scruffy, bearded guy in a hooded jacket trudges across the street toward me with wet snow blowing into his face. “No, it ain’t shitty out,” he says with a grin. Me, I’m planning to take a pass on this nasty weather and spend the rest of the day in warmth and comfort as I go urban spelunking in the Chicago Pedway, an overlooked layer of Chicago’s transportation system.

The Pedway is downtown’s network of indoor pedestrian pathways, including below-ground tunnels, street-level concourses and overhead skyways, covering about five miles, and connecting more than forty city blocks. Tens of thousands of downtown workers use it every day to traverse the Loop without having to deal with cold, heat, rain, snow or the Loop’s hectic, often dangerous, street traffic. Read the rest of this entry »