Taxis honk and confused minivans hover midintersection. Bikes slide through the streets dodging doors and inflexible drivers. The crowd at the corner builds as commuters come to a halt—“Don’t Walk”—purses and briefcases still swinging. They are sprinters, waiting for the race to start up yet again, and their toes grip the edge of the curb. Tourists slowly line up behind the professionals, soaking up the pause in momentum by craning their necks so their eyes can finally reach past the skyscrapers and remind them the sky is the same as the one back home. Reverse vertigo. Suddenly it feels like forward movement. The jostlers push from behind, commuters who missed the start, arm-linked teens who keep hips close and one elbow out, a weapon against accidental intruders. Sensory overload, too much touching, harsh car metal and harsh car smell way too close. A throng of trajectories head in different directions and at different velocities, but they brush each other, and for a few feet, we all head in the same direction. Speed travelers and slowpokes alike get a rush, taking pleasure in this offering up by the city, imperfect but commanding.
As Mayor Daley heads out of office, much of the positive press surrounding his long tenure points to his efforts to revitalize the city center—from Millennium Park to the South Loop, it’s hard to deny downtown Chicago’s improvement, much of it initiated by him. Chicago risked becoming a large-scale case study for the downfall of the American city center, and it’s not out of place to attribute its recent success as a tourist destination to the mayor who brought The Bean and Museum Campus. But the street-scape of Chicago has a long way to go before becoming a model for the American city. Even the lakefront and Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s crown jewels, are far from the level of accessibility that makes pedestrians—tourists and residents alike—feel at home. Fifty years after Jane Jacobs wrote her groundbreaking analysis of city planning, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” we now know a lot of answers to the previously unasked questions of how to make a city work. And one of those answers is that cars are not the answer. It goes beyond greening the city: in a high-functioning city of any size, fearless and timid explorers alike take pleasure in walks, bikes and public transit rides through their city—not slogging through traffic alone in their cars. Read the rest of this entry »