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CITY 2000's Instant Nostalgia/Losing Attitude

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A new, updated edition of David Lowe's Lost Chicago mourns the fine old Chicago buildings razed since the first edition appeared in 1975. The leveling and rebuilding of this city isn't likely to end anytime soon, and if 50 or 100 years from now another Lowe wants to remind Chicago of what the 21st century has eradicated, he or she will have an easy time of it. With more than a month of photographs still to be taken, the Chicago in the Year 2000 project has created a unique record of where we live, where we work, and where we play--not to mention even more evanescent markers such as the clothes we wear and the expressions on our faces. All are likely to be tokens sooner rather than later of a time gone by.

"Already the city has changed so much," says Rich Cahan, director of CITY 2000, "that there's a nostalgic look to some of our pictures. Early this year Bob Davis took pictures of workers on cranes on top of the Park Hyatt hotel. Now it looks so finished and expensive. We have pictures of half a dozen Maxwell Street buildings--we documented every one coming down. We were all over that Albert Cole mansion."

CITY 2000, underwritten by Lands' End founder Gary Comer, is a gift to Chicago too immense to ever be seen whole. The first piece of it made public was an exhibit of 150 photos taken January 1 that opened for a weekend on January 7. Since then, about 1,300 pictures have been displayed publicly at different times and places. There's a constantly changing exhibit in the gallery of the Water Tower, and at the moment CITY 2000 photographs can also be seen on the walls of the Field Museum, the Terra Museum, the Chicago Historical Society, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Chicago Bee and Austin public library branches. At noon on January 1, an exhibit of 366 pictures will open at the Cultural Center. It'll stay there into March. Later there'll be a book.

Cahan estimates that his picture editor, Teri Boyd, has already looked at as many as half a million photos taken by eight full-time and some 200 freelance photographers. Eventually five to ten thousand of those photos will be scanned into a digital archive, presumably categorized and cross-referenced and accessible through the Internet. This digital archive--plus the half million negatives--will need a custodian. It's a huge responsibility, and Cahan says the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Chicago Historical Society are interested in assuming it.

"We're picking pictures we hope will tell a narrative story, and I think it'll be very surprising to people," says Cahan, looking forward to the Cultural Center exhibit. "We think we've opened the realm of what documentary photography is." One of Cahan's favorite pictures is Carol McLaughlin's shot of the buzzers in the vestibule of her apartment building--a portrait of one of the uncountable small specifics of our city.

"What do you want to say?" Cahan asked his photographers. "This is our gift to the future, and we're telling the future what it's like to live here. What messages do you want to leave behind?" He adds, "When we started, we were thinking about nostalgic things. Then we realized that everything's going to be nostalgic in 100 years. We don't have to go to the old barbershop. The new barbershop will be just as telling. We're really interested in the mundane aspects of life. I was in Midway, and I walked by the Hertz counter where there was a line of people. I was thinking how interesting that will be in 50 years."

He said so to photographer Scott Strazzante, who went out and took the picture.

Cahan was born in Rogers Park and grew up in Lincolnwood and Skokie. The city was a constant then--"You would go years without seeing one new building from the el." Today Chicago's in a frenzy of reinvention. "I said to Yvette Dostatni, 'What is it you're trying to say?' She's a very independent photographer, and she said, 'I'm trying to say that the city is becoming Gap-ified and that there are individuals who are holding their own.' Jon Lowenstein said that he's really trying to look at how the old and the new Chicago kind of mix and how they bump up against each other. He said, 'I want to show people the color of consumerism. What it's like to be in a Target store.'" Cahan says, "I don't think they're taking potshots at it. I think they're trying to bottle it."

He goes on, "It all seems inevitable now. I'm really saddened personally by Maxwell Street. Ron Gordon has done a fantastic job of documenting the end of Maxwell Street, and Yvette has documented the people who lived on Maxwell Street. There's this whole community being pushed out. It's almost all gone. There's only a couple of buildings left. And it's a really significant worldwide bazaar. People in Europe know about Maxwell Street. We didn't miss a building."

What has he missed? "We're 3,000,000 people, and we probably missed 2,999,000 of them," he says. "If we were geographers we easily could be criticized for missing a thousand square miles of the city. If we were social historians, I'm sure someone could say you never showed"--he struggles for an example--"autism. But in a way we showed how embracing art can be. Jon Lowenstein took a picture of a man standing with a long row of red Target grocery carts. And you realized this picture is symbolic of our age, of who we are, of consumerism. Then you don't have to go to Kmart.

"We have a photographer, Micah Marty, who goes block to block. He started in August, and he basically walks ten miles each day, block to block, taking pictures of the built environment. But he's only going to get one percent of the city.

"We've taken many streets that run the length of the city. Jon Lowenstein did all of Division Street. Robert Murphy did Jackson. Wes Pope did Route 66. Leah Missbach did Roosevelt. Yvette Dostatni did Archer Avenue. We divided up the city into 190 neighborhoods, and as of election day we'd been in all of them--we hope. Election day was our best day shooting. We sent about 30 photographers to all 50 wards, and we shot over 200 precincts. We shot in Dodge dealerships, the back of barbershops, Laundromats, pool halls, and some of the more traditional places, like gyms."

Back at the Sun-Times, says Cahan, who was photo editor there until Comer hired him away last year to run CITY 2000, a photographer would have gone out to Mayor Daley's polling place, waited for the mayor to come in, and then called it a day. At the Sun-Times, Sammy Sosa's game-winning home-run swing would have been the next morning's picture, regardless of what else the photographer on the scene had taken at Wrigley Field.

If Comer's vision is honored and the necessary technology is developed, the CITY 2000 collection will survive not just a hundred years but a millennium. There are video and audio components to the on-going documentation, but the heart and soul of the project is its still photography.

Trying to explain his boundless faith in the power of a frozen image, Cahan tells a story he heard from Colin Westerbeck, associate curator of photography at the Art Institute. It's about a picture taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson at the end of World War II. A woman collaborator stands sheepishly before a table to be interrogated, and a bystander who could not contain her fury has just exploded in a denunciation. The picture was so exquisitely timed that no one in it has yet reacted to the outburst. It became, as Cahan puts it, an "icon." A film crew happened to shoot the same event, but in the film the moment goes by all but unnoticed. Contemplating the difference convinced Cartier-Bresson, who'd been dabbling in filmmaking, to remain a photographer. In fact, Westerbeck tells me, "You can draw a straight line from this incident to the founding of Magnum," a photographers' cooperative, by Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and David Seymour about a year later.

Cahan can't say what it is that gives photography its authority. But some photographs induce a kind of vertigo. Looking at them, we fall into their time and space.

Losing Attitude

"I'm thinking of conceding graciously," Pout confided. "I think it would be a smart move." Pout was the nation's dashing young president elect--one of two.

"You see that as your ace in the hole, do you?" said Fix, the silver-thatched elder statesman Pout had summoned to set things right.

"Depends on how the recount breaks," said Pout. "If I jump in as the candidate willing to bow out gracefully rather than see his beloved body politic broken in two, I could wind up with the whole enchilada."

Fix recognized Solomonic wisdom whenever he heard it from his boss. The next time would be the first. "You've been reading the concessionaires again," he said.

"Those guys make a lot of sense," said Pout. "The one thing I never thought would happen in this campaign is that I'd be compared unfavorably to Nixon."

"Let's review their proposals," said Fix. "You bow out gallantly like Nixon did. Then Smug takes office in a fog of rancor and illegitimacy, presides over four years of corrosive and ineffective partisanship, and gets the heave-ho from a disgusted public."

"As I win in a landslide," said Pout. "And am remembered forever after as 'the Healer.' What worries me is if Smug concedes first."

"I've read the same pundits you have," said Fix. "And with all due respect, sir, to them and to you, the scenario they spin doesn't make a fucking bit of sense."

"They say it was Nixon's finest hour," said Pout.

"Well, he didn't have many," said Fix. "Four years later Nixon was washed-up. A lot can happen in four years."

"Of course Nixon also proved that a lot more can happen in eight years," Pout said brightly.

"What Nixon proved is that after eight years of assassinations, urban riots, and the most unpopular war in American history, it's possible for a onetime loser dimly remembered as gracious in defeat to finally haul himself into the White House by the skin of his teeth and disgrace himself."

"That wouldn't happen to me," said Pout. "Because I'm nice down deep."

"To be honest," said Fix, "my gut tells me that five minutes after you concede you'll be a $300 answer on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But if you want to pursue this delusion, why don't we leak a story that you've prepared a statement after consulting with Billy Graham, Oprah Winfrey, and Deepak Chopra, who all hailed your greatness of spirit."

"Would they?"

"We'll just have to ask them. And now you're up in the mountains talking it over with God."

"Well, let's get hopping," said Pout. "We don't have much time."

"Why?"

"I hear things," Pout said. "And what I'm hearing is that they're talking to Smug about giving his concession on a very special Friends."

News Bites

Cherie's Night Out, the Saturday photo feature in the Sun-Times, doesn't look as awful as it used to. There are fewer pictures now, so the ones used are bigger and the partying swells aren't quite as tiny or out of focus. But what the Sun-Times still hasn't done is acknowledge anywhere on the page that it's a product of the marketing department, not the newsroom.

Marketing veep Jaclene Tetzlaff had told me she would add such an admission, but it appears that a higher authority has stepped in. Tetzlaff E-mailed me, "Our Editor-in-chief reserves his privilege to use freelancers, so we did not include that line."

This isn't about freelancers. It's about the difference between reporting and hustling. An arcane distinction.

Albert Williams, the Reader's chief theater critic, has been chosen to receive his profession's highest honor, the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. The citation from Cornell University, where the award's administered, hails Williams for writing "the kind of criticism for which the [prize] was designed--incisive, thorough, confident in the intelligence of its readers, and convinced that the theatre makes a difference to the city in which it occurs."

Founded in 1958 and maintained by a trust established by the most prominent American drama critic of the first half of the 20th century, the Nathan award has been won in earlier years by Harold Clurman, Walter Kerr, Robert Brustein, John Lahr, and Stanley Kauffmann. The criticism in these pages over the past year that has earned Williams a place in their company includes his essays on Hysteria at Steppenwolf, Desire Under the Elms at the Court Theatre, and A Touch of the Poet at the Goodman.

Williams has been writing for the Reader since 1985. Some of the other publications he's contributed to include the Tribune and Sun-Times, the New York Times Book Review, Windy City Times (where for a time he was editor), and the Seed.

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