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Natural State

A Street Gone Wrong Gets a Rare Second Chance

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Every now and then a change in the cityscape, like a good dream, packs an unexpected psychic punch.

To walk the Loop's length of State Street these days is to be in a place that disappeared in 1979. Its reappearance feels like that big, sincere apology you always hope for but never get. It's a sort of miracle. Architectural gashes are usually not self-healing. Gone means gone.

So to need to look both ways--carefully--again before stepping off State Street's curb is a great thing, a rare public exercise in admitting a costly mistake and actually doing something about it. And that the city brought about the change because the street, in mall form, just didn't feel right--what a breakthrough! It's not that it was unhealthy or dangerous, like a too-tight S-curve or high-rise public housing. And it wasn't precisely because of economics, though clearly the bleakness of the malled street hurried the demise of some businesses along it.

The mall was undone because people didn't like how it looked and felt. State and Madison had gone from being the center of the universe and the street-numbering system to a tumbleweedy nothingness. It was like being stuck with a big head of Farrah Fawcett hair that wasn't ever going to grow out, aviator glasses we couldn't take off--a painful lesson in living with consequences of urges that once seemed like a good idea. To our parents.

But now the harsh sentence has been lifted. State Street has been "restored," not to any precise moment in its past, and certainly not to 1978, but at least to a street, with normal sidewalks and traffic.

The design of the new light fixtures, subway entrances, and plantings is fine, though a bit overpretty. Certainly it was worked out after long discussions and fits of inspiration by people who know all about urban context and modern materials. The thing is it's mostly irrelevant. Architecture wasn't the problem.

The absence of cars was the problem. Who knew we could feel so tender about them, like dolphins or redwoods? Their not being there was even more of a downer than those broad sidewalks that never had enough people on them. The buses wending their lonely way down the empty stretch were pathetic, like elephants temporarily separated from the pack. State Street requires exhaust. It needs cops yelling at pedestrians trying to cross in front of turning vehicles. It needs people getting run over occasionally. It needs tourists and pickpockets.

Of course, tumbleweed wasn't what anyone had in mind in 1979. The idea, and it was not a shameful one, was a downtown space that was gracious rather than dangerous, open rather than suffocating. It's easy to smirk now at a 70s idea gone wrong, but it made a certain sense at the time, just as the clothes did. They were playful and flowing because the clothes that preceded them were uncomfortable. They had their reasons, but we mostly don't wear them anymore.

And one of the good things about clothes is that they're not made out of steel. They don't cost $40 million a pop. They're not that hard to get rid of when we get tired of them. But a building is another matter, and a street lined with buildings: the materials! the expense! One of the things architecture likes to do best is impress us with apparent permanence. Buildings are a city's mountains. We need them to give our land contour and to give us something to look at and out from. They pretend to be immortal.

But they are, after all, more like clothes than they want us to believe. They go up; they come down. They leak; they rot; they blow away. They are replaced. They are slaves to fashion, creatures of their time. They can represent high-class, artful intelligence, or the shoddiest, crassest whim. You know how it is in the dressing room. A person can make a mistake.

But buildings, also like clothes, eventually go public. They are out there for the world to see, for better or worse. Capone's Chicago, the gangster-themed tourist playpen at Clark and Ohio, was allowed to exist for three years, as visible and real as the Water Tower. Its off-scale, faux-storefront cartoonishness was evidence that democracy and real estate can be a dangerous combination. Though the aesthetic was shamelessly specious, while the place was here it was really here. In among all its other bogus signage was no large pink sign saying, "Don't worry. This is coming down in 1996."

And just as we don't quite know what will pass quickly, we also never know what we'll be forced to live with forever. There's a reason I don't have any tattoos or even bumper stickers. I don't know what mood I'll be in next year at this time. I don't know what I'll think is funny or beautiful. I don't want to be stuck with the scars from some passing notion.

Along these lines, how long are we going to have to live with the big stainless steel sculpture by Virginio Ferrari that suddenly graces a manicured plot where Ohio and Ontario streets meet the Kennedy Expressway? Formerly of the State Street mall, the piece has a shiny blandness that worked well enough at its previous site, where pedestrians passed by quickly and close up. Children liked it as a jungle gym. But now drivers are forced to sit there, staring at it, trying to think some thought as they wait for the light to change, and coming up with . . . nothing, confirming many people's worst suspicions about contemporary art.

Ferrari did the piece in 1983 as a commission for the Tool and Die Institute; its precisely engineered O within a C represented industrial meticulousness. But the work's title, Being Born, leads your mind in a direction that has nothing to do with metalworking and everything to do with anatomy. And somehow, "Is it a giant uterus or just an O within a C?" doesn't have the same charm as the bird/woman/dog dispute raised about the Daley Center's Picasso so long ago.

Maybe 17 years from now Being Born will find another resting place. For now, we're stuck with it, though at least it was an addition and not a taking away, which, when you're talking about buildings and streets, is a very big difference. The purging of architectural treasures from Chicago may have slowed a bit, compared to recent decades, but it's always in the air as a possibility, as if Chicago were a teeny, tiny place with no empty spaces left and the only way to build new stores is to tear down some nice old building or dismantle a floating staircase. Only on a continent whose cities are less than 200 years old would this seem logical, would an 80-year-old building be considered ancient, impossible to deal with. Everywhere else in the world, people buy their Nikes and toothpaste in centuries-old buildings adapted to modern use. But here we shoot first and ask questions later. Block 37, anybody?

When something's gone, it's really gone. This is the bitter architectural lesson we have all had drummed into our heads. There's no going back. Do you want door number one or door number two? The Arts Club or Eddie Bauer? We'd better be prepared to live by our decision, because it's final.

It's a cruel world. Grandma is dead. Marshall Field's feels Minnesotan. Friends move away and that's just the way it is. Get used to it. Tough luck.

And into this ethos of punishment and hard knocks comes, unexpectedly, a second chance. A "never mind." Cars come back to State Street, that greatest of streets. Hope and humanity, when we least expected it. Is Grandma coming back, too? Flo's on Randolph? The waiting room at Marshall Field's? Men in fedoras?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Rebecca Jane Gleason.

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