Chicago “Tour,” Part I

I’m riding today on a chartered bus with 35 members of a youth chorus (grades 4-9) and chaperones, on the way to Chicago for the choir to perform at a choral conference. I had been reading, (and, I admit it, napping a little), and looked up just as we passed through Gary, Indiana.

Everybody knows what a desolate place Gary, Indiana is, the city almost the euphemism for the word, but it never ceases to surprise me. There are clusters of abandoned houses, some just burned-out shells, others with siding in bent folds on the ground around the house and black tar paper hanging in strips. Piles of scrap lumber sit at the ends of muddy “roads.” Grain elevators seem abandoned, islands surrounded by marshes of dead grass and puddles of snowmelt.  At one point there is a roadside park, sandwiched between a muddy dirt road and the highway, which consists merely of a roofed concrete slab sans picnic tables, and a home-plate fence at a corner of a narrow, narrow baseball field. There are no houses, no people, anywhere. Maybe it’s not fair of me to judge a city by what I see from the highway. But how does the impact of one’s approach to a city affect your perception  of the city itself?

Strangely, I wasn’t aware of our approach to Gary as I usually am. You know, as you’re driving along and suddenly ask whoever is in your car with you “What’s that smell?”  I always wondered who could live there — do they have a sense of smell? Do they die more frequently of cancers? Does anyone even live there any more? Is it naive to ask, What do they DO? Is it a ghost town, as it seems to be?

Since First Son is a college student in Cleveland, Ohio, we get our share of visits to the decaying rust belt of the midwest. The drive into Cleveland is also quite bleak — abandoned rail yards, decrepit factory buildings with broken and boarded-up windows and parking lots choked with weeds, rows of newly-built, fashionable, red-brick townhouses bumping up against what look like crack houses as you near the world-class chain of hospitals and medical centers.

How does one rebuild a city? is it the idea of the city which needs to be rehabilitated first? What was Detroit at its heydey? Cleveland? Is the fact that these declining cities were originally built on one particular industry the reason for their thriving and the cause of their doom?

The choir performed tonight in a “chapel,” (seating at least 3000 people), in Hyde Park, Illinois. The streets are lined with hundred-year-old genteel brownstones, a Frank Lloyd Wright house stands on the corner. The streets are clean, seem relatively safe (a perception not adversely affected by the Starbucks on the corner.)

What memories do these cities hold? What hopes? Is it a mistake when “we” abandon them? Isn’t the society created by man living as neighbor to man more likely to be one governed by peace and cooperation?

In one of the meditations read during the choral service tonight, we were asked to remember that the world and all men in it cry out for peace, that the earth requires our stewardship as much as, if not more than, it meets our needs. John F Kennedy says, ”We will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them we neglect the nation.” I think this is right, and meaningful, on many levels, in many ways.

But a long day, and tomorrow, another:  Shedd Aquarium, and the pool at the hotel.

And $10 every 24-hours for internet service. Whatever happened to free internet in the room being part of the selling point of the hotel?

2 Responses to “Chicago “Tour,” Part I”

  1. March 11, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    Your discriptions are so wonderful I felt as if I were riding along with you. Kind of glad that I am not! Not a pretty picture. Terribly sad. Except for your music of course.

  2. March 12, 2011 at 1:15 am

    I lived in Chicago for almost a decade and my boyfriend was from Gary. Most of his family still lived there. We visited several times a year and it was not much fun to drive into Gary. Even 20 years ago blocks and blocks of houses were abandoned. The neighborhood his mother lived in was still populated, but I don’t know what it’s like now. She died some years ago. Is her house lived in or abandoned? I have no idea.

    I do feel that Gary is probably never going to come back. On the other hand, I lived in Cleveland (lucky me) for 6 mos., but my sister and her husband (who is from there) lived there for years, in a very nice neighborhood. I didn’t get around much when I was there, but didn’t have a perception of Cleveland as a dying or dead city. It seems perhaps the route you took might have given that impression (and there are bad/decaying neighborhoods in every city), but I thought Cleveland, while perhaps not 100% robust, was in good shape, at least in terms of the neighborhoods I saw. I also went into the City M-F to work and it was a viable place. Lots going on, not run down or neglected.

    As to “letting” cities die, we don’t always have a choice. Industries come and go. People want different things. So many small towns, farm towns, are dead or dying. Their population has gone to the cities.

    Things change. It’s the nature of life. Where one place dies, another place expands. It’s part of life. We can’t completely control that process. Perhaps Detroit will never come back. Perhpas it will experience a renaissance, new industry/growth — who knows? But other cities are expanding and flourishing, and while it’s sad to see a place you are familiar with going into decay, the truth is, other places are on the upswing. And so it goes.

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