Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Days at the Beach -- Garbage/Art as a Way to Observe Your Environment

When I go to the beach, I troll for garbage. It is my way of claiming the beach, loving the beach, and, most importantly, seeing it. Looking for cigarettes is not my goal. Looking for cigarettes is the process I use to make me look at the sand, water, and sky. It is also a great excuse to walk around and see what people are up to.

Last summer, at Chicago's gayish Hollywood Beach, I used my trash collecting as a source of material to make collages that commemorated the days. It is a bit cyclical -- I went to the beach, found some cigarettes, and glued them into my journal as a memorial of looking for cigarettes. I generated some garbage of my own, the "Blue Bunny Sundae Crunch" wrapper and stick (see bottom photo). This treat reminds me of the strawberry shortcake bars I got as a kid from ice cream trucks on Chicago's South Side.

The top collage is a bit more complicated. I call it "Bicycle and Ladder go to the Beach". I bought an eight-foot ladder for a project and knew that if I took it home, I would not have enough desire to go back out to the beach. So, the ladder accompanied me (and the bicycle) to the beach.

Decorate a Bicycle for Christmas -- A Softer Celebration with Garbage

I am very fond of cars with wreaths attached to their grills at Christmas. There is something both festive and hostile about it. A delicate, loving baby was born, and we mark that event by dressing up a potentially deadly machine.

In recent days I came upon two bits of garbage. The first was a short length of red ribbon. This made it to the handlebars of one of my bicycles.

A few days later, I found several feet of evergreen branches that were bound together, something that might have been used to wrap the lamp posts of a Chicago commercial district. It was sitting in the street as I rode by. I turned back and picked it up. It is now wrapped around the top tube of the bike, with the red ribbon securing an end to the handlebars.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Andrew Gets a New/Old Stove

The oven has not been working since I moved into my apartment this summer. I didn't like the range much -- It didn't look like a quality product and certainly was not cared for. Instead of repairing it or buying a new stove, I wanted to get an old stove, one from the 1940s, 50s, or 60s. I grew up with such a stove, which my grandmother, Milosava Petković, used to make many tasty meals. She was a great cook.

While I prefer old and used things to new ones, I can see their flaws. In a car, no matter how beautiful an old one may be, I would prefer a new one. They are (usually) safer. When it comes to gas stoves, however, there is
no benefit to having a new one. The old ones are sturdy, have a clumsy grace, and they seem to burn bluer (see top photo).

The search for an old stove wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. When I lived in San Francisco, there were salvage yards and used appliance stores that carried stoves of this age. They were esteemed objects.

Chicago is a more difficult environment for old stoves. The few stores that carried decades-old stoves have closed. An appliance retailer, who appreciates the old, says that Chicagoans seem to prefer certain homogeneous looks (currently it is granite and stainless steel everything).

Fortunately, I asked a friend if he knew where I could find an old stove. He had recently bought a century-old worker's
cottage in Chicago's Logan Square district. He told me that he had two stoves he no longer wanted (maybe he, too, was going for granite and stainless steel). In every case, Jonathan sold me a beautiful, (probably) 1950s, Cribben & Sexton Universal stove (see photo of it in the garage in Logan Square). It has an atomic-era logo that seems to promise that, if the stove cannot protect you from annihilation, at least it can cook as well as a nuclear bomb (see photo, second from the bottom).

Yesterday, the stove was loaded onto a truck, carried up three flights of stairs, and installed in my home. The flame burns bluer. A repairman is coming tomorrow. The oven do
esn't work (and that's fine).

Monday, November 15, 2010

(Gay) Ljubav/Love, Hiding or not, in Belgrade

Last year I arrived in Belgrade, Serbia's capital, just in time for a canceled gay parade. The timing was coincidence -- I was going to visit cousins. The ad campaign for this non-event was, as they say in Britain, brilliant. It was also appropriate for an event that never was.

The campaign, as far as I saw, was four variations on one theme: The word "love", in Serbian (also known as Croatian or Bosnian) and in English, in a red-and-white or blue-and-white field (see top photo of my friend Jeff and me at the airport in front of the blue English version). The posters were in mechanical displays, so a red version would alternate with a blue one (see middle photo of this transition).

The graphic was in the style of 1960s and 1970s op art: Now you see the word, now you don't. Same-gender love is and isn't visible. It is and isn't emerging.

These posters worked on multiple levels and they derived their power from embracing the ambivalence they question. The message is so tender and soft that, once you realize its meaning, it's almost revolutionary. "Recognize me? Recognize me!" So revolutionary that the authorities refused to allow the parade to go forward. Various people, ranging from members of the Serbian Orthodox church, to soccer hooligans (no offense to my soccer-loving cousins), to right-wing political parties, threatened violence. The government, either honestly assessing the situation or in collusion with opponents, said that the parade goers' safety couldn't be guaranteed.

In 2010, the parade was allowed, there was protest against it, and the government intervened (on the correct side). Sometimes there is progress.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Todd Palmer's codeswitch -- Multiple Languages and Colors for One People

The new Chicago Police Department District 23 station opened to the public last Saturday with a bit of fanfare. The artist Todd Palmer, my friend, had been commissioned by the city to produce two artworks for the new building. One of these, codeswitch, is prominently installed in the lobby (see photos at bottom of Mr. Palmer below the installation).

codeswitch consists of images of Braille and of hands, in a variety of colors, signing. Both Braille and signs are of the letters used to (de)code DNA, the material s
aid to define us. Using lenticular technology, the images on each panel change as one passes by them (this is the same type of printing used for the images of Jesus opening and closing his eyes).

I believe this work i
s a comment, on many levels, on human difference and similarity. A code, denoted by a few repeated letters, defines all of us. The code is manifested in us physically in ways that can affect how we are treated (skin color, hair color, texture, and presence, height, sex, etc.). DNA is also commonly used in forensics, helping determine the guilty and the innocent.

There is an ambiguous aspect of codeswitch that I particularly like. It is a commanding piece in the lobby. This is a place where the police and the public, there either to seek help with a crime or to fish out someone who has been arrested, will conduct business. Some of the hands seem to be pointing accusingly (see top photo
of the installation, with Mayor Richard M. Daley in the foreground). Who is being accused? The police? The mayor? Residents of Chicago? All of us!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Beauty, not Punishment -- Can a Tool for People with Disabilities be an Accessory?

Last night I went to a presentation on tools designed for use by people with various disabilities. Some of the tools caught my attention for their total ugliness. They were "flesh" colored, meaning that they really looked cadaverous. In addition to the color, the materials used compounded the sense that these devices are perpetually dirty (see the top and middle photos).

I had a slight panic attack. Should I be disabled, would I need to use such confusing, binding, and ugly tools? Wouldn't it feel like a punishment to use them? They seemed like torture devices, not helping ones.

These products should have fun, color, and clarity. If possible, make these things simple to use and joyful, if not outright beautiful.
They should help turn the disability, as much as possible, into an advantage.

An example is a plastic trowel that was part of the same presentation (see bottom photo): It is colorful and has a playful (in addition to useful) shape. Outside of the presentation, we see people who have no need for them wearing attractive and attracting glasses. Another example of turning injury into a fashion advantage is in bandages marketed for children. They are now available in various colors or with cartoon characters. ¡Que viva Dora la Exploradora!

Chicago's Miami Beach -- The Fantastical Granville Tower, Part II -- An Spooky Condo Conversion

The fascinating story of the Granville Tower continues. I will be answering none of the questions I posed at the end of the last/first posting on this building. Instead, today we will learn about its condo conversion. Opened in 1966 as a rental building, the Granville Tower was converted to condominium ownership in 1979 and marketed through 1980.

The Granville Tower consisted of one
- and two-bedroom duplex units, just more than half with balconies. The most unusual feature of these units is, of course, that they are on two levels. (See the typical "living level" and two-bedroom apartment floor plans, part of CMS Realty Corporation's promotional materials and in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago's Ryerson & Burnham Libraries). The public areas have a relatively open plan, typical of the time of its design (and through today). A nice feature is the inclusion of a water closet on the lower level, keeping some distance between guests and the bath used by residents.

Perhaps more interesting, or perplexing, is the ambiguous
and misleading advertising for the Granville Tower during its condominium promotion (the advertisements at the bottom of this post were published in the Chicago Tribune in 1979 and 1980). One ad has an amusing image with meaningless text ("If you have waited for us .... your time has come" -- one could rent in this building since 1966, so there was no need to wait). The image is of a white couple in (semi-transparent?) white clothing walking on a beach, holding hands. Is this Maui? Cape Cod? Or are we next to a highway, the continuation of Lake Shore Drive, in Chicago (see bottom photo, of the Granville Tower on Sheridan Road)? Yes, there is a beach, across the highway. Unlike most lakefront neighborhoods in Chicago, the beach in Edgewater is minimal and discontinuous. After darting through the traffic, our lovely couple could walk back and forth along the beach for a few blocks, at most.

Another misleading point in the advertising is the over-selling of the pool. At the bottom of the ad "The duplex style condominium", a man and woman, in an intimate stance, stand in front of the pool, from which a bikini-clad woman is emerging. Compare this romantic/lascivious scene with the photo of the actual pool (top photo). I took this from the sidewalk next to Sheridan Road, hardly a location to encourage love (in most incarnations).

My favorite Granville Tower ads, though, are not those that are misle
ading, but vaguely threatening. One, entitled "Duplex living -- with all the amenities", has an abstract drawing of of a set of stairs with a stair-shaped black space beyond. The image reminds me of a Hitchcock film, where much of the horror is not revealed. What was the developer or the marketer trying to say with this slightly chilling graphic? What are the "amenities"? Murder? This particular copy seems to show a bullet hole in the black space. I have looked at other runs of the same ad, and there is usually some sort of distortion, which is probably just a problem with the printing or aging of the newspaper.

The ambivalence t
owards the Granville Tower continues with the ads "Buyers beware -- of value, uniqueness and affordability" and "Endangered species", in the shape of a dagger. "But, Andrew, you aren't looking at the entire advertisement", you may say to me. "'Endangered species' clearly refers to the excellent, just under 12%, mortgage rate being offered". Yes, you are right, the intention of the advertising is to sell the condominiums in the Granville Tower. It could have been done in a more persuasive way that does not hint at a darkness. In every case, by the late 1970s, the neighborhood was a little troubled, and a spooky apartment might have been in order.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mel Installs a Window -- Old and Reparable Wins Over New and Inflexible

As you may know, I have recently moved into a new home in Chicago's Uptown. It is a railroad apartment with approximately 20 windows, mostly original to 1917 and in varying states of disrepair. The worst one was in the kitchen, where, during a recent wind storm, the frame came apart and a portion of the glass broke (see second photo from the top of the unpainted frame and broken glass at rest on my stove).

I am dedicated both to reducing energy use and to making old things last as long as possible. This put me into a bit of an apparent bind -- Do I replace a window with a more energy efficient one or do I repair a window that has been doing service for 93 years? Thanks to the suggestions of a sympathetic contractor, an enthusiastic hardware store employee, and a lack of cash, I opted for the latter. What could it hurt to try out a cheaper and more context-sensitive approach, at least first?

I spoke about my dilemma with a contractor, Andrew. He introduced me to the idea of window repair and recommended a local hardware store that does this kind of work. At the store, the aforementioned employee countered all I had been told by someone who had given me an estimate for new windows some weeks earlier. He showed me products I could use to make existing windows more airtight. He recommended curtains for use during the coldest months.

Most convincingly, he said that old windows were made to be repaired, whereas new ones are not. He showed me an aluminum window, not ten years old, that was beyond repair from torquing. Have my windows not lasted most of a century?

I took the sash to the store and had it reglazed and the frame repaired and repainted. Once I got the repaired sash home, Mel (see top photo, where he is inspecting the work site) and I got to work. A counterweight had come detached and needed to be threaded back over the pulley (which, itself, was a little sticky and needed lubricant). The gap in one of the counterweight housings was missing its cover, so we made one. Next, the sash was unwrapped and hung (see second photo from the bottom). We used one of the hardware store suggestions and nailed felt to the inside of the frame. The window now closes tightly!

It is very gratifying to reuse the old. Sometimes our (American) assessment of things stops at that. Old, yes, but is it still useful? Can it be repaired? Is it, perhaps, more beautiful or complementary to its surroundings than a replacement? The answer to all these questions, for this kitchen window, is "yes".

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Chicago's Miami Beach -- The Fantastical Granville Tower

Since I moved back to Chicago, I've become fascinated with North Sheridan Road, especially the section between Hollywood Avenue (5700 North) and where it turns west (6400 North) in Edgewater. This almost mile-long stretch reminds me of the best and worst of "Condo Canyon" in Miami Beach (the ten blocks of Collins Avenue south of 63 Street): Residential high-rises of varying degrees of whimsy, on a car-centric street, with a squandered waterfront. Let's look at the first part -- Some of these buildings have a high level of good-natured humour, if not outright beauty.

My favorite is a building that a friend and I refer to as "The Sert" because it reminds us of the work of Josep Lluis Sert on Roosevelt Island in New York City (see second photo from the top). This building is the Granville Tower (6166 N. Sheridan Road), designed by Seymour S. Goldstein and completed in 1966.

The Granville Tower is initially notable for two related reasons: Its unique and alternating floor plans, which correspond to the all-duplex apartments within
(see top photo). The lower level of each south- and north-facing duplex is cantilevered and angled towards (potential) views of Lake Michigan (see approximation of the floor plan). The upper (bedroom) level's facade is more traditional in its orientation. On the east and west facades, bays (lower level) alternate with (almost) flat facades (upper level) (see third photo).

Socially, the Granville Tower has piqued my interest. It
has ties to South Shore, a neighborhood about as far south of downtown as Sheridan Road in Edgewater is to the north. The Granville Tower's rental agent was Harry A. Zisook & Sons, with offices at 1711 E. 71 Street in South Shore. In the 1960s, South Shore changed from a virtually all-white neighborhood to a virtually all-black one. Was the Granville Tower a destination for white people leaving South Shore?

For answers to this and other questions (i.e. What is Harry A. Zisook & Sons? Who is the architect, Seymour S. Goldstein? What are the stories of the other buildings in Chicago's Miami Beach?), stay tuned.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween Redux -- Halsted Street's Fantasies Improve Public Life

As I wrote the other day, Halloween is an important revelatory event ("Terror and Tacos in Portage and Albany Parks, Respectively"). For the first time, I went to the Halsted Street Halloween parade in Boystown in Lakeview. The juxtaposition of images and characters can be very creatively stimulating: Pacman chased by a dominatrix (really a by a ghost, but the "lady" with a whip is not far behind); a chicken appearing to hold a news conference; and guys with an excuse not to wear much.

These types of events -- carnivals, parades, street fairs -- can also be remarkably important in developing and maintaining a civil and, dare I say, a loving public life. We can learn about, learn from, and value difference. Most human differences -- food, clothing, speech patterns, etc. -- are utterly unimportant, but acquire monstrous meaning in a vacuum. With a human (or Pacman) face, these differences can be seen as harmless, and as enriching, as they have the potential to be.

Next year I will be in the parade itself and, perhaps, outdo the chicken.