Songs about the death and life of the American city

A loose list, a set of vague connections, but all powerful in their condemnation of what’s happening to our cities. Songs about urban decay, suburban development, architecture, demolition, buildings and food:

* The Pretenders: “My City Was Gone” – the death of Akron, Ohio chronicled in a bitterly angry rock song
* Marvin Gaye: “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”
* Bruce Springsteen: “My City of Ruins” (about his home town of Asbury Park. Later repurposed as a post-9/11 reflection.)
* Stevie Wonder: “Village Ghetto Land”
* Jay Farrar: “Outside the Door”, a lament for the lost places and times of St. Louis
* Son Volt: “Way Down Watson” – Farrar & company mourn the death of St. Louis’s old Coral Court Motel
* Marah: “This Town” – (semi)closing track from their amazing Kids in Philly disk. Every track evokes the life and times of Philadelphia, none more poignantly than this short reflection. See also “History of Where Someone Has Been Killed”, “The Catfisherman”, “Christian Street”.
* Neko Case: “Thrice All American” – an almost apologetic song about Tacoma, WA
* B.J. Thomas: “Everybody’s Out of Town” – recently suggested by a friend. A sardonic take on the abandonment of the inner city.
* Talking Heads: “The Big Country” – David Byrne looks down on the suburbs from an airplane and dryly declares that “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.” I hear ya, bro.
* Rush: “Subdivisions” – those long, drawn-out synth notes capture the essential emptiness of growing up in the ‘burbs

People might also suggest “Big Yellow Taxi”, but it’s a bit too chipper for the moods I’m circling around with this set.


Preservation in a global economy

My interest in historic preservation comes from some fairly simple origins: namely, I have seen far too many beautiful buildings torn down. I see it and I am outraged, because I know we cannot and will not ever build such things again. They cannot be replaced.

South side

“Historic preservation” is a double misnomer, for me personally. I’m rarely interested in buildings as an embodiment of a specific history. If history gives further ammunition for the conservation of a beautiful building, then so be it; but what I’m really and truly interested in is creating and maintaining beautiful urban places. And I don’t want to see buildings preserved – locked in amber – but put to new and productive uses. Too often I feel that preservationists looking to save a building float pie-in-the-sky notions of museums, community centers, and other non-enterprises that cost money instead of generating it. I want old buildings to be living parts of the current and future economy.

South side

Lately, over the last year or so, I’ve often felt a growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness over the fates of countless minor buildings and forgotten neighborhoods, places left behind by the vagaries of progress. I try to envision a future that would return life to these buildings. Amid a struggling economy, a global economic downturn, rising competition from overseas, and an American culture that is both increasingly insular and wracked with paranoid fears over its physical safety, I cannot do it.

South side

If you use to take a virtual flight over older city neighborhoods, you’ll see a pattern of scale. Everything we build today is gigantic. Gigantic schools go into old neighborhoods, and they’re surrounded by tiny little houses on tiny lots. Goliath size vs. fine grain. The notion of acceptable size in America has inflated to the point of ludicrousness. I try to envision a modern chain store adapting to the fine-grained construction of the historic city – a Wal-Mart inserting itself into a dozen side-by-side storefronts. It’s a nice fantasy, but try to sell it to corporate reps who are beholden to a particular development model.


It is a sad fact, little recognized but indisputable, that construction is the province of the wealthy. It takes serious money to build or renovate something, even with a heavy investment of sweat equity. And so the poor, or those of simply less-than-average means, wind up with the leftovers and the off-castings of the above-average. Today this means that the jobless are stranded in neighborhoods like this. Tomorrow it might mean that they are living in deteriorating suburban ranch houses. But neither bodes well for the future of surviving buildings in collapsing neighborhoods.

These problems are all interrelated. Overmassive scale, awful places, nemployment, sluggish economy, beauty allowed to rot, people left behind. If all the effort we’ve expended in the last 60 years in flinging ourselves further and further apart from one another were instead redirected into building up our cities as the dense, beautiful, walkable, humane places they once were on track to becoming, we’d all be better off.

A brief pause

I try to keep a regular schedule for posting, but with the holidays underway and family obligations pulling me this way and that, I need to take a short break. I’ll be back at it come January.

Till then, thanks to everyone who’s been reading (and especially those who have been commenting) this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have!

In the mean time, have a few older photos that reflect the current weather.

River bridge

Lobby of light

Weather Bell in the weather

Green Line pulling out

Federal Center Plaza and Post Office

From the EL

Friday Photo Special: Critical Mass, August

Leaving Daley Plaza

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Critical Mass. This was my second time riding in one, but I’m familiar enough with the dynamic from the LATE Ride and other such events. Inevitably, when you get thousands of bikers riding en masse on city streets, some conflicts with drivers occur.


I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I can totally sympathize with a bunch of angry, stressed out drivers slogging through traffic, trying to get somewhere, maybe late for a date or a meeting or a train or a flight, and then getting held up through multiple green lights by this mass of bikers going nowhere.

On the flip side… well, how many of these drivers really have somewhere so important to be that it can’t wait five minutes? It’s a good thing to get pulled out of your little driver world every once in a while. Driving is not the be-all end-all of tasks in life, and cars do not have exclusive rights to public streets.

Anyway, Critical Mass is generally a joyous occasion, full of thousands of happy bikers. At some kind of tipping point, don’t sheer numbers give them the right of way?

But if there’s one true flaw with Critical Mass, it’s that it just doesn’t ever stop itself to let some traffic pass. At all. Considering the mass of riders can be strung out for many, many blocks, it’s not very fair to drivers to make them sit through the whole thing. It’s small wonder that a handful get impatient and start nosing their way into intersections, resulting in the inevitable and pointless confrontations.

View large to see two more bridges' worth of cyclists

All that said? Riding in this enormous group is a heck of a lot of fun.


This was the coolest thing on this ride – a newlywed couple getting their photos made, who happily got out into the middle of the street to mingle with the passing bikers.

Happy bride

The driver blew the whistle for us!


Holy crap, Western Avenue!


Additional photos at my Flickr space.

Friday Photo Special: The LATE Ride rides again!

Shots from the 2010 LATE Ride, Saturday night / Sunday morning July 10/11:



I’m not sure how this contraption operated, but it was slow. After I finished the entire ride, and was heading back north on the bike path — now totally empty — I passed this crew, still struggling toward downtown, waaaay up north at Montrose. There were 7 of them on the bike, plus a few more festively lit bikers riding with them, so I guess they couldn’t have been too lonely.

West on Roosevelt.

North on Halsted.

South on the lake front bike path.


I love the LATE Ride. And it’s about the only time I ever see the sun rise over the lake.

More photos here.

Lawn ornament extreme

The urge to decorate is, I suspect, fundamental to the human psyche. People like stuff. They like to personalize and elaborate and accumulate. Guys like Mies and Gropius were, truth be told, fighting a losing battle.





Some folks, however, take their decorating more seriously than others. Some lawn decoration is just that, bits of stuff scattered and arranged here and there about the back yard or front lawn. Sometimes, however, it becomes part of the building, as with this whimsically decorated house on Asbury in Evanston.





And sometimes, the decoration can overtake the house entirely, redefining it, as with this building in Ukraine Village.



That’s the House of Crosses, alternately know as the “It’s what I do” house. Sadly, most of this 20-year accumulation of art was removed in 2007.

For my money, though, nothing quite tops this custom-sculpted facade reworking at 6011 S. Ashland. The building and lot belong to a towing company. How they wound up with such a wonderfully decorated building is a mystery.


Machines for Living


It’s not just that the occupants of this Northbrook home own three vintage cars. Nor is it the fact that all three cars, including a 1964 Imperial, a 1966 Chrysler Newport, and a 1966 Chrysler New Yorker, are operational.


No, it’s the fact that they park them in front of a set of patterned Midcentury garage doors of the exact same vintage as the cars themselves that makes me grin with delight every time I see it. Long may they run!