Fun fact: from 40,000 feet, you can see Indianapolis and Chicago at the same time.
That’s the Windy City and its southern suburbs at top left, about 150 miles distant, and downtown Indy at bottom-center. Photographed after flying out of St. Louis.
This is the Dan Ryan Expressway – I-90 / I-94 if you’re from out of town – with the Red Line CTA tracks running down the middle of it. Express lanes on the inside, locals on the outside. 14-plus lanes of concrete running north into downtown, very often jam-packed and ground to a total halt.
There are a handful of places in Chicago that let you capture, in an instant, the overwhelming scale of this place. This is one of them. This monstrously huge creation, designed to funnel tens of thousands of drivers in and out of the city every hour, gives a sense of how far and wide Chicago sprawls, how much land has been overlaid with its mighty street grid.
As you travel this awful highway, the beauty of the skyline beckons, ever closer till it is upon you. The highway is agony, but when you fight your way through it and disappear into that marvelous skyline, you know you’ve arrived somewhere worthwhile.
Whiting. Hammond. East Chicago. Calumet City. Pullman. Harvey. Dixmoor. Blue Island. Gary. As I slowly become more familiar with the southern reaches of Chicagoland, these names gain more and more resonance for me. Each speaks of strange contrasts, lands of tidy lawns and raw industry, urban decay and pastoral emptiness. It’s a land slightly mythologized by the movie Blues Brothers, whose grungy titular characters rarely ventured north of the Loop. It is a region that has worked hard and sacrificed much over the decades, the city’s blue collar underbelly, the engine that drove Chicago to its industrial peak, only to be abandoned and neglected when US industry began collapsing.
Despite the hard times, a lot of heavy industry remains here. The Port of Chicago operates here, receiving a steady trickle of Great Lakes freighters. And from Whiting, all the way into Michigan, a line of industrial sites makes Highway 912 one of the most amazing places on the planet.
The industrial sprawl once started much further north, within the Chicago city limits, at the site of the US Steel South Works, once the largest steel mill complex on the planet. That facility closed nearly two decades ago, and was leveled to the ground. With the subsequent demolition of the mills and factories along S. Torrence Avenue to the west, large-scale industry has mostly vanished from the Chicago City limits.
Despite the decline, even the most cursory overview of the industrial regions is a big undertaking. The action today, then, begins at the Chicago Skyway bridges, which soar to incredible heights to cross the Grand Calumet River.
Below the skyway bridges, a profusion of industrial sites loads ships and barges, as tugs and speedboats drift past. A trio of movable railroad bridges stands abandoned, their tracks long since torn up, too big and cumbersome to demolish.
After the Skyway bridges, one passes the looming State Line Generating Station, which sits just yards away from the Indiana/Illinois border.
Rolling on southward, you’ll pass a profusion of casinos, gas stations, medium industrial sites (including the sometimes overpowering smell of Lever soap being manufactured). This land is essentially one continuous urban development, but the “town” of Whiting is one of several here that has its own distinct main street and central business district. Whiting also abuts an enormous refining complex owned by British Petroleum.
The BP plant sprawls all the way up to the first of the steel mills, the huge facility of Ispat Inland Steel, built on a peninsula made of landfill. Crushed between the two complexes is the tiny planned workers’ village of Marktown, one of the most incredibly isolated residential neighborhoods you’re ever likely to find, and well worth a post of its own.
If there’s a center to all this insanity, it’s the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, which runs right through the center of the Ispat Inland complex, and is crossed by a dizzying array of bridges and overpasses.
Highway 912, aka Cline Avenue, provides an elevated view of the Inland Ispat complex, bringing you nose-to-nose with some of their gargantuan buildings and flying high above their grounds.
Cline Avenue turns away from the lake as it continues south, but the industrial sprawl continues. As soon as Ispat Inland’s reign ends, US Steel begins. US Steel is the reason Gary exists; they constructed the city as their own company town. Their mini-empire runs for miles along the lake, and consumes the vast majority of Gary’s lakefront.
US Steel’s Gary Works is frustratingly inaccessible. Multiple entry points are steadfastly guarded against such wayward rouges as photographers, explorers, and curiosity seekers.
Once you finally get past US Steel, the lakeshore of Gary is quite lovely, marking the beginning of the Indiana Dunes lakeshore park. Due to some Machiavellian bargaining back in the 1950s, part of the dunes was carved away to provide room for still more industry, another steel mill (likewise inaccessible) and a power plant at Michigan City that looms over some of the beaches.
It can be a shock to look back from east Gary’s waterfront and suddenly realize how far you’ve come from Chicago, whose skyline is 30 miles distant and barely visible across the lake. And it’s a bigger shock to realize the amount of industry you’ve passed along the way.
Last week, while traveling about, I decided to take a detour south of Touhy near O’Hare. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.
Sandwiched between Bryn Mawr, Cumberland, Lawrence, and East River Road is the largest concentration of Chicago’s distinctive MidCentury Modern developer style buildings that I have yet to find. It is essentially half a square mile of nothing but MidCentury — bungalo-style cottages to the south, 3-flats in the middle, 6-flat apartments to the north. The capstone is in the southeast corner, where St. Joseph’s Ukranian Catholic Church rises high above its surroundings (watch for a separate post on that, as soon as I can manage to get inside the place.)
What caught my attention on a followup visit was a theme I’ve noticed before — the simple creativity of the designers who planned all these nigh-identical buildings. You may think they all look alike, but truth be told you’d be hard pressed to find two that are actually identical.
There are numerous points of detail, each with several different options, offering perhaps hundreds of different options within the limited framework of the style.
A catalog of this one block of three-flats on Winnemac Avenue includes:
* Stone panel. Options: framed panel, or longer panel that wraps the building’s front corner. Total options: 2.
* Stone. Options: white, green, gray, brown. (All these 3-flats feature rubble stone, as opposed to the carved flagstone found elsewhere, which would add another 3-4 options. The stone also appears nearby in black, though not on this block.) Total: 4.
* Entryway decor. Options: small stone panel, 3 concrete blocks. (Not found on this block: the innumerable configurations of glass block used all across Chicago.) Total: 2.
* Front door. Options include at least 4 different highly ornate designs: tall double star, full-length triangle, paired diamonds, angled flower. There are at least a dozen more popular designs around Chicago. Total: 4.
* Storm door. Options: 3-panel, ironwork, standard. 3-panel comes in a rainbow of colors: clear, orange, green. It’s probably that more storm door (and front door) options have been lost to alterations over time. Total: 5.
* Ironwork canopy supports. Options: X-braced (more modern and geometric) or curli-cues (more organic, softer.) Curli-cues come in straight column or broad screen options. Matching balcony railings are optional if you have a flat canopy roof. Total: 4.
* Stairwell glass block. Options: full panel, 3 narrow panels. Like the entryway decoration, a nearly infinite range of block types, colors, sizes, and patterns can be found across Chicago. This block very conservatively restrains itself to two patterns, in a single block style (Sculpted Glass Module Leaf design.) Total: 2.
8527 W. Winnemac Avenue. Wrapping stone panels, brown stone, 3-paneled stairwell glass block, geometric canopy supports, standard storm door, large triangle front door, small stone panel entry decoration.
There are 26 3-flats on this block. But combining their different variations gives us 2 x 4 x 2 x 4 x 5 x 4 x 2 = 2,560 possible combinations.
Twenty-five hundred variations!!
Yeah, good luck finding two that are exactly alike!
If you asked me to tell you what Chicago looks like, I would tell you it looks like this: a thousand cars, a thousand streetlights, a thousand jumbled brick buildings, a thousand miles of sidewalk, all of it repeated without end till they disappear beyond the curve of the Earth.
Chicago is utterly Jeffersonian. Here there were no inconvenient hills or lakes or coasts to interfere with the perfect geometric grid of streets. The spirit of the westward expansion, of the surveyor’s hand wiping away the chaos of unordered nature, found perfect expression in flat, unbounded Chicago.
Chicago is very often not a pretty place. Its commercial arteries are often harsh and graceless expanses of concrete, seeming to lack any amenities like street trees. The city’s grid can be pitilessly rational, extending without curve or bend to the horizon, its progress demarcated with ruthless regularity by street lights, power lines, railroad tracks, mass-produced houses and apartments. If there is anything picturesque to be found in the city, it’s surely by accident.
Vast amounts of land in Chicago are given over to the functional, the necessary, the purely purposeful. The Interstates are vast rivers carving up sections of the city. Power plants create vast islands. Industrial swaths chew apart neighborhoods. Railroad embankments form unpassable barriers.
Yet this is also part of the city’s personality, for better or worse. This is a city that Does, that Makes, that Deals. The city may not always have time for nicities, but it’ll get the job done.
There is beauty and awe to be found in the city’s sheer size. On a scale unmatched anywhere between the coasts, Chicago stamped itself into being, an ever-growing machine devouring land and churning out city. Any common object you find in Chicago is repeated on an unimaginable scale — streets, light fixtures, houses, blocks.
Sometimes the result is graceless and ugly. The mind may well boggle at the sheer volumes of land consumed by the city, at just how many miles are layered with unrelenting cityscape.
But… look close. What is horrific in the aggregate may turn out to be composed of many beautiful little pieces.
And the raw, unmitigated ugliness is often an illusion. Step off the main arteries and you are likely to be submerged in an urban garden, lush street trees framing beautiful houses and gracious sidewalks.
…not to mention the famous bits downtown.
Within Chicago’s rigid framework, there is vast freedom — freedom to move, to travel, to settle, to carve a niche, to declare yourself and your individuality within the box.
There is always a horizon in Chicago. Even in the heart of the Loop, one can look down a street that recedes into infinity, and the lake is ever-present. Suspended between prairie and water, Chicago offers a horizon as vast as the sky, promising something new and different just out of sight — you just have to keep moving toward it.
Chicago has always had a penchant for doing things in bulk.
Find a formula that works, then run with it!
The only substantial difference between the two is that one has commercial space at the ground level, and the other doesn’t. Other than that, they’re both mass-produced low-rise masonry buildings with ornament unique to their time period. One relies on the skilled masons common to its era; the other relies on the mass-production of clean, modern materials that characterized its time period. One is in the suburbs, and one is in the city; however, they could change places pretty easily.
They’re both lovely in their way.