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Alan Machin's Blog - August 2009

Image: Blog header - Augut 2009

Scroll to the bottom of the page if you want to read my account in chronological order.

Image: Santa Cruz scenes

Santa Cruz


Famous along the California coast and in the cinema, Santa Cruz is the beach and boardwalk home of funnel cake and deep fried twinkies, You can have saltwater taffee and kettle korn. There's an indoor carousel and an outdoor big dipper, and above all in every sense the chair lift that featured in the horror movie "The Lost Boys". There is a beach and a pier, lots of hotels and motels and all kinds of restaurants and snack bars. This is one of America's great resorts, popular and nostalgically embedded in the national psychology. What a place to discover the past, the present - and maybe the future of the noisy and brash tourism scene on the Pacific coast of the USA. Futuristic electronic wizardry lives alongside the switchback railway. Security men armed with handguns carry away the cash that is taken on the stalls and sideshows. How will the seaside society of this century shape up? Santa Cruz is going to show the way.

Image: Pictures of Californian life

Pretty As A Picture


I guess we all do it. We take holiday snaps of the nice things we want to remember: family, friends, beautiful scenes. Those are the kind of images tourism promoters choose to show - which is not surprising. They might pick a dramatic scene to illustrate a ghost walk, a scene of a famously dark event such as a battle or crime, but most of their graphic art will be of the nice, the positive and the attractive.

So here is California, pretty as a picture, as an artist in water colours might present it. Most landscape art has been promotional in one way or another. Artists have to earn a crust or two so they paint what sells, to patrons, gallery owners or someone commissioning their work in a particular cause. Some landscapes might be made dramatic, as in 'Goredale Scar' by J M W Turner or Albert Bierstadt's 'The Oregon Trail'. Both were meant to impress and attract.

So here are some Californian views as a reminder of the image-making nature of painting ... er ... actually, photography. It would be nice to claim artistic skills, but these are photos processed by Corel Painter 4 software to look like water colours. You can't trust anyone these days with the ability to enhance, convert and process their happy snaps. On the other it is worth pointing out that image-enhancing tourism promotion does economic development efforts a power of good. "Where people want to visit, other people want to live. Where people want to live, other people want to set up businesses .... "

Image: Roaring Camp Railroad composite

Fascinatin’ Rhythm


No longer do we wait at stations like Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street, Mow Cop and Scholar Green or Millers Dale for Tideswell, anticipating the arrival of the slow train. Gone are the days when steam ruled the rails around the world and our children and grandchildren will never have the thrill of seeing a steam locomotive hauling a train of coaches alongside our platform. That and toast made on a coal fire are the great losses of everyday life to be mourned. Except in a steam preservation project where live steam and warm oil provide the hisses and smells of a different way of transportation.

Thankfully many small boys grew up into men who really could be engine drivers, conductors and railroad staff of all descriptions, and thankfully a lot of small girls have joined them. Who says steam engines are a man thing? As long as I have known it they are a woman thing too, just as fascinated by the rhythms of linking gear and wheels as anyone. Whether they get on the hallowed footplate is another matter. Arguments about the historical role of women in the church and the steam railway are very similar.

The contrasts with modern ways offered by a steam-powered operation draw our interest immediately. The bigger the difference, the more things that are different, the better. So to British eyes the Roaring Camp Railroad in Felton, California, is a primary delight. The sun is shining, the weather warm. At the covered bridge entrance an old-timer welcomes everyone, asking “where you folks from?” It’s a pleasant greeting with an opportunity for a chat with someone local. The heritage of this lumber-camp operation is on show, albeit cleaned up and shorn of back-breaking labour. Mind you, Europeans will be greeted each time with a bit of leg pulling about the amount of time we get on vacation compared with the yanks. Jokes can be recycled, too.

There is a huge difference between riding open wagons on this tourist railroad and spending long hours cutting down trees and loading logs. In hardly any sense can you ‘step back in time’ in that phrase beloved of marketing men. (And women). As in a book, a theatre play or a movie, tourist attractions like these museum pieces present us with some picture of the past, some kind of idea of what it used to be like. Heritage critics can often be found praising dramatic productions for helping to make more understandable aspects of our history. It’s a form of unthinking hypocrisy if we are honest. The sights, sounds and smells of the locomotive at work and the sensations of being hauled in wagons through those redwood forests, hearing and seeing also the reactions of other passengers along the way, cannot be replicated in book or film. It is like being centre-stage in a theatrical event, going through the theatre proscenium into the midst of the action, being in a small way part of it. Long may it thrive.

I should add that that locomotive is a Shay class B, built by the Lima Works in Ohio. The three steam cylinders are placed vertically on the right-hand side of the unit and drive the wheels through shafts and gears, not linking rods. These were narrow-gauge locos, useful in the twists and turns of mountain country where speed was not essential. They could handle steeper grades as the wheels tended to slip less, although they also had a tendency to fail to respond to curves quickly enough on occasion. The Roaring Camp was a noisy lumber camp – its name is from its working days – and the hour-long ride twists about as it climbs and descends Bear Mountain within quite a small distance from the home station. It has the interest of a switchback where the train reverses over points (turnouts) to climb further, then again runs forward over another set of points while climbing to the top of the run. A curving trestle bridge at Indian Creek allows good views from the open wagons of the ‘Dixiana’ or ‘Sonora’ locos at work. Excess team is blown out with a satisfying road as intervals. A conductor uses a discrete public address system to describe the whole operation in a well-polished, informative way. Riding in open wagons beats using closed coaches any day. It’s much more fun to watch a locomotive than ride behind with little view of what it is doing. At Roaring Camp you get everything – and pretty much guaranteed good weather on every summer visit as well.

[Those British railway stations mentioned were recalled in the delightfully nostalgic 'Slow Train' song by Flanders and Swann].

Image: Roaring Camp Railroad composite 2


Image: Henry Cowell State Park - interpretation

Visitor Experiences Need Management


It might be a nice place to visit, but most people won't know the full story of the forest - it's trees, animals and other plant life, its history and its present-day events. Visitors also have to be managed because the forest has to be managed - unless it is to be left completely wild with no human access encouraged. That means making sure visitors don't do damage by wandering everywhere - their footsteps have to be concentrated along footpaths along which heavy wear is tolerated. Fencing is needed, or some other form of channeling. Visitor numbers can be influenced by adjusting the level or promotion and external signposting, and car parking provided or discouraged. There might be an argument for imposing an entry charge or timed tickets.

It might sound patronising to say that visitors need educating, but its true - I do as much as anyone unless I really know this environment and its activity. Visitor centres stock information and books or leaflets to take home. In them, questions can be asked and behaviour influenced by careful information panels. And, of course, toilets and refreshment areas might be made available.

In the Henry Cowell Park leaflets are also available from dispensers - a contribution to the cost is requested. The leaflet describes the trail and what it has to show using numbered markers matching the leaflet's content. Some interpretive panels and information plaques have been installed. (Information is counted as basic labelling, interpretation as supplying in-depth knowledge and understanding through text and graphics). There are many communication methods which could be used, all with their advantages and disadvantages. Good interpretive planning is an essential part of the management of sustainable, and informative, environments.


Image: Redwoods forest family composite

Redwood Forest In Every Sense


Walking amongst the redwoods of the Henry Cowell State Park gives a sense of sylvan majesty at the same time as one of human intimacy. All around the trail are the giant trees stretching to well above two hundred feet. These redwoods can be hundreds of years old. Yet this s not a place of crowds and noise like the steam railroad attraction nearby. Families walk through the forest in the peacefulness of the beautiful environment. It’s a place to walk slowly, chat softly, gazing in wonder.

Here the colours are browns and greens. The Californian sun shines down through the forest canopy. Shafts of sunlight strike each glade, making the leaves of small bushes shine as though they are luminous. Spiders’ webs hang bright between small branches with their owners waiting patiently for their next meal. One huge tree is hollow – a family can crawl inside, look up through the trunk into its dark, natural chimney within. Fallen timber weathers and rots, is colonised by plants and insects busy regenerating the woodland. Ferns spread out their fronds to counterpoint in green the dark red-browns of the trees.

The sense of sight is not enough here, powerful though it is. The sense of hearing is important: quiet footsteps, the gentle forest life and the conversation of visitors are important. There are the scents of earth, wood and plants. There is the rough texture of tree trunks contrasting with soft undergrowth and smooth paths of packed earth broken here and there with roots and grasses. Taste is the sense we do not use here, unless like children we take a twig or grass blade to chew. It would give us another sensation of this place and its natural wonders waiting to be explored. The film screen, the travel book, cannot supply what our own senses feed to us here. No classroom can substitute for the real experience of walking through the woods with every sense engaged.

Image: Schoolboy exploring

Exploring Worlds Real And Imagined


Add a few years to the last little chap’s age and we might get someone at the beginning of the school years and a very different kind of guy. He knows what things are and the basics of where he is – home, neighbourhood, new school, shops, countryside and coast – if he’s lucky enough to live near one. That’s not to stop him building imaginary castles where he wants them and conjuring up any manner of creatures and characters, which is all to the good. So visiting places which are very different from each other is a stimulating experience.

OK – the dinosaur is a toy, at home ... but just imagine it crashing through those forests you saw ... or are they on the forest moon of Endor with Star Wars’ speeder bikes flashing through ... their riders might look a bit like sand-dune buggy riders on the Californian coast – junior is in protective gear against the blowing sand, picture three. Such narratives of science fiction as Star Wars are – fiction, but visiting science centres are reality that will inspire the imagination – picture 2. On the other hand, dad explains to junior about redwood forests using some handy visitor interpretation feature such as the one at the start of a forest walk outside Santa Cruz, California. That might lead to ideas about speeder bike chases, early surveys of the Californian coast, or the life of the giant redwoods. All are possible in the minds of a six-year old doing some well chosen travelling.

[Photos 1-3 - Dave Machin]

Image: Explorations composite 1

Junior Explorers


On to California and some family visiting ...

“Got to start somewhere ... the back yard is a good place ... what can I do with these shapes? ... oh, hi, mom – put one on top of the other and make a tower? ... Hey, that’s cool – this yard could do with a bit of good architecture”

“It’s a big space ... bigger than my play room ... will my truck go everywhere? ... Let’s see, if I push it and let go ... boy! It goes all over the concrete ... won’t run on the grass, though”

“What’s this – a playground? ... what can I do today, dad? ... have fun on a slide? Wow! ... How? ... up those steps, huh? ... then sit on the edge, push off and – wheeeee! ... That’s fun! I’ll do it again!”

Image: Explorations composite 2

Just you wait, in no time at all he’ll be off to the park, out to the beach, riding to the rodeo ... walking the boards at Santa Cruz and the trails in the mountains ... seeing seagulls, elephant seals, redwood trees, the steam locomotives at Roaring Camp and the Chinese Restaurant in San Francisco. Give him time and he’ll be off to Europe to find out about the Romans and fish and chips!

The first stage of discovery is with mom and dad and the other people around. Then comes moving about, being mobile, becoming a traveller, seeing for himself. After a while those TV pictures will start to make sense as he gets to fit them into the picture of his own little world that he is beginning to explore. That’s stage three. Stage four will be schooling, classroom teaching, but that’s a little way off yet and it will only last a few years. Exploring, reading, viewing, all those travelling and mass-communication things, they’ll go on for a life time. Junior will learn about himself, develop new skills, find new places and begin to understand what it’s all about.

Image: Chicago details

It's The Details As Well As The Landmarks


Many an artist, writer - or city planner - will say it getting the details right that makes the difference. Character and quality are seen by visitors in the small details they encounter as well as in the huge prestige projects. What makes the city of Bath so attractive is partly the honey-coloured stone used consistently in the early crescents and circuses. Paris is partly one of the world's finest cities because, with one or two exceptions, it keeps a tight grip on maximum building heights, sight lines and styles. Disney World is popular in part because it is micro-managed to a high level in every aspect - design, maintenance and activities.

No major city can control everything and even if it could the disparate nature of the competing interests within it would mean there could be no unity of design or activity. Someone will find a way to make their own building really noticeable - Paris has its Montparnasse Tower for example, its own sore thumb sticking up in an otherwise healthily attractive setting. Bath has the Hilton Hotel, a 1970s monstrosity that has been controversial ever since it was built.

Both the Hilton hotel and the Montparnasse Tower are mega-mistakes. What I started this posting about was the good detail of different sizes. Chicago has ugliness. Some of that ugliness might not look ugly to everyone. We all make our own judgments. In the photos above the bridge is probably ugly to most people, yet it is of the essence of the Chicago River area and its history and as such is special. And characterful. And perhaps ought never be replaced by a more modern, graceful structure that could be found anywhere. The other pictures show various details old and new, large and small. They contribute - along with hundreds of others - to the city's character. The ceiling is one in the Marshall Field Store (now May's) and was designed by the famous glass maker Louis Comfort Tiffany. It has 1.6 million pieces of glass mosaic and took eighteen months to complete. The oval object is Anish Kapoor's 'Cloud Gate', a 66-foot long, highly polished shape which reflects the city and its people in a distorted but attractive way. The sign is on the famous Chicago Theatre and has been seen numerous times in films and TV. All contribute to the sense of interest that the city has.

Image: From Willis Tower's observation deck

The High Points Of The Visit


The observation deck on Willis Tower (the former Sears Tower) is officially called the Skydeck and is at floor 103, which is to my reckoning 102 floors up as we Brits think of it. From the ground floor you take a lift - elevator - a short way up where there is a queue - or line! - leading to a video presentation about the Tower. Then some more queuing before entering another lift. It was a bit surprising to hear what sounded like a militaristic order to stand well in and face forward from the floor attendant, but the point was that above the doors an LCD screen gave information about the Tower and how high you had got. A commentary added more.

We spilled out of the lift onto the Skydeck. Even though a lot of people were up there the floor space accommodated people easily and gave as much time as was needed to see the view. Rain that morning had cleared and gradually the sun appeared. Distant mist still obscured what I had hoped would have been a view of Indiana round the curve of the Lake.

Seeing Chicago from up there was quite an experience with all sorts of details of buildings, highways, railroads and the river. You can take in far more of the city than you can possibly see in even several days and take time studying it rather than nipping past at ground level in a taxi. Willis Tower is a rival of the John Hancock Centre Tower, but is probably a bit better placed near the central downtown. I had tried to get up to the John Hancock observation deck the day before. I went up to a level near the top in a lift only to find it was a restaurant. The observation deck was one floor below. How do I get down a floor? I asked a manager. "You have to go back to the ground floor and take a different lift back up to the observation deck. It's a different company" she replied. I had run out of time being due at the baseball game, so gave up on big John.

On one side of the Willis Skydeck three glass cubes have been built out so you can stand in them and look between you feet right down to street level. In the city observation deck business it's essential to get an edge on the competition if there is any, and in Chicago there is. One effect of the loss of the New York World Trade Centre was to leave the Empire State Building with a monopoly on viewing the city. For hundreds of years city fathers round the world have realised the usefulness of having a high viewing point over their domains - castles, cathedrals, towers, office buildings have all served. I guess it was the Eiffel Tower that introduced the real business of going up in the built environment as part of the tourist trade.

Image: View east from Willis Tower

City Attractions


Quite a lot in Chicago. A lot of a lot, in fact. Better than NY, SF, LA, LV or SD? All matters of personal judgement. Chicago does well, though. From the Willis Tower (once Sears Tower) you can see how many of them group well along the Lake Shore Drive, several in easy walking distant like the Aquarium, Planetarium, Field Museum, Arts Centre (Center?) of Chicago, Navy Pier, and others. The Zoo is further north and the Museum of Science and Industry further south, and there are lots more scattered round. Its the compact arrangement, close to transport (the 'El' overhead railway, the subway and railroads), shops and restaurants that I like. Are they all perfect? No: the sublime Field Museum used to display the cultural range of native Americans so well but has removed displays in favour or eye-catching but fewer in number big exhibits. The Museum of Science and Industry features prominently a very large doll's house. Science and Industry? But these are generally quibbles in the discussion of Chicago's cultural scene. And there is a life and spirit around Grant Park and its neighbours that other cities should envy.

Image: Marina City Chicago

Marina City


The two office towers of the John Hancock Building and Willis Tower are icons of modern Chicago with the Hancock structure perhaps the leading symbol. By the way, Willis Tower used to be called Sears Tower until the London insurance group leased a large amount of floor space and gained the right to rename it. A pity in one sense and doubtless Chicagoans are upset, but it's worth remembering that others have changed their names over the years - the Chicago Daily News Building is now the Riverside Plaza and the Builders Building is now more prosaically known as 222 North La Salle St Building.

In many ways Marina City, close to Michigan Avenue Bridge on the north side of the Chicago River is a much more interesting candidate for the city's special icon. It is much more distinctive than an office skyscraper in that it is consists of two towers that some people liken to the kind of corn cobs grown in the mid West, and there are no other buildings remotely like them. Second, Marina City made a conscious effort to relate to the river and lake by having a marina included besides car parking. The car parking facilities are also distinctive as the photographs show. An effort was made to incorporate affordable housing - 900 apartments with offices, a theatre, restaurants and other recreational facilities. In 1967 when Marina City opened the towers were the tallest reinforced concrete structures in the world. But it is the inventiveness of the shape that catches the idea, well placed on the river which allows a sweep of viewing points giving it excellent visibility.

Image: Chicago White Sox v NY Yankees composite

At The Ball Park


In this case, US Cellular Field for a Whitesox game against New York Yankees. People did say I should try for a game ay Wrigley field as it is more historic, but there was no match on.

I almost called this posting "Chicago: The Musical". As someone with no knowledge of baseball (or any other sports really speaking) what I wanted to get was the atmosphere and experience. Someone said afterwards that the crowd is as interesting as the game - no, she was not a baseball fan - and that was true. It was three and a bit hours, though the time did not drag. I thought Americans didn't like drawn out games? They look staggered at the idea of a five-day cricket match. Baseball doesn't seem to me to have the combination of concentrated drama and movement
that soccer has, for example. Soccer is sport's equivalent of ballet well choreographed. The White Sox game stopped and started, Teams changed places, came in from the field and spread out again in turn. The pitcher pitched and the striker hit out, and if he was lucky the ball went somewhere useful. Otherwise it might shoot straight up in the air or at a tangent into the crowd, which must be what having round baseball bats does for you. With a good hit the batsman could run to the next base or further. Twice a White Sox player got a home run which brought the spectators to their feet and a barrage of maroons fired with pleasing explosions high into the air behind the scoreboard. But for a Brit with limited knowledge of the game it was slightly mystifying to see a batter walk casually to the next base with nobody trying to mow him down with an automatic weapon.

The comment about the crowd proved very true. There was the obvious family-day-out-at-the-ball-park element beloved of yankee folklore. But that also meant that all round me in the high stands there were kids and partners looking very bored. Often, the action on the field was, shall we say, less than nail-biting? At least, that seemed to be the view of everyone there as they talked, yawned, stretched, wandered round to buy beer, burgers and fries and peanuts. At the end of the game the concrete tiers of the seating were covered in a carpet of nut shells and cardboard food trays.

What made the experience memorable was that it was a well-organised, cheerful, entertaining occasion. From the friendly guy at the ticket booth ("give my regards to the Queen when you see her") to the volunteer helping direct traffic out afterwards, everyone was direct and good-humoured. Two or three young males in the stand decided to exchange
insults about their respective teams in a way that began to get heated, even angry. Others around treated them with amusement rather than joined in to the argument. Some European crowds might have erupted in a violent scrimmage within minutes, but not here. It could have happened. However, within a few minutes two informally dressed, but headset-equipped security men arrived. One stepped over empty seating and had a quite word in the ear of the one who had started it, and all was peaceful again.

The entertainment level in american sport is, of course, renowned. American football has it to the nth degree with bands, cheerleaders and fireworks. Here there was less of that - no bands or prancing pompom girls, but those mortars set off when home runs occurred. What they did major on were the electronic display screens. These showed photos several feet high of each player as they came to bat, each adopting heroic poses for their particular fans. Statistics abounded, many of which were meaningless to me beyond a few wild guesses. Then long, strip screens around the stadium canopies flashed up slogans exhorting the home team to do better (nothing if not partisan here) with words like "Charge!" accompanied by bars of martial music or fox-hunting horn calls. Part way through the crowd - well, actually a minority of it - sang the baseball anthem "Take me to the ball game", and little later a young lady standing at the edge of the field but seen and heard much larger than life on the display screen sand an arrangement of the American national anthem. It probably went down very well with the patriots there and quite well with the pop-music fans amongst the younger crowd, but at the risk f creating an international incident I have to say I found it excruciating in delivery though not in sentiment. Music, expertly chosen, edited and delivered, underscored the whole event.

At the end of the afternoon as I joined the 38,000 spectators streaming out, I felt I had just enjoyed "Chicago: The Musical" as much as a sporting occasion.

Image: Chicago people

People Of The Place


Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is a painting hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago. It was painted in 1930/2 and depicts a farmer from Iowa and his daughter – or is it has wife? – her identity is said not be clear. The portrait, controversial with Iowa folk when they saw it, has become one of the most famous American paintings, much copied with other faces and backgrounds. A very lifelike (if oversize) sculpture of the two stands on Michigan Avenue near the river. This version is by J Seward Johnson and completed in 2005. It is an exact presentation of the two figures with none of the painted background but a suitcase with travel labels plastered over it at their feet. Have they just arrived from Eldon, Iowa at the start of a world tour?

A more traditional style of sculpture is that of George Washington shaking hands with Robert Morris and Haym Salomon, two of the principal financiers of the American War of Independence. It was a product of the 1930s like the painting by Grant Wood. It stands on East Wacker Avenue.

The seated figure is a modern representation of a pirate, advertising an exhibition at Chicago’s Field Museum. The slave ship Whydah was captured by pirates after delivering African slaves to Jamaica in 1716. It then became a pirate hip.

Jack Brickhouse was a famous sports broadcaster working for Chicago’s WGN-TV. He was known especially for his baseball commentaries. Brickhouse died in 1998: the memorial to him is close to Seward Johnson’s farming couple and is by Jerry McKenna in 2000. Would the farmer have listened to his game-calling? – and bought by mail order from Chicago’s Sears Roebuck store?

Image: Chicago - transport icons

Transport Focal Point


Chicago's strength as a city relied on its transport networks in every era. Though well in to the heart of North America it was early on an important port, being on the Great Lakes, and with opening of the St Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s there was a clear route to the Atlantic Ocean. Then the whole of the Mississippi system to the west is accessible by the Chicago River and a canal link to the great central river. The real growth came with railroads built by competing companies which drove lines west to tap the trade of the city before stretching out for the Pacific coast through the great plains. Chicago's markets, shops and especially mail order systems were able to send goods by railroad to the thousands of towns springing up to the west. Travellers of all descriptions moved through stations like Union Station (second from left, above) which were built to impress, and of course tourists followed from the late nineteenth century onwards. Even automobiles streamed through from east to west and back again. Early twentieth century accounts by people like Emily Post and Sinclair Lewis were read in book form and inspired others to follow. The legendary Route 66 begins in Grant Park and runs west to Los Angeles. O'Hare Airport was for long the busiest US hub and is still one of the country's most important for tourists and travellers of all kinds.

Image: Chicago - beautification

Pretty City


There is a nice feeling of spaciousness to the best area of Chicago - that between Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue on the edge of Lake Michigan. A series of parks runs almost without a break from Lincoln Park in the north, across the river, to Jackson Park in the south. Though the scale is different, Michigan Avenue is a little like Edinburgh's Prince's Street - high buildings on one side and park on the other with cultural centres set within it. Of course Edinburgh has the Old Town on the other side of the park while Chicago has the Lake.

Both cities use the parks for public space, well used. Chicago has museums, an aquarium, performance areas, art galleries, a sports stadium, a planetarium, statues and installations, zoo, funfair and several gardens, which should be enough to keep anyone happy.

Buckingham Fountain is in Grant Park. It has 133 water jets, one of which shoots water 150 feet into the air. Each summer evening hourly shows by coloured lights and music run by a computer system for twenty minutes.

The floral displays in the parks are outstanding. One delight is that they continue into some streets nearby - along the Chicago River where a riverside walkway is being completed, and up the Magnificent Mile, which is Michigan Avenue on the north side of the river.


Image: Chicago composite - Hard Rock Hotel

Just Blown In To The Windy City


They called it the Windy City because it was always blowing its own trumpet, not because of the breeze coming in across Lake Michigan. And it is still doing it: at O’Hare Airport an announcement leads the way talking about the place being a candidate city for the 2016 Olympic Games. Large hanging banners reinforce the message. Downtown smaller versions repeat the theme. And along the roads out of the airport colourful hanging baskets and flower beds remind that the Olympic race is on and Chicago, leading city of the mid-west, is the US hope for the Games that will follow London’s marathon effort.

We are so used to electronic media turning advertising puffs into gales that we forget that since people first staggered from one cave to find a better cave the quality of the surroundings has always been of prime importance. Which is why Chicago built skyscrapers to rival those of New York, bigger, better and more beautiful. Well, that last quality is a matter of opinion and some people hate high buildings, full stop. Chicago didn’t always succeed, of course. There is a heaviness of style about some of the older ones which is depressing. The Federal Trade Centre looms over West Quincy Street with a Grecian-style bank and the Rookery office building facing each other across Quincy just in front. The overall effect is like a Manhattan street canyon – which might be what they wanted – but one which is overpowering. No wonder it was used for the backdrop for that Kevin Spacey/Sean Connery gangster flick “The Untouchables”, with four machine-gun toting agents looking menacingly at any Al Capones in the audience. But this is old Chicago. It’s still around and well known, but there is much more to the city than that and always has been. It’s a highly attractive place. The folks are friendly. They’re certainly proud and think that they are better, really than New York ... and maybe they’re right. Just about on balance, with quite a lot of caveats, I rather think Chicago is my favourite American city. It’s a theme I will explore a little in the next few postings.

Here is an example in the photos above. Pictured from next to Lake Michigan the skyline is attractive with a mix of fine buildings old and new. It is approachable in every sense, here by walking across parkland and Michigan Avenue, an environment of attractive gardens, statues and sculptures and a series of high quality art centres, open air theatre spaces, museums and sports areas. For over a hundred years Chicago has invented and re-invented itself. Catastrophes, corruption and crime have marked the city frequently, but often the result has been to make astonishing efforts to create a vibrant, attractive kind of metropolis with a lot to teach the rest of the world. For example: the Union Carbide Building, more properly titled the Carbon and Carbide Building, was completed in 1929 and designated a Chicago Landmark in 1996. The architects were said to have designed it to look like a green champagne bottle with gold foil round its neck. It stood as offices for Union Carbide and Carbon, an international firm of which the city will have been proud – but which unfortunately was responsible for a pesticides plant in Bhopal, India, where in 1984 forty tons of toxic gas were released into the atmosphere killing up to 10,000 people within three days and contributing to, according to some estimates, 25,000 more deaths since then. Union Carbide has quit the champagne-shape building and since 2004 it has been converted into the Hard Rock Hotel, where it can accommodate tourists anxious to explore a city which has its fair share of skeletons and trophies in its archives.

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