The week of May 16, 2004, three rusty attached barges bearing earth, earth movers, and dump trucks appeared in Lake Michigan at 57th Street. Later, another barge filled with rocks anchored in the lake further out. A tugboat appears periodically to take away the barges or return them. Sometimes it stays with them, and sometimes it disappears. The other night at 9:20 p.m., it suddenly left the three docked barges and motored out to the anchored one.
The earth movers and dump trucks drive down a ramp at the end of the nearest barge and are working to fill in the beach and shore at 57th Street, which apparently was diminished by the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive. When the boat and barges disappeared for a few days, I thought that was the end of them, but they come back regularly. On my walks and from my window I can see only a little of what they are doing; now there is a narrow strip of dirt, and I’ve seen the movers plopping rocks into the water near the shore. How much irreplaceable fuel is being used to rebuild the shoreline?
At the same time, work has been more or less completed on the 57th Street underpass under Lake Shore Drive, with the landscaping and tidying up being the largest tasks that remain. There is dirt everywhere, even encroaching on the Chicago Park District building that looks so quaint in the dusty rays of a late afternoon sun.
On May 22, Chuck Schaden and Ken Alexander of Those Were the Days discussed a mid-1940s Chicago newspaper and how a Fays Drugstore at a certain address was mentioned. Although they were familiar with the area, neither could remember it. It doesn’t matter; it is long gone, most likely replaced by a succession of other stores or businesses. Sixty years later, it’s possible the building itself has been replaced once or even twice. In his Nostalgia Digest magazine, Chuck recently showed the view down Madison Street from a certain intersection decades ago and today. Then, it was crowded with buildings and commerce. Today, there is more open space, although it looks like it is barren open space, that is, not attractive or used.
Our nature is to be restless and industrious, so we continually remake the world. Buildings are torn down; new ones take their place. I once picked up a book that showed dozens of wonderful buildings in Chicago that have been demolished and usually replaced by a modern horror of a structure. In some cases, the old buildings were in disrepair or disuse, or were no longer suited to the present day’s purposes. Some were too much of a reminder of passing elegance and splendour. Many others were torn down simply for the sake of something new; in the 20th century, there seems to have been a heady sense that new and modern were better than anything that had come before. In Chicago, the fire fueled the fascination with new, since the city’s core had to be rebuilt. The 1933 World’s Fair — A Century of Progress — demonstrated the people’s pride in modern accomplishment.
The Museum of Science and Industry, originally built in 1893 as the Palace of Fine Arts for the Columbian Exposition, has of course changed. A space museum and IMAX theater were added, and the parking lot was moved underground (there’s no longer blinding glare off hundreds of windshields). Today, an exhibit is under construction to house the U-505 submarine captured from the Germans in the Pacific, which had been outside since the early 1950s when it was first brought to the museum and which had deteriorated in the elements.
Change is not always bad. The new sub exhibit will preserve a piece of history, and the underpass is convenient and wide enough for bikers. The other night, though, as the sun was setting and the layers of colours in the sky lightened from gray blue to rose to pale blue, I looked at the downtown skyline silhouetted against the subtle shades. And I wondered what people would have seen 500 years ago. Land. Trees. Grasses. But then they would have not seen anything from the place on which I was standing, Promontory Point, because it did not exist until relatively recently, when part of the lake was filled in to create it. It’s since been damaged by seiches and nature, so the city of Chicago and the Hyde Park neighborhood are fighting over how best (and affordably) to “fix” it, with the city’s choice being barren concrete steps and the neighborhood’s preference being limestone, similar to what is there now.
Remaking the world. And so it goes on and on. No one can know what changes 100 years will wreak on the landscape. And in the human heart that lies behind the changes.