Chicago Shows How Change Brings New Life

Cities endure by adapting, mixing the permanent and the transitory into a cocktail that mimics the recipe of life. This week I loitered in Chicago, where I learned that skill half a lifetime ago.
The buildings have retained their shapes, but often not their purposes. The form of the cityscape looks familiar, but I can hear a flight attendant’s warning: “… contents may have shifted during our flight.”
The German restaurant my bride and I would visit once a week is now a Mexican restaurant. There’s a McDonald’s and a Walgreen’s now around the corner from our first apartment. Each is open 24 hours. I cannot tell you what each replaced. Maybe a radiator repair yard or a mom-and-pop upholstery shop. It wasn’t my mom or pop, and so I don’t remember.
Our favorite hot dog stand has survived. It used to brag about its 39 flavors of milk shakes. Now it has 61. (“Try our new Mountain Dew milkshake!”)
I find myself walking the streets, hunting for nostalgia amid all the newness. Like digging through other people’s recyclables, hoping to collect a few overlooked deposits. At a nickel apiece, only volume will make it worth the trouble. I’m collecting barely a pocketful of familiar sights. But I have to remember — nothing here is obligated to my memory. Hundreds and thousands are living their lives. This place now belongs to them and not to me.
Our favorite German bakers retired years ago. A young couple took over, added cappuccino and espresso, but they couldn’t attract the same clientele. My friend Glenn remembers that they closed abruptly. Slow and steady change is not so easily noticed. Glenn bought his house in 1979 and has never considered moving.
“It’s now a Mexican bakery, and it’s thriving,” he tells me, pointing as we round the corner.
“Has the neighborhood shifted?” I ask.
“Nah. It’s always been a mix, of course. It’s mostly hispanics coming and going to that bakery, but it’s still mostly white folks in this neighborhood. I honestly don’t know where they’re living.”
The billboards on the arteries tell a different story — in Spanish.
Glenn doesn’t pay attention the same way a billboard company or a restaurateur pays attention. He doesn’t need to. Change was always part of the formula. It was a big reason he and his wife chose to leave the suburbs for the city over 30 years ago.
It’s only when change comes quickly or unexpectedly that residents feel alerted. Those who cannot abide change never arrive in a city, or they soon leave. Cities that refuse to change are known best by archaeologists and historians.
Chicago’s building stock solidly supports the change of its residencies. Chicagoans haven’t yet settled on a new name for the Sears Tower, now that Sears has moved its headquarters to the suburbs. America’s tallest building was bought by Willis Insurance, and the skyscraper’s new moniker is in danger of becoming “the Big Willie.” It will take a decade of common use before the name is as solid as the structure.
The opulence of Chicago’s skyscrapers has diminished as they have become more numerous. As buildings provide stability for a fluid shift of uses and people, the buildings-as-cityscape flow impermanently over the bedrock of the street grid.
Make no mistake. Roads are the closest thing to permanence in city life. Ask the Romans.
Chicago was platted in 1830. The street grid looked like a publicity stunt for a graph paper company. The coordinated numbering of the streets and houses followed in 1909. Edward Brennan, a facilities manager for a Chicago music company, delivered sheet music and pianos all over the city. He campaigned tirelessly for elimination of duplicate street names and other anomalies. Brennan fought for order amid the chaos, and he won. Almost everything looks new to me in Chicago, but I’m never lost, thanks to Brennan.
When I return to Eugene, I will pay less attention to the buildings and even less to the proposed uses for those buildings. Roads connect it all. Whether it’s EWEB’s redevelopment plan, our greater urge to reconnect downtown to our river, EmX’s next stage of expansion, or the upcoming community discussion about our urban services boundary, roads last longest.
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) grew up in Chicago and left in 1984. He writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.