west loop

The worst urban studies student ever……

My freshly minted college degree includes a concentration in urban studies.

While I have no plans at the moment to become an urban planner, I’ve always felt that many of urban studies’ core ideas — about the ways we live and the demographic groups that define us — were deeply relevant for the 21st century and are applicable to just about every industry and every part of our country.  I found that it encompassed many of the things I’d been writing about for years, the changes in how we live and work.

In my personal life, I’d been doing a lot of things we’d discussed in class. I have never owned a car and, perhaps more shockingly, have never held a license to drive. I’ve walked or taken public transportation for most of my life, and I always lived in the core of a city, so I could have an existence that allowed for walking and mass transit.

Three years ago, my partner and I bought a home in the middle of a neighborhood close to Chicago’s Loop.

Our neighborhood (the West Loop) has growing density, a great walkability score, access to multiple channels of mass transit, two parks within a few blocks, and more restaurants and nightclubs than I can count.

Yes, it's true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

Yes, it’s true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

There’s only one thing: I’m really unhappy living here.

Some of the things that I’ve always endorsed? Are driving me crazy.

I am the worst urban studies student EVER.

The biggest negative impact for me has been noise pollution. While we live in a nice building, literally every flat space surrounding us has been under construction for three years. THREE. YEARS. That’s three years of not being able to sleep past 6 a.m., of constant drilling and hammering and bulldozers and cranes.

A new company has moved into a neighboring commercial building (formerly part of Harpo Studios), and promptly installed a motion alarm on their parking gate that I am pretty sure can be heard in Aurora. Possibly in space.

Indeed, our neighborhood is BOOMING. Google’s Chicago headquarters are moving just a few blocks north. A hotel is opening just east of us, and many of the small, nondescript factory spaces dotting the West Loop are being snapped up by developers. A company called Sterling Bay has, to a large degree, bought the West Loop and is now developing its use.

Of course, beyond the noise, which feels as if it will never end, many of the issues that are emerging show the wisdom of good urban planning and the repercussions that happen when it’s absent. It’s nearly impossible to cross Madison Street now with the boom in traffic, and lack of pedestrian crosswalks near us.

Parking has become a huge issue. The West Loop, like the South Loop and Andersonville, desperately needs a dedicated parking area. Instead, patrons who think nothing of spending $200 at a Restaurant Row eatery or at a Blackhawks game will insist on parking for free on one of our streets. (With car alarms set to stun; the West Loop is a symphony of sounding car alarms every day.)

Parking in the city is its own nightmare (Google Chicago parking meter deal)  but I’ve never understood why parking doesn’t come *before* or *as part of* planning here. There’s a huge, hulking half-built building at the west end of the West Loop that would be perfect to retrofit into a neighborhood park house, with shuttles running up and down Randolph.

Residential development has been the main part of the boom thus far, but as commercial development continues, a conflict is emerging between the two camps. I haven’t seen any movement to define patches of the West Loop as solely residential or commercial. We’ll have two rooftop bars opening soon near us – far closer to residences than they should be.

The other main irritant hits a little closer to home.

In my mind, I always thought that living in close quarters with your neighbors would lead to that kind of engaged community, where neighbors became friends, where people socialized and looked after one another.

A few homeowner’s association meetings have disabused me of that notion.

With precious few exceptions, our neighbors create more drama than Downton Abbey, and are guilty of more metaphorical backstabbing and bloodshed than Game of Thrones. It’s a toxic batch of entitlement and manipulation. (While we’re on the pop culture references, the most entitled and manipulative ones bring to mind Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

There’s still much to be said for sustainable urban living, and I haven’t changed my stance on those ideas, those policies.

I think it might just be that we’re outgrowing this place. This neighborhood is becoming a huge cluster for clubs and nightlife, and will be a fast-paced hub for twentysomethings. My twenties are a bit in the rearview mirror for me, though.

My partner and I want something quieter and calmer for our next home, and will likely move out of Chicago to find it. But I think we’ll be sticking with urban settings, or the “cosmoburb,” where access to walking paths, bike paths and mass transit still exist.

Of course, I also know that I’m ridiculously lucky. Lucky to have a home, lucky to have a choice to leave a place that isn’t a good match.

We’re in Chicago, where bad planning and years of discriminatory zoning and lending policies have created neighborhoods where basic life, liberty and safety are harrowingly hard to come by. Lots of people don’t have the choices we do to change neighborhoods, or to move at all.

Rahm Emanuel has followed in the footsteps of the Daleys, enacting or sustaining policies that stand in the way of evolution or change for disadvantaged neighborhoods. 2014 feels a lot like 1974 in some of these neighborhoods. It feels impossible to effect change here.

Hopefully, our next home will be in a place where we can take advantage of good planning and great living space — but also contribute to our community, where we can become advocates for everyone who lives there.

I’m going to brainstorm about this right now! You might not be able to hear me, though, with the noise in the background…….

 

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Chicago: That Neighborhood Feel

Let’s call this post “a tale of two neighborhoods.”

One is Andersonville. It’s a north side neighborhood. Its borders run roughly from Broadway on the east to Ashland on the west, and from Foster to Peterson/Ridge at its north end.

In terms of geography, it’s an unremarkable neighborhood – no close CTA stop or Metra stop, no rivers or remarkable parks, and one main bus (the perpetually crowded and slow 22 Clark) running down Clark Street, its main thoroughfare.

Photo credit: Patrick Erwin

Photo credit: Patrick Erwin

The second is my current hood: the West Loop. Or as I like to call it, WeLo.

(It sounds clever, right? Also, I’m a lazy typist and that’s way fewer letters.)

WeLo has a close proximity to the Loop. It’s got one main bus route (the perpetually crowded and slow 20 Madison), and a new, shiny Morgan Green Line stop. (Two more stops, both Blue Line, sit at the extreme southern ends of the neighborhood.)

The Bartelme Park at Monroe and Peoria is an entire city block of amazingness. And WeLo is also known for “Restaurant Row” on its northern end.

But for all the amazing things happening in WeLo, it still hasn’t reached that point of coalescence as a neighborhood. Andersonville, on the other hand, is the textbook definition of a neighborhood, and all the pluses of one: tight community ties and people filling its shops, stores and restaurants.

Why isn’t WeLo every bit as cozy and inviting as Andersonville? I’ve wondered why for a while – and figured I’d try to use some urban planning ideas and metrics to compare and contrast these two areas.

(more…)

Chicago: Reimagining what remains (part two)

In yesterday’s post I talked about the Uptown Theater project in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and how that stood as a symbol of the neighborhood’s illustrious past and current challenges (as well as future potential).

It’s amazing to me that such a grand building would sit empty – or that it was ever a candidate for demolition.

I feel the same about a building I’ve just discovered in the last few months. I’m finishing my coursework at my new college in the western suburbs, and I take the Metra West Line train every day to get to campus.

And as I’d come back into the city, I was mesmerized by a building I’d see from the train. It was clearly a building no longer in use, covered in graffiti and with most of its windows gone. But the shell of the building looked magnificent.

I was convinced it had been an old high school, until one day I saw the lettering near the top of the building: Brach’s. The building was, until a decade or so ago, the North American factory for Brach’s candy. (more…)

Harpo, Oprah and the West Loop

It’s been a year and a half since Oprah Winfrey’s daily talk show ended.

I’m sure many viewers miss the show, but for viewers, the main impact is that the show no longer beams into their living rooms. Fans of Winfrey’s work still have her brand new network (OWN) where they can get their Oprah fix.

From this back in the day…..

I’m seeing a few more tangible repercussions of the end of Winfrey’s show up close. Why? Well, I live a stone’s throw from Harpo Studios here in Chicago.

And those studios? They’re virtually empty, and that worries me.

There’s been almost no activity there, save for the period when Rosie O’Donnell’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it talk show was in production there for five months. Hundreds of former Harpo staffers have been laid off.

Listen, businesses change and grow and relocate and are born and die all the time. I get it. And to be very clear: I do not have a chip on my shoulder about Oprah. I like her. I have some mixed feelings about how her show evolved over the years, but it had some great moments and affected a lot of people in very positive ways. I watched many episodes of Oprah and have no shame in my game about doing so.

This isn’t about her. It’s all about my ‘hood, you see.

When my partner and I first moved to the West Loop (a few blocks away) we were renters. Now we are homeowners. We’re invested in our home, our street and our neighborhood.

This sign was up for about a minute last year.

The fact that one of our neighbors’ homes, so to speak, is primarily a big empty shell is cause for concern, if not alarm.

It’s not just the actual Harpo Studios building, which used to be an armory and takes up a whole city block with Washington on its south, Aberdeen to its west, Randolph to its north and Carpenter at its east. There are also other buildings adjacent to the studio that are used by Harpo – I can count at least three other buildings in the same vicinity where Harpo staffers are located.

I hope Harpo has a long, sustainable life, but if it folds – or moves completely to California, where Winfrey herself is headquartered – that’s a huge chunk of our neighborhood to lose what was a solid economic engine.

Oprah’s arrival is often heralded as the beginning of the renaissance for the West Loop, but the neighborhood would probably survive a drastic change if Harpo leaves. Restaurant Row is a bustling thoroughfare, with restaurants by Stephanie Izard and Graham Elliot Bowles dotting the Randolph Street landscape. And in just the last few years, the Fulton Market neighborhood has exploded.

Farewell, Le Peep – directly affected by the loss of Harpo employees

But it’s foolish to think there will be no impact. Already Washington Avenue east of the studio has seen several businesses (including Le Peep) close due to the loss of Harpo-related business. I’ve seen a small spike in vandalism in those blocks, and it’s hard to tell at this point whether that’s just a summer-related spike or a more long term effect, but it’s troubling.

More puzzling is why Harpo hasn’t actively marketed the space as a usable, turnkey-ready studio space. I posted about the possibilities of this space for a film or TV show recently.

Steve Harvey’s new talk show was announced, but instead of using the Harpo space, a huge new studio has been built for him. I can understand a talk show host not wanting to follow in Winfrey’s shadow, but there’s been radio silence as to whether any other productions might use the space.

Winfrey is known for holding her cards close to her vest and limiting information about her plans (three words: employee non-disclosure agreement), but I wish that she or her team would take a moment to sit down with residents and tell us what their plans are. Or if they have any long term plans at ALL for the space.

I’m a good neighbor – I’ll come by and pay a courtesy call. (A tour of the studio would be nice, but I won’t be greedy.)