Serious Tower: Reading Homan Square

In October 2013, I was graciously invited by my friend, John Rich, executive director of Chicago’s venerable Guild Literary Complex, to participate in a reading event organized in cooperation with the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago. The reading was held at the ‘Original Sears Tower‘ in Lawndale’s Homan Square on Chicago’s west side. I was one of four readers and the idea was to have each reader take semi-rapid turns reading fragments of a larger piece to create a literary, brick-like effect. Though not heavily attended—the weather was somewhat unwelcoming and the architecture-loving public is generally scared of Lawndale—the event was a success. What follows is what I wrote and (mostly) read for the occasion.

I’ve found the most beautiful place in the world. It’s in Chicago and I’ll never see it again. Even my retelling of it now destroys it, much like how the clarity of a dream dissolves the moment we try to remember it. But I’ll take my risks. It was two Saturdays ago, roughly ten o’clock in the morning, Graceland Cemetery. The air was crisp and cool; the skies, clear; the breeze scentless and auspicious. The leaves on the trees were just beginning to turn.

I was walking along the outer perimeter of the cemetery. The paths cut through swaths of burial sites peppered with obelisks and Masonic iconography and muffled whispers of whatever traffic sounds manage to scale the high brick walls. The grass is short and the trees are like tall, gnarled monoliths, moderating the silence of the grounds and framing the distant sadness of others with a dim morning shadow. I had a Murakami moment where I found mind running parallel to itself, like my consciousness was a 3D movie that I was watching without glasses.

At the northeast side of the perimeter, there is a lagoon. It’s hidden behind a dense shroud of flora and powerful oak trees that, at that point, were less like monoliths and more like columns supporting an ethereal dome. As my view of the lagoon unfolded, the general subterranean awareness of myself as a citizen of Chicago, and of the city in general, began to dissipate. It was as if I was entering in or stepping down.

Compared to the lagoons you find in Garfield Park or Humboldt Park, this particular lagoon is more like a reflecting pool. There are no birds, no fish, no people. Just benign, pregnant silence. Across the lagoon stands a bold, white, Greek Revivalist sepulcher with tall columns obscured by the tendrils of weeping willows reflecting off still surface of the water.

Briefly, in that parallel place, I had a feeling of remembrance. I hate double negatives, but the best way I can describe it is as not unpleasant. But much like how the recollection of a dream destroys the dream, the remembrance of a memory destroys the memory. So I was instead left with that general not unpleasantness—a vestigial trace. And then the El thundered by.

We’re standing today in the vestigial space left in the traces of those Holy Men of Capitalism, Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck. Sears was from Minnesota, which his parents came to by way of England. And the Sears family had been in England by way of Normandy since 1066—the age of the Norman Conquest that probably didn’t involve battle axes, wizards, and dragons. As a name, Sears comes from the Old English, Saeger, which is also a German occupational surname from an Old German word meaning ‘saw-yer’ or ‘person who saws wood.’

Alvah Roebuck came to Chicago by way of Indiana, and his patronymic goes all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Britain. More wizards and dragons, and probably some templars and druids. And yes, despite what Britain would have all of us think, it had tribes just like everyone else. Unlike the occupational surname where most modern families can follow their patronymic history, Roebuck has more animistic roots, functioning as the name given to the people thought to resemble an actual roebuck, or native deer, in some way—physical or otherwise.

Today, it’s rare to meet a Sears and even more rare to meet a Roebuck. But at least in Chicago, the two names are directly associated with the once powerful and now just regular retail giant—somewhere above Kohls but under Nordstrom. Sears and Roebuck were capitalists in the truest sense of the word, and the new ‘meanings’ of their respective names is now less reflective of the bloody battlefields of Anglo-Saxon Britain and moreso reflected off the quarterpanel finish on the new Cadillac fleet. In a thousand years, when people are speaking of the brutal anti-humanism of the Information Age, will they say of the Sears and Roebucks that they were powerful men who rose to positions of prominence and power through the ruthless exploitation of smart marketing practices, consumer psychology, and excellent merchandising strategies?

Power is supposed to be built on bloodshed, not board meetings.

I once had a roommate who, in simple terms, liked garbage. He drove a van and considered it ‘quality time with friends’ when he would roam the alleys of Chicago’s northwest side looking for broken lamps, boxes of old Danielle Steele books, and dusty AV equipment. If I had met him as a kid, he would have been the guy who had all of the coolest toys, except all of them were missing a battery or a button. And whose mom, for some reason, was always watching Ricki Lake.

He would always show off his stuff to me, claiming that this old Sears-brand receiver from the 1960s could get, like, a hundred bucks on eBay. All he had to do was fix this-or-that thing. Everything he owned, it seemed, could go for like a hundred bucks on eBay. Including the mayonnaise-jar-sized bottle of Ritalin on his nightstand.

When he was moving in, I realized that the flow of garbage and broken AV equipment that was gathering in his room was quickly moving out into the kitchen, dining, and living rooms. Like a thrift store mudslide. And I’m more of a minimalist. Which is to say, I think everything has its time and place. Like garbage, for example. The place for garbage is the garbage. That’s why it’s called garbage. So I put my foot down.

I said. “I understand that you want to decorate this apartment. I want to decorate this apartment, too. The problem is, in that corner there, I want to decorate it with Nothing.” That was my indirect way of telling him to keep his mess sequestered.

He gave me a confused look. “You can’t have nothing there,” he said.

I said, “Yes you can. I want to put a thing in that corner, and the thing I want to put in that corner is Nothing. Nothing belongs in that corner. It will help the flow of the room if there is Nothing there.”

He walked away. When I came back later, I found a lamp in the corner. No light bulb, covered in rust, a hole in the shade roughly the same size as the base of his Ritalin jar.

There goes Nothing, I thought.

Might makes right. Which is to say, the powerful make the rules. And though power, historically, has been built on bloodshed, it doesn’t necessarily follow that bloodshed leads to power. In Lawndale, for example, there have been 16 homicides in the past year alone. And in the past month, there have been over 250 ‘quality of life’ crimes, over 140 property crimes, and over 76 violent crimes. According to compiled FBI data, Lawndale ranks number 13 in America’s 25 most dangerous neighborhoods, beating out neighborhoods in cities like Indianapolis, Memphis, Flint, and others. There are over 80 violent crimes per thousand people in Lawndale, and roughly 36,000 people live here. If these numbers neither increase nor decrease, this means that 450-or-so people will become a statistic in Lawndale sometime in the next 365 days. There’s the bloodshed.

Power is a bit more complex. But we can grant, for this conversation, that wealth equals power. We’re materialists; there’s no argument here. Also, we like to quantify things. So in this sense, it’s worth noting that at just above $25,000 annually, median household income in Lawndale is just a few paychecks above the national poverty level for a household of four. Median household income in the Near North Side neighborhood is closer to $76,000. In crude terms, there’s the power.

This connection between power and bloodshed is abstract, informed by our remembrance. Which is to say, our ideas of this arbitrating forces are informed not by our history, but by our recollections of history; and our dogmatic insistence that these concepts remain unchanged (because what happens if we no longer understand power?). Our recollections provide an insufficient conceptual framework for solving the deficiencies and shortcomings of the present—or for seeing deficiencies and shortcomings as deficiencies and shortcomings. The solutions we present for correcting these problems—new social programs, weapons bans, drug warfare, bureaucratic policies—are founded on outmoded paradigms of urban self-understanding. As an amalgam of traces, the city is the problem. And simultaneously, as the arbiter of history, the city is the solution.

I said before that the city is the solution. I don’t mean this in any idealistic sense. Rather, I believe that it is the city itself—with its infrastructure, its physical, psychical, and social connections, its endless creative possibilities and potentials—provides the conditions necessary for realizing a solution. Like how the Pullman Historic District—an isolated historic community in the midst of a depressed Chicago neighborhood—is close to achieving National Park Status. If our city is broken, maybe the fix looks less like a spot of hydrogen peroxide and a Band-Aid and more like medieval-style traction. The old school Sears and Roebucks would get it.

The failure of the Neosporin/Band-Aid treatment is evidenced most strongly in how we treat our architecture and infrastructure. If you’re in the loop on the Chicago architectural conversation—no pun intended—you know about the travesty of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital as a recent example of this. It’s an attempt at erasure, but even as Northwestern builds over this icon, the icon remains. But more explicitly, look where we’re standing today. It’s a vestigial and quadratically phallic fragment of a former economic steadfast, bold in its legacy but diminutive in its effect. Sears and Roebuck—mighty men of business as they were—would likely not ‘sign off on’ this bantam banter, but we’re standing here today in a cathedral, and what’s a cathedral without a congregation? And without administrative offices?

Let me put this in more concrete terms. Fifty of Chicago’s public schools were closed earlier this year. There has been plenty of ink dedicated to the social, economic, and especially racial implications of this, but little has been said of the infrastructural impact. Cathedrals without congregations. What happens to the buildings? Can they be used differently? Does our conception of the word ‘use’ limit our thinking on the potential of these newly-made shells? What happens to the neighborhoods for which these buildings were created and alongside which these neighborhoods grew? What gets taken away, and what remains?

It was a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, height of the summer. I was a couple of years out of college, working as a glorified secretary for a well-to-do non-profit in the Loop, putting my philosophy degree to good goddamned use. At the time, I’d always pick up my lunch from the Japanese pre-made sushi place, buying the three-dollar-and-fifty-cent brown-rice-and-avocado sushi and a small can of green tea. It’s the healthy lunch of just-under-living-wage. Plus, the rice or the avocado or whatever else was in there always gave me an upset stomach. Or as I called it, dessert.

I would eat in the plaza on the south side of the Chase Tower, with its three-story fountain, carb-fat pigeons, and fenced-off Chagall mosaic. On this particular day, I was polishing off my rice and cracking open my green tea, and a woman approached me who came straight out of a McCarthy novel: clothes tattered, stained, stiff in places. Smelled like bubble-gummy para-di-chloro-ben-zeen. She sat down next to me so that her leg just barely touched mine.

“Give me a drink of that tea,” she said.

I smiled. But defensively, like an orangutan.

“You’re so handsome,” she said. She put her hand on my knee. “Give me a kiss,” she said. And it was in the pause between her saying that and her puckering her lips that I was actually able to count her teeth. There were five.

I said to her, “That is something I cannot do. But you can have my green tea if you like.” It was my penance. I thought, it might not be as good as my kiss. And then I thought, is there anything so bad about giving out kisses to anyone who asks? And then I thought again and said to myself, yes, there is something bad about that. Hopefully the green tea will appease, here.

And it did. She pushed away from me, drank the tea in one swig, and walked away, empty can in hand. She neared a garbage bin at the corner and threw the can on the ground in front of it. The chemical bubble-gum smell hung thick in the air, with some of the other lunchers giving me those ‘what’re-you-gonna-do-people-are-weird’ eyes, some chuckling. Whether at my good fortune or the lady’s good fortune, it’s hard to say.

The Chase Tower, on the other hand, said nothing.

To clean a bloodstain from a couch, you first need to concoct a detergent solution using dish soap and cold water. One tablespoon for every two cups should do. Once properly mixed, wet a dry rag with the solution, and then use the rag to dampen the stained area. Dab.

Then comes the brushing. Do it gently; curb your fervor. You don’t want the blood to absorb further in the fabric or spread outwards.

With another cloth, wet with water but not detergent, blot your work. Then use a damp cloth for the final rinse. Repeat these steps as necessary. And then dry with a clean, dry towel. And hope that nobody comes by with an ultraviolent light.

To clean a bloodstain from history, you also need a detergent solution made from dish soap and cold water. And lots of permits. And millions of dollars. And a complacent public. And a crew using the latest techniques in sustainable demolition in order to minimize waste and maximize profitability. And a clean, dry towel.

In his book, Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas writes, “Manhattan is an accumulation of possible dangers that never happen.” In this case, Manhattan is an analog for the modern city. The buildings grow tall, but never tip or falter. The elevators climb just as high, but never plummet. Nature threatens to become obsolete, but persists just the same.

But Koolhaas is speaking strictly of architecture. Not the phenomenology of the plans that make Manhattans and Chicagos and Detroits and Los Angeleses possible. Only that the anxiety of these infrastructural dangers has been sublimated into our collective unconsciousness, so that when we face the necessity of cosmopolitan change and evolution, we prefer to proceed on a path of progress paved with white papers, red tape, and board meetings. Bureaucracy is the logic of this subterranean fear and it impedes imagination—the imagination necessary to not see an empty warehouse as a space to be filled, but a space that can be transformed—and that the conceptions of this transformation not be limited to the insularity of this space, but this space as a space among spaces. The Sears Tower as Homan Square as the homes of Homan Square as streets of Lawndale as the West Side as Chicago, and so forth.

What we need is a lagoon of the mind.

By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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