An American Abroad

Archives for April 2015

Robie House

A house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright sits uncomfortably on the campus of the University of Chicago.

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Robie House was built in 1910 for a Chicago businessman named Frederick C. Robie. Robie lived there only a short time, and the property was eventually acquired by the Chicago Theological Seminary, which planned to demolish the house to put up a student dorm. In 1957, Wright himself (then 90 years old) returned to Chicago to protest these plans. He commented, “It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy.”

By 1963, the house had been donated to the University of Chicago, which still owns it today. Unfortunately, the university hasn’t shown much more spiritual appreciation for Wright’s designs than the seminarians did.

An undistinguished cheap-looking four-story building now looms behind Robie House. In 2004, the university put up a monstrous business school building directly across the street. Light- and sign-poles dot the sidewalks beside the house, cluttering up almost every view of the premises. Wright’s masterpiece of balance and harmony now looks crowded and a little forlorn, though this latter observation may be due to the fact that a restoration is supposedly underway.

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Though the house’s overall impact has been sadly diminished by the incoherent sprawl of buildings around it, Robie House’s individual details remain intact and wonderful to behold.

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Farewell to Pilsen

I’m leaving Chicago later today, but before I go I wanted to post more street art pix from the Pilsen neighborhood. This series seems to be the most obviously Mexican in origin.

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Love is Torture, Love is a Delight

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Yeah, ain’t it the truth?

My friend Aaron Nathan directed me to these walls on 16th Street where it crosses Ashland in Chicago’s Lower West Side Pilsen neighborhood. I appreciate the advice; I never would have found them on my own. Pilsen is home to many Mexican families, and you can see the Latin American influence in the Day of the Dead images, among others.

Not everyone here shares my enthusiasm for this unauthorized public art. One local politician calls graffiti “a cancer on the city” and “the second biggest problem that we have, after shootings.” That seems a bit hyperbolic, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, the mayor of Chicago wants to increase the fines for graffiti from $750 to between $1,500 and $2,500. I suppose that the hand-wringing over graffiti is directed more toward people who tag public property with gang symbols than it is toward muralists like the ones who create the images I’ve been posting. But the law makes no distinction between a gang tag and a work of art. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

Under the “broken windows” theory of policing, graffiti can make people feel unsafe, which causes people to shy away from the places where they see it, and which in turn creates a situation where the bad guys rule the streets. Perhaps that’s true. I also understand that not all graffiti is as beautiful as the murals I’ve photographed. My point is only that when I saw these walls in Pilsen, I felt more safe. The street felt happy, joyous, loved, and like a real neighborhood. I would actually have felt a little apprehensive walking around the area if I only saw ugly blank decaying concrete and cinder block walls.

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The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Discovered

    “Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”
    The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

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We now know that the giant rat of Sumatra made its way to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where it met a grisly end. The event was immortalized on a METRA viaduct at 16th and Ashland. Those wishing to see how giant a giant rat is are invited to click on the above photo.

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I wasn’t investigating vampirism. I came for the rat, which is often photographed and displayed online. But I found much more than a megarodent. Weird game pieces. Sponge Bob character rejects. Robbie the Robot. Don Quixote. Spontaneous abstract expressionism. Fleeing immigrants. And a guy with a big hat.

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The 27th Street Gallery — Part 2

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

The story is set in a post-plague future where 99% of humanity is dead and the remaining few live mean and difficult lives. But the book is actually about the human need to make art, even in the most terrible of circumstances. A group of musicians and actors travels around the Great Lakes through the ruins of civilization. They play classical music and perform Shakespeare for whatever hardscrabble audiences they find. The banner on their caravan displays a quote from Star Trek: Voyager‘s Seven of Nine: “Survival is insufficient.” In this ruined future, pop cultural artifacts from the past such as graphic novels and celebrity gossip magazines are treasured and held in awe to the same degree as Shakespeare and Beethoven, though for different reasons.

I was thinking about this book as I continued my walk around 27th Street, Chicago, where it intersects Kedzie. Earlier this year, I beheld the Roman ruins at Bulla Regia and spent time communing with Amphitrite and her chums on the floor of in an underground house. Was that mosaic the graphic novel of its day? Do we venerate and preserve it nowadays in part because we know that there will be no more Roman mosaics? And if a Station Eleven-style plague really did ravage our civilization, would the graffiti murals at 27th and Kedzie one day be venerated by the descendants of our survivors? And would those descendants appreciate the murals all the more because of their incredulous understanding that such art was actually illegal in the civilization that produced it?

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The 27th Street Gallery — Part 1

When I arrived in Chicago, among the first questions I asked friends and acquaintances was where to go to see good graffiti — unauthorized public art. Betsy Rubin, who, like me enjoys photographing such stuff, suggested I check out 27th Street where it crosses Kedzie. Yesterday morning it was clear and sunny here for a change, so I took her suggestion.

The intersection turned out to be in Little Village, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood with a friendly feel to it. The walls that elevate the METRA tracks there have been turned into a de facto outdoor gallery that shows off some amazing work.

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I was here:

The images lining the walls are strong and precise. They’re perfectly proportioned. The colors pop and reveal often intricate details. Now consider that the artists who created them didn’t have control over their site and that they were working illegally, probably dodging police patrols during the night hours. Consider, too, that their work could lawfully be painted over, sandblasted, and destroyed by the authorities in a day. As I suspect the artists intended, I kept thinking about those challenges as I walked along the walls. There’s a certain how-did-they-do-that boastfulness in their works that, for me, contributes to the sense of wonder and delight I got when I was looking at them.

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My Hanoi Hilton Photos in a Documentary

Two months ago, I received an email from Colin Kimball, a photographer working with the Collin County Historical Society & Museum in McKinney, Texas, on an exhibit about people from their region who’d served in the Vietnam War. The exhibit was called The Vietnam Syndrome and was to include a video built around interviews with two men from North Texas who’d been prisoners of war in North Vietnam. Mr. Kimball wanted to use my photos of the Hanoi Hilton to illustrate their stories. Of course I said yes.

The resulting video, Life as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam, is now on display. My photos, taken from this post here, can be seen at the 3:03, 7:10, and 9:47 marks.

The People Under the Viaducts

There are many murals here in Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, and more are apparently in the works.

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People stand under the METRA viaduct at 56th and Harper. They cluster in groups like this, each with an answer to the question, Where are you going?

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This mural is painted on rough concrete and exposed to the harsh Chicago elements. Close-ups show the graceful decay of the images. This art isn’t static; it changes with the winters.

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Under the viaducts, short quotes from neighborhood residents were painted on the columns, all answering the question, Where are you going?

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Further down the wall, another mural began.

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I was struck by the fact that these murals were painted or refurbished years ago and still look good. They haven’t been tagged or painted over by graffiti artists. While I usually prefer unauthorized and unofficial public art, perhaps the METRA is on to something here. If you put up good publicly-sponsored art, then people will respect the city’s overpasses far more than if you leave them concrete blank or put up bad art.

South along the METRA tracks, at 57th street, there are other murals, these definitely more political. They have been criticized as being “leftist.” (I can’t help but wonder if the murals had shown a happy managerial class if they would have been considered “rightist.”)

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It’s a pleasure to walk through these underpasses. It gives the neighborhood a friendly vibe, as if the folks under the viaduct are there to welcome newcomers. And new workers, as well.

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Chicago Housesit

I took the Megabus from Toledo to Chicago last week to begin a housesitting gig in Hyde Park. The double-decker bus was only about 10% full and was quiet, clean, and on time. However, the seat arrangement provided excruciatingly little legroom for my 6’3″ frame, and the WiFi was slow and heavily censored.

The house I’m taking care of here was built in the 1880s and features high ceilings, bay windows, an elegant L-shaped staircase, a cozy gas fireplace (with oak mantle and beveled mirror) and an honest-to-god front porch swing.

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The place comes with four cats, whose personalities range from ebulliently friendly to pathologically shy.

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The neighborhood, Hyde Park, is a wonderfully civilized place of tree-lined streets and older houses.

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It’s home to the University of Chicago and President Obama. It has a record store and a head shop, conveniently located next door to each other.

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Across the street is a barber shop, where you can get some Buddy Guy to go with your high-and-tight.

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Down the street is an African American bookstore still selling Malcolm X literature.

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Bicycles for rent stand out in public racks. With the swipe of a credit or debit card, one can unlock one of these machines, go for a ride, and return than at any one of scores of locations around the city.

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There are handsomely-executed murals on the walls of the viaducts where trains to and from downtown Chicago pass overhead.

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The neighborhood feels wonderfully time warped, like a portal to 1979. There is even a nightly repertory film series at U. Chicago just four blocks away.

In nearly every place I have traveled, there comes a moment when I look around and ask myself, Could I live happily here? The answer for the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago is an unambiguous yes. I will be here for at least two housesitting stints this spring. I may not want to leave.

Morocco Miscellany

As so often happens, there are some photographs that don’t seem to conveniently fit into my more narrative travel posts. Here, then, are some random images of Morocco.

This first one of me was taken en route from my overnight in the Sahara. It shows me definitely in need of a shower, but happy.


This shows a market town where we stopped for lunch.


The photo below shows the alleyway leading to the hostel we stayed at in Marrakech, while the one below that was taken from a restaurant porch in the main square.



The next series was taken at an ancient madrassa, or religious school for boys. Spencer and I walked through the students’ quarters, imagining the hundreds of students who must have called a given room home for a period of time.







I don’t recall on which public wall this artwork had been painted, but I like it; I give it major points for originality.


Finally, this last was taken at the tannery in Fes.