An American Abroad

Using Divvy Bikes to See Chicago

One of the cool things about Chicago is its network of 476 24/7 bicycle rental stations spread out across the city. Divvy Bikes are purpose-built, durable, three-speed machines. No one is going to confuse them with speedy road bikes, but they are serviceable and well-maintained.

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Their special bike racks feature a small solar panel tower, a credit card reader, and a small touch screen to set up your bicycle rental.

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I used Divvy Bikes to ride from Hyde Park along a zig-zaggy route north to the Adler Planetarium, a distance of about eight miles. I wasn’t in a particular hurry and hopped off the bike from time to time to admire the lakefront view and take photos.

While it was great to have a bicycle to tool around on in Chicago, Divvy’s fee structure makes their bikes a less than optimal choice for someone like me who wants to take his time to see the city from a bicycle seat. The headline rental price is just $7 a day for unlimited use, but there is a BIG catch. You have to check your bike into a Divvy station every 30 minutes. You can check it in and take it right out again (though this is something of a hassle), but if you ride for longer than 30 minutes without returning it to a station, 1) you get charged additional fees of at least $3, and 2) you have your 24 hour usage rights cancelled, which means you have to pony up another $7. For a traveler like me without a set route, it was annoying to check a bike out, meander for 15 minutes, and then spend the next 15 minutes frantically trying to reach another Divvy station so as to avoid extra charges. For commuters with regular routes, this wouldn’t be a big factor, but for me it was. I felt rushed and anxious.

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All this being said, Divvy Bikes can be a good way for a traveler to get around Chicago, but only if you plan your route carefully before setting out and stay cognizant of the time elapsed between stations. For people with a daily commute, though, Divvy Bikes are a very viable alternative to public transit and private vehicles.

At the Chess Records Studio

These are the back stairs to the musical history of Chicago and the world.

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In the 1950s, numerous blues and R&B legends walked up those stairs to this room, which back in the day was a recording studio.

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Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Little Walter, The Moonglows, Howlin Wolf, James Cotton, Archie Bell & the Dells, Lonnie Brooks, Solomon Burke, The Four Tops, Percy Mayfield, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin climbed those stairs. And in that studio, they recorded the music of the Great Migration, the electrified blues that came out of Chicago in the 1950s. Then Chuck Berry came along, combined the electric blues with a country beat and and twang. In the Chess studio, he recorded “Maybellene,” one of the first and most popular rock n roll records:

Encouraged by Muddy Waters, Berry in 1955 brought to Chess Records a recording of his version of Willis’s tune[1] which he had renamed “Ida May” and a blues song he wrote “Wee Wee Hours”, which he stated was inspired by Joe Turner’s “Wee Baby Blue”. To Berry’s surprise, Leonard Chess showed little interest in the blues material but was enthusiastic about the commercial possibilities in a “hillbilly song sung by a black man”. Chess wanted a bigger beat for the song and added a bass and maracas player to the trio at the recording session. He also felt the titles “Ida Red” and “Ida May” were “too rural”. Spotting a mascara box on the floor of the studio, according to Berry’s partner Johnnie Johnson, Chess said, “Well, hell, let’s name the damn thing Maybellene” altering the spelling to avoid a suit by the cosmetic company. The lyrics were rewritten at the direction of Chess as well. “The kids wanted the big beat, cars, and young love,” Chess recalled. “It was the trend and we jumped on it.”

Ten years later, the rock musicians of the British Invasion came to Chicago to record at Chess, in an attempt to get the sound they had heard on American blues records. The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, among others, recorded there. The title of the Rolling Stones’ jam, “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” was a reference to the Chess Records address.

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Though the building is now primarily a museum, the Stones still show up, as recently as 2014, to get the Chess sound. Some of the components of that sound, apart from the configuration of the studio room itself, were these two pipes, which rise a few inches from the floor by the back wall of the control room.

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Originally, the music being performed in the studio was picked up by a mic hanging high on the wall at the far end of the studio. It was tweaked in the control room and played through studio monitors. The sound then travelled down those pipes to the mics connected to the tape recorders, which were housed in a room under the control room. This gives Chess records their echo-y, live sound, the sonic texture you’d experience at a blues club.

Today, 2120 South Michigan Avenue is home to Willie Dixon‘s Blues Heaven Foundation and serves as a museum, concert venue, and school for young musicians. Some of the old recording equipment is still on site and provides an object lesson in how far recording technology has come in a half century.

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I was privileged to get a private tour of the facility from Willie Dixon’s grandson, Keith Dixon Nelson.

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Keith graciously allowed me to play his grandfather’s bass — quite a thrill for me.

The land adjacent to the studio is now a small park, with a stage for outdoor concerts.

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The site has also been acknowledged by the Chicago Landmark Commission.

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I went through a major blues phase in my twenties. I lived briefly in Little Rock, Arkansas and listened to a radio station there that played gospel by day and blues by night. I would sit up late listening, electrified by what I heard. Later that summer, I took a bus to Greenville, Mississippi to the Delta Blues Festival. The smell of the Mississippi mud baked hard by the sun mingled with the sounds of electric guitars and wailing harmonicas coming from the stage. I had an experience of synesthesia, where the music and the unique smell intertwined inside me. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to. Many of the musicians who performed there had come to Chicago and Chess Records decades before. Now they were returning to their roots. Now years later, after seeing the Chess studio, I felt like I had seen where those roots produced the blossoms that became the electric blues and rock n roll.

The Cove: Exemplar of a Neighborhood Bar

I’m particular about my bars. A good bar should be unpretentious. Welcoming. Not too loud but not too quiet. Old. Diverse in its clientele. A place where you can chat with strangers or sit quietly and read without being disturbed.

There aren’t very many places that meet all those criteria — which is one reason why I am not a big bar-goer. But there is such a place in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. It’s called The Cove. It’s located at 1750 E. 55th Street. And it’s got a great old neon sign out front.

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Inside, it’s got a classic long-rectangle layout, with a venerable dark wood bar running down one of the long walls.

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There’s another room of the same dimensions that’s accessible from the far end of the barroom. This gives The Cove room to seat a lot more people but doesn’t spoil the cozy feel of the bar itself. The other room has a mural that depicts local heroes (though the portrait of Barack Obama is almost unrecognizable).

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On the three nights I was there, the clientele seemed to be a mixture of neighborhood folks, U. Chicago grad students, down-dressed professionals and working-class Joes, men and women, old and young. Most bars I’ve been in are 90% one ethnic group or another. Not so at The Cove, where the mix over the nights I was there was about 50/50 black and white. There was an overall friendly, relaxed, welcoming feel to the place.

By the time I last left, it was dark out, the NBA finals had just concluded with a Warriors victory, and it was time for me to go. I took one last pic of the cool vintage neon sign and vowed to return when I could.

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3rd Friday Open Studios at Bridgeport Art Center, Chicago

I’m back in Chicago and venturing further outside Hyde Park. On a warm clear spring evening, I went to the Bridgeport neighborhood, where a big old warehouse has been converted to studio space for dozens of artists. On the third Friday of every month, the center opens its doors to the public to come look. And so I did.

The Bridgeport Art Center is housed in the old Spiegel Catalog warehouse on West 35th Street. It’s a fabulous space with hundreds of tall windows, exposed brick walls, enormous industrial sliding doors, beautifully distressed hardwood floors, capacious elevators, and soaring skylights. The interior has been built out into studio spaces of varying sizes, ranging from spaces that are only slightly larger than office cubicles to large rooms containing fully-equipped carpentry workshops. Many of the artists’ studios were works of art themselves.

I wandered into room 4011, Tamara Wasserman’s studio. Tamara was born in Riga, emigrated to Jerusalem in her teens, and moved to Chicago in her adult years. Her speech is crisp and melodic, with charming notes of Latvian, Hebrew, and Chicagoese. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she derives most of her income as a simultaneous translator — that is, when she isn’t working as a puppeteer. I loved her work, especially a painting with a Gauginesque central figure, mysterious open empty boxes, and scrawled Cyrillic lettering. It was, of course, the one canvas in her studio that was not for sale.

Here are the tools of her trade:

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I’m always reluctant to photograph the creations of working artists. I make an exception for Unauthorized Public Art, since I reckon that the artists who create it offer it for free to the public at large. So although I was invited to, I didn’t photograph the works in Tamara’s studio or anyone else’s. The photo below was not taken by me, however, and is posted on Tamara’s website. The painting above and behind Tamara is the one I was so taken by.


Between the old warehouse and a stagnant riverway, next to a bridge pier, a big man in a dirty kilt had started a fire fueled by discards from his woodshop. The small blaze drew people like moths.

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The studio building’s fire escape loomed above us. The sky at the moment where dusk slides into night was impossibly blue. I looked up and felt a touch of vertigo.

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Rolls of razor wire were spun next to the bridge above us, presumably to prevent people from getting to the very place where we sat.

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There was a forbidding steel door in the pier that supported the bridge. I tried it out of habit and, to my surprise, found that it was unlocked. Inside, under the roadway, there was evidence that someone had recently (with apologies to W.S. Mewrwin) “there established his bad castle.”

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One of the people sitting by the fire saw a river rat saunter by. I stayed a little while longer enjoying the first warm night of the year and, as I have done in so many other places, vowed to return someday.


Last month, I took some photos of unauthorized public art around Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. One of them featured this work:

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I took this photo because I was attracted to the Betty Boop vibe the original artist painted in. The girl’s missing mouth creates ambiguity in her expression — is it pride? happiness? thoughtfulness? strength? sorrow? The chips and cracks of age actually seem to improve the image and give it it an enduring quality, like the city itself.

A partner in one of Chicago’s larger law firms saw my original blog post and wanted this pic blown up and framed. I was thrilled. And so here it is, ready to move to its new home downtown.

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Having someone like my photos enough to want to reproduce them, as happened here and happened with my photos of the Hanoi Hilton, is immensely gratifying. If any of my readers want to purchase any of the photos on my blog, please contact me. I would be honored.

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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