Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reminiscing for the days of a better Chicago? Or merely living in the past?

The Chicago of my youth took a few more steps Tuesday toward being a wispy dream that exists only in my head.

First, there was the fact that city officials were all a-giddy at the thought of attracting a new Target store – one that will be filling in the space on That Great Street that once was occupied by the flagship store of Carson, Pirie, Scott.

NOW I CAN understand that it is a good thing that a vacant retail space, particularly one as big as Carson’s, ought not to sit vacant. It was becoming almost as big an embarrassment for Chicago that nothing was sitting at Madison and State streets as the fact that Block 37 sat vacant for so many decades.

Yet a part of me wonders if the idea of a Target at the heart of the city grid system is almost as tacky as those ice-skating rinks that used to be set up at Block 37, with city officials spewing some rhetoric making it seem like the vacant block was a deliberate plan so that city-goers could skate during the winter months.

For the one-time flagship of a major retailer isn’t big enough to be anything substantial for Target. We get talk of an urban-style Target store, compared to their usual formula of those big boxes built on former farmland in suburbia.

Which means scaled-down. While I realize that many more people live downtown than did in past decades (which is a good thing), the idea that they will be the primary market for this new Target almost makes it seem like the one-time Carson’s is being turned into a convenience store for Loop dwellers.

AS FOR THOSE who want the full-fledged Target shopping experience, they probably will continue to go to the store at Roosevelt Road and Clark Street. The Near South Side location, with a subway stop just a block away.

Even the thought of the jobs (which is what had Mayor Richard M. Daley drooling publicly on Tuesday) to be created isn’t all that big a deal. Some 200 employees for those part-time slots that hardly pay enough to raise a family on. So you’ll have people paying a significant part of their earnings just to commute to work.

It’s a good thing that Illinois officials are giving thought to boosting the minimum wage in this state, hoping to get it to a level just over $10 per hour by the time they’re through. Otherwise, these workers would be toast.

But the Chicago of my youth had a State Street anchored by the major flagships of Carson’s and Marshall Fields – neither of which no longer exists. The Chicago of today now has Macy’s (which doesn’t even feel like a New York import to our city as much as just a generic shopping experience that could take place anywhere) and Target.

STATE STREET JUST doesn’t feel like a Great Street so much anymore.

Then again, the city’s population isn’t what it used to be either. The Chicago of my youth was a city of 3 million people – one of the few cities proper that could achieve that level.

Yet the population counts for Illinois were made public on Tuesday, and while parts of the Chicago metropolitan area are gaining significantly (two out of every three Illinoisans lives in the Chicago-area, and three of the other four municipalities that comprise the Illinois Top 5 are suburbs themselves), the city itself has just slightly under 2.7 million people living here.

We can’t even make the claim that we did a decade ago – that we were a city of just under 3 million people. We’re starting to look more and more like Houston in terms of the number of people who live in the city itself.

OF COURSE, NO matter how few our numbers become, the individuals who are here will continue to have more class than those who live anyplace else. But it does make me wonder about those people who engaged in their politically partisan raging back in November when they claimed almighty Chicago was forcing its wicked ways upon the rest of the state.

What it really means is that it is the suburbs that are on the rise, and those individuals chose to throw in their lot with the urban residents of the state rather than the rural portions that think Cairo is a city on the Rivers Ohio and Mississippi – rather than the Nile.

So a part of me is doing a bit of reminiscing for obscure concepts of a Chicago of old. Then again, there is a part of me that always approaches 35th Street and expects to see the whitewashed brick building where the White Sox play on the north side of the street – and feels a bit of a let-down when I instead see the rosey-tinted concrete slabs of the stadium that now rests to the south.

I was only 1 year old when the federal building that Al Capone and countless generations of Chicagoans would have known disappeared. Yet now I'm starting to appreciate the sentiments of people who reminisce for it.

Which means I’m starting to appreciate the sentiment of the real old-timers of Chicagoland – the ones who rant about the beautiful federal building/post office the city used to have at Jackson and Dearborn, instead of the black glass towers that now sit just across the street and come across as being so generic by comparison.


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