Monday, July 21, 2008

A Neighborhood Drug Store

R.V. Kunka Pharmacy

The building housing the R.V. Kunka Pharmacy is part of a long line of commercial structures on the south side of Archer Avenue. It is located at a 6-way intersection with Loomis and Fuller Streets.

This typical late 19th Century building got a snazzy update some time around the 1930s. Glazed panels, modern fonts, a two-tone color scheme, and an emphasis on horizontal lines combine to form a Streamlined slipcover storefront.

R.V. Kunka Pharmacy

Though easy to overlook, the entryway to the store is the focal point of the remodeling. Two vertical plastic "pilasters" appear to light up from within, marking the main door. The doors themselves feature stylish door pulls. Even the concrete step was given a reddish tint to harmonize with the facade.

Kunka Drugs entry

Whatever was once on the north side of this street was mostly blasted into oblivion by the coming of I-55. Today, many of these buildings face a Chinese Wall of concrete retaining walls and fenced-off areas beneath looming overpasses.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Riding in the dark

Here's how I spent my Saturday night last weekend:


Somewhere on the Elston leg

Somewhere at Elston

The L.A.T.E. Ride is a massive yearly event, sponsored by McDonald's, that sends bike riders on a 25-mile loop around northern Chicago, starting at 1:30 in the morning. The path starts at Buckingham Fountain, heads northwest up Elston, and cuts across Foster to the lakefront to turn back south.

I didn't join up for the whole ride, but rode southwards from Rogers Park, back-tracing the route down Foster, then Elston. Starting around 2am, scattered groups of bikers started passing me, heading north. First a few... then dozens. Soon packs of a hundred or more were cruising past. By the time I made it to Ashland and Elston, the road was so thick with bicyclists that it was clearly time to turn around and go with the flow.

Elston underpass

What unspeakable comradery, to rule the roads on two wheels with hundreds of like-minded cohorts! The ride attracted all types, all ages. Bar patrons waved and cheered us on. Harried policemen and exuberant volunteers ushered us through major intersections. Waiting drivers whooped and hollered. We got high-fives from what looked like a crowd of Naval cadets and from a hippie lady with a huge stereo system mounted on a three-wheeled bike.

A half-way resting point at River Park on Foster provided snacks for registered riders. Dawn was beginning to show as we reached the lakefront; stopping for frequent photographs and letting many groups pass me by, I'd fallen almost to the end of the mass. Knowing I had places to be that afternoon, I headed home to get some sleep, as the sun prepared to rise over the lake.

Sunrise at the lake

I only did about half the ride total, but next year I'm not missing any of it!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Three south side commercial streets

Years ago, I made one of my first trips to Chicago to pay a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio out in Oak Park. With that mission accomplished, my friend and I decided to see if we could make it down to the Robie House on the south side as well. I was driving, and elected to take a long, leisurely route through the city streets rather than jumping on a highway. It was on this trip that I discovered W. 18th Street.

W. 18th Street

I was sufficiently blown away by its endless ranks of 3- and 4-story commercial buildings, all seeming to date from the post-Fire years, that I made another trip down to Chicago just a week later, for the express purpose of paying a lengthy visit to this remarkable street.

Years later, the Pilsen neighborhood usually figures into my plans at least every few months. As a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, it's home to scads of restaurants, and the Mexican Fine Arts Museum.

W. 18th Street

It's also just a comfortable and friendly place to wander and photograph. The street is rich with details - signs, graffiti, ad hoc renovations, store displays, half-completed projects, murals, rusting fire escapes, and of course block after block of ornate vintage architecture.

Sacred and secular

Thalia Hall

In light of this commercially and aesthetically rich strip, I was surprised to find not one but two additional commercial streets nearby, both equal to W. 18th Street in architecture and culture.

The first one I encountered only this weekend. I was a bit tired and hungry, but the major buildings on this stretch of Cermak Road were just too amazing to pass up. I stopped the car and walked for an hour or so. The strip is west and a bit south from 18th Street.

Cermak Road

The prize find, and the building that compelled me to stop, was the old Marshall Square Theater, now called Apollo's 2000.

"Apollo's 2000"

The building was, after a fashion, familiar to me from a striking photograph in Camilo Jose Vergara's wonderful Unexpected Chicagoland, but not till I was standing in front of it did I have the "ah hah!" moment of recognition, when I saw the remorselessly vandalized goddess figure on the front facade, her face obliterated by a box beam ramming through it.

They punched that chick RIGHT IN THE FACE!!

A second theater, last operated as the West Theatre, stands a few blocks east. It's not as ornate, but still lovely.

West Theatre

The neighborhood's official names include South Lawndale and Little Village; demographically speaking, today it's a westward extension of Pilsen, with a heavily Mexican-American population.

Cermak Road

Further west and south again from Cermak, W. 26th Street forms the core of the Little Village neighborhood. Founded and first settled by Eastern European immigrants, the area's current name originated in the 1970s from its more recent Mexican immigrant population.

26th Street, Little Village

Pepe's Locksmith & Hardware

The street's centerpiece is the former Atlantic Theater building, now converted to mundane commercial use.

Former Atlantic Theater

Mother Mary

Any one of these streets would be a marvel by itself; finding them all in such close conjunction is simply amazing.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lakefront bike path etiquette

I love the lakefront bike path, and unlike many people, I just find it more exciting when it gets crowded. Remember the gargantuan space battle at the end of Return of the Jedi, with a billion ships flying in every direction, zipping past at breathtaking speed? That's the lakefront trail at its best. Bobbing and weaving, zig-zagging a path through elusive and short-lived gaps, shouting warnings, slowing and accelerating, the kchunk! of shifting gears -- I love it.

North from Ohio Street Beach

But as much as I love the thrill of it, safety and etiquette have to come first. And so, I have few words for my fellow bicyclists:

1) There is a time to lay on the speed, and a time to hit the brakes. When the path is clogged up with pedestrians, slower bikers, roller bladers, etc., etc., that is the time to hit the brakes. This is a multi-use recreational path, not a velodrome. It won't hurt you to slow down for a moment till the traffic clears (though not slowing down just might.) You will still get your exercise, you won't lose any race, and nobody would've been impressed with your blazing speed anyway, just annoyed at your rude behavior.

2) You are not mute. "ON YOUR LEFT!", when properly used, is your friend. It's rude to blast by people who're only marginally in your way without giving them some kind of warning. Yes, there are lots of clueless people wandering with their head in a cloud. That is no reason to be rude. You haven't gotten used to this by now? You should.

3) It is rude to pass a fellow bicyclist who's slowed down for one of the aforementioned masses of pedestrians, bladers, etc. Believe me, we all want to be at the front of the line, and that goes double for people like me who actually belong there. So just take a number, get in line, wait patiently like the rest of us, and if you have any business passing me (you probably don't*), you can do it once we're in the clear.**

North Avenue beach and bike path

* Yes, I am confident of my biking skills to the point of arrogance. What about it?

**Heck, that's good advice for a lot of Chicago drivers, too.

Unsurprisingly, I'm far from the only resident who has something to say about the bike path.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Fine Arts Building

You've seen it; it's one of the mile-long row of architectural gems lining Michigan Avenue south of the river, just north of the landmark Auditorium Building.

Fine Arts Building

The Fine Arts Building was erected in 1885 to the designs of Solon S. Beman, as the Studebaker Building. Predating the automobile age, its upper floor were used to assemble wagons and carriages, while show rooms were in the wide-windowed lower floors. 13 years later Beman returned to the building, lopping off the top floor and adding three new ones in its place, and converting the building to a center of studio space for artists. It remains in this function today, housing architects, photographers, piano instructors, a violin maker, and many similar tenants.

Tarnished by years of grime, it has a raw feeling of age that many of the more polished buildings around it lack. Its rough stone facade, brawny and massive, belies the fact that its facade contains very large areas of glass.

At the base, the Artist's Snack Shop cafe offers outdoor seating, somewhat overpriced food, and an awe-inspiring neon and bulb-lit sign.

Fine Arts Building facade detail

Inside, the building offers a number of delights. The corridors retain their original wood and iron work. Murals decorate a central light well adjacent to the main stairs and other places. A top-floor ballroom features ornate light fixtures and sweeping views of the lake and Grant Park.

Fine Arts Building

Equally vintage are the elevators, with all their original metal trim intact. The system requires an operator, who flashes past the floors in a slow streak of light as the cars go up and down.

Fine Arts Building

Fine Arts Building

Fine Arts Building annex

Behind the building, facing Wabash and the rails of the L, stands an incredibly thin building, at 421 S. Wabash. Built as the Fine Arts Building Annex, it dates from 1924, was designed by architects Rebori, Wentworth, Dewey & McCormick, and housed heating equipment and additional studio space. The "Rebori" in the architectural firm is Andrew Rebori, who did renovation work on the main building, and went on to design some amazing Art Deco around Chicago. The building's emphatic verticality, reinforced by two slender pilasters running the full height of the facade, is distinctly Chicago School.

Fine Arts Building annex

Fine Arts Building annex

The side of the annex is a vast wall of common Chicago brick, with a painted ad for a Tiki restaurant called Pago Pago.

Fine Arts Building annex

The Fine Arts Building has its own web site, proudly proclaiming its continued status as a haven for artists.