Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Vanishing Streets

Admirers of W.G. Sebald will believe he has come back to life in the melancholy, beautiful book called Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London by J.M. Tyree. Reading this book may lead you (as it did me) down a delightful rabbit hole that included watching all of the British Film Institute and Ford Motor Company-funded Free Cinema films as well as reading Tyree's Our Secret Life in the Movies, written in collaboration with Michael McGriff. And I will likely soon re-read Austerlitz and The Emgirants, two of my favorite Sebald masterpieces.

The Free Cinema Films were conceived, filmed, and produced in the black-and-white 1950s of post-war London and other parts of Britain. Unlike the more traditional films of the time, the credo of the Free Cinema directors called for a celebration of ordinary citizens enjoying themselves, living life, working. Downton Abbey/E.M. Forster/Merchant Ivory stories these are not, but for me, they are all the more exciting and fresh for it. You are really there at that time in history, observing people speak, move, live. You are taken into worlds that lie beyond the static, still (though beautiful) black-and-white images of photographers like Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, and Diane Arbus.

Watching the Free Cinema films gave me the same thrill I got when I entered the black-and-white 1950s Rome of Roberto Rosellini and Vittorio Seca. Ditto the French New Wave films of Francois Truffault, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker, and Eric Rohmer. Antonioni captured 1972 China in La Chine; Wim Wenders did the same with Berlin, pre-Wall fall, in the magnificent Wings of Desire. And Kieslowski documented 1960s-1980s life in Poland in his masterful black and white films of the era before making the permanent shift to fiction, starting with his splendid Dekalog, newly released by Criterion.

In Vanishing Streets, Tyree pays homage to Robert Vas's 1962 Free Cinema film, The Vanishing Street. We spend 20 minutes among the inhabitants of London's Jewish East End, specifically Hessel Street, just before the buildings there are razed to make way for "improvements." Like Vas, Tyree depicts the inevitability of the constant cycle of destruction and construction, lamenting what is lost, never (or poorly) to be replaced. Like fellow author Sebald, Tyree illustrates the disconnection and loss felt by many in the modern world by juxtaposing odd, haunting photos within the text. Some worlds can only be seen second-hand now (via books, photos, films) rather than with our own eyes. But at least we have that.



Monday, October 17, 2016

The Life, Death and Rebirth of Buildings and Things

Whenever life doesn't find me elsewhere, I take advantage of Open House Chicago, an annual October event sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. For the past several years, friends and I have peeked behind off-limits curtains and doors, into vaults, snuck up and down staircases, onto rooftops, and into lobbies and hidden spaces of buildings scattered throughout the city. Last year, we toured Ukrainian Village and this year, it was Ravenswood, originally a planned suburb in 1868, but later annexed to the city in 1889. But first...

...After Vietnamese food on Argyle Street in Uptown, my friend and I went down the street to visit Vintage Garage Chicago, a flea market held on the third Sunday of the month from April - October. We looked at and touched objects that had been loved, used, and discarded perhaps many times, perhaps in the past 100 years. Who owned these things and how did the previous owners make that final decision to lighten their loads? Who wants what we decide to let go? Cocktail sets, vintage furs, crusty LPs and 45s, brass door knobs, leather belts, 1960s guides for fathers to use in discussion with their sons about the etiquette of dating, tiny leather baby boots, chunky jewels, shimmering silk and cashmere items.

Still in Uptown, we went by the historic Green Mill, still going strong after nearly 110 years. But next door, the architectural gem, Uptown Theater, stands in sad contrast, boarded up; its interior beauty and legendary status have to be read about or viewed on videoShake, Rattle, and Read, the rock and roll used book and record store (and the Uptown's neighbor of 50 years) shuttered earlier this year. Its most frequent customers were attendees of concerts at the nearby music venues and architectural gems of the Aragon Ballroom and the 100-year-old Riviera, which still stand.

In Ravenswood, we stopped in at All Saints Episcopal Church, the oldest wooden church in the city of Chicago, and a lovely example of a structure that continues to exist today (despite threat of destruction in the 1990s), thanks to the efforts of a devoted community. Afterwards, we walked on cobblestone streets between two train lines (one train happened to go one way and the other roared the other way simultaneously - we yelled for fun) to reach the Airstream Building, another structure saved from the wrecking ball 30 years ago when architect Edward Noonan bought the space for his growing firm. Formerly an industrial plant, the building now house three floors of designers, educators and artists, all of whom can use the roof top and sit inside the silver 1962 Airstream Trailer placed there by crane. Views of the city are great and there was a nice breeze..

Encompassed by Ravenswood, we next went to Lincoln Square, an area originally settled by German and Swiss immigrants, whose influence can still be felt at Cafe Selmarie and Gene's Sausage Shop as well as in apothecaries and other specialty shops. It is the kind of place Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) would have approved of: "eyes on the street," mixed-used zones, plenty of people engaged in various activities, and bits of nature here and there.

This is the centenary of Jane Jacobs' birth; much has been published this year in commemoration. Jacobs' philosophy regarding the preservation of cities and buildings has had its share of detractors over the years, but I find that her words often accompany me when I interact with cities and buildings of the world. It seems to me that every city has elements worth saving, if only to maintain a continuum of the living history of people's efforts to be surrounded by beauty.