A Never Ending City, Always There

 Written by Brian Daily

-April 19th, 2006-


Before the summer of 2005, the Midwest was a new frontier for me. Imagine a reverse of the migration out west. I was traveling east. I had never been further east than Montana. I’ve always heard there were plains beyond the mountains. In the settler’s era, didn’t it used to be, mountains beyond those plains? The ultimate reason for my 3300 mile drive was to make it up to Houghton, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. At the time, my friend whom was from Chicago was back at home, so I visited for a few days. My friend’s name is Chris. His excitement flourished as my new discoveries of the city were his upbringings. At first I was overwhelmed by Chicago’s grandness and size, and I still am. My friend kept assuring me that the place was really as close knit as small towns can get.  The true immensity of the city is locked within its neighborhoods, districts and areas. The people are what make it complex. Scores of immigrants have flocked to this city to make it what it is today. In its birth two hundred years ago, floods of Irish, Italians and Germans have settled here. The blues and jazz have a long history in Chicago. Now floods of immigrants are still moving into the city’s core, as the older generation families are transcending towards the outskirts. City engulfs the farmland. Chris’s family had moved to a quite suburb on the southern border of the city, actually in Indiana. I've always had a general stereotype of the city in my head. My friends whom have visited would tell about how relaxed and chill their visit was. They would say that the city is friendly and exciting. I would now say the same to anybody that asks me.

The drive was fast and I didn’t get to feel, touch and sense as much as I wanted to of the land through out South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. South Dakota fascinated me with its sacred Black Hills and nature preserves of grasslands. The Black Hills has always been a sacred ground for the Sioux Indians. From America’s history, the Black Hills are famous for Mt Rushmore. The portraits of four powerful American presidents glaze out across the plains. Seeing these monuments instills a curiosity to ask “Why pick these particular faces? What have they done?” George Washington is known by everybody in the United States of course. His face is literally everywhere. The founding father, the ‘Big Dogg’ yet, how distant are people now from his time? In the wake of the industrial revolution, horses are replaced by cars and sails replaced by fuel. We might not truly know who he was because life back then was so different. Nothing comparable to today’s world exists. Maybe this change has also happened for thought and reason. Eight years before the Revolutionary War, George Washington fought for the British against the French in the French and Indian Wars. Would his motive be any different than a colonel or general in the U.S. army today? His spoils of war were the opportunity of molding a nation. A general’s spoils of war today are the security of a peaceful life and a fat retirement check. If homeboy George was resurrected in America today, what would he say about this nation now? Thomas Jefferson is honored as one of the founding fathers that created the Constitution. He helped craft the machine and assure its progress thrived. Abraham Lincoln fought to end slavery and from his ethic the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted. Would Lincoln be surprised to learn that true civil rights for African Americans weren’t recognized until 100 years later? Or would he be proud to be from a state were the biggest out lashes for civil right took place, within the city of Chicago. “The Land of Lincoln” glimmers from the Illinois state license plate as cars clog the interstates. Theodore Roosevelt is admired from the installment of the National Parks. He was a hunter and wanted to see the wildlife of the land preserved for human interaction. Could he have saved the buffalo? His creation of the National Park system is honored by many. It preserved natural space and environments. Roosevelt’s also listened to people whom were concerned; hence wildlife refugees were also established. William Finley, an early 1900’s photographer and bird naturalist sent concerns to the president about protection of bird populations. At the time, tourism along the Oregon coast included boating out to the rock islands and firing off into colonies of nesting birds. The snowy plover used to live across the entire stretch of Oregon and Washington coast line. Now it is confined to select areas. Finley’s photographs capture the brazen photographer climbing 50 foot oak trees to gather intimate photographs of nesting eagles.

The longest and probably most impressive project ever undertaken within The United States of America resides in the Black Hills. This is the Crazy Horse Monument. Fifty eight years of work has carved out a face, upper arm and top of a horse’s head. The statue’s bulk is made mostly of Crazy Horse’s mantle and horse’s neck. The monument is a carving of the legendary Sioux riding his horse with his arm pointing towards all that is sacred. “My lands are where my dead lie buried” Crazy Horse. A Boston born sculptor with polish decent Korczak Ziolkowski, devoted his life to this monument. He created three manuals to guide future workers towards completion. He envisioned the project would take 150 years. Will this rival the temples in Asian or churches in Europe that have spanned numerous generations? The Dom in Koln, Germany took 400 years to finish in the 1600’s. What did it take for this sculptor to think of starting a project to honor a legendary Native American? Part of Ziolkowki’s vision involved having the American people  recognize this important monument for themselves. Its funding comes from visitors that travel to see the far from completed works. Governmental grants are refused, in order to preserve this ethic. I can’t wait for the next 100 years to see its completion.

Driving through South Dakota we crossed through the Bad Lands, where the largest intact T-Rex fossils ever, were found. The 90% complete dinosaur fossil resides in Chicago’s Field Museum. Its name is Sue. The museum purchased the fossils for a mire 8.4 million dollars. Compare this to the cost of overpass bridges. Look out for those road construction signs next time on the freeway and try to see how many Sue’s the construction could buy. I would like to go back to South Dakota and discover the areas grasslands. Could the grasses be as old as the dinosaurs? As I drove east, the patchworks of grasses transformed into a network of farms. Being a flat and gentle terrain, virtually all of the mid-west’s land has been settled and converted to corn or soy agriculture. The food is transported to the coasts and the cities like Chicago. I am astonished by so many people blanketing such a vast land. Where do you go if you simply want to get lost in wilderness?

One of the most intriguing things I noticed is the regions use of ethanol in its fuel use. E10 fuel incorporates 10% ethanol mix to gasoline and E85, 85% mix. It’s available for the use in fuel flexible cars. Minnesota has the highest amount of gas stations in the U.S. that offer E85 fuel.  In the world of oil it is often mistaken to assume the complete dependence on oil. Some people fear that the oil supply will diminish sooner than later. The readily available fuels like ethanol will fill the gaps for America’s exuberant fuel use if this fear becomes a reality. Biodiesel and ethanol aren’t the universal solution but they are in a position to become the first step alternative. The diesel engine was first designed to run of ethanol, now the industry will have to step back and recreate what got abandoned.

We crossed the Mississippi in Iowa and the first impressions disappointed me. The sluggish river creped along its confined path. “I thought the Mississippi would be a little more Mississirrippi than this.” I commented in ironic pessimism. The river acts as a life vein for the Great Plains. It supplies assurance of water and flushes out immense phosphorus loads form all the farmlands. The Mississippi river crates a plume of “dead zone” as it flows into the gulf. I thought the back bone of the continent would have a cascading entrance. Maybe it is resistant to its captives; with only the power to lash out with floods from time to time.

We drove into Chicago late at night; Chris’s family is the humblest and friendliest people I have ever met. They welcomed me, and secured my comfort. Chicago has an old yet, efficient rail system. The day after are arrival we took a train into the city's downtown. “Even thought we live out so far we can train in and get into downtown in about 45 minutes” Chris told us. It took an hour and a half. Chris’s dad takes the train into work. His office sits next to the Sears tower. This is some thing I learned about Chicago. All the hustle and bustle is customary, might as well be patient. I had to figure that out. My small town mentality would think it is ludicrous to have to spend more than 20 minutes biking anywhere. I am not used to the city and downtown glimmered! “Don’t expect to find the word pedestrian in the dictionary; Drivers are crazy here” Chris warned us. That’s something different, people don’t obey crosswalk signs. But my goodness, what an impressive sight! Millennium Park beckoned us to enter as we arose out of the subway. As the courtyards in the park opened space for us jets came crashing out of the sky. Thunderous noise cascaded down as a jet would arc in circle; dip into the city, lift a wing and soar in between the buildings. Practice for an air and water show next week.

At this time Chris’s dad took off work to join us. I received relentless begging for change from the homeless. “They can pick you out a mile away” Chris says. Mysteriously Chris and his dad never got asked for money. Downtown Chicago is mega. It’s a concrete maze of commotion. We walk all around the downtown. Wow! Look at that, The Chicago Tribute building located on Michigan Avenue, has chunks of famous structures from around the world embedded in it. The walls are made with a piece of the Great Wall of China, Notre Dame, an Egyptian Pyramid, even the Dom in Koln.

Looking back now, I think about Chicago in a new light. A rebel force is brewing. A cause for change in the system is prevailing. A turnover to new ways of life is evident. The endowment of a sustainability consensus is brewing. Or world is pumping out lifestyles that will not continue to thrive in the future. In the name of sustainability, will a revelation continue America’s consuming ways and offer long lasting insurance? Or will today’s era flop and crumble?  Just introducing the word sustainability into the vocabulary assures that life today will not prevail for ever at the rate it is going. Or else the word would not need to be defined. It is evident that with the rapid depletion of resources something must be done. Or we will be old news like the powdered wigs in Congress. Chicago is the heart of it all. Right smack in the middle. Suburbia engulfs the grass. So can it last? Imagine the mountain men of the Papua New Guinea or the indigenous tribes of the Amazon holding a meeting “Here, here we need to discuss today about being more sustainable” The term sustainability is appeasing to our ears and rings clear to be the answers we are seeking. What is the key to continue our technological process and continue use of all our great toys, without running out of our resources? It just sounds so pure. But, it’s not how we live. Everybody dips into the system; it is our way of life. Suburbia keeps growing. 

Chicago sits along the edge of Lake Michigan. The lake is huge and nearly all of its western shore is blanketed with development. Grass and forest has been stumped out for steel and concrete. During our stay we went to the Field Museum. An impressive display of mummies, fossils, artifacts and exhibitions that takes weeks to explore. We got exhausted after four hours from just absorbing it all. Next to the Field Museum sits a cluster of other museums such as the Aquarium. Impressive! I noticed that the city didn’t bombard the edges of the shores of Lake Michigan. The skyscrapers are set back a little from the edge. Maybe the developers have left room for the lake to breath.

Another impressive attraction was the Chicago River; “Watch out for Dave Matthews, he is passing by.” A stranger commented as we walked over a bridge that spanned the river. The stranger was referring to earlier that summer when Dave Matthew’s tour bus decided to dump its 'load' when crossing over the river. Little did they know that a cruise ship was underneath the bridge.  The river is more of a channel than a river: a man-made waterway to offer ambiance for the city. The colossal buildings don’t constitute a natural feel but, more or less notable and daunting. Another interesting aspect of Chicago is its revolutionary focus. Green roofs are more plentiful in Chicago than in any other U.S. city. I didn’t get to see any roofs since we were restricted to the street level. I tend to do this in cities; walking the streets is all I can do even though it is only a marginal part of the whole city. Life emanates from within the buildings.

Chicago is known for its people, diversity and districts. There is an entirely Irish district and during Saint Patrick’s Day the rivers flow green. Groups of immigrants have added pieces to the framework of the city. We got to experience one of Chicago’s universal traits, Chicago style pizza. The classic pizza is a deep dish behemoth with layers of cheese and toppings. For lunch I got a kick out of the home town pride. Chris and his dad argued with a heated one-side debate about why Chicago’s pizza is so much better than New York’s. I could only smirk and agree because; I really didn’t have a clue what New York pizza is like. The pizza was pretty dam good. People can get real touchy about their cultural icons.   

One evening up in Houghton, my friend Ryu and I discussed the potential of human impact vs. time. We discussed the question, what if everybody in a large city where to disappear? How long would it take for the are to have nature completely take over again? How much time would pass before there was no visible trace left of the city? We implored the situations and circumstances and used Chicago as the city to base our lengthy speculations on. Today, humans will dig up city ruins dating back hundreds of years, and forgotten with time. Stone has proven to endure the fierce javelins of time. What about gigantic cities with areas encompassing miles upon miles square? Not just a single structure like the pyramids in Egypt, but a whole city. Will excavations in 20,000 years dig up underground steel mills, automobile factories and universities? Certain structures crumble away as of others loom about in the wind?

First a fire will ravage the city. Every thing that is wood will burn. The majority of the buildings will be destroyed, similar to the Chicago Fire of 1871. This tragic fire burnt all the buildings to the ground except for one fountain which still remains to this day. The fire was ignited from a cow. There would be concrete and brick left over after a fire. What about the skyscrapers? Would they be dark sentinels to a wandering traveler in 10,000 years? Will they crumble into big mounds of rumble and create hills? Eventually the grass, scrubs and trees will crack into the concrete and grow up out of gardens. What about all the metal. The sewers, overpasses and giant factories will still endure. What will take over? Maybe the planted trees in Millennium Park will thrive. Today is strange because never before have cities been so massive. Never before have structures raised so high into the sky. Never before have cities stretched so far. How long would it require for a future archeologist to be dumfounded lucky and strike a 21st century marvel with their digs? What would they learn about the livelihood of that ancient civilization?

The terrain that the city is built on has a lot of significance. In a high earthquake prone area eventually the earth will shift enough to bury the buildings. The Midwest is not prone to earthquakes and there is no mountain that may bury with landslides. There is wind that can deposit sand, dirt and seed to cover the ruins. The wind can bring water and snow which may, with time, melt the city into tiny particles to be washed away with the rivers. In the scale of human time the city would remain, but slowly inch its way into decay.

The day before I left Chris and I played a relaxing game of disk golf. We found a peaceful park nestled among the ponds and bush of Indiana. The course was close to his home. The sport has gained popularity all across America. The attraction is to turn a substantial area of land into a low maintenance course, adaptable in many city parks. It’s never a bad excuse to get some walking done. Later in the evening we went into the city to visit some friends of Chris. His friends were off on a journey to spend ten days biking around Vermont. I guess it takes only ten days to bike the whole state. We had a short bike adventure of our own, riding as a pack through the evening night. The city’s glow lit up the streets, and the Sears Tower flashed as if it were a lighthouse. In the fog of night we found a great ice-cream shack. Single scoops of Italian ice cream to fuel our ravaging. It was surprising how quite the backstreets are at night. I’ve been back to Chicago three times since last summer. I’ve only driven into the city's interior to fly out of Midway airport. For these visits, I saw the city flash by as the freeway raced under the wheels of my car. I’d love to spend more time to hang out and explore. Hopefully I get a chance to go back and visit again, instead of getting buried in my memories.