There have been plenty of movies made about Chicago, in Chicago, and around Chicago, but no feature film captures the visual and cultural essence of Chicago in 1980 better than The Blues Brothers. I was reminded of this the other night as my 17-year-old son and I watched it for the tenth time. The unimpeded view of iconic tall buildings across the cityscape made the best modern high-rises of Chicago easily recognizable (along with one in Milwaukee as seen from the bridge to nowhere in the famous car chase scene).
Thirty-two years ago Chez Paul was considered the finest restaurant in Chicago, crime was up, Jane Byrne was mayor and graft was a daily part of doing business with practically every city and county department. When John Landis, the director of The Blues Brothers, sought permission to shoot on Cook County property, he didn’t approach county officials; instead, he went to the mob. Like other American cities of a similar size, Chicago had yet to see the urban renaissance of young professionals forsaking the suburbs in droves for the urban experience, gentrifying neighborhoods that needed it as well as those that didn’t.
By the time John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, and Howlin’ Wolf had all passed, so too had Nate’s Deli, which was used as the location for the fictional Soul Café where Aretha Franklin belted out “Think” and where John Lee Hooker performed “Boom Boom” outside on Maxwell Street. In the following scene, Ray Charles performed “Shake a Tail Feather” at Ray’s Music Exchange, better known to Bronzeville residents as Shelley’s Loan and Jewelry on East 47th Street. James Brown performed at the Pilgrim Baptist Church on East 91st Street and the concert scene in Wisconsin at the Palace Hotel Ballroom with Cab Calloway was actually the South Shore Country Club in Chicago.
Today, Maxwell Street is there in name but a large percentage of the buildings have either been demolished or replaced. With few exceptions, where there were once thriving street markets, blues clubs and authentic soul food, there are now chain restaurants, sports bars and new condo developments. The bridges, roads and “L” trains that were so predominately depicted in the movie have been modernized by new train cars (and I miss the look of the old ones) and some very new stations, but not all are better.
The Chicago skyline has dramatically changed as well. The city has increased the number of tall buildings over 18 stories by tenfold in the last thirty-two years. Unfortunately, this hasn’t made it a more attractive skyline, just a bigger one. One must remember that the first skyscraper in Chicago (and thus the world) was only ten stories in height. Most buildings were only a few stories high and the vast majority of them, no matter when they were built, could not be considered good architecture—just urban infill and real estate. The difference is that this new litany of tall buildings that we see on the skyline detracts from the beauty of the skyline rather than improves it.
It’s not all bad. As the city changed so too did its politics, business investment, real estate, investment in education, and the perception of us as an urban society. There have been wonderful improvements made to the built environment in Chicago in the last three decades. To name just a few of the more thoughtful and meaningful building projects, we have seen countless preservation initiatives, sections of Millennium Park, the Gary Comer Youth Center, the Buckingham Fountain visitor pavilions and the tree planting of the boulevards and Lake Shore Drive. It is too bad the same skill and thoughtfulness was not instilled in many of the new tall building developments that now obstruct our skyline.
The plot of The Blues Brothers was to raise money to save the Catholic orphanage in which they grew up from tax foreclosure. The irony of the plot is that it was Cook County foreclosing on the Catholic Church and as an organized religion the Catholic Archdiocese does not pay property taxes.
In today’s election, once again we are being told how horrible our tax situation is and that we need to rely more on private enterprise and business expertise to save us from the horrible mistakes of government. It is an indisputable fact that we are paying less tax as a percentage of income than we were thirty years ago and seeing less done with our money domestically with what tax revenue we do have. Regardless of what we pay in taxes, we should be asking ourselves what our government is supposed to do for us. Shouldn’t our expectation of the government be to provide a physical infrastructure on which we base the way we live in good times or bad?
The government gave the automobile manufacturers paved highways, oil companies subsidies for exploration, and the western states power and water. Unfortunately, the projects of this great recession haven’t come close to those of the Great Depression in either scope or quality; and in the private sector, big building projects have done little for our skyline, culture, or sense of identity unlike, say, Rockefeller Center in New York in 1933. The private sector has not stepped up to the plate when the government has pulled back. In fact, more than ever, large corporations are looking for government subsidies to determine their geography. And, unfortunately, our government leadership has not effectively made the case as to why we should be investing in our infrastructure like no other time before.
Today, as we elect a president and hundreds of federal representatives, what is it that we seek from government? It seems the best investment our government can make is to develop and maintain a path that can bring neighbors together, helping to create both a political and physical environment that promotes interaction and a healthy exchange of ideas as well as a vibrant and divergent commerce. That is difficult to do when the path you use to seek out your neighbor is a muddy rut. Perhaps it is again a time to ask ourselves what it is that we can do for our country.