Sunday, July 12, 2009

Natural Waterfalls in Downtown Chicago

Waterfall Chicago is a beautiful city. In addition to the wonderful skyline, the lake, and the parkland, we have a number of remarkable water fountains and examples of water art. Notable examples of water art include the famous Buckingham Fountain by Jacques Lambert, the large waterfall on the Lake Side of the McCormick Center, the new Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa at Millennium Park, and the wonderful park around the AON center. They are all beautiful and worth visiting. But, having grown up in the mountains of Vermont I like to see water with a little less intentional design every now and then. There are no interesting rivulets or streams in the downtown area, and one hardly expects to find little natural treasures like an unexpected waterfall.

Waterfall 1 (Double-click picture to play video)
The other day while walking to meet some friends at a pub, however, I discovered that Chicago actually does have naturally occurring waterfalls. Perhaps "naturally occurring" is misleading. What I'm talking about is when water runs off the roads and highways and then descends into the labyrinth of streets that lie beneath. Downtown Chicago, unlike downtown New York or San Francisco, has complicated multi-level streets beneath the apparent street level. We rarely hear about these spaces, except when there are related construction accidents, but many people use these streets to commute; most of the major buildings in downtown Chicago use them for deliveries and trash removal, and our homeless populations use them to avoid the rain and bad weather. It's a very interesting underbelly of the city. When I first moved here, walking down in this underbelly made me uncomfortable: not only are the spaces not designed to be pedestrian friendly, but also you'll observe homeless people peeing on the streets, or if you're in an automobile, you'll observe concrete walls passing a few feet from your vehicle at 50 mph. None of these are particularly choice-worthy experiences. But, in my subsequent time living in downtown Chicago I've come to appreciate these sometimes magnificent multi-story spaces with their rust-covered columns, walls of concrete, and visible girders. They are intentionally designed spaces, lit 24 hours a day, and some are even adorned with architectural highlights, but even so, they are the sort of thing likely to be completely ignored by tourists and tour guides.

Waterfall 2 (Double-click picture to play video)
Because they are ignored, they're not always maintained in pristine condition. And it is when these systems break down during heavy rains that some of the more remarkable waterfalls in Chicago make their ephemeral appearances. It would be fun to see a collection of more of them, but I include three waterfalls from the night on my way to the pub here. Each one transfers large quantities of water, and persists for a while even after the rainstorms end. But it is sometimes difficult to see design errors as beautiful things. And there is no doubt that some of these are design or construction errors: they are eroding girders, damaging streets, and can potentially damage automobiles (see the video with the SUV below). But I like to think of these as naturally-occurring waterfalls, manifestations of nature taking back its great Metropolis. In that light they can be examples of unexpected beauty that refuse to be tamed.

Waterfall 3 (Double-click picture to play video)
This individual might want to park the SUV in a different locale!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sarah Palin as Mad Hatter

Palin In a recent Slate article Dahlia Lithwick argues that far from being the cause of her downfall, the media actually was Sarah Palin's greatest strength: in their efforts to create coherent arguments, they were constantly challenged to make sense of her seemingly nonsensical pronouncements. This was nowhere more evident in her resignation speech. In the course of Dahlia's argument she compares Sarah Palin to the Mad Hatter.

I find it interesting that people often describe Sarah Palin as a Mad Hatter because of her incoherent arguments. The interesting thing is that in Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter is an amusing and entertaining character. (If there is any doubt, look who's playing him in the upcoming movie version). We are amused by the fictional character in part because there is some wit displayed at the tea party, but I think it's also because the Mad Hatter is so out of the ordinary. Our political system, for good or for bad, tends to value the ordinary: people who stick to the scripts, use the same talking points, and give the sense of order and coherence. No party has made more formidable use of the ordinary than the GOP. In contrast, Palin often did none of this, and so just like the Mad Hatter, people found the unusualness entertaining. It also enabled her to voice opinions that were just false or unjustified in a way that some supporters probably wish they could. And she could always pass the fault on to the media. So, if there is any mystery about Sarah Palin's popularity, it seems wise to look to Alice. Although, when it comes to the idea of Palin actually governing something, one feels that Alice was probably right, "I think you might do something better with the time . . ." It seems that Palin finally agrees.