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Someplace Else

Today’s post is the first of several that are a kind of travelogue for this week’s trip to Chicago. The main reason I’m here is to give a talk about old skyscraper research – more about that tomorrow – but I had the opportunity today to walk around for a couple of hours and reacquaint myself with this great city.

To a lot of people, there’s a superficial similarity between Chicago and New York. Big cities full of big buildings. If you’re used to looking closely at the built environment there are clear differences, but they can be small. The picture above provides an example. If I had not taken this picture and someone showed it to me, I would immediately know that it’s not New York and I’m pretty sure I’d know it was Chicago almost as fast. How? (Ignore the writing on the bus and any phone numbers with visible area codes. Assume that information is not present.)

First, we have some big old skyscrapers with terra cotta facades on the left, and newer glass-walled buildings down the street. (We also have the Reliance Building down the street, but let’s pretend we don’t know that.) That tells me we’re in a large city and one that was a large city 100 years ago, which rules out most of the sunbelt.

The elevated train seems an obvious tell, but it’s not really. I don’t know that I can reliably tell the difference between commuter rail and a subway/metro train. A lot of commuter rail in various cities runs on old rail lines that may be elevated on trestles in a city center. The New York Central lines on Park Avenue north of 96th Street are the obvious NYC example. Why is this not a New York elevated subway or rail line? It’s subtle. New York has buildings that look like this and rail that looks like this but not in the same place. Our skyscraper-adjacent elevated trains were demolished more than 80 years ago, replaced by subways.

The last item is unfortunate. We have much more clutter on the sidewalk. Not garbage, although we have that, too, but signs for parking, and newspaper boxes, and sidewalk sheds, and parking meters, and cellar hatch doors, and endlessly et cetera. Our street furniture is out of control to the point where this sidewalk with only some planters seems empty.