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Missing Places

Ruins are all around us, yet we rarely pay them any attention.


Ruins are all around us, yet we rarely pay them any attention. At the intersection of Halsted, Grand and Milwaukee on Chicago's Near North Side is just such a place. A small masonry building at 479 N. Halsted occupies the southeast corner. The windows and doors are boarded up, and the decorative masonry and cast iron columns that once graced its faade have been mangled over time by endless remodeling. The building's sole remaining purpose is to serve as a base for a mammoth billboard, equal in width and many times its height.

There is more here than meets the eye.

The whole tableau is ironic and ambiguous. At the left edge of the image on the billboard is a white clad male figure and a white telescope on the balcony of what we assume is his hip urban condo. The rest of the image is a nighttime view of the skyline of Chicago, featuring the Sears Tower at its center and a circular full moonnot really the moon, but in fact the double circle logo of Target, the big-box "cheap chic" store.

Behind the billboard is the real skyline of Chicago and the real Sears Tower, and below is 479 N. Halsted, alone and abandoned. In one place you have the actual Sears Tower, which has lost its meaning as a symbol of the power of Sears, and a two-dimensional image of the Sears Tower, aglow in light from a Target moon. It's a sign that Sears is in ruins when another retailer can adopt the image of its iconic tower without fear. The building becomes a prop to symbolize the new urban lifestyle of the white clad figure. The white telescope's very narrow cone of vision explains why the figure seems more drawn to the virtual moon than down to the very real street scene surrounding the billboard.

There is a larger point. What's the meaning of 479 N. Halsted? It depends on the context. There's a difference between a city in ruins and ruins in a city. Detroit is a city in ruins. An abandoned building becomes part of a pattern of decayit begins with declining real estate values, then deferred maintenance, abandonment, decay, collapse, and finally the site returns to nature. There are parts of the South Side and West Side of Chicago that resemble Detroit, where the next viable use may be farming, but 479 N. Halsted is not part of such a pattern.

Chicago is not Detroit. This city has gone wild with growth and redevelopment. Everything is subject to a ruthless calculation of the highest and best use. Today's highest and best use of the small building on Halsted is to give the property owner income from advertising revenue. At some point the math will change, and the building will be gone.

This city was built casually over a period of 150 years in a patchwork of densities and different uses, where rhyme and reason are nowhere to be found and the only thing that matters is to keep moving and building.

Should we mourn the loss of this building? Perhaps the city should landmark more buildings to preserve our history, but each landmarked building brings inertia to the economy and represents a commitment of a scarce resource, the "public will." There are only so many buildings that can be landmarked. Perhaps the city should do more planning. Chicago has been more successful than most cities in making and implementing grand plans, but planning should focus on areas where there is the potential for too much investment or in areas where there is too little (those areas of Chicago that look like Detroit).

The building at 479 N. Halsted is a "blank" in the landscape. It's an idea in the making, all about optimism and embracing an unknown future. The real people who stand on their balconies look down at the city and expect the unexpected. That is why they are there.

Missing places like this structure are all around usimmigrant bungalows in Ukrainian Village that are tear downs, the wonderful 10-story art deco office tower at Western and Madison, the Uptown Theatre and other movie palaces from the teens and '20s, retail stores, churches and all manner of places that people once valued. These were places where lives were invested.

One of the most interesting places is the Carroll Street Railway Bridge. Once upon a time, this lift bridge, which is just south of the Kinzie Street Bridge, provided freight service to Navy Pier and the Chicago Dock and Canal. The freight demand diminished over the years until the only customer was the Chicago Sun-Times. The bridge would be lowered, and rail cars loaded with newsprint would trundle across the bridge and under the Merchandise Mart and Marina City to deliver its cargo to the old Sun-Times building. This massive moving marvel of railroad technology lies abandoned and unseen.

With the relocation of the Sun-Times printing plant to the South Side, the bridge was abandoned, left indefinitely in the "up" position, quietly rusting in place. But again the bridge is just an opportunity waiting to happen. The city of Chicago is developing a plan for a rubber-wheeled rail system that will connect the train stations along Canal to Carroll Street and then Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier. The Carroll Street Bridge will be replaced, giving new purpose to an old resource.

In the patchwork of buildings and infrastructure, it's possible to measure what we use, what we replace and what has been forgotten. These missing places are a measure of where we are and where we are going.

Joseph Valerio is a founding partner of Valerio Dewalt Train Associates in Chicago.

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: November 2006


Rail Bridge
This bridge still works. Got there a half hour after a city crew exercied it, and talked with them. Notice that if merely lowered, it doesn't fit. It is a unique, counterbalanced, double pivot wonder that moves up and out, then lowers.
Ron Goldman, May-14-2012
bridge- typo
Ron Goldman, May-14-2012