Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chicagoland in Perspective

People use the term Chicagoland to refer to the City and its greater metropolitan area. But to me the city itself, without its suburbs and exurbs, is large enough to be called Chicagoland. In terms of conveniences it certainly has the attributes of a metropolis, but in terms of feel, the city feels more like a cartographic construct. For those just familiar with East Coast cities, three things will immediately strike one about Chicago: 1) Its flatness, 2) Its expansiveness, and 3) The amount of empty land to be found.

Chicago is flat. Chicago is so flat that I have an unimpeded view of the winter sun from the moment it rises over Lake Michigan to the moment it sets over the barren industrial areas in the west. In fact, one doesn’t even need to be several floors up to know that Chicago is flat. Driving around Chicago, one can often look up and see the road narrowing in the distance and the sidewalks on either side of you merging. When the city is covered in snow, the flatness is even more pronounced, as the natural brown and grey patchwork of cities diminishes into a shadow-less monotone blanket.

Its not just the terrain though that makes Chicago flat. New York City is a vertical city. The buildings there are the landscape. One’s eyes naturally gravitate upwards. In Chicago, that is not the case. The high-rises that are here are just protuberances from the landscape. The vast majority of the city consists of low rise shops and homes, and the sky hangs low enveloping them. After all, there is a reason Frank Lloyd Wright created his low-slung Prairie Style architecture here. Everything seems flat here, even the sky.

I have been to towns in Kansas (that famously flat place) where one can see the prairie and fields while standing in their main intersections. In Chicago, that is not the case. Chicago is spread out, and besides Lake Michigan on its eastern edge, is featureless, and lacks a clear boundary. If you spread out any other direction, there is not a single natural feature that can help place you in the sprawl and it is never clear when you exited Chicago and entered Chicagoland. On cold days, the contrails of planes on their approach to Midway Airport or O’’Hare airport are your best bet for guidance.

Chicago in fact has more land than it knows what to do with. It is not uncommon to find stretches of empty lots interspersed among buildings. In fact, it’s not rare to see a whole block of empty lots, even right by downtown. The presence of empty plots of land makes this city feel even more flat and spread-out than it is. It is a strange thing:  perfectly square patches of land amidst buildings. There is nothing natural about cities, but this unused land seems particularly unnatural. If one could get a very large lasso and cinch the whole place tighter, you would have to reduced the total area of the Chicago by more than half to get the same density of New York City. The amount of space is misleading however; it feels like you would have to cinch this city over four times to get the same density.

The empty lots, the unnatural protuberances of buildings from the flat land, the constant presence of the sky and the near constant ability to glimpse the horizon all conspire to give this city a feeling of plasticity. This city is not a living organism as some cities are, nor is it a character in a novel. Rather each element seems to be an entity almost on to itself. While it is no doubt spread-out and large, there is constant sense that this place is a human construct. One almost feels as if one were an inhabitant of a large miniature model-city found in a museum. This is not necessarily a bad thing....

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