Hometown Tourism

“Was anyone in line at 7:30 this morning?”

A handful of passengers raised their hands.

“Try earlier,” a wiry woman hollered from the back of the trolley. “6am!”

By 9am, the atrium of the Santa Fe building resembled the New York Stock Exchange. A middle-aged crowd clamored to get tickets, checking the signboards around the room which were riddled with black lines, each one striking through a booked tour. A red-shirted volunteer announced an opening and the two spots were immediately and fiendishly snapped up by an older gentleman and his wife.

The tickets in question offered access to one of many free architectural tours of Chicago. The annual event put on by the Mayor’s Office, known as “Great Chicago Places and Spaces,” promises a behind-the-scenes look at many of Chicago’s popular architectural feats, as well as those more unknown buildings, many of which have fallen into disrepair.The trolley for “Chicago’s Seven Most Endangered,” a tour of landmarks under the threat of the wrecking ball, smelled oddly similar to the basement “El” platforms. The zipped up plastic “windows,” which tended to cloud over, only added to the ambiance. For a tour about historic architecture, the view was rather limited, on some occasions only allowing a glimpse of the ground floor, if any part of the building could still be seen at all.

But as the trolley lumbered down Michigan Avenue the windows were unzipped, permitting better observation and easier breathing. Just south of the Loop was Motor Row. Michael Moran, Vice President of Preservation Chicago pointed out the sites of a handful of Al Capone’s headquarters: the grand Lexington hotel, the Metropole, the Four Deuces (so named for its address, at 2222 S. Wabash), and his “furniture store.” Most of the sites are empty lots. Not far from these places, Henry Ford opened his first showroom outside of Detroit. The area, which was once home to scores of dealerships, now has but a few. Nonetheless, it is soon to be turned into an entertainment district for the nearby McCormick Convention Center.

Pushing further south into Douglas and Bronzeville, through the streets where luminaries like Gwendolyn Brooks, Joe Louis, Muddy Waters and Louis Armstrong once lived, the tone turned melancholic as the Pilgrim Baptist Church appeared. Jonathan Fine, President of Preservation Chicago explained, “Gospel music was born in this church. Thomas A. Dorsey literally invented gospel here.” After last year’s fire, the church is held up by yellow metal beams and the inside is a junkyard. The church was built by Sullivan and Adler as a synagogue, but became a church in the ’20s and an important social and cultural center of the African-American neighborhood. Fine stressed, “We need to hold on to everything we can, in order to hold on to the history, the people.” The buildings are more than just symbols of another time or feats of architecture. They have actually housed events that have formed American culture. Like many other significant Chicago landmarks, the future of the church is uncertain.

Heading northward, back up Michigan, the towering skyline normally associated with Chicago seemed less impressive. The places and spaces that truly make up Chicago are perhaps not found in the skyline, but in the heart of the city’s neighborhoods like Douglas and Bronzeville.