Chicago’s Downtown: Dead or Alive?

LaSalle Street is deserted. A post-pandemic norm

Though the pandemic is waning, downtown Chicago remains semi-comatose.  On a Monday at mid-day, the financial district was empty except for a handful of pedestrians.  Absent were the Ubers, trucks, and cabs usually clogging this part of town.  South LaSalle Street, which has been in decline since the Chicago Board of Trade (center) closed its trading floors, is even more of a ghost town than before.


How sound are the balance sheets of these massive commercial buildings?  The Real Deal reports that, by the end of 2020, the vacancy rate in Chicago’s central business district had climbed to a “grim” level of 14.2 percent, with 148.2 million square feet of unrented office space.  Meanwhile, businesses still holding leases tried to reduce their obligations by offering to sublease 5.4 million square feet of vacant space, a 93-percent increase over 2019.

Commercial real estate broker MBRE reports that the vacancy rate has since increased to 15.36 percent at the end of March, 2021.  When the sublease space is thrown in, the total rate of surplus office space comes to 19.20 percent.  (Office vacancy in the Chicago suburbs has been rising, too.)


With so few Chicagoans commuting downtown, and tourism at a standstill, entities that provide ancillary goods and services are languishing.  It’s eerie seeing so few people on this particular stretch of Adams.  Normally, people would be strolling toward the Art Institute (center), going for lunch at the Revival Food Hall (left), or doing business at the Federal Court Buildings and Post Office (right).


In-person activity in the vicinity of the Federal Court remains subdued.  Chicago’s downtown, while paralyzed by COVID, was also gravely injured by the opportunistic violence perpetrated during the summer of 2020.  Many businesses went under in the wake of the looting and the trauma; others, though solvent, remain indefinitely closed for want of custom.  Some storefront businesses, like the Intelligentsia in the Monadnock Building (center), stand poised to reopen should their former clientele materialize.

Given the relative expense of doing business in Chicago and prevailing wait-and-see atmosphere, it’s doubtful when the city will wake up and regain its health.

Heavens, The Great Conjunction!

Our first view of the Christmas Star (Dec 19), © 2020 Susan Barsy

After a difficult year, the advent of the Christmas Star was something wondrous to look forward to.  The internet buzzed with how Saturn and Jupiter would align almost perfectly in their orbits, so much so as to appear as one unusually bright star.  This rare occurrence, coinciding with the winter solstice and technically known as “the Great Conjunction,” happens only once every four-hundred years.  The last time the Great Conjunction occurred in the night sky, however, was in 1226.  Earthlings primed to look up into the late December sky in 2020 stood to witness a cosmic and extraordinary rapprochement.  Bob and I (total amateurs when it comes to such things) talked over our astronomical excursion excitedly.

Seeing an astronomical wonder depends on information, good timing, and good luck.  Whereas some articles asserted that the planets would be visible for just forty-five minutes after sunset, from our present quarters in southwest Michigan, the two planets were above the horizon for almost two hours (per this sophisticated “time lapse” sky map for nearby Benton Harbor). The two planets had begun drawing closer to one another for many weeks prior to December 21 and will continue to appear close together in the night sky until early January.  The evening of the 21st was overcast in our area, but on the 20th and 22nd the conjoined planets (above) were easy to spot.

Pink halo above Jupiter (Dec 20), © 2020 Susan Barsy

On the 20th, as the sky grew dark, the two planets grew more distinct.  Jupiter sported a sweet pink halo; that was Saturn.  We found that our best view of the sky was from under some huge evergreen trees near a very powerful streetlight.  Gradually, we lost a clear view of the planets, as they descended at a roughly 45-degree angle toward the horizon.

The two planets (Jupiter and Saturn)

I took this photograph on the 22nd, using a Nikon with a 36x zoom.  This is a more clinical, scientific view.  The planets only appear to be “next” to one another, when they are hundreds of millions of miles away from one other and from us.  Saturn (at right) is roughly twice as far away from Earth as Jupiter is.

This picture from the 22nd, taken with my Sony on a tripod, better captures the thrill of seeing the two planets in the cold twilight sky.  Saturn is now clearly to the right of brilliant Jupiter.  Saturn looks like a pearl with an ermine ring.  Fiddling with this picture in Photoshop doesn’t improve anything.  The astonishing clarity of the planets filled me with awe.

The moons of Jupiter extend in a line to the left. New Buffalo, MI.

This was perhaps the best picture I took, because, to the left of the planets, one can just make out several of Jupiter’s moons.   The 22nd was partly cloudy, and we were lucky that the wispy clouds broke enough up to reveal this dazzling sight.  For a happy hour, we gazed up with our binoculars, our cameras, and our unaided eyes, until the planets disappeared into the trees.

All photos © Susan Barsy 2020

The Face of Power

Western home in junk-strewn landscape.
Election 2016 delivered a shock to conventional wisdom, to liberals and conservatives, to the political establishment, and to people like me who write or talk about politics professionally.  Even though I correctly predicted a Trump victory, still when it came to pass, I was shocked.  Now, when I wake up in the morning, I sometimes feel a sense of foreboding.  At other times, though, I feel guardedly optimistic—about the body politic, if not about Trump.

Because conventional wisdom, the professional politicians, and the party establishment, all needed to be shocked.  For at least five years, I have been writing about the stale condition of the parties and their ideologies.  I have been writing about how the parties need to reorganize themselves around new ideas, about how the nation needs to get organized around a new constellation of goals appropriate for our times.  Nothing less than the victory of a Donald Trump was required to shake the political parties and all their personnel out of a state of perpetual complacency.  Both GOP and Democratic leaders must wake up: they are under much greater pressure now to use what power they have responsibly and constructively.  If they do not deliver better government for the electorate, their parties are going down.  I firmly expect that the next two to four years will be a time of constructive ideological ferment in the United States–and that politics will attract a new generation of leaders committed to reform and a renewed focus on commonly shared ideals, like a generally enjoyed prosperity and peace.

Like most intellectuals, I enjoy a life of privilege.  I live in a city.  My circumstances set me off from the rest of the population who are not part of ‘the creative economy,’ a term used to describe the formation of elites who make things and make things happen–who enjoy a sense of influence and autonomy.  This election has rudely reminded all of us to broaden our vision and consider what is really happening in our country: how a system that used to work for most Americans, providing sound education, civic consciousness, and secure livelihoods for breadwinners–has been gradually slipping away.  Great swathes of the nation are cut off from the expansive prospects that cosmopolitan Americans find so exciting.  The election has forcefully re-directed our gaze–back to the ordinary places where democratic power dwells.