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.

Day 53: ‘Economic Patriotism’

Day 53 (aerial of riverside town), © 2016 Susan Barsy
I’m interested in the phrase ‘economic patriotism,’ which Zephyr Teachout of New York has made central to her congressional campaign.  Ideologically, its appearance is significant as a harbinger of the ‘thought revolution‘ destined to shake up both political parties.  As a phrase linking domestic and green production with political empowerment and civic responsibility, ‘economic patriotism’ is smart and historically resonant.  Without pointing fingers, it suggests that economic actors could be encouraged to behave in ways that will promote the good of the country, thus harkening back to a traditional concept of ‘political economy.’

Anti-globalism and a demand for policies that protect citizens’ prosperity have defined the 2016 election cycle.  The popularity of these ideas, which both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have variously articulated, signals Americans’ weariness with the pro-corporate globalism central to the political establishment (and much of the intellectual establishment, too).  Popular anxieties about immigration, out-sourcing, and unfair trade deals all spring from uncertainty as to what will prevent many forms of work from disappearing.  Experts tell Americans that globalism is good, but it’s hard to deny that it undermines national and personal autonomy.  Which lessens American power and independence, right?

Despite eliciting the scorn of experts who point to statistics suggesting otherwise, such ideas, mocked as parochial or alarmingly nationalistic, formerly propelled the US economy to might.  The ideal economy is one that promotes an egalitarian prosperity: this notion has been central to American political development, accounting for such diverse initiatives as protectionism, abolitionism, and the massive sale of public land into private hands, which gave millions of Americans a foothold in the nineteenth century.  A desire to ensure that Americans have the autonomy and cultivation needed to be active and informed citizens of the republic has accounted for many features of the US economy.  It bears considering what ‘economic patriotism’ should look like now.

Power Lines: Hillary’s Nomination

Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky wedding, NYC
Interesting to find this picture circulating on Twitter soon after Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination.  Of the millions of extant photographs of Hillary—whether taken from throughout her public career or in the company of her husband former president Bill Clinton—, the choice of this particular image to punctuate news of her unprecedented political achievement was almost shocking.

It pictures Hillary with her late mother Dorothy and daughter Chelsea, taken on the day Chelsea married.  Standing to one side of her aged mother, Hillary is the embodiment of conventional femininity and maternal pride.  She is simply a mother and a daughter, occupying a place in the generations celebrating a classic rite of passage.  Sartorially, the lady politician famous for her pantsuits has disappeared: if anything, her fancy dress wears her.

How far we have come, the picture telegraphs, particularly in light of Mrs Rodham’s story.  She managed to surmount a hard loveless childhood to raise and inspire a daughter who has bent tradition to become the symbol of something new in American history.  Mrs Clinton’s own ambitions, coupled with those of her husband, long ago catapulted them to the heights of political celebrity, a journey synonymous with radical social mobility.  The Clintons have grown dramatically more wealthy.  And who knows what the future holds for Chelsea?

Though a quintessential American success story, the Clintons are no longer representative of most Americans.  In that regard, Chelsea’s fancy wedding in Duchess County, New York, encapsulates everything that a segment of the American public dislikes about the Clintons.  The private and public lines of Hillary’s destiny are awkwardly entwined, as controversies over her email server make clear.

If this were a photograph of Kennedy men, taken back on the day of Jack’s wedding, say, how different our reactions would likely be.  Ah, yes, we would say: here is Jack getting married, perpetuating the Kennedy dynasty.  We might not pause to criticize the expense of his suit or the nature of his political ambitions.

Bill’s absence from the picture: yes, he may be absent.  Should Hillary become president, increasingly she will be writing her own story, and, as this photograph’s appearance on the internet suggests, the visual culture of the presidency, and women’s sense of their place in the nation, will also change.  The story line is being written even now, of the power lines that have gotten American women to where they are.

Image:
Photograph by Barbara Kinney

Related
Judith Shulevitz, How to Fix Feminism (NYT)