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Summer is having its last hurrah, as we head into autumn and cooler weather. We’re well into the new term at Wright College, halfway through the first 8-week session. The semester is divided into two parts, with new registrations each 8 weeks, so sometimes a sense of continuity gets lost between the new and returning students.
At long last, after paying my dues for two years with split shifts, morning and evening classes with long gaps in between, and hideous commutes, I now have the perfect teaching schedule. My classes are now back-to-back, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. I finally have later afternoons and evenings free, and I no longer sacrifice huge chunks of my day to between-class breaks.
I continue to teach Level 2 ESL, and I’ve recently been assigned a Transition reading and writing class, which bridges the top ESL level and college credit classes. I’m finally able to make use of my experience teaching academic reading and writing skills, and I’m quite content with my new work situation.
Reading and writing are both immensely complicated, multi-level skills requiring critical thinking, fluency, and using the language for purposes other than day-to-day communication and survival skills. It’s taken the first four weeks to decide what activities best fit the needs of my 20+ students. I focus on sentence-level grammar, progressing to paragraph writing, and finally, in a week or two, will introduce basic essay writing. I’ve settled on three or four textbooks that, I feel, best present the materials I want to cover.
As I’d previously discovered while teaching in China, there’s a fine line between teaching “correct” English-language academic writing and encouraging individual creativity. I make sure to acknowledge students’ use of vivid description, and their use of descriptive adjectives that is sometimes original and startling. At this point, I hold back from “correcting” student writing too much; as in my speaking classes, I believe that fluency is more important than accuracy. The students are eager to learn, and seem to be enjoying the course so far. I’m feeling my way, and as in every endeavor, creating a new class is a process that requires trial and error.
I’d been inside the Rookery Building many times before, to marvel at its two-story skylighted atrium, but then I found out that the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust offered an in-depth visit to the building that included the 11th-floor Burnham Library, a part of the architectural offices of Burnham and Root of Chicago.
I eagerly reserved my $11 ticket online, and met a small tour group inside the building on a gorgeous August morning. The oldest-remaining tall office building in Chicago, the Rookery has a multi-layered history, as well as a connection to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The tour included a rare opportunity to view the semi-circular iron stairway winding to the top of the building, as well as the Burnham Library, restored to its original appearance.
The building has connections not only with its principal designers, Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root, one of Chicago’s major architectural firms, but with Frank Lloyd Wright, who was commissioned to update the light court in 1905.
On the 11th floor, reached via the freight elevator, we viewed the Burnham Library, the setting for an iconic photo of Burnham and Root (see below). It was also in this library that many of the plans were carried out for the World’s Columbian Exposition, under the leadership of Burnham following Root’s early death at age 41 in 1891. The sense of history in the room was overwhelming; I felt that I’d been transported to another time and place.
My Wednesday bike ride took me in search of more work by architect Bertrand Goldberg, featured in my previous post. As I headed south on the lake front bike path toward downtown, the brilliant sunlight reflected off the lake as the few weekday bike riders zipped past me in their hurry to get…somewhere.
My ultimate goal was the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and its Mies van der Rohe buildings. Along the way, I would stop at Prairie Avenue, and then another Bertrand Goldberg-designed housing complex. After six miles, I’d reached the Prairie Avenue Historic District, and stopped for a much-needed rest at The Spoke and Bird. Over iced coffee and a scone, I enjoyed the calm atmosphere of the coffee house, as I gazed out the window at a group of faux-19th-century apartment blocks with their not-too-authentic details, seeking to blend in with the neighborhood’s history.
I’ll write a future post on the Prairie Avenue district, whose star is the H.H. Richardson-design Glessner House, but I wanted to continue south on my bike.
Bertrand Goldberg’s Raymond Hilliard Homes, adjacent to Chicago’s Chinatown, were constructed 1963-1966. With two 16-story round towers for elderly housing, and two 18-story curved towers for low-income family housing, the complex contained 756 dwelling units. With rounded bays and windows similar to Goldberg’s River City (see previous post), the buildings cover a large complex that, unfortunately, is accessible only to residents. My photos had to be taken from outside thee perimeter fences. The buildings were certainly different from the many other public housing and mixed-use projects on the south side.
My final stop on my short journey to the near south side was the IIT campus, which I’d never visited. One of the largest collections of Mies van der Rohe-designed buildings in the world, IIT’s most famous building is Crown Hall (1956), which I stopped to admire and photograph.
Mies’ plan for the IIT campus was one of the largest projects he ever conceived and he developed it for twenty years. Today the campus contains 20 of his works, including the famous Crown Hall, which add up to be “the greatest concentration of Mies-designed buildings in the world.” – https://www.archdaily.com/59816/ad-classics-iit-master-plan-and-buildings-mies-van-der-rohe
That was my photographic outing, spanning about 100 years of architecture in Chicago. I returned home on the elevated train with my bike, squeezed among Chicago Cubs fans on their way to Wrigley Field for a ball game.
The Chicago buildings of Bertrand Goldberg, architect of Marina City, have recently begun to capture my imagination, as I visit and photograph his work throughout the city. The destruction of Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (1975) in Chicago in 2013, a building I vaguely remembered admiring years ago, also set in motion my desire to know more about this groundbreaking architect.
Marina City, at the time of its completion boasting both the tallest apartment buildings and tallest concrete structures in the world, is dramatically sited on the Chicago River, and has been a focal point of the city since its completion in 1963. As Goldberg said,
At $10 per square foot, they were the most economical in the United States. They were the first American mixed-use urban complex to include housing and possibly the first in the western world since the 14th century. They were a technological advance that was designed for a world which believed its urban problems could be solved with technology and facts. – ‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’, a speech first given before the Union Internationale des Architectes in April of 1983.
On a recent Saturday, I hopped on my bicycle to explore and photograph some of Goldberg’s Chicago buildings. Apart from Marina City, I was barely familiar with any of his other work.
Punctuating mansion-lined Astor Street on the near north side like a tall exclamation mark, Astor Tower was originally an exclusive hotel, now converted to condominiums. Built around a central core and rising above thin concrete columns with a couple of floating space-age canopies extending over the sidewalk, the thin tower is rather elegant but otherwise unremarkable, surrounded by a sea of similar structures on the lakefront.
Designed just before Marina City, and built at about the same time,
Goldberg exposed the core at the base of the building and again at top, highlighting its important structural role by making it a central feature of his design. Because the residential stories do not begin until the fifth story, the exposed core gives the impression of an architectural peep-show, the building lifting its exterior wall to expose its structure beneath. – http://bertrandgoldberg.org/projects/astor-tower/
More exciting and, similar to Marina City, combining residential, shopping, and recreational uses, Goldberg’s River City (completed 1986) was a new discovery for me. The only place from which you can view the entire serpentine, double-curve structure, located in Chicago’s South Loop, is from the opposite side of the Chicago River. Building on Goldberg’s concept of multi-use complexes, here he shows his love of curved concrete sections, the antithesis of the “boxes” of steel and glass so loved by modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe.
The complex, appearing rather blob-like and even startling, can only be viewed in sections from close up. It’s a multi-level and perplexing structure, and I didn’t gain access to the interior, with its grand atrium or interior “street.” Perhaps someday I’ll view the inside of the building; I could, of course, pose as a prospective tenant and view one of the model condos.
I should also mention that my interest in Goldberg was piqued by the fact that I work in a complex designed by him, Wilbur Wright College, City Colleges of Chicago. You’ll notice the rather interesting pattern of square, rounded windows which, in a nod to aviation history, look like the windows set in vertical panels on the interior of a passenger aircraft.
The most striking feature of the college complex is the pyramid of the Learning Center, dominating the intersection of Montrose and Narragansett Avenues in northwest Chicago. When crossing through the tubes connecting to the other buildings, one is given the impression of boarding a plane through the tunnel leading from the boarding gate.
I have yet to explore a couple of other Goldberg buildings in the city, about which I’ll write at another time.
It’s been an eventful year. I haven’t posted since January 2018 because, well, I thought I had nothing to say. My adventures living and teaching abroad had come to an end, and I was now adapting to the daily grind of trying to survive in late-capitalist America under Trump. It’s been an interesting journey, but not in ways that I thought deserved lengthy descriptions via blog posts.
First, my professional life: my teaching career continues. For a year now I’ve been teaching English as a Second Language at Wilbur Wright College, City Colleges of Chicago. It’s a job that I love, and one that I can keep for the rest of my working life. There are a couple of drawbacks. First, it’s a part-time job, 20 hours a week, so my income is limited. Second, at present I’m teaching a split shift, one morning class 7-9 a.m. and an evening class 5-8 p.m. For five hours of teaching Monday through Thursday I spend about the same amount of time commuting on public transportation. It’s immensely impractical, and exhausting. Eventually, as I build seniority, I’ll be able to consolidate my schedule into more manageable time slots. Small wonder, then, that I was absolutely drained by the time the one-month winter break arrived.
Second, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inequities of income vs. living costs in this country. I can give a concrete example, since I’ve lived in the same area of Chicago during two stages of my life, 40 years apart. In 1978, after graduating from college, I moved into a studio apartment in Lakeview East (then called New Town) that cost $190 a month. Fast-forward to 2019, and I’m living two blocks away from that first apartment, in a comparable studio, and paying $1,000 a month. That’s an increase of 500% over 40 years. Over the same period, the average income (certainly not mine) has not risen by anything close to that percentage.
When I was young, rental agencies recommended that you apply for apartments that cost about 25% of your income. Today, I pay 50% of my (limited) income for extortionist rent. When you consider that I live in a popular, rather upscale area near the lake, you might think that there are cheaper areas of Chicago in which to live. There aren’t. Finding a rental in any area under $1,000 is almost impossible.
In June 2018, the national average rent reached an all-time high of $1,405 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/u-s-urban-rents-hit-all-time-high-at-average-1405-report/). That’s insane. Chicago is much cheaper than New York or San Francisco, but I wonder how people on limited incomes actually survive here. For rent to be about one-quarter of income, as previously recommended, would require an income of over $5,600 a month. At 40 hours a week, that’s over $35 an hour. Even if minimum wage eventually rises to $15, that’s less than half of what it would cost to afford big-city housing.
Fortunately, I’m debt-free. I don’t own a car, property, and have no loans or credit card debt. However, my carefully-guarded savings from teaching in China, earmarked for a retirement nest egg, are almost depleted. I’m joining the ranks of older Americans who can look forward to no financial security, and possibly no retirement. I knew all of this before I moved back to my native country. Over the past year and a half, it’s been hammered home for me.
On the plus side, I enjoy my life here. I follow my creative pursuits, I have work I love, and I have a basic if comfortable life. Hopefully, I will share more of it via this blog in the future.