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Beauty and the Beholder

October 21, 2010

“The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” —Elwyn Brooks White

The essayist E.B. White wrote those words about New York, but they hold true for any big city. “Poetry” is a word that comes to mind frequently when I wander the streets, when I encounter sights that establish a curious rhythm, that break up the uniformity of the landscape, that express ingenuity or or even madness. Chicago, though it doesn’t offer the density of E.B. White’s New York, provides no shortage of such things.

Sometimes it’s a splash of color amid the drabness. On a weedy corner in South Chicago that I walked by recently, someone had used empty soda crates to create a tiny public garden:

At the center of it stood a strange doll-like figure—a voodoo head, coiffed with tiny flowers, resting atop the legs and pelvis of a ceramic little-girl figurine:

This piece of street art, or garden design, or whatever it was, set me to thinking about the person who’d put it there. Someone had staked out a swath of pavement and dolloped a bit of her soul onto it.

The occupant of this Bronzeville rowhouse, evidently a fancier of roses, did the same:

While I was taking that photograph, an ancient-looking woman with white hairs on her chin drew up next to me. “Them roses is all fake,” she said. “But child, that lady keeps a clean house.”

I’ve found unexpected beauty in the purely functional as well. Strolling along a residential block in Bridgeport not long ago, I came upon this unusually small traffic light:

Barely taller than me, painted the same drab green as an old street sign, it struck me as a quaint ancestor of the bright yellow stacks suspended over busy, photo-enforced intersections. I watched it cycle through its duties for a while, half-expecting to see “stop” and “go” placards flip up. A few cars came and went, obeying this silent sentinel, setting the sleepy cadence of a weekday afternoon as the rest of the city toiled in office towers.

On that same walk, as I was crossing a gentrifying commercial thoroughfare, this shuttered news kiosk caught my eye:

It, too, seemed to have been beamed down from another era, a plywood cube clinging to a patch of sidewalk amid cell-phone stores, ATMs, and other heralds of late-Capitalist existence. Inert as it was, it evoked a certain rhythm as well, that of daily working life during a bygone age when buying a newspaper was a ritual as frequent as brushing your teeth.

The poetic moments I encounter aren’t always particularly artful. I took unexpected pleasure in this streetside retail display on the edge of Gage Park:

Five half-mannequins, arrayed ass-side-out for inspection. I ventured to guess that the store owner had seen enough girls try on jeans to know which side of a mannequin sold the most merchandise.

One afternoon, I found myself edging my way through a bombed-out stretch of Back of the Yards: block after block of tear-downs, board-ups, pit-bulls, and more than a few violent-sounding scenes of domestic strife. At 48th Street and Throop Avenue, I spied a railroad viaduct, framed by locust trees, that had been painted with a single-word inscription:

The widely spaced letters—”L O V E”—looked as if they belonged on an eye-exam chart. In their starkness, they read almost as a command, posted for the public good, like “Wash Your Hands” or “Turn off the Lights.” The inscription was prosaic in its way, but a bit of poetry nonetheless.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2010 4:49 pm

    You should also tag this post “red,” because the color pops in nearly every photo.

    I’ve haven’t seen a newstand like that in ages. Didn’t the city outlaw them? Just downtown or citywide?

    Where I grew up in Chicago there were three newstands within three blocks and the owners knew all the kids, and we knew them by name. Parents sent notes with their children, “one pack of Winstons,” because some newstands sold cigarettes as well.

    • dmcaninch permalink*
      October 22, 2010 10:39 pm

      Where did you grow up? Sad that this one only manages to stay open two days a week.

  2. Liz permalink
    October 22, 2010 6:15 am

    Really enjoyed this one. Love the photos as well as the words.
    So, when are you going to do Unseen London??

    • dmcaninch permalink*
      October 22, 2010 10:40 pm

      Soon, Liz!! Then: Unseen Luton, and Unseen Slough.

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