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Corner Culture

January 19, 2011

I can think of few cities that have more appealing street corners—and corner buildings—than Chicago. I especially love the curiously wedge-shaped edifices sprouting from narrow lots, carved out by the city’s diagonal avenues as they slice across the street grid. Some of those buildings exude an elegant grandeur, like the landmark building on Lincoln Avenue housing the Chicago Photography Center:

Others are boxy and almost quaint-looking, like this taqueria in South Chicago:

But my affection for the corner buildings of Chicago’s neighborhoods is about more than visual appeal. I like how these structures anchor their block, how they serve as natural meeting spots and waypoints. In many neighborhoods, the seemingly bygone practice of “walking to the corner” for a beer, or a quart of milk, or a pack of smokes, is alive and well, as evidenced by corner delis like this one on the far west side:

In an era when foot traffic dominated, corner businesses had pride of place: their front door, often recessed invitingly into the contours of the facade (as at the housewares shop on West Fullerton that’s pictured below), was visible to passersby from three directions.

And I’ve always been amused by the ways that the draftsmen and builders of yore sought to impart to corner buildings a special hauteur—fanciful touches like the turret on this house on the South Side, which gives the occupants a panoptic view of their urban domain:

In parts of town where commercial life has waned, only the shells of such buildings remain, but their graceful lines are still intact:

Sometimes, on clear, bright days, even the most utilitarian corner buildings can take on a stark, geometric beauty:

Like so much of the unseen city, these unprepossessing buildings are woven into the fabric of the streets, as easy to overlook as a fire hydrant or a traffic light. But once you take notice, they seem to call out to you, and suddenly you’re glad for them, for the dignity they bring to their particular patch of pavement.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 20, 2011 6:07 am

    Seeing splendor in a blade of grass; seeing welcome in a corner building—from Whitman to Hausmann==you did it again, Dave!

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