A bit of grit

“Blair Kamin”:http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/arts/chi-0603040223mar05,1,7383557.story writes on “grit,” “soul,” whatever you want to call it, and its disappearance as cash sanitizes downtown:

bq. Now that we’ve figured out how to get people to invest in downtown, how do we maintain its diversity and vitality so it doesn’t become a sterile home for the super-rich? At issue is the survival of texture — the urban texture that makes cities endlessly fascinating, quirky, exotic and even a little wicked.

bq. You can see it along Ohio Street in an old narrow, four-story building wedged between the Michigan Avenue Gap store and the soon-to-be-demolished parking garage where Cambridge House occupied the ground floor, its green awning distracting the eye from the ugly garage. The little four-story building, which has a handsome facade of brick and stone ornament, packs more character than an entire vertical mall. First floor: an Armenian restaurant called Sayat Nova. Second floor: a dimly-lit gay bar. Third floor: an astrologer/psychic/tarot card reader, advertised by red neon signs and blue awnings. Fourth floor: an apartment occupied by the restaurant owner’s son.

Oddly, I’d been told about the Second Story Bar before but had never noticed it before the week before this article — when I happened to look up and see its ’70s-style lettering. A few days later, we stumbled in to find a tiny space (fire occupancy limit 36?), one of the few Chicago establishments that’s smaller than anything I’ve seen in New York. Perhaps expectedly, it’s pretty dive-y and cheap by downtown standards — and it will look so incredibly out of place once it’s squished between the Gap and the ice-queen glass condo box planned for the Cambridge House site.

(In this case, it’s small even compared to KGB, the tiny Stalin-themed bar in Greenwich Village where I first had a full bottle of beer — two months past 21 and I’d never moved past the wine list. Similarly, La Fontanella in Heart of Chicago almost matches the postage-stamp single-storefront spaces in the East Village, although I haven’t brought out any measuring tape yet.)

Kamin continues:

bq. Resolving messy urban vitality and architectural grandeur is an eternal challenge… But in the end, character can’t be manufactured or legislated or drawn up in some architectural recipe book. It comes from a long-simmering intermingling between a building and the human activity that goes on inside it.

In other words, it takes time to make things messy. Anything new, whether wine or landscape or “fabric”:http://latimes.com/news/local/la-me-jeans28feb28,0,4711785,full.story?coll=la-home-headlines, will inevitably be a bit too clean and fussy; it takes years of layering to develop complex flavors and subtle distinctions in both New Wine and New Urbanism.

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