Wednesday, December 28, 2005

An Era Ends, The Homoginization Rolls On

As I sit here at my old family home, I am greeted by this piece of news. After 107 years, Chicago's landmark Berghoff Restaurant is closing.

First, the personal. I have many fond personal memories of the Berghoff. As a kid, their Christmas decorations were always the highlight of a trip to the Loop. They still are some of the best in the city, rivalling those of Marshall Field's (another local name that disappears on the first of the year). We took high school field trips there with the German Club. I took a group from my undergraduate institution on a tour of Chicago Loop architecture and we ate there. On a more regular basis, I ate there when I worked and later went to graduate school in the city. It was probably the first German food I ever ate. Was it the best? I think that title goes to Karl Ratzsch's in Milwaukee. It sure was good, though.

On a more general level, this represents a further move away from local business and towards national, corporate sameness. Chicago used to seem...well...different. It did not have the same sights, businesses, cultural institutions that you could find anywhere else. This added to the unique neighborhood life made Chicago a special place to live. It was not New York or Atlanta or Los Angeles or Cleveland or Salt Lake City or anywhere else. Special places and people made Chicago what it was.

Now, as I walk around downtown, it is not the same place that it was when I was a kid. This may be because I changed, but I cannot help but notice that Chicago is starting to look like anywhere else. National chain businesses are doing away with local business. The distinct Chicago dialect is frowned upon and is slowly dying as the neighborhoods change, gentrify and lose their sense of place as a space with specific meaning. As people increasingly live in separate compartments in the sky, they are in a different spatial understanding that someone who is more connected to their environment.

Housing begins to look the same, businesses look the same, people sound the same. The only differences are where the [fill in the blank] is in [fill in the "place" name].

The separation is complete. Life in the urban landscape has become sterile, interchangable, replaceable, disposable and ultimately vapid and self-destructive. Place is replaced by indifferentiated space. Sure, it is separated by function and property ownership laws, but this is about it.

The innate meaning that people inscribe on the landscape become standardized and impotent. The city can be replicated and destroyed, rebuilt in a day and torn down without a trace. People play their roles, interact in predictable ways and days merge, blurring time.

Much ado about an old German restaurant? Perhaps. It cannot, however, be ignored that our lives are ever more standardized and dull. The Industrial Revolution did good things, but rarely in history is anything all good (or bad).

Remember, only you can help you change this.

NOTE: If the questions of space, place and meaning are of interest, these books are quite useful:
  • Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. (His Topophilia is also quite good)
  • Italo Calvino, Imaginary Cities.

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