10 November 2015

Work, Working, Worked: An Experimental Walking Tour of Bridgeport

A little over a week ago I participated in Work, Working, Worked - an experimental walking tour of the Bridgeport neighborhood co-organized by Paul Durica and Lumpen Radio in conjunction with Chicago Artists Month (thanks DCASE!). As part of my research methodology for audience engagement and audio guides, this tour was a really fun departure from the more traditional headphones in, passive movement, contained within a set architectural space.  What made this tour experimental was that rather than the audio component being pre-recorded for us to simply push-play on, the audio was live. That's right, a live audio experience, streamed through the Lumpen radio app, beamed right into our smartphones! And to make this even more inclusive, a portable loud speaker was provided by our tour facilitator, so we listened together as a group as we walked, talked, and visited our tour stops throughout Bridgeport.
[Man standing on a gravely path, pointing in the distance. He's standing next to a portable radio. This is Andrew, our tour facilitator for the day. He made sure we stayed on track time-wise, and helped us reach out to the radio station when we needed to check in.]

Per the emailed instructions, we met in Canal Origins Park along the border of Bridgeport and McKinley Park. The live-stream started, with Durica and one of his guests telling us the early history of the neighborhood, and the importance of the Chicago River to the early industry of Bridgeport. It makes sense that folks would settle near the water, but I totally forget that because the river is this pretty dirty thing that isn't really used in the same way it was centuries ago - due in part to the pollution from the industry that was build upon it.

[A view of the skyline facing north along the Chicago River. To the left is a pathway, with trees and foliage changing color with the season in Canal Origins Park. To the right is the calm deep blue Chicago River, and the construction site for the new boat house build by Jeanne Gang Architects.]

After visiting the river, we made a b-line for the Ashland CTA stop to hear about the importance of the early railway lines to this neighborhood. I had no idea that some of the Orange line trains are running on tracks that were originally used for industrial rail transport.

[Six people standing under an overpass along the Chicago River. They are gathered around a small portable speaker on the ground listening to the live broadcast.]

From the train station we walked to a place called Hamburger Heaven to hear about the meat packing industry. On our walk over, we heard a singing telegram, made small talk about the neighborhood, and played our first round of LINGO (Lumpen BINGO), because Bridgeport has a serious BINGO culture. In order to immerse ourselves in all things Bridgeport, we played BINGO on our own cards, as Durica read numbers out to us from the live-stream. It was bizarre, wonderful, and none of us won.

[Six people standing around a portable speaker outside of Hamburger Heaven. The restaurant building looks like a small house, painted white with red trim. A bright yellow sign listing the daily specials can be seen in the background.]
[A hand holding a BINGO card. The BINGO card only has a few numbers checked off.]
After briefly stopping at Hamburger Heaven, we headed over to Duck Inn, making a shortcut along one of Bridgeport's diagonal streets. I'll admit that when we were in transport between locations, there was a lot less listening to the live-stream and a lot more small talk between the tour participants. But, along this portion of the walk, our guide let us in on a really interesting fact! That there are a lot of diagonal streets in Bridgeport, and that the neighborhood departs from Chicago's famous grid pattern in order to wrap itself around the Chicago River. We even passed a house that seemingly had no right angles - it was a strange trapezoidal house on a corner lot along a diagonal street.

Once we arrived at Duck Inn, we waited for Chef Kevin Hickey to call into the station. While we waited, we ordered a round of beers, and hung out on the gorgeous back patio. Chef spoke to Durica (and us) about the history of the building, and the importance of making and continuing community spaces like Duck Inn within the fabric of the Bridgeport neighborhood. I'm adding this restaurant to my list, because food, community, and mid-century modern decor.

[The interior of Bridgeport's Duck Inn restaurant. Hardwood floors, with a line of two-top tables. A cushy leather booth lines the wall, with tables and metal chairs facing it. The space has beautiful clean lines, and sculptural exposed lightbulbs. A soft afternoon light is trickling in.]
Following our visit to Duck Inn, we walked over to Benton House - an early 20th century settlement house that's still in use today. Benton House took inspiration from the social work happening over at Hull-House, opening its doors to the Bridgeport community in 1907. While the architecture is a little bit different than that of Hull-House (founded in 1889), the message and the work conducted is fairly similar. Residents move in, offering social services to the community. 

[The front entrance to Benton House in Bridgeport. Red brick walls, large old windows, and a doorway with a curved barrel vaulted window design around it.]
While at the Benton House, we listened to Ben Noetzel speak to Durica over the phone (his phone call was streamed over the radio). Currently, Benton House is operating a community theatre, library, gymnasium, after school programming, audio/visual technology courses, a community garden, and a food pantry. Having spent so much time reading about Jane Addams and the work done at Hull-House, it was really exciting to visit a space that's still in use. I noticed the ways in which the home felt really lived in. There was a striking difference between the old furniture and sun-worn murals of Benton House, and the vitrines, display cases, and preserved manner of the Hull-House which is now a museum space. Visiting Benton House gave me an understanding of the kind of work that's happening in community spaces in Chicago, and the value of preserving these programs for neighborhood residents. Standing in the basement library, full of the repurposed furniture from the much loved (now defunct) Ramova Grill - we could hear the sound of an intense basketball game being played above us. The home was well worn, lived in, and loved. 

[Sitting in a basement library space. The walls are lined with books, while the furniture is that of a restaurant - the Ramova Grill. Bar stools and a lunch counter act as some of the furniture in the library. A vintage BINGO sign hangs in the corner.]
[The dining room at Benton House. Pale green walls, hardwood floors, and a beautiful old hardwood table and chairs sit at the center of the space. There's a vase with flowers on the table, and a chalkboard to the side of the table. A soft afternoon light filters in from the left. This space is used and lived in every day.]
[Hand-painted murals telling biblical and mythic tales line the walls in the living room. The central panel shows a bucolic hilly landscape, painted in hues of pale green and a soft browns. A variety of foliage dots the landscape, tall skinny trees, short squat bushes, and conical trees in the distance. A fawn-like man and a figure in a blue tunic are pictured in the foreground, in conversation. These murals were made by residents in the house in the 1930s or 1940s.]

Our final stop was Maria's Packaged Goods and Community Bar, where we concluded the tour over happy hour cocktails and "mystery shots" paid for by the $40 discretionary fund given to us by the tour organizers. We toasted to a wonderful 2 hour experimental experience, having walked the streets of Chicago's historic Bridgeport neighborhood. Then we told ghost stories about Benton House and Hull-House, because we're only human. And who doesn't love a good ghost story?

08 November 2015

Touch Tour of the Rookery Building

On Friday, November 6, I attended my first Touch Tour (for visitors with vision impairment) of Chicago’s architecturally significant Rookery Building located at 209 S. LaSalle. The Touch Tour was one of several organized in conjunction with the citywide ADA 25 Chicago Initiative, and excitingly enough, the push to create more accessible programming for people with disabilities has led to the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust (FLWT) putting Touch Tours permanently on their roster. Free one-on-one Touch Tours of various Frank Lloyd Wright buildings around the Chicagoland Area will be available upon request, due in part to the success of the programs created specifically for ADA 25 Chicago.

The tour was very simple – with four stops, plenty of textures to touch, and a narrative arc that made following the history of the building accessible to a variety of visitors, with or without a background in architecture or Chicago history. The tour was not only informative and fun, but also intimate. The FLWT capped the participant count at five people. I participated as an observer, which the FLWT was glad to allow. Each tour participant was paired with an assistant from the FLWT to not only act as a guide as we moved from spot to spot, but also to fill in gaps of information and answer questions as needed. With so many staff members trained and able to guide the tour participants, this felt like a group effort that was focused entirely on the visitor experience. I’d never before seen such dedication to making sure the visitors were able to engage, interact, and learn.

[A view of the ornate twisting staircase made of patterned cast iron, looking down on the “light port” or lobby. The staircase has curving smooth brass railings, smooth white Carrera marble steps, and a column of carved marble filled with gold inlay]

We began in the lobby, where we were introduced to our docent, Tom. Tom explained the space we were in, giving us basic facts about the building, its history, and the cast of characters that led to its creation: Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Wellborn Root, and the Great Chicago Fire. In addition to laying out the names and dates, Tom provided us with key logistical information that would make the tour run smoother: how many stops we would be making, what we would be doing, and how the tour would run overall. This information was immensely helpful in guiding our movements as well as fostering the overall flow of the experience. There were to be four stops, we would start outside touching the fa├žade of the building, then move in to experience the different materials, patterns, and textures used in the interior building ornamentation. Tom was fantastic about dropping in names, dates, and architecture vocabulary, all while doing it at a manageable pace and with the finesse of a seasoned teacher. If someone had a question, we all paused to hear the answer. If we needed to spend more time at a location so that everyone was able to really work his or her hands and fingers around a material, we did.

I believe that starting as a group to go over the logistics of the tour and pair each participant with vision impairment with an assistant was really crucial to the success of this tour. Additionally, our docent seemed really flexible when we needed to switch the pacing to meet everyone’s accommodations. Though I haven’t been on one of the general building tours, I would venture to say that this one wasn’t too different in terms of the content shared. We learned the same history, the same context, and the same keywords that any other visitor would have. What made it special was that we were able to engage with the architecture and its rich history with more than just our sense of vision. Rather than feasting our eyes on the gorgeous gilded interior of the carved Italian Carrera marble, we used our fingertips to feel the smooth and cool marble, and the grittier golden crevices. We used our hands and feet to sense the difference in the floor materials – from glass bricks suggested specifically by Frank Lloyd Wright, to smooth Carrera marble, to beautiful lightly textured mosaic squares on the floor of the floor lobby.
[Detail of carved Carrera marble in an ornate, late 19th century curving abstracted floral pattern. The marble is raised, with a golden inlay in the lowered grooves]

Each stop we made and each surface we touched was weaved into the greater narrative of the building’s history. The building, constructed in 1885 and opened in 1888 was one of the first high rises in the world. What made it a fully functional high rise was the inclusion of one of the first elevator shafts – which we rode to the second floor. One participant noted that the elevators were really tiny and narrow, questioning if a wheelchair user could ride it. It’s interesting to think about the tension between renovations of the space for accommodations, while also keeping true to the architectural integrity and intent of the architects’ vision. All of the external building materials were locally sourced, and as we touched the granite exterior, we commented on how one type of stone could be fashioned into so many different textures. The interior ornamentation was not only fascinating, but told the story of three separate architects who had a say in how the building would look, feel, and function. In touching the various materials and surfaces, we were able to engage with the history in a non-visual way that made the narrative architectural story approachable and easy to understand. I walked away with a sound connection to this Chicago gem, while also knowing the intense precision and attention to detail that went into the building that I might not have grasped had I not been able to touch and rub the surfaces of the building ornamentation. For example, I would not have noticed the difference in the starburst patterning on the railings – one designed by Wright and one designed by Root had I not bent down and felt the difference. They looked similar, but the patterning was subtly different. Touching actually brought out something that I was unable to see, which was a revelation for me as a museum educator.
[Frank Lloyd Wright starburst pattern, a 12 pointed star
in cast iron. This shape is more linear, and straight. It was
made in 1905.]
[Detail of Daniel Burnham starburst pattern on
railing, a 12 pointed star, that curves and tilts on a
diagonal along the diagonal of the stairway. It was
made in 1888.]

In relation to our disability culture and accessibility in museums, it occurred to me that this building was not created with people with disabilities in mind. Being of a different era, the building was renovated several times, first in 1905 and again in the 1930s. But both of these renovations were not in consideration of differently abled bodies using the space. The 1996 renovation came after the passing of the ADA, which made me wonder if the automatic doors were part of that project. But beyond the building being architecturally accessible, I thought about whom this tour was created for and why it needed to be created. In affiliating themselves with ADA 25 Chicago, the FLWT had to do a little bit of an internal audit to determine which visitors were being left to the margins on their tours. This tour was devised specifically to meet the demand of a growing population of visitors with vision impairment, and with the formation of the tour came the recognition of the initial inaccessibility of preexisting programming and public engagement activities. I walked away wondering what more the FLWT could do, but excited by the prospect that accessibility was very much on their mind having gone through this process. I’m under the impression that because the tour appeared so seamless and similar to their tours for visual learners, that a change like this was more systematic and staffing-based than monetary in nature. In getting their staff on board, training the docents, and placing this program on the schedule, the FLWT is on their way to making a shift in their programming toward a more inclusive architectural experience.

02 November 2015

I'm Gonna Swing From the Chandelier, From the Chandelier

Between school, work, and going on audio tours (more on that soon), Halloween crept into my schedule and I managed to pull myself together enough to wear a *new* costume. No recycled looks for me this year. I think what made this one particularly effortless was the fact that I didn't have to wear pants. But also, leotards and tights are not fun or easy to go to the bathroom while wearing. Props to all the ballerinas, dancers, actors, and leotard wearers of the world - I commend you for your efforts.

2015 was the year I discovered Sia, and as such, it seemed perfectly fitting that I would go as her alter-ego the little blond dancer, Maddie Zeigler. Love love love how my costume turned out this year! Now back to the world of homework, class, and questioning if I'm running late or on time because Daylight Savings Time!