Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Chicago Shapes #2: The circle

Thompson Center floor
     After yesterday's riff on parabolic curves, I'd be a fool not to keep going. The circle seemed the obvious next candidate.

     Chicago is not a round city. Just the opposite. It is a linear city, a grid, starting at 0/0 at State and Madison and marching out in a series of orderly lines, all perpendicular, with the occasional diagonal slash of an Ogden or an Elston vectoring off at an angle to make things a little interesting.
Worse than Indianapolis
     But no circles. Not like Washington D.C., with its DuPont Circle, or New York, with Columbus Circle, or Paris with its Place Charles de Gaulle encircling the Arch de Triumph.  Circles and cities quickly go downhill from there, from Cleveland, with its Euclid Circle, to Indianapolis, known as "Circle City."
      No more need be said, though Indianapolis is not quite the bottom rung; Hell, remember, is a city too, and it has nine circles.
     Chicago does have a Circle Avenue, but it is a small, obscure, egg-shaped oval in Norwood Park. Other than that, nothing. There is another Circle Avenue in Forest Park, though that is mostly straight, north and south, but describes a quick quarter circle before turning east and dead-ending into Harlem Avenue.
     We used to have a Circle Interchange, the confluence of the Dan Ryan, Kennedy and Eisenhower Expressways. But that was renamed the Jane Byrne Interchange last year, a dubious honor for a dubious mayor. 
Covers are round so they don't fall in.
    The University of Illinois does have a Chicago Circle Campus, that opened in 1965. But it has no circles in it; it was named for the interchange, due east. The UIC Circle Campus is distinguished, or more accurately, marred, by its brutalist Walter Netsch-designed buildings, so ugly that a university study of prospective freshmen found that a significant number were discouraged from attending because of them.
     So circles of any sort are not big in Chicago. I imagine Chicagoans would be hard pressed to name a prominent circle-shaped object in their town. The floor of the much ridiculed Thompson Center, above, comes to mind. There was the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier, now between wheels as its new one is constructed.  There was a circle prominent in the stained glass of the old Granada Theater; 900 N. Michigan has an impressive circle window. But that's gone.
We've got the hole, now we just need a spire to go in it
     Just as prominent are circles that never came to full fruition -- the hole where the Chicago Spire was supposed to go, near Navy Pier. The "Circle Line," an outer loop connecting the 'L' to the Metra, which petered out after its first phase was completed in 2005.
     Though a hole cannot technically be a circle; a circle only exists on a two-dimensional plane, as the collection of all points equidistant from a center point. 
     Forest Park's Circle Theater, though not located on the town's main drag, took its name from the street and, according to its web site, "from the concept of infinity," which might not be that alluring for time-strapped playgoers. 
     But the duality of shape and symbolism has to be kept in mind with the circle.  It represents unity, wholeness, both life and infinity, which isn't as contradictory as it might appear—life, not as in your or my definitely not infinite lives, but as in life in general, which does endure even as we individuals come and go. Hence the hopeful title of Studs Terkel's book on aging, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a reference to the 1907 Christian hymn:

                       Will the circle be unbroken
                       By and by, by and by?
                       Is a better home awaiting
                       In the sky, in the sky?

    A circle is also a group of associates—Gmail encourages you to identify people in your circle. Free Burning, Nigerian-born Chicago writer Bayo Ojikutu's novel, describes people who go to 12-step support groups as "circle fiends."  
    No matter, she isn't tricking off these days, not now—the old girl hasn't been to an Uptown circle fiend meeting since I finished high school.
     That seems to be a new locution — I could not find "fiend circle," obviously a play on "friend circle," used similarly in the sweep of literature, so hats off to Bayo Ojikutu.
     Fittingly, circles are a subject that can go on and on. The more you look for circles, the more you'll find. They hide in plain sight. If I asked you to name the most famous circle in the greater Chicago area, you might guess at the Ferris Wheel. If I added that it is one of the largest machines ever constructed, perhaps the largest machine ever constructed, you might be tempted to hold wavering to your choice, even knowing that can't be. It isn't even the biggest Ferris Wheel around. A final clue— you know of it, it just isn't in mind right now— won't help at all. 
     The Tevatron Superconducting Super Collider, a pair of rings, the Main Ring, with a circumference of four miles, and the Injector Ring, at Fermilab in Batavia. Mothballed now after being rendered superfluous by CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.  Still, a very, very big circle, though not enough to change the inherent uncircularity of Chicago.



  1. You left out Cumberland Circle, that insanely laid out traffic circle in Des Plaines, that anyone traveling on Golf Road through it for the first time will inevitably end up on the wrong street, due to the terrible layout & even worse signage.
    There has been talk in the last few years of "modernizing" it.
    My dad worked for the county highway department in the 1930s [it was built 10 years earlier] & even he would forget how to use that wretched mess!

    1. I decided there weren't enough traffic circles in Chicago to be worth mentioning -- just a couple, really.

    2. I grew up in Niles and we always referred to it as the "Suicide Circle" because along with that terrible signage and layout nobody ever seemed to want to let you in, or out once you did get into the flow around it.

    3. Actually, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of little traffic circles of two side streets in Chicago. Edgewater & Rogers Park are littered with these idiocies.
      The fire dept hates them, they've been told that the larger trucks should just drive right over them to get to a fire. The city has the signs for them in the wrong place at every one. Each one is usually an all way stop. Except that the purpose of a traffic circle is that you don't have stop signs!

    4. Those aren't really classic traffic circles, called roundabouts -- though, Clark St. They're "Traffic Calming" features. To wit:
      "Traffic circles are circular islands, typically found at the intersection of two residential streets, used to reduce vehicular speeds through the intersection. Traffic circles are not intended to be a stop control device and are different from roundabouts." More about all the brilliant strategies being implemented...


      I particularly loathe speed bumps, humps and tables, when it comes to such measures. The city can't come close to keeping streets well-paved and pothole-free, but there's always enough cash to throw in a few obstacles to mess up one's suspension. The speeding drivers who make these "necessary" are why we can't have nice things, IMHO...

    5. The city's speed humps & bumps are so poorly made it's a wonder that they don't cause crashes into parked cars.
      They don't seem to have any standards for them or a template for their construction. Look at most of them in West Rogers Park, you'll see the street gouged out on either side of the hump. This is caused by the hump being too high, don't have a concave profile & steep, which means the bumpers & undercarriage of the cars is grinding the street. But, go north into Evanston & their speed humps are smooth & easy to go over!

    6. A problem with roundabouts in this country is that there are so few that drivers tend to be unsure about how they should be negotiated. One was recently installed in Green Bay, where I spend time, and I have to think twice about who has the right of way before entering.

      I spent four years driving in the U.K. and became comfortable with roundabouts and also grew to appreciate their ability to keep traffic moving -- you can go many miles in a city like London without encountering a stop sign. And if you're uncertain about which exit to take you can just keep going around until you figure it out. They are, of course, a natural solution in a country where the only straightaways were the few laid out by Roman legions and multiple intersecting roads, like spokes on a wheel,
      are common. I suppose they have never taken hold in America because their advantages are less apparent with the grid street systems that predominate here.

      Tom Evans

  2. Indeed the UIC bldgs. made grad school dreary. It's surprising you remembered or knew of Circle Ave. in Forest Park. It' s not your usual stomping ground.

    There is a lesser known circle, 6 or perhaps 8 corners in Brookfield, that is hard to drive into to.

  3. (error, no word "to " needed above)

  4. In keeping with your building theme from yesterday, I've always been intrigued by the circles that adorn the top of the Boeing building. Don't seem to add much in my book, but maybe it's an inside aviation joke.

  5. NS,

    No love for the Chicago "municipal device" in this circle column? http://www.wbez.org/news/culture/chicagos-municipal-device-citys-symbol-lurking-plain-sight-107637 I believe that some of your local Twitter buddies would be disappointed. ; )

    1. Thank you for introducing me to the "municipal device." Never noticed it in my 70 + years in Chicago. Now I'll see it everywhere of course.


    2. Very cool, Jakash, I had no idea.

    3. You're welcome, John. Enjoy! : )

      Well, I'm glad I threw that into the mix, then...

  6. I'm seeing a trend here. Tomorrow's column - "Are you putting on airs when you describe yourself as a quadrilateral instead of a square!"

    1. You guessed it. I am tackling squares. Too much material.

  7. UICC originally had elevated walkways that converged at a large, circular "forum" where the big lecture centers are. Didn't predate Fermilab, but arguably the largest circle in the city. Rather barren and uninviting, the elevated walkways and forum were demolished in the '90's due at least partially to decrepitude. http://uicarchives.blog.library.uic.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2015/01/UA_90_999_0048.jpg

    Bob Hermanson

  8. Logan Square has a round about that works fairly well.


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