Monday, 22 August 2011

The Midwest

Gary IN, Courtesy of WJTA
If you didn’t notice the sign welcoming you to Indiana then the immediate deterioration in the road surface will let you know where you are. After leaving Detroit and driving the width of Michigan we found ourselves in Gary IN, a stripped out, burnt down crater of a city. Mountain ranges of steel mills provide a backdrop for what is, according to the FBI, America’s 9th most dangerous city. Fields of chemical plants create clouds of acrid gasses that our sat-nav seems to repeatedly drag us through. Without stopping, we followed the edge of Lake Michigan onto Lake Shore Drive and into Chicago.

In 1993 William Gibson wrote an article called “Disneyland with the death penalty” where he criticised the sterile environment of Singapore, contrasting it with the unintended textures and qualities of less sanitized places such as the Kowloon walled city. What Gibson didn’t appreciate was that this is the exact impression Singapore wanted to create, with the ultimate concern being the quality of life for its citizens. The sad thing about Chicago is that it achieves a similar level of blandness and lack of character whilst trying pretty hard to do the opposite. The city acts as a receptacle for many great works of art and architecture, but as a whole there is a severe lack of any vibe. It’s unusual for me to not be able eat an American speciality but the Chicago deep dish pizza was pretty much inedible, like trying to chew through a slab of kraft cheese swimming in a tin of chopped tomatoes.

Talking of swimming, being able to go to a beach in the downtown district of a city is quite a novelty to me and paddling around Lake Michigan allowed me to see another side to the city (literally). Other highlights included the Green Mill Jazz Bar and the IIT. Having a campus built by Van der Rohe and a student facilities centre designed by OMA make UCL feel a bit inferior.

We were on the road again, south through Indiana and sailing through seas of pulsating lights mounted on wind turbines. Indianapolis, with its malls, conference centres and stadiums that appear to have crash-landed in Downtown provided little entertainment. Cincinnati was a little better, the Over-the-Rhine area, which forms the standard US city “strip” of lively bar and restaurant street from which you shouldn’t really wander from at night, was pleasantly surprising.  Seeing Murray, Nadal and Federer at the Cincinnati masters was worth the trip to Cincy. From here we will drive south and enter the third chapter of the road trip.

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