Sunday, February 29, 2004


The Demise of the Big Blue Building

A few days ago, I visited the new Borders bookstore on the southeast corner of North Avenue and Halsted Street. In the context of giant bookstores, it’s nothing new. But, in the context of my immediate neighborhood’s life, it's very new indeed.

A blue-bricked YMCA administration building (which also housed a day care center and outdoor playground) stood on the site before they bulldozed it to make way for the Borders and other shops. I don’t know for sure, but I assume that when North Avenue began erupting into a retail mecca, the non-profit YMCA decided to cash in and move their administration elsewhere. (In addition to Borders, the mall features an exercise equipment shop, a children’s clothing store, an upscale kitchen store, a bank, and a separate, ugly concrete parking garage.)

I don’t know what happened to all the families served by the daycare center. Before the bookstore, what little life could be found on the southeast corner of North & Halsted was supplied by mothers shuttling their children to and from the building. I know that Operation Christmas operated out of the blue building. You could help by adopting a family and buying their children Christmas gifts. Then, you’d drop them off on the second floor the week before the holiday.

Where do these families go for daycare now? I don’t want to be naïve to think that the loss of this center meant little to the families who used it or to our community, nor do I want to make cynical assumptions that the YMCA’s management could not or did not make decisions based on the best interests of the people they serve.

So, for purposes of talking about the arrival of Borders, let’s assume a neutral position on the demise of the Y's administration building. Let's also recognize that this lack of common knowledge about what happened to the YMCA's families and administrators is part of the nature of community change - for better or worse.

Back to Borders

In my opinion, the arrival of Borders impacts the immediate community in a positive way.

First, the corner on which it sits sprung to life as soon as Borders opened its doors. People now head to or from there. The sidewalk used to be a narrow, sharp right angle that was dangerous to cross because it could sometimes get crowded with people waiting for the bus. Cars would cut their turns close as they sped around the corner. The Borders’ entrance is set at an angle against the intersection and is set back from the curb by at least ten feet. This gives pedestrians a lot of space and breathing room, particularly with the bus stop there. Drivers can now see around the block before they turn and consider the pedestrian traffic.

Second, it is the first kind of public hanging out space, other than parks, within walking distance for us. The closest public libraries are on Diversey or Fullerton. The only Starbucks is a small one north on Halsted and not suitable for “hanging.” There is a 24 hour Starbucks about half a mile east on Wells and North Avenue, but that is a long walk on a cold winter day. The Borders also hosts a lot of programming where they bring in authors and musicians.

Third, the retailers are sucking up all the space on North Avenue west of Halsted. I know of no new housing units being built in the gold rush for consumers. It’s all retail. Even though it’s a retailer, Borders offers a place of respite. You don’t have to buy a book. You can just sit and read one there. I find it a meaningful destination amidst the mindless consumerism on North Avenue, and I can walk there easily.

Two more things

To Borders' credit, they display titles about Chicago right when you walk into the store. I think it’s an important element of a rich community to share, promote, and reflect our community. I’d like to see them go deeper in their offerings. Right now, they feature lots of tour guides and fancy picture books.

I appreciated seeing their support of local author Elizabeth Crane. Her hilarious book of short stories called When the Messenger is Hot is now out in paperback, and Borders featured it on a prominent display with Ralph’s World (see below). Go get a copy of this book. You’ll have a great laugh and be touched in the process. I know that sounds clichéd, but it’s true. I think she’s smart, witty, and off-beat – three perfect traits in a writer.

Borders also gave prominence to Chicagoan Ralph Covert aka the Ralph’s World guy. If you have a child under 7 years old, pick up some of Ralph’s stuff. On his album, The Bottom of the Sea, he sings a solid rendition of Itsy Bitsy Spider that ends with him explaining to the children accompanying him that the song is existential. All the little kids try saying "existential" and Ralph simply concludes “yeah, that’s what it is.” Another song goes M-o-m-m-y needs c-o-f-f-e-e. Need I say more?

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