Friday, October 21, 2016

This week's "Urban Hike with Mike"...

...took us to Manny's Deli on the Near West Side (or is that considered the South Loop?) via the Sears, er, Willis Tower.

When we began tramping around the city a little over a year ago we would target a particular neighborhood and then find an inexpensive restaurant in which to eat. More often than not, that meant either Subway or Potbelly and the guys quickly grew tired of both. So lately we've been more focused on the restaurant and our hikes have revolved around that.

On Wednesday, since Manny's is only about a mile from the house, we had to stretch it out a little to get in our usual three-to-four mile hike.

In the 35-plus years since I've been living in the Chicago area I've been mostly oblivious to what is now called the Willis Tower. For much of that time it was the world's tallest building but not nearly as attractive to me as, say, the Empire State or Chrysler buildings in New York. Unlike those two Art Deco masterpieces, the Sears Tower always struck me as being -- like the merchandise its namesake peddled -- practical, if not particularly stylish. (One critic said the building reminded him of an uneven stack of Sears catalogs.)

But since moving back to the city two years ago I've developed a whole new appreciation for the structure. Visible from pretty much everywhere in my new neighborhood, the building looks different to me, somehow, practically every time I look at it depending on the weather, the time of day, the time of year, etc. I've tried, with only limited success, to get the guys to think of it as a "lodestar," and use it to orient themselves when needed.

(That's a view of it from Arrigo Park at night.)

So the three of us, Jack, John and I (Alan, our other "regular," couldn't make it), walked east on Jackson to Wacker and did a little loop around the building before heading to Manny's and then home, about a four-mile hike altogether.

According to Wikipedia the Willis Tower was completed in 1973 (although I would have sworn it was later) and was indeed the tallest building in the world for nearly 25 years.

(I've always been convinced that the "Second City," whose residents are terribly insecure vis-a-vis New York, simply had to have the tallest building in the country, if not the world. I like to think we've matured since then.)

In a classic case of the old saying, "pride goeth before a fall," the Tower was planned in 1969 when Sears was the largest retailer in the world, with about 350,000 employees. (The reason the Old Main Post Office over Congress Parkway is so massive -- it was once the world's largest building -- was so it could accommodate all the mail-order businesses of Sears and Montgomery Ward, the Amazon.coms of their day.) Ever since completion, however, Sears, Roebuck & Co. has gone into a long, slow and steady decline. It's hard, sometimes, for me to believe it's even still around.

After considering other locations including, of all places, Goose Island -- can you believe it? -- the high muckety-mucks at Sears settled on a two-block site bounded by Franklin Street on the east, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Wacker Drive on the west and Adams Street on the north (with Quincy Street running east to west through the middle).

Before beginning construction Sears had to purchase fifteen old buildings from 100 owners and get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to build such a tall edifice.

The company figured it needed 3,000,000 square feet of office space for its planned consolidation and predicted that growth would require even more, so it commissioned local architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to produce a structure to be one of the largest office buildings in the world.

(My uncle, who along with my dad worked in the original 14-story Sears Tower on Homan and Arthington on the West Side, once told me that, ironically, he actually worked on a lower floor once he moved into the new building.)

The SOM team of architect Bruce Graham and structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan designed the Sears Tower as nine square "tubes" (each essentially a separate building), clustered in a three-by-three matrix.

The Tower never drew as many tenants as Sears had hoped, however, and actually stood half-vacant for a decade as a surplus of office space was erected in Chicago in the 1980s. (I had no idea.) Sears, itself, began leaving the Tower in 1992 and had completely decamped to a new location in Hoffman Estates three years later. In 2009, the building was officially rechristened the Willis Tower after a London-based insurance broker obtained the naming rights.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

As I said, after a quick loop around the block our little band headed south for a well-deserved dinner at Manny's. While walking down that forgotten stretch of Jefferson Street between Van Buren and Roosevelt I looked around and assured the guys that in just a few short years it would be positively buzzing with new construction. "You watch!"

Manny's, the venerable Jewish deli within belching distance of the old open-air market area known as Maxwell Street, has been serving some of Chicago's pols, local businessmen and underworld characters (often at the same table, I would imagine) for over 70 years.

According to its website:

The restaurant property Jack [Raskin] bought had been originally named Sunny’s. So rather than tear down the old sign and get a whole new one, Jack named it after his teenage son, Emanuel (or Manny, to family and friends), saving money by simply buying two letters and replacing the “Su” in Sunny’s with “Ma.”

The place has been redone in the two years since I last visited and seems to have become something of a tourist destination. The guy behind the counter mentioned how busy it is now on weekends. "The line was out the door and down the street on Sunday!" (My son opined that out-of-towners are probably bused over after visiting the observation deck at the Willis Tower.)

The three of us made it simple and all ordered Reuben sandwiches with potato pancakes on the side. When I saw the impressive pile of corned beef bursting from between the two slices of rye bread on my plate I thought, "Carnegie Deli has nothing on this place!" And my wife, upon seeing the picture of my dinner, texted me back, "Omg mike tracy food."

But that's not all. Included with our meal was a voucher for a free oatmeal raisin cookie from the carry-out counter. Pleasantly stuffed, we all trudged home through the dark and settled in to watch the Cubs get even with the Dodgers and Donald Trump say he would keep us all "in suspense" over whether or not he would accept the results of next month's election. Oy! 

But I won't keep you "in suspense": as usual, we'll take another Hike next Wednesday evening, weather permitting. Won't you join us?

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