The Beginning of the End | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

The Beginning of the End 

Notes on the Opening of Bloomingdale's and the End of the American Century

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I sometimes dream a dream in which skylines from Chicago's receding past coexist in a violent, vibrating strainfulness (my best way of putting it) with skylines of the 80s. I watch and stand below this gigantic struggle in vulnerable paralysis. I am pulling for the past skylines, but they are always on the verge of losing the struggle. I know that the nightmare of it all is that their imminent, air-shattering collapse stands for what from time to time I have felt to be my personal obsolescence in the 80s--a decade that I, a shoved aside "60s" or even (alas) "50s person," have often seen as my enemy.

It's the Jungian in me that supposes, trusts, that others understand how one can personify decades. When we talk about "decades," often meaning mindsets, maybe we are speaking of complex matters--beyond psychology, sociology, history--but we don't believe (do we?) that we're on a bogus level of discourse. We really seem to know what's meant if someone (like me) claims that the 80s have been more than a time span sandwiched between the 70s and the 90s--more than just the latest sinister expression of technological progress, or of the continuing hegemony of the moneyed, or of youth's arrogant dismissal of the past (what Robert Graves once scorned as "the cult of contemporaneity"). In those respects any decade is supposed, darkly, to be eclipsed by its successor. But not the 80s. The 80s will go down as the century's star advocate of those things. A peak.

A new building prodded this thought. This summer our skyline assimilated the four vented turrets of the 900 North Michigan Building, soon called "the new Bloomingdale's" since that big store is the anchor of others in the six-floor Avenue Atrium Mall that fronts the building. The turrets' copper spires hazily brought to my mind the lone spire capping the clock tower of a building erected early in the century--the Metropolitan Life home-office building in Manhattan, where my dad worked. The sight of these spires surprised me--they seemed a manifestation of something quite old-looking even though they were conspicuously of the 80s.

With the fall came completion and the opening of Bloomingdale's, and sure enough, once inside with throngs of Saturday shoppers and browsers, I immediately had the eerie sense of having entered a structure erected, for all its spanking-new cleanliness, scores of years ago and designed for the tastes of a public most of whose members had long since been lowered to their graves. And these sepulchral shivers shared my skull with another, quite different sensation--of grateful amazement, awe, wonder that the Past had now, suddenly, been so decisively reinstated and, as could happen only in a biblical miracle, returned to us.

At street level, the vaulted cavity you cross before you reach the first floor of Bloomingdale's has the openness of the State of Illinois Center or of Water Tower Place; overhead, you can see all six levels featuring the smaller shops that lie between the street and Bloomingdale's proper, Most truly old department-store buildings lack this feel, and many--if the dreary memory of being dragged through them in childhood serves--were and must still be downright claustrophobic. Yet in decor and veneer this one clearly is aping them; so you get not so much the impression of a new building copying old ones as of an old one that had been imagined, say, as a World's Fair exhibit showcasing the design of the future. It's the aura of H.G. Wells.

Rising in the cavity to the second level are four strikingly long escalators, two to the right going up, two to the left coming down; they are "utilitarian" according to bygone images of utility and unadorned by foliage or waterfall. They are not "modern" in the post-40s, automobile-pioneered sense that stressed the evermore sleek, tubular, shimmery, "liquid," translucent, or transparent. They are rather staid and old-fashioned. But their very length, the cavity's spaciousness that induces you to study them and imagine the great packed crowds they can convey, suggests a name that now sounds creaky but once denoted the Modern: "moving staircases."

This older idea of the Modern was not altogether comforting, as the visions of Huxley, Orwell, and Eugene Zamyatin testify; it often assumed for the future a hectic, regimented society--that pictured in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, for instance, also in the second screen version of 1984, whose mimicry of a 1948 idea of 1984's look is so pronounced that the political content comes off as secondary. In spirit, Bloomingdale's is of course more like this 1984--or like the Federal Express TV ads in which package deliverers wear 30s or 40s clothing and glide up and down moving staircases and along moving walkways--because unlike Metropolis these are 80s products. (Though something in harmony between Metropolis and the 80s has resulted in that silent film's renewed interest--something aside from its colorization and new sound track.)

And they are 80s products of high enough visibility that it seems not quite reasonable to view them as anachronisms or pariahs to the current sensibility. Their invasion has been, for now, a success.

We want them. It is hard to imagine this Bloomingdale's building going up in the 60s without arousing heavy criticism of its being an unbelievably expensive instance of obeisance to camp. Or in the 70s without its being a case in point that our need for nostalgia had, after the coming and going of scads of phonily rustic eateries, really reached absurd proportions. But these days there's a quiet seriousness--and I mean not just in the minds of the architects but in those of the consumers, the shoppers. They do not seem to feel at all as if they're part of a past idea of a nightmarish future. Nor a present idea. Perhaps roaming through something you'd think was built decades ago promotes a sense of well-being--of the solidity of the world our parents and grandparents made (which is the thought that caused me to recall my dad and his workplace), a world we presume "worked," unlike our own. A place Stable, Basic--also, seemingly, a refuge from toxic waste, acid rain, ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect, drug proliferation, the homeless, Japs buying up America, AIDS, and anything else alien to the era and consciousness from whence the building appears to have sprung.

Never mind that the suffering of the Great Depression flies in the teeth of this illusion of refuge. Perhaps the shoppers even put that memory--an academic one anyway, to most of them--in the service of their fantasies. They mill about the fifth level's huge circular window, or dine at the mall's top-floor Cityscape restaurant, and look down in rapt serenity upon Michigan Avenue's panorama of insectlike denizens, as if for the first time they understand how in the 30s it must have felt to have been rich and warm while outside and below scurried the poor and cold, a deliciousness of exemption that surpasses guilt.

Just as shoppers bask in this atmosphere of the Stable, many diners must like Ed Debevic's on Ontario, not because its motif is the 50s but, transcending camp or nostalgia, because its menu revives a basic, once commonly held idea of Good Food. And many must applaud the design of airport terminals, also of such buildings as the one that houses the Milwaukee Repertory, according to the skylit, bared-girder doming of pre-20th-century French train stations. Their look is industrial but, with the sun let in, "industrial" in some perversely arcadian sense.

Few aside from architecture critics and food journalists care to discuss these 80s anachronisms at any significant length. There is instead a mood of complacency. Though underneath, perhaps, lies a wariness: Would too much comment be looking a gift horse in the mouth? Would it undo that suspension of disbelief that may be necessary for us to enjoy these anachronisms free of self-consciousness? Would we, if we were more questioning, forfeit our access to them--as if they had mistakenly arrived by UPS and then, our remarks having been overheard, retrieved, to our regret, and redelivered to the correct epoch?

But suppose the gods of this century did mean us to receive goods like the new Bloomingdale's; suppose that it's not unnatural for them to be of our time. Try this for a reason: the millennium, not just this decade, is running out; sensing the enormity of this, we want to get in as many second glances as we can at--at least--our century's vicissitudes before it's over. It's as though we are deeply convinced that the new gods of the next century and millennium will not so indulge us. Think of an elephant stepping on an almost used-up tube of toothpaste; the intense outward gush of whatever's left in the tube is my image of the frantic last-assessing the 20th century will get over the next 11 years. Afterward, we feel, the opportunity will be lost.

The new Bloomingdale's, then, is one such last look.

Prediction: Our habitual decade consciousness, so prominent in the 20th century's history of self-awareness, will be preempted in the 90s. After a brief honeymoon with us, the 90s will become a lame-duck decade and the scene of fin de siecle americain convulsions; the elephant's weight will force everything out, everything that remains to be restated about 20th-century culture, Otherwise, think of the 90s as prologue to the 21st century, as a quite benumbed and numbing time. When we look at the 30s in retrospect, we may very well see it as this century's last decade to which people en masse were willing to link, as they would their signatures, the salient dimensions of their lives. They will include those of us who can't say it's been our favorite stretch of years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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