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City of broad shoulders slumps a bit

Chicago laments a fading identity

CHICAGO -- To former mayor Jane Byrne, Chicago's elevated trains are more than a mode of transport: They are one of the things that make Chicago distinctive.

And those things seem to be disappearing, one by one.

''Chicago has been chipped away," said Byrne, who was mayor from 1979 to 1983. ''I look at my grandson . . . and what you want to tell him about different things, things that won't be there for the next generation of Chicagoans."

With its lakefront and landmarks such as the Sears Tower, the Field Museum, and Wrigley Field, Chicago will never be mistaken for another city. But it is changing dramatically.

The L, as the elevated is known, is still very much here and is in no danger. But gone are the steel mills and stockyards that gave the city its reputation for broad shoulders. Gone, too, is Comiskey Park, replaced by a gleaming new stadium. The proud columns of Soldier Field remain, but since a massive renovation project completed in 2003, it looks like a spaceship landed on them.

In September came what Chicagoans viewed as the ultimate indignity: the announcement that Marshall Field's, the city's most famous department store, would be renamed Macy's.

''I like the Macy's in New York, but I'm not in New York. I'm in Chicago," said Michael Braun, a Chicago lawyer who was shopping at Field's original State Street store the day the name change was announced.

The changes extend to how and where people live. In neighborhoods across the city, scores of taverns and other small businesses have been erased from the landscape in favor of pricey bistros and new condominiums.

''I don't recognize my own neighborhood," said writer Studs Terkel, one of Chicago's most distinctive literary voices for decades. He lives on the North Side.

Tourists can take an elevator to the top of the Sears Tower, but it takes a car to get to the company's headquarters, which moved to the suburbs in 1992. Company after company once synonymous with the city -- Montgomery Ward and Amoco, among them -- has either died or moved out of town.

Chicago is ''more homogenized, kind of Disneylike, in the sense that it is a city but there is something artificial about it," said Perry Duis, a University of Illinois at Chicago historian. ''The L, you take that away and you won't know where you are."

Chicago is certainly not the only city seeing change. But in Chicago it can be serious business.

''I have rarely experienced a city that is so enamored with its history," said Lonnie Bunch, former president of the Chicago Historical Society. ''Chicagoans revel in their history."

It showed itself in the late 1980s when the Chicago Cubs decided to install lights at Wrigley Field, years after every other major league team had them. It surfaced when Field's announced it would stop making its famous Frango Mints in Chicago after seven decades and move production to Pennsylvania. And it is there whenever old buildings get torn down to make way for new ones.

''There is incredible tension in Chicago between tradition and innovation," said Blair Kamin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural writer for the Chicago Tribune. ''On the one hand it is a city that invented the skyscraper, and on the other it tries to preserve landmarks [built] 100 years ago."

That tension was seen with the renovation of Soldier Field, which has been branded ''The Eyesore on Lake Shore," ''Acropolis meets Apocalypse," and the ''Mistake by the Lake."

Jonathan Fine, president of the private group Preservation Chicago, said Soldier Field was just one example of Mayor Richard M. Daley's willingness to disregard the traditional.

''It's about business and making Chicago safe for business, and if that means flushing a historic name down the toilet, that is what will be done," Fine said. ''All you need to know is Chicago is tearing down real Victorian buildings at the same time it is putting up fake Victorian streetlights."

Daley's administration points out that the city has designated or is designating 750 buildings, including the Marshall Field's store on State Street, as historic landmarks this year alone. It is also trying to preserve water towers, which were a common sight atop buildings in the early 1900s but are down to about 130 in number. In addition, the city has spent millions to preserve bungalows in older neighborhoods.

''We do want to encourage preservation of our most significant buildings," said Brian Goeken, a deputy planning commissioner. But he added: ''We're not a museum."

That was the mayor's point when he talked about the decision to change Marshall Field's to Macy's. ''Things change," Daley said. ''If you aren't willing to accept change, then you stay in the past, and we're never going to stay in the past in this city."

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