Our Fair Failure

“You can put it in the form of a want ad,” said Donald Petkus.

“For sale. License from federal government to host a world’s fair. Fifteen million visitors.”

We resisted the temptation to take the fair off his hands–our bed just isn’t big enough for so many coats. But surely there’s someone else out there in Chicago who wants to throw this party. Those guests wouldn’t all come at one time, for heaven’s sake, and the neighbors could help with the cooking.

When we talked to Don Petkus, he was in the process of composing one of the sadder letters of his life. He was notifying the U.S. Department of Commerce that Chicago has thrown in the towel. Once upon a time the Commerce Department licensed our city to represent our nation before the Bureau of International Expositions and ask for a world’s fair for 1992. Now Petkus needed to tell Washington that after getting the charter to hold the fair, Chicago proved incapable of putting one on.

You may recall that last spring Seville, Spain, which also was chartered to hold a fair in 1992–the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage–asked the BIE to revoke Chicago’s charter. The fair movement here seemed deader than a doornail and Seville wanted to clear the air by getting their exposition formally declared the one and only. But Petkus and some other leaders of Chicago’s Fair Corporation continued to hope that someone would come up with something striking the city’s fancy. They asked for and got a 90-day extension of the BIE charter.

Over that 90-day period, which recently expired, Petkus couldn’t accomplish a damned thing. Now the ultimate deadline is upon him. The next semiannual meeting of the BIE is December 4 in Paris. On that day, Chicago will withdraw.

Unless . . .

“We still have time to do this if we can find the magic wand,” said Petkus. “But we’re giving notice it’s up to the John Wilsons.”

In other words, Petkus clings to hope like a dead soldier to his rifle. “I guess it’s hard to get something out of your veins that’s been in it for eight years,” he said. But the movers and shakers of the Fair Corporation have washed their hands of the exposition. Anyone with a fresh idea can have it. John Wilson’s the guy who created Art Expo; his fresh idea–which we discussed in this space last June–was to boil down the fair into an international celebration of the arts. The world’s greatest dance, theater, and music would flood the city. Watershed exhibitions of painting and sculpture would be staged. Private and public moneys–including the $90 million promised by Washington for an American pavilion–would build a new museum of contemporary art, renovate Navy Pier and the Auditorium . . . in short, provide venues that would grace the city for decades to come.

We thought the idea was full of even more possibilities than Wilson saw: here in our streets, at the turn of the millennium, a recapitulation of civilization.

Well, we just called Wilson. He got nowhere. City Hall refused to move on any plan that wasn’t wrapped in a gold-plated guarantee that the city would risk nary a dime.

“I’m just totally blocked by the city,” Wilson told us. He said the nadir was a meeting he and Howard McKee of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill thought they were going to have last month with the mayor’s chief of staff, Ernest Barefield, and assistant for development and planning, Robert Mier. Instead, Mier and Barefield chewed over Wilson’s idea alone and spat it out.

A conversation Wilson did manage to have with Mier did not go well.

“He kicked me out of his office, by the way, for mentioning that he had to use some intelligence in his position,” Wilson recalled.

Mier told us, “Actually, I found his idea very interesting. He had two problems. One, he wasn’t able to drum up any business-community support in his idea. And for that matter, it came along too late.”

Wilson replied, “He is absolutely wrong.” He said McKee had located several interested businessmen, but everyone was waiting for a signal of interest at City Hall.

Our fear is that Chicago is going to feel silly in 1992, as the world troops to Seville, while Washington, D.C., underwrites in cities hither and yon hoopla that might have been concentrated here. On the other hand, Chicago’s flat failure at managing the grand gesture must be weighed against its capacity to ponder minuscule symbols.

Black aldermen Robert Shaw and Allan Streeter are objecting to the city seal. It’s something we had never paid any attention to before, which is no defense of the seal. We see an Indian in his Sunday buckskins, which stir memories of Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. This noble savage is standing at land’s end, one hand shading his eyes as he contemplates a sailing ship offshore. There is a naked baby sitting in a seashell.

The Sun-Times did a crackerjack job of disinterring from dusty city files the symbolism of all this. It seems the seal was commissioned in 1837, and created by a committee. Their official explanation of the ship was that it conveyed “the approach of the white man’s civilization and commerce.” Originally the baby slept, but the seal was revamped in 1905 and the kid woke up. The idea, explained Mayor John Wentworth, was that “barbarism gave way to civilization.”

In recent years, “the white man’s” was discreetly dropped from all City Hall exegeses of the seal. Still, Streeter and Shaw complain about racial slurs. Streeter says he is reminded of a slave ship. He might as well be reminded of the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria–for what reason has a black man (or an Indian, or a Latino part black or part Indian) to get excited by the derring-do of Christopher Columbus?

Now that danders are up, the seal will be hard to change. It might be simpler to leave the seal as it is and just change the official interpretation of it.

“The noble savage bids farewell to civilization, which was sent back out to sea in 1987. The ship foundered and burned in a cheery blaze that was seen and admired from Wilson Avenue to 71st Street.”

The baby could be put back to sleep again. And the innocence symbolized thereby would be our own, for supposing that Chicago, instead of forever driving its artists out into the world, might ask them to summon the world here.

Bork’s Law

The 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage is shaping up as a fiasco for Chicago. The 200th anniversary of the creation of our Constitution has been a lackluster affair for the whole nation.

We wondered why. And it occurred to us that the celebration has been preempted by debate over a Supreme Court nominee whose attitude toward the Constitution seems to be that there is much less of it than many of us had ever imagined.

A constitutional right to privacy? Doesn’t exist, says Robert Bork. A constitutional right to express an unpopular philosophical opinion? Not there, says Bork. The sharpest sense some of us have had about the Constitution is of its amplitude: its ethos spanned our lives like the sky. But Bork–at least as his critics, cheerfully citing his own writings, construe him–views the Constitution as a niggardly document. On the other hand, he has located one Constitutional freedom we hadn’t guessed at: the guarantee that as long as little caesars and ayatollahs hold sway in their precincts, they have plenty of room to operate.

No Picnic

Bork’s admirers measure him differently. Two weeks ago, we devoted the entire column to one of the most impressive, Jack Fuller, editor of the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune. This brought a call from Tom Gibbons of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Why weren’t we writing about something really important? Like the Sun-Times company picnic in Grant Park?

What’s significant about the company picnic, said Gibbons, is that the Sun-Times unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild picketed it. Gibbons heads the unit.

We’ll take a closer look soon at the unhappy state of employee relations within the Sun-Times. The guild maintains management is laying off staff illegally and is bent on rolling back maternity and sick pay benefits. Some issues have moved to binding arbitration. But the office picnic was a milestone of intramural disharmony and you ought to know about it now.

The 300 guild employees boycotted the picnic altogether. Estimates of the number of picketers range from management’s 50 or 60 to the guild’s 100. They waved placards bearing such slogans as “Start Layoffs at the Very Top” and “A Sorry Page in Sun-Times History.” They chanted through bullhorns.

In an effort to guarantee a respectable turnout, middle managers throughout the building were notified that publisher Bob Page expected to see them there. Many made “token” appearances, one such manager told us. Gibbons said, “They were walking in the front door and out the back and having drinks with our people.”

We asked Gibbons if when they weren’t picketing, the unhappy newspeople grilled hot dogs and tossed the frisbee. Not a chance. “This was not a picnic for us,” said Gibbons.

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