By Michael Miner

Take a Picture–It’ll Last Longer

You’ve looked at empty ruins and felt the ghosts. You’ll soon be able to look at today’s teeming Chicago in the presence of ghosts from a thousand years in the future.

On January 7 the Chicago in the Year 2000 project opens what director Rich Cahan likes to call “the first major retrospective of 21st-century photography in the world.” The hundred pictures on display will have been taken six days earlier, as the millennium dawned across the city–though not for us exactly. The ultimate audience is whatever civilization exists in 3000 AD, and Cahan’s photographers tell him they see the world differently just knowing “they’re all sending messages to the future.”

The first public display of the project’s pictures will hang just a few days in the gallery at CITY 2000’s headquarters, at 312 N. May. But in March the project takes over the city’s gallery in the old Water Tower on Michigan Avenue, where you’ll be able to see a constantly changing sampling of the thousands of photos that will be taken of Chicago throughout the year.

And on the date purists insist is the actual birth of the new millennium, January 1, 2001, a full-blown recapitulation of the year 2000 will open at the Cultural Center–exactly at midnight, Cahan hopes.

“I wanted to get the project off really quickly,” he says. “There are two reasons. Number one is it’ll make us work hard fast. We’ll be going full speed at day one instead of waiting weeks to rev ourselves up. And we want people to know who we are. We want them to have a level of confidence about us so we won’t have to explain to anybody who we are and what we’re doing. They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s that project that’s documenting the city.'”

Whatever stature the Chicago of 2000 AD will enjoy around the world at the time, by 3000 AD it’s likely to be history’s most familiar city. That’s because it will be documented to a degree of detail that, so far as Cahan knows, will be attempted nowhere else on earth. The thousands of photographs that will be taken are the heart of CITY 2000, but there’s also an audio component (run by Andrea De Fotis, a former WBEZ producer) and a video component (run by documentarian Bill Stamets). What’s more, Cahan says City Hall is making available “an amazing amount of maps and statistical information.”

Presumably this mother lode of information will fascinate scholars in a thousand years. Cahan has no idea how it will survive that long, since the technology for preserving it in a useful form doesn’t exist. “There is no answer for a thousand years,” he says. “The answer is to save it for 50 years and see what’s around then.”

CITY 2000 is a gift to Chicago from Gary Comer, the founder of Lands’ End and an amateur photographer. Last June he hired Cahan away from the Sun-Times, where he’d been photo editor, to run it. When we talked a few days ago, Cahan was thinking about the first sunrise of the millennium and how many photographers he should assign to take it. He wants a photographer at the top of the Sears Tower and another at the bottom of the Deep Tunnel, but now he wonders if there’ll be anyone down there then to photograph. He wants pictures of people welcoming the millennium at parties around the city–“We hope to be at the Casino Club, but we haven’t gotten in there yet”–coming home by cab and CTA, sleeping and eating breakfast.

“Instead of showing the first baby of the new year, we’ll show one baby born at Northwestern Hospital and one at Cook County. We’ll go home with them and probably follow them the whole year. We’ll do one of the first funerals, and we’ll get them carving ‘2000’ on the grave.”

Of course CITY 2000 needs to document our Y2K dread that at midnight civilization will collapses. “We’d love to spend the night with a survivalist,” he says. “We think we have one. And we’re going to be here all night with a police radio. We’ll do all the traditional newspaper things newspapers do. Not that it’s our top priority, but if something happens we won’t sit back and keep taking sleeping babies.”

Cahan says he’ll have seven staff photographers and 20 to 30 professional freelancers shooting pictures beginning at midnight, and he intends to pass out another ten or so cameras to helpful amateurs. “I want a cabdriver to take every passenger he picks up after midnight,” he says. “I want to give a camera to a CHA resident, because I understand that it’s very dangerous to go in there.” He’s assigning someone to Union Station. “Trains as a mode of transportation are our number one goal because it’s such a 19th-century thing going into the 21st century.”

January 1 is a Saturday. Because CITY 2000 can’t wait till Monday to process its film if it’s going to hang a show January 7, Steve Rubin, son of the owner of National Photo Service in River North, has agreed to drive in from his home in Vernon Hills Saturday morning and open up. Sunday too, if necessary.

Last week Cahan invited Ira Glass of This American Life to talk to the photographers about serendipity. “They said, ‘How do you get your stories?’ And he said, ‘I follow my instincts to people I think are interesting.'” Glass’s advice reminded them of why they became photographers in the first place. “Pretty inspiring,” says Cahan.

“Good Grief!” and Just Plain Grief

The newspapers of America announced the retirement of Charles Schulz in one voice–Schulz’s.

“Good Grief! ‘Peanuts’ ending its 49-year run,” Chicago Tribune.

“Good Grief! Charles Schulz Calls It Quits,” Los Angeles Times.

“Nuts! No ‘Peanuts,'” New York Daily News.

“Good Grief! ‘Peanuts’ Ends,” Washington Post.

“Aargh! No more ‘Peanuts,'” Baltimore Sun.

“Good Grief! ‘Peanuts’ creator to retire,” Boston Herald.

The death of a comic strip isn’t a major national story that papers get much practice in covering, and when poetry didn’t flow on deadline they wrote lists.

“Beethoven will lose his best friend, the Little Red-Haired Girl will be gone forever, and Lucy Van Pelt won’t have her favorite Blockhead to torment anymore.” Baltimore Sun.

“No more Red Baron. No more Great Pumpkin. No more 5-cent visits to the shrink. Good Grief!” Boston Herald.

“No more chances to kick that football. No more heartfelt pangs over the little red-haired girl. No hopes of ever seeing the Great Pumpkin.” Associated Press.

“Fifty years after its debut–after half a century of doghouse soliloquies, tattered security blankets, flubbed kickoffs (‘You blockhead, Charlie Brown!’), and sweetly rendered musings on the foibles and frustrations of childhood–‘Peanuts’ is calling it quits, ending a singular run in American popular culture.” Boston Globe.

Like a lot of other newspapers, the Boston Globe ran its story on page one. The Globe doesn’t even carry Peanuts; it appears in the competing Herald.

The Sun-Times doesn’t carry Peanuts either, and it published a one-paragraph “entertainment brief” on page 61. “Entertainment” doesn’t quite capture Peanuts–a strip that today runs in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, despite a sizable body of opinion that it hasn’t been funny in years–but it does reflect an Australian editor’s uncertain grasp of American culture, not to mention his bracing antipathy to the Tribune.

Anyway, it wasn’t the Sun-Times that a Chicago-based correspondent for a national magazine called to complain about. This correspondent reads umpteen papers a day, and with all due respect to Charlie Brown and Snoopy, “Good grief!” struck him as a frivolous way to report that a prominent man had been silenced by cancer.

His complaint reminded me of the front-page Sun-Times headline from the Murdoch era announcing the death of actress Margaret Hamilton: “Wicked Witch of West is Dead.” But after reviewing the coverage, I disagree. Schulz was honored in the language of his own imagination. In Peanuts, which decades ago taught me that a newspaper could be read religiously, “Good grief!” was a cry of pain.

Ancients’ History

“Are you ready for Y2K?” said

A.E. Eyre.

Yes, I told him proudly. The larder is stacked with Velveeta and Pepsi One.

“I mean spiritually ready,” Eyre snapped.

So do I, I said.

Like most deep thinkers, Eyre judges no one more harshly than himself. So after calling me a nincompoop he slumped into a chair and began to brood. When I eventually looked up and realized he hadn’t gone away, I asked what the trouble was.

“I consider myself unworthy of the millennium.”

It isn’t something you earn, I answered.

“What you can’t begin to understand, because you’re so trivial, is the profound sadness I feel as the 20th century departs,” he replied.

It was a heck of a century, I agreed.

“It was a tragedy. And I wasn’t there when it needed me.”

Eyre went on, “I could point to a wife unable to appreciate a man who lived the life of the mind. I could point to children who never shut up. I could point to intellectual currents that swirled through the shallows of mass culture and flung serious thinkers like me up on the riverbank. Did I mention the distractions at home?”

You touched on them, I said.

“Well, I could point to all these things. But the simple fact is, I didn’t answer my century’s call.”

Like most of us, Eyre believes destiny rang while he was in the shower. But Eyre had the idea it operated like UPS and would try again tomorrow. Today he was strangely gloomy.

Well, I said, it’s a brand-new millennium for everyone.

“No, I’m a man of my time,” he said. “Hardened by war, coarsened by materialism, blighted by irony. Haunted by the cheap but potent music of my youth. I suppose on New Year’s Eve you’ll be out cavorting with your any-excuse-for-a-party crowd, but I’m in too much despair to share in the merriment. All the new millennium means to me is that nein nein nein is giving way to not not not.”

Despite that excellent exit line, he wasn’t through. “Here’s something I bet you haven’t thought about,” Eyre said. “Do you realize that we’re the last generation to grow up absolutely certain it will die?”

I hadn’t realized.

“The papers are full of amazing advances, all coming on-line a little too late for us to take advantage of.”

An incisive study of rapacious developers and their City Hall running dogs laying waste to a fine old ethnic neighborhood lay on my desk to be edited. The clock did not stop when Eyre blathered.

“Babies born at the birth of the 21st century will be around to welcome the 22nd,” he rattled on.

Don’t worry about it, I protested. When they’re that old, the living envy the dead.

“I don’t know why they’d envy me,” Eyre persisted gloomily. “Perhaps I could perform a public service and put on my tombstone ‘Looks better than it is.'”

Look on the bright side, I said. Think of all the John Updike novels we no longer need to feel we should read, because now they’re the work of a regional novelist of manners popular in the last century.

“On the other hand,” Eyre mused, “20th-century music will become the work of old masters.”

So there really is a lot to feel good about, I said.

Eyre shook his head. “The 20th century is a Faberge egg about to be consigned to history. It’ll be stuck on a shelf in a sterile museum, and you and I will be stuck there with it. We’re children of the last century. As the world bursts with renewal we’ll stumble about like those besotted Civil War veterans in turn-of-the-century novels who can never figure out what the hell is going on around them.”

Thank you, I said. That’ll be all.

“Not even religion will offer a refuge from our torment,” he cried. “Think of what poor God’s going to go through in the next thousand years! What’s the point of doubting the existence of a deity you barely recognize?”

It was certainly something to think about, I said. Now please, please, please, I begged him, please shut up.

News Bites

The Crain’s Chicago Business of December 6 was a neatly packaged issue. On the front page as the lead story was a progress report on the Central Station development south of Grant Park. Covering the back page was a Central Station ad proclaiming “The Future of the City is Here.”

“Not an ideal situation,” allowed Crain’s editor David Snyder, who told me that whenever an ad and an article collide this way the ad is supposed to go. This ad didn’t, he explained, because nobody in editorial saw it. The newsroom looks at ads as it’s checking dummied pages, but it doesn’t see the back page because there’s no editorial matter on it. The backup safeguard is a roster of advertisers the production department sends over each week. No one pays much attention to it.

“This is the fifth straight season Kansas has played in the Great Eight, including the last four.” The Tribune, December 8.

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