Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Land of the Free--No Reasonable Offer Refused
You'd think that 72 hours without news (see this morning's post) would have mellowed me a little bit by yesterday. But once we headed for home from our Michigan weekend, it didn't take long for the world to intrude again.

When we lived in Iowa, going to visit the family in Michigan took a little longer, but was less painful overall. We could skirt the southern edge of the Chicago metro area and spent maybe half-an-hour in the full-force gale of urban traffic. But traveling to and from Madison means nearly 100 miles and almost two hours on Chicago's highways to hell. What makes it especially aggravating is that nobody says "fuck you" like the Chicago regional offices of the Illinois and Indiana Departments of Transportation.

They've torn up Interstate 80/94 on both sides of the state line. Although the construction zone is relatively small, the backups quickly become extreme. It took us half an hour to go 15 miles on Friday, and twice as long on the same stretch last night. You'd think that crews would be working 24/7 to finish what looks like a relatively routine lane-resurfacing project, especially since the highway is the only convenient route for those traveling around Chicago, but as a friend of mine used to say, that would be too much like right. Like almost every other Chicago-area road project I've seen in nearly 30 years behind the wheel, this one appears to be just as much about creating character-building inconvenience as it is about improving safety or traffic flow.

Another way in which the Illinois Department of Transportation reminds you that your convenience is no concern of theirs involves the Illinois Tollway. Unlike most other tollways around the country, you don't grab a ticket at the on-ramp and pay when you get off--no sir, in Illinois you have to stop every few miles and throw coins into a bucket. This creates enormous toll-plaza snafus on holiday weekends--we've seen cars backed up five and six miles waiting to render their mite unto Caesar. You'd think that maybe they'd consider throwing the damn gates open for a couple of hours on holiday evenings just to make it easier for everybody, but that would also be too much like right. Not that they couldn't afford it: the Tollway Authority sits on a nest-egg of well over $100 million. But since nobody says "fuck you" like the Illinois Department of Transportation, bend over.

We decided to avoid the tollway as much as possible last night and went off to search for a brewpub we'd heard about. The trip took us along the northwestern edge of the Chicago suburbs, up into Lake in the Hills and Algonquin. These places reminded me of Gertrude Stein's characterization of her hometown of Oakland, California: "When you get there, there's no there there." They have no true core, no real downtowns that we could see. Houses sit like beached ships in developments that were cornfields a year ago, palaces with all the modern conveniences $300,000 can buy, but as anonymous as inner-city rowhouses, on streets with faux-noble names like Braemar Lane and Prestwicke Place. Interspersed amidst the developments are endless strip malls providing every franchised business you can think of, all housed in tasteful brick.

Driving through mile after mile of this, you can't avoid noticing how hard the various developers, franchisees, and homeowners have worked to ladle on a veneer of old-money class and stateliness to what is, in reality, almost entirely nouveau riche and utterly plastic. "It reminds me of Levittown," the Mrs. remarked--the famous post-World War II housing developments on Long Island and in Ohio that were every bit as regimented and anonymous-looking in their particular way as Lake in the Hills and Algonquin are today.

But Levittown was confined to a fixed area, and its homeowners eventually gave it some character, remodeling the standard floor plan and planting trees. You can bet that no such messing with the carefully market-researched aesthetics of Sylvan Glen or Windgate Pointe or whatever in the hell they call the next development will be permitted. And unlike Levittown, the featureless, characterless sprawl of Chicago's northwest suburbs seems to have no limit. As we made our way up toward Woodstock and Harvard, we could see acres and acres of former farm fields that have been snapped up by developers and will be sprouting houses and strip malls of their own by next summer. For that reason, it's not hard to believe that what you see there is the future of American life. Because the same thing is happening everywhere, someday we're all gonna live in the United States of Generica.

Quote of the day: Spotted on a bumper sticker somewhere down around Calumet City, Illinois: "How can this be the land of the free if everything is for sale?"

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