I got sucked into a conversational vortex not long ago with someone to whom I am only marginally acquainted – a friend-of-a-friend kind of thing – the type of situation that can be, well… awkward. It was at a charity event that I wasn’t comfortable attending in the first place, but I had made a commitment to go. The stilted small talk centered on the topic of the most scenic roads in America that we had ever driven. The woman next to me mentioned California’s Pacific Coast Highway, and she relentlessly waxed nostalgic about Monterey, San Louis Obispo, and Big Sur; the picture-perfect towns, the towering pines and the dramatic views of the ocean, all to the head-bobbing approval of the wine-wielding patrons-of-the-arts gathered around her. Then, to be polite she turned to me and asked what my favorite drive was. I thought about it for a few seconds, breathed a slow sigh of satisfaction and said,
“The Chicago Skyway, from the tollbooth to Independence Avenue.”
She looked at me like she had a mouthful of Sourpatch Kids candy. “Do you mean that disgustingly ugly bridge on the South Side that we cross over on our way to Notre Dame?”
“Ah, so you know it?” I asked cheerfully.
She wrinkled her brow and shook her head in disgust.
“I’d hardly call it scenic,” she said, sipping her Chardonnay. “Decrepit, maybe, a blight on the landscape maybe,” rolling her eyes and looking to the others for validation, “but there’s certainly nothing beautiful about it.”
“I disagree,” I said. “Every time I make for the apex of that elegant span and see it delicately straddling the murky waters of the Calumet like some giant steel water strider, I look down and witness a diorama of Chicago history. I am transfixed as I sail above the spot where the martyrs from the bloodiest labor riot in our country’s history lay in a hot Memorial Day field in 1937 – an event that turned the tide for the nation’s steelworkers’ right to unionize. I float above the tree tops and tailing piles to see where immigrant mill workers lived their modest dreams, toiled in horrible conditions, and breathed the kish from the open hearth furnaces to churn out molten slab for the country’s rails and bridges; plating for armored vehicles during the war; and the skeletons of the magnificent towers that adorn the skyline in my rearview mirror. I see a jumbled network of steel cables that carried Samuel Insull’s electricity from his landmark 1929 Art Deco style electric generating station built by famed architects Graham, Anderson Probst & White rising out of the lake off to my left, on the Illinois-Indiana state line. I see the weary facade of a great beauty, and the underbelly of the beast; hulking railcars and the ghosts of giant freighters nosing into Calumet harbor laden with timber, cement, iron ore, grain and oil. I smell the heady aroma of industry and hear the echoes of Sandburg’s verses ring in my ears. It lasts for only a few, fleeting moments; then, it’s gone. It may not meet your definition of pretty, but do you not see the beauty in that?”