The Mecca: Where modernism began (and memories of Mies)

The first time I heard of the Mecca, the grand old apartment building in Bronzeville, was when I read Thomas Dyja’s colorful cultural history, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. (The book won the 2013 Heartland Prize for nonfiction.) The current exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center—Mecca Flat Blues—tells the story of the Mecca and how that very site became the location of the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology and of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece, S R Crown Hall. I just reviewed the exhibit for Gapers Block. You can read my article here.

Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Photo by Nancy Bishop.

The Mecca was located on 34th and State streets. Amazing stories swirled around the Mecca itself from its opening in 1892 until its demolition in 1952. Dyja gave a lecture last week on “The Battle for the Mecca” and described how that one square block on 34th Street between State and Dearborn streets inspired so much. Gwendolyn Brooks’ great poem “In the Mecca,” was about the time she spent working there. A blues song from the 1920s, “Mecca Flat Blues,” commemorated the building, which was part of an entertainment district where jazz and blues flourished.  When you check out my review, be sure to play the video of the blues song with audio from the original vinyl recording, played on a very old turntable. The Mecca was demolished and the site scraped clean to provide the site for the new IIT building. Dyja called it a palimpsest: a writing surface scraped clean for new writing on which traces of past writing remain.

The exhibit continues in the Sidney Yates Gallery at the Cultural Center until May 25.  See details at the end of my review.

A note about my Gapers Block article: Chicago Magazine named it one of the “must-read articles of the week.” I was kinda pleased.

Memories of Mies

S R Crown Hall. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

S R Crown Hall. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

My first visit to Crown Hall was an unforgettable experience for a longtime devotee of architecture and design. It was September 1969 and a major retrospective celebrating 50 years of Bauhaus art and design was on display at Crown Hall. Mies van der Rohe, its architect, was one of the many alumni of the Bauhaus who came to Chicago in the 1930s. Mies had died just the month before—in August 1969. I was living in DeKalb at the time and had never been to the IIT campus, even though I had grown up in Chicago—on the far northwest side. But I was a lover of Bauhaus design and the exhibit was something I could not miss. I started early, so I could spend a whole long day at the exhibit. I had seen small photos of Crown Hall so I knew the building I was looking for on the unfamiliar campus. But as I walked toward it, it took my breath away. The expanse of glass gleaming in the sun and the precision of the steel i-beams were simply stunning. Even though other Mies high-rise buildings are also considered masterpieces, this four-story academic building is much more elegant, because its entirety can be appreciated in one view.

Original catalog from 1969. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Original catalog from 1969. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

The Bauhaus exhibit was very comprehensive and thrilling to see. Paintings, photography, architectural renderings and photographs, furniture, sculpture, pottery, typography by dozens of famous artists and designers. I was on sensory overload by the end of the day. I still have the square 365-page catalog, which I count among my treasures.

See the Farnsworth House

Another beautiful example of Mies’ low-rise designs is his Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois—a museum house that’s open for tours April through November.

Related posts

Walking the Mies staircase at the Arts Club. Scroll down in my October post.

Chicago’s Bauhaus legacy. See my comments on the great 2013 exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.


The Best Things About 2013

Yes, there were some horrible things about 2013, mostly political, Congressional, in fact. But there were some great things about the year. Here’s are some of the things I want to remember about the last 12 months.


I’ve written about most of these things here, but I decided not to provide links because then the whole post would be links. If you want to follow up on a topic, check the Categories selections on the right. (Image courtesy PSD Graphics.)


  • Retirement means I’m finally able to be a writer. Writing about the things I love. I was a business writer for 35 years, but it was never this much fun.
  • Being “hired” to write for Gapers Block has been terrific. Thank you, Andrew and LaShawn. In just seven months, I’ve posted 71 articles, mostly theater and art reviews. All Gapers Block writers work as volunteers, but I do get free theater tickets and personal previews of art exhibits.
  • Nancy Bishop’s Journal has been in business for 18 months and this year I wrote 65 new posts, as my WordPress Annual Report announced yesterday.

Theater bests

  • An Iliad at Court Theatre was absolutely the best play of my year.
  • The Seafarer at Seanachai Theatre, performed at The Den Theatre, was a close second. It’s been extended, so you can still see it until February 1.
  • Homeland 1972 at Chicago Dramatists. How could I not love a play based on a Bruce Springsteen song? (“Highway Patrolman” from the 1982 album Nebraska.)
  • Terminus performed by Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum.
  • The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn by Strange Tree Theatre at Signal Ensemble Theatre. The time machine was worth the ticket price but the whole show was smart and funny.
  •  Remy Bumppo seems to do no wrong, at least this year. Both Northanger Abbey and An Inspector Calls were outstanding productions.
  • Hypocrites is another company that does great work. Their production of the Chicago story titled Ivywild was wondrous.
  • Trap Door Theatre’s production of The Balcony was outstanding, and so is most of this group’s work.
  • There were many more excellent shows, many that I reviewed for Gapers Block. But I’ll stop at nine.


  • Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre. Leonard was his usual charming, sprightly self and left me cheering for a performer who knows how to present a great show. Both Leonard and I are approaching the age at which we might be called “super-agers” and I look forward to seeing how both of us do in our 80s.
  • The farewell to Lou Reed, who died in October at 71, was a musical tribute played outside in a grove of trees near Lincoln Center. Watch this video to see friends and fans rocking out to his “Walk on the Wild Side.”

  • The soundtrack from the film Inside Llewyn Davis, taking us back 50 years to relive the ‘60s in Greenwich Village, in the pre-Dylan era. The songs are all new arrangements of traditional folk songs, except for “Please Mr. Kennedy,” done in a hilarious performance by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (providing the bass notes).
  • “Dream Baby Dream,” the Springsteen song I couldn’t stop listening to
  • Anticipation: A new Springsteen record, High Hopes, will be released January 14. We’re hoping that Bruce will finally come home to tour but so far the 2014 dates are only in South Africa and Australia.

Films (a few of my favorites, in random order)  

  • Inside Llewyn Davis, which I’ve seen twice and reviewed here last week.
  • Russian Ark, a 2002 film by Aleksandr Sokurov, a technological and artistic masterpiece, despite being plotless. It’s a tour thru the Hermitage with a cast of thousands.
  • Sound City, a documentary made by Dave Grohl about one of the last analog music production studios in Los Angeles.
  • Anna Karenina, a gorgeous film innovatively staged—literally on a theater stage—with beautiful costumes, settings, cinematography and acting.
  • Holy Motors, a bizarre masterwork directed by Leos Carax, starring Denis Lavant.
  • Springsteen and I, in which his fans talk about how they came to be Springsteen fans and what his music means to them.
  • 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about the background singers, mostly black and female, who make rock sound like the music we love.
  • I didn’t see Spike Jonze’s Her until January 3, but it’s one of the top films of 2013. My review is coming up.
  • The Story of Film: An Odyssey, written and produced by Mark Cousins, an Irish film critic. The fascinating 15-part series starts with the first barely moving pictures in the 19th century and ends with today’s filmmakers. TCM ran it on 15 consecutive Monday nights this fall and Netflix is streaming it.
  • As always, a bow to the Gene Siskel Film Center and its dedication to excellent, rarely seen films


  • House of Cards, the Netflix political drama available for binge-watching
  • Treme, a somewhat flawed HBO series, centered on the eponymous New Orleans neighborhood, with great music; it ended this week after four seasons.
  • Breaking Bad on AMC; it’s all over for Walter White. Looking forward to the final season of Mad Men, also to be shown in two parts. Will Don Draper finally become Dick Whitman?
  • Stand Up for Heroes, the annual benefit concert for wounded warriors, on which Mr. Springsteen did a 20-minute set and told bad jokes.
  • Palladia, the 24/7 rock music channel. What would I do without it?

 Art and art venues

  • The Art of Fashion X 3. The most underrated of the three exhibits–Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair—is at the Chicago History Museum until May 11. It’s a fabulous show; don’t miss it. The other two were Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibit.
  • Shutter to Think: The Rock & Roll Lens of Paul Natkin. This exhibit of the Chicago rock and roll photographer’s work for magazines, album covers and posters is excellent. It’s at the Chicago Cultural Center thru January 4, so you still have a minute to see it.
  • Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy, a superb exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art on West Grand Avenue. I wrote a feature about this excellent small museum for Gapers Block.
  • The Work at Play exhibit of graphic design at the Chicago Design Museum in the Block 37 building, part of the Pop-Up Art Loop project. The exhibit honored the work of John Massey, a famous Chicago designer, and other important graphic designers

Books and book events

  • I’ve written about short stories, my book group, ebooks on the CTA, and musical author book events: Richard Hell at the BookCellar and Peter Hook at the MCA
  • Emile Zola, whose novels I binged on this year. Nana, The Ladies’ Paradise, The Joy of Life and Germinal are just the beginning.
  • The 50th anniversary of the release of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Miscellaneous but important

  • The death of Roger Ebert left a huge gap in film criticism and the movie biz.
  • Edward Snowden and the NSA. Snowden’s release of NSA files, whether legal or not, made us aware of how much the government is invading our privacy. My view is that Snowden is a patriot and should be given amnesty so he can come home. He should not be imprisoned and tortured as Bradley/Chelsea Manning was for similar acts. Today the New York Times published a powerful editorial agreeing with me.
  • Oscar Libre. After 32 years, it’s time to release Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican independence activist. I wrote about him a few weeks ago.
  • And now, it’s time for ….


Six things you didn’t know you missed in Gapers Block

I love writing for Gapers Block. It gives me an excuse to view, think and write about some of the things I love—like theater, art, architecture and design. So here are some things I’ve been writing about recently. You can still catch some of them.

Six Corners dedication of Portage sculpture

The Six Corners Association partnered with the American Indian Center to create a piece of art to celebrate the contributions of Native Americans to the history of the community, which is part of the larger area known as Portage Park. The sculpture titled Portage by artist Ted Sitting Crow Garner is being dedicated at 12 noon Saturday, October 12, at the Six Corners Sears store at the intersection of Cicero, Irving Park and Milwaukee.


Here’s a photo from a slideshow charting the progress of the sculpture.  Garner is shown putting it into position on the west side of the Sears store.  Image courtesy Six Corners Association. 

See my preview here, which includes some of the history of the neighborhood.

In my high school years, I worked at a chain woman’s clothing store on Cicero Avenue across from the Sears store, so I feel a pride of ownership in my old neighborhood.

Even if you miss the dedication, you can drive by and check out the sculpture later.

Hebru Brantley’s The Watch at Pioneer Court

Hebru-TheWatch-GBA collection of brightly colored figures has taken up residence at Pioneer Court Plaza, formerly the site of the Marilyn Monroe figure. They’re part of Chicago Ideas Week and created by Chicago artist Hebru Brantley, who is the Chicago Ideas Week 2013 Artist in Residence. Read about them here. They’ll be in place at least until October 20.

Photo by Kristie Kahns, courtesy Chicago Ideas Week. 

Ukrainian Institute Artists Respond to Genocide exhibit

I wrote recently about the excellent Bauhaus exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.  The institute recently unveiled its new exhibit, Artists Respond to Genocide, which enables artists to take a broad look at genocide over the last century. The exhibit is made up of paintings, drawings, photography, sculpture and assemblages by 20 local and international artists. Many of them are really gripping, such as the large brightly colored painting by Mary Porterfield titled Engraved, or the woodcut and intaglio prints by Harold Cohen titled Auschwitz, Baba Yar and Genocide. The exhibit recognizes the Holodomor or secret holocaust in the Ukraine in 1932-33 as well as the appalling list of genocides over time. A chilling list in the back of the exhibit program enumerates 13 of them, with the number of fatalities in each.

UIMA Facade--GB

I wrote a preview of this exhibit for Gapers Block. You can see the exhibit until December 1 at this excellent small museum at 2320 W Chicago Ave.

The image is the Stanley Tigerman-designed facade of the building.

Image courtesy Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. 

You can tour Wright’s Unity Temple

UnityTempleFront-GBIt’s been some time since formal tours of the landmark Frank Lloyd Wright structure, Unity Temple in Oak Park, have been available. Up until now, the only way to see the interior of this innovative building was if you knew someone or by chance went to a program there. (I’ve done both and even happily went to several services with friends. Even an avowed atheist will do anything to see the interior of a famous religious structure.)

But now the FLW Preservation Trust is offering docent-led tours again. Get more information here.

Image courtesy Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. 

Terminus at Interrobang Theatre Project

I’ve seen and reviewed many plays in the last month, but one of the very best was this amazing three-actor blend of monologues produced by Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum.  Here’s how my Gapers Block review started:

“Mark O’Rowe is one of the new generation of Irish playwrights whose work was first seen in the 1990s. In Terminus, being presented by Interrobang Theatre Project, he displays his fascination with language and his passion for words. Terminus isn’t so much a play as a series of stories, intertwined in monologues by three characters, known only as A, B and C. Their stories, set in the streets of Dublin, begin separately, and gradually become more connected, until they are finally merged in a glorious fantasy of blood, sweat, tears and sex.”

Truly, this was one of the finest nights of theater I’ve seen lately. Unfortunately, the play closed last week.

 The Benchmark at Step Up Productions

I also reviewed this play about a well-read homeless man and although the lead actor’s performance is excellent, the play as a whole was somewhat flat.  I wanted desperately to love it, but couldn’t. But tastes vary and other viewers might well enjoy it. Read my review here and then check out other reviews here.

How I spent my week…theater, art, music

A great theater experience, plus some cartoon art and memories of the Bauhaus. The finishing touch was a Steve Earle concert.  Am I lucky to live in Chicago or what?

Terminus at Interrobang Theatre Project

Mark O’Rowe is one of the new generation of Irish playwrights whose work was first seen in the 1990s. In Terminus, being presented by Interrobang Theatre Project, he displays his fascination with language and his passion for words. Terminus isn’t so much a play as a series of stories, intertwined in monologues by three characters, known only as A, B and C. Their stories, set in the streets of Dublin, begin separately and gradually become more connected, until they are finally merged in a glorious fantasy of blood, sweat, tears and sex. That’s how my review of Terminus begins.  It’s a terrific play with thrilling language.  Truly a treat to listen to. I recommend it highly.

Modern Cartoonist: Daniel Clowes exhibit at MCA


Daniel Clowes is a well-known graphic novelist, who has published nearly 50 books and magazines. Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes is his current exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which runs until October 13.  The show is beautifully designed and curated and has many lovely little graphic surprises.

It was very interesting to see the progression and process of Clowes’ work, sometimes from sketch through inking and printing.  For some publications, a series of pen and ink on tissue pages was shown. Since so much art today is created on the computer, it’s fascinating to see so many of Clowes’ pages drawn by hand on paper.

Image: Collection of Daniel Clowes. Courtesy of the artist and Oakland Museum of California

Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art

bauhaus2-new-website1It’s been years since I visited this little gem of a museum on Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village.  Do not think it’s only about Ukrainian art; it’s really a center for modern and contemporary art.  The Bauhaus exhibit is fabulous and it’s open through this Sunday, September 29. If you are interested in modernism, you don’t want to miss it.

The legacy starts with Lazslo Moholy-Nagy moving to Chicago to establish the US version of the famous German citadel of design.  The Bauhaus’ existence was threatened in the 1930s by Hitler’s aversion to modern art. Moholy-Nagy was followed by other artists and designers who moved to Chicago (including Mies van der Rohe). The New Bauhaus went through many name changes and locations and in 1949 became part of the IIT Institute of Design.

The exhibit includes about 150 pieces by 90 artists and designers.  Work includes painting, sculpture, photography, architecture plans, furniture and design pieces.  A lovely example of the latter is a bar of Dove soap, designed by three students in 1952 as part of a special project funded by Lever Brothers.  Dove still uses the same shape for its soap bars.  (The original carved wooden prototype is on show at the Chicago History Museum.)

In addition to the main exhibit in the west gallery, the east gallery includes Bauhaus work from the institute’s permanent collection. There’s also a very interesting wall that shows the birth and development of the Ukrainian institute.

I’m going to write a feature on the institute for Gapers Block and I’ll provide a link to it here when I do.

Steve Earle at the Vic book2

Steve Earle and the Dukes played a great concert at the Vic Saturday. The setlist included many of his fine old songs as well as tracks from his new album, The Low Highway. His band is made up of four musicians: a drummer, upright bass player, lead guitarist and fiddler/mandolin player.  Earle plays a number of stringed instruments himself (guitar, mandolin, banjo) and sings lead vocals. Many of his songs (and his occasional patter between songs) involve social commentary.  Here are a few lines from the song “The Low Highway.”

Heard an old man grumble and a young girl cry
A brick wall crumble and the white dove fly
A cry for justice and a cry for peace
The voice of reason and the roar of the beast
And every mile was a prayer I prayed
As I rolled down the low highway.

His novel–I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive–is on my reading list and coming up soon.


Welcome to my obsessions 

Nancy Bishop’s Journal is a repository for my thoughts on my various obsessions focused around popular culture and politics.  My definition of popular culture is primarily rock and roll and its cousins and progenitors — R&B, blues, folk, country and jazz.  Plus film, theater, television–and art, architecture and design, books, writers and writing. My explorations also will look at how new media are changing our cultural landscape. My political comments will generally be tied to the reflection of politics in popular culture — but not always.


Bruce at 2012 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

Full disclosure.  My primary obsession is with the music of Bruce Springsteen and his various incarnations — solo and acoustic, with the E Street Band, the Sessions Band and any other future bands he forms.  The tagline under my blog title above is a Springsteen quote, identified on the About page. From time to time, I’ll explain my passion for Bruce’s music — and his politics.

Oh, and anything Chicago. I’m a Chicago native from the northwest side neighborhood of Montclare, lived in other places for many years, but I’m here to stay. I love Chicago’s nasty, corrupt and illustrious history and politics, its architecture, its weather, its lakefront, its theater, its music and its writers. And I glory in seeing my city reflected in films and TV shows made in Chicago.



What I Believe

First of all, I believe in the magic of rock and roll. Here’s what I said about that in my first post to my new blog.

I also believe that it’s my right and duty as a writer and a human being to reflect on the things that are important to me in this blog — especially after 35 or 40 years of writing whatever my employer was interested in. So this blog is about me, me, me.  As the late Roger Ebert said in his memoir, Life Itself, his blog taught him how to organize the accumulation of a lifetime.  “It pushed me into first person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself into manageable fragments.” For Ebert, his blog was the beginning of writing a memoir. Writing a memoir in fragments is not my intention here.  But you never know.

Essayist E.B.White once described an essayist as he might today describe a blogger. An essayist is “sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He … enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist … differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” (From Essays of E.B. White, 1977, Foreword.)

So all the things in the world that are important to me — and they can generally be encompassed under the umbrella of politics and popular culture — will be the province of this blog. Life is raw material.

To start with, I’ll give you an idea of my personal interests with the post below on things I like and don’t like.  It’s an homage to Susan Sontag, who reveled in lists. My lists are a work in progress.


Things I like

  • Electronic gizmos, gadgets, computers, my smartphone and my iPad
  • Fountain pens,mechanical pencils and new notebooks, graph paper if possible
  • Rock and roll, lots of horns and drums. Bruce Springsteen, of course. Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Tom Morello. Gaslight Anthem, Arcade Fire, The BoDeans. Talking Heads. The Clash. Neil Young, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon (RIP)
  • Rock docs, starting with the iconic mock rockdoc, Spinal Tap
  • Typography as art
  • Black, gray, red, silver
  • Bauhaus design and architecture, mid-century design
  • Frank Gehry, Massimo Vignelli. Victor Vasarely
  • Wearing jeans and boots and not having to dress up for work
  • Palladia, my favorite cable channel, which plays rock concerts 24/7– now, sadly, turned into another MTV channel
  • Films by Altman, Bunuel, Almodovar, Bergman, Smith (Kevin, that is), Kieslowski, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Guy Maddin. And Christopher Guest, of course. Another mad genius.
  • Novels by Jose Saramago, Philip Roth, Richard Powers, Mordecai Richler. Coincidentally they are all on one shelf in my fiction bookcase. Also Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Timothy Findley and John Coetzee.
  • Serious theater, even if it’s grim and depressing. Especially plays by Sam Shepard, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Bertolt Brecht, Sean O’Casey, Shaw and Shakespeare, and new Irish playwrights such as Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson
  • Summer tomatoes and peaches
  • Cars with stick shifts

Things I don’t like

  • Perfume. On anyone
  • Elevator music
  • Pastels
  • Silly plays and almost all musicals
  • Anything froufrou