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Feature Mon Jan 19 2009

Documenting Chicago's Lakefront: An Interview with Geoffrey Baer

Geoffrey Baer is writer, producer and narrator for several documentaries taking viewers on tours of Chicago's neighborhoods and characters. He sat down with GB to discuss his most recent program, "Chicago's Lakefront."

Edit: The producer for the "Chicago's Lakefront" was Dan Protess and was an equal partner in the creation of this program.

We've all been watching your documentaries for several years now and enjoying the great deal of knowledge you possess about Chicago and the region; what circumstances made this the time to make a lakefront documentary?

We actually made a Chicago's lakefront program 10 years ago in 1999 and I thought this was a good time to go back to that story and revisit it. So much has changed along the lakefront that the old program can't even be broadcast anymore. For example, Millennium Park, when we made the original program, was nothing more than a hole in the ground. We showed original renderings by SOM that, at that time, didn't look anything like what the parking ended up looking like. Soldier Field, the flying saucer hadn't landed on top of it yet. Meigs Field was still there. The entire south lakefront, Burnham Park, has had a massive rebuilding. At the time we did the earlier show we talked about how that portion of the lakefront had been historically neglected and there were just some plans to start doing some building there but nothing had happened yet. So much had changed that it was a good time -- and picked this particular -- because this is the 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan, and much of the lakefront is a result of the Burnham Plan.

Regarding your own personal narrative, can you discuss a little bit of your passion for the lakefront and how it plays into your life and what it means to you?

I always say people in Chicago orient themselves to the lake; they always know what direction east is, as opposed to know what direction north is. I think we are all drawn to it, and it certainly is the true of me. I grew up in Highland Park and then Deerfield. We always had the beach tags that we would pin to our suits and then we'd go down to the lake. As an adult, I've always lived on the North Side, and that is very much because I can't imagine living too far away from the lake. I need to be able to ride my bicycle not too far to get there. I'm also a sailboat racer...

I came back to Chicago for graduate school, to Northwestern, which, as you know, is right on the lake. Every time I pulled into the parking lot, the first thing you see out there is the lake and its mood. That's the thing that is amazing about the lake, it has so many moods. One day it could be the most tranquil, peaceful vista and then the next day it could be this tumultuous, churning thing. One of my professors at Northwestern was a professor of theater history and knew all about Greek gods. One morning it was very gray and windy and the waves were crashing on the rocks, we got to class and the first thing she said was, "Poseidon is angry today."

Speaking specifically about the lakefront program, your programs are a back and forth between the ubiquitous and nuanced elements of Chicago. One scene you're discussing a hidden lump of metal in Lincoln park then you transition to discussing the lakefront as a single element. Can you discuss how you avoid getting stuck in peculiarity, yet still present new information?

I think my method is pretty instinctive. I don't know if I have a real consciousness that I'm trying to work with. The way I work is that if something surprises me, then I think it will be surprising to most viewers. I think I'm pretty typical in terms of somebody who lives in Chicago. One of the things about my programs that people always seem to say is, "I've lived in Chicago all my life and I've never know that." I particularly think, in Chicago, it's so interesting to learn the story of something that you walk by everyday, and you just never really thought about it. Another important test that I tend to use when I'm trying to figure out what to put in a show is to ask, "Is there is a good story behind it? Are there good characters behind it?" I think if it were all just trivia, it wouldn't have much weight or importance. But the doorway into understanding the big things is the more small, human-scale stories.

You mention the "I never knew that" reaction you try to elicit. The information you present is, perhaps, the thing I enjoy the most about your programs. Could you speak about your research methods and how you find these incredible stories?

We do a tremendous amount of research prior to the writing phase. On my staff, Susan Godfrey functions as a researcher. We also have armies of interns. In addition, our associate producer, Sara Medlin, is very helpful with the research. We start over a period months, working together on research. The programs are really tours, and once you have a route you can start to move along that route and target your research. Obviously the Chicago Historical Society is a treasure trove, and we rely heavily on them. The Encyclopedia of Chicago is a good resource, as well. We then start talking to neighborhood or suburban historical societies, depending on what show we're doing.

I have a small army of unpaid consultants -- people I know who I am constantly in touch with. Sometimes I'll have an instinct that that person would be a good resource. The usual suspects: Tim Samuelson is the cultural historian of Chicago. He's a one man encyclopedia of Chicago itself, who seems to know most everything there is to know. Vince Michael, head of the Historic Preservation Department at Art Institute of Chicago, is someone I call a lot. I have very deep contacts at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I'm a docent there, and I know many of the other docents there, and they very often are very helpful resources.

... so we do an extensive amount of research and start the writing phase. Since these are tours, not a typical documentary where you go out and interview a lot of people and string the interviews together, it is a little bit of and odd format. I am the only person who talks, so they are scripted ahead of time. As the script is being written, inevitably, numerous questions come up, and I'm out there trying to dig up the answers to those questions. Even during the shooting process, we'll take eight weeks, show up at a location and find it isn't what the research said it would be. So we'll need to go back to the drawing board and find out more. Even in the post-production phase there is a tremendous amount of fact checking that goes on.

Inevitably, there will be two or three big ones that we get wrong, and it drives me nuts! I can tell you the biggest mistake in this show. There is a statue in lobby of the Chicago Hilton, which was originally the Stevens Hotel. I say the model for that statue was a future Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens because Stevens' grandfather built that hotel and he asked his grandchildren to pose for the cherubs. It turns out the one surviving statue is not John Paul Stevens, it is his brother, and I let that slip. So we're correcting that for future broadcasts. When you work on television, the final fact check, unfortunately, happens after the show airs, and you get an angry letter or phone call from someone. The grandson of the sculptor is still alive and he contacted me and told me, "You blew it."

When I re-watched the show online, I noticed that you had added a segment on the Obama election night rally. Will you continue to update the program whenever a significant event happens to the lakefront?

That show really is the final version. We don't have the resources to continually update. The Obama rally happened right after we really finished the show. I'm sitting at home watch the rally and I'm thinking, "Oh no!" Like everyone else, I was thrilled with it, but the main thought in my head was, "How could we possibly come out with a new lakefront program and not have this in the show?" So I emailed my producer that night and asked "Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Is there anyway we can squeeze this into the show?" He emailed me back with a three word response, "Yes We Can."

At this point there is really only two scenarios that would make us go back. The first would be if there is a really, really big error that needs to be fixed, like the Stevens Statue. The second is that the show is built such that if we do not get the Olympics, that segment can be taken out. Certainly we'll still mention that the Olympics were a big story on the lakefront, but eight months from now, if we don't get the Olympics, that will be such old news and a gratuitous three minutes of the show could be removed. I suppose if some really big happened we could update the show, but it really is final as it is now.

If you were given power over the lakefront, can you offer any changes you'd like to see made to the park system?

I would say I have a number of thoughts on that. Unlike Montgomery Ward, I am not a fierce opponent of a limited number of, let's say, buildings in the park. I think it would be nice to have more enterprise in the park. I don't think everyone would agree with this but, wouldn't it be great if along the break-wall at Belmont or Montrose Harbor, there were a destination restaurant there with a magnificent lakefront view? I sometimes think about the Chicago Yacht Club where there is a beautiful A-frame building and how it would be wonderful if it were a restaurant that everyone could go to.

I think you need to be careful about having too many enterprises in the park that would cause congestion. The lakefront park system both gives us access to the lake but, in a funny way, also cuts us off from the lake. You can certainly go down to the lake and park for recreational purposes, but what else draws you into the park? Why else would you go down there? You think of something like North Pond Cafe. It is a beautiful destination cafe with a gorgeous view of the pond. There are very few of those in Chicago. If you go to, say, Central Park in New York, it is bustling. It doesn't seem to me that the hustle and bustle in the park negates the pastoral benefits of the park. It seems like there is plenty of room for both. The park is so untouchable in Chicago that we don't always have a lot of good reasons to go into the park. You get up north near Montrose Avenue, you need to walk a long way to get to the lake. I ride my bike from Bryn Mawr; if you start heading south, you don't see the lake for miles. You're a quarter-mile to a half-mile away from the lakefront.

I am not a big fan of the sea wall that we've spent millions of dollars building. It makes the edge seem like a swimming pool. I understand problems of erosion, but why we don't have a more natural edge on our lakefront instead of an oppressive, heavy concrete edge is a little strange to me. A dune ecosystem would be a more natural edge. You can certainly create that, as it is happening at Montrose Harbor. That provides a sort of natural sea wall effect. I understand you need handicap access to the lakefront, and that is one of the benefits of the new revetments, but I think there are ways to address that.

The other thing I would say is that we need much, much better access along the lakefront for boaters. We have a fantastic harbor system, but if you're a visiting boater, coming down from Milwaukee or another Great Lakes port, you have almost no visitor access or guest slips at these harbors. The big one is at downtown! They're talking about this now, there is a plan to do this. However, even just as a Chicago boater, wouldn't it be great to get in my boat at Montrose Harbor or Jackson Harbor and sail downtown, tie up my boat for a small fee at Navy Pier, have a meal, get on my boat and go back to my harbor? You can't do that in Chicago, there is no way to get off at Navy Pier. That would be a great one.

Do have any ideas for shows that you would like to do in the future or perhaps something you are already writing?

My next project is another "Hidden Chicago." There was just so much there that we thought we could easily do another whole round. What we do with "Hidden Chicago" is that we broadcast them as short features on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight." Then after we've made enough of them, we pack them together as a full-length special. Starting in January, once or twice a month I'll have a "Hidden Chicago" feature on "Chicago Tonight." The special will probably be December 2009 or March 2010.

Geoffrey's programs air on WTTW Chicago and are available on DVD. You can watch the "Chicago's Lakefront" program online, as well as find information about his numerous other projects on WTTW's website.

About the Author

Carl Giometti is a Gapers Block staffer who spends his days as an urban theorist disguised as an architect. He tries to professionally and socially associate with anyone else who can enthusiastically talk about public transportation. His wife, as evidence of her fervor for urban planning, is currently asleep with their two cats as he writes this.

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Geoffrey Baer / January 20, 2009 11:17 PM

I'm not sure if it's appropriate for the subject of a story to also make a comment, but really want to credit by name the producer of this program. He is Dan Protess. Dan began his career at WTTW as the associate producer of the FIRST Lakefront Tour ten years ago. He was my equal partner in creating this program.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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