Chicago’s new Ferris wheel doesn’t measure up

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The Ferris wheel on Navy Pier is going to be replaced with a taller one. | Sun-Times file photo

I’ve been to London and seen the London Eye and dismissed the 450-foot tall Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames, as many Londoners do, with a shudder of revulsion, as an out-of-place monstrosity that fits in the city of Christopher Wren like a steam calliope at a formal church wedding.

That goes double for the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, whichmanages to be underwhelming and garish at the same time. At 150 feet tall, it rises to the height of a 15-story building. That might be a big deal in Omaha. But the city that created the first Ferris wheel, at the 1893 World’s Fair, could have done better.

That one was unique in the world; this one is a nostalgic parody, a feeble homage, like those Al Capone bus tours.

I rode it again last summer, in my role as benevolent tour guide, squiring a young country cousin. As we inched upward, in the wheel’s slow rise, a view unfolded almost identical to the view you get standing on the pier, except you’re $8 poorer.

Perhaps it’s thrilling for 4-year-olds. Otherwise, put it in the classic Chicago tradition of fleecing the greenhorns.

To better accomplish this task, the Navy Pier folks announced last week they are replacing the wheel with a bigger one.

First, a confession. My grumpiness on this topic must stem from my being in that time of life when things once thought permanent are suddenly wearing out. We have a lovely Herendon sofa, bought at enormous expense at Marshall Field in the early 1990s. The fabric, a thick, rich green material, depicting ferns, like something from a medieval tapestry. The sofa seemed destined to last the centuries and end up displayed behind a velvet rope in a gallery.

Instead it’s battered and threadbare, banished to the TV room, the split cushions hidden under blankets. Put it out on the curb and nobody would touch it.

So clock hands are spinning, calendar pages fluttering to the floor. And now the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier — which I watched being built as a metro reporter — has seen its day and will be torn down in the fall. Not because it is worn out, thank God, but because it isn’t big enough and the cars are open.

Again, a disconnect. The cars being open is the only bare value you got for your eight bucks. Yes, you were being taken 1/8 of the way up the Willis Tower. But at least you wereoutside. There was air and a tiny frisson of acrophobia.

Now riders will be sealed in heated and cooled cars, so the tourists packing Navy Pier can seek escape by taking Ferris wheel rides in February.

Is there a demand for that? I can’t tell. Navy Pier’s popularity is a puzzlement to me. I can’t write about it without mentioning a strong memory from the late 1980s: walking the length of the pier’s dark, desolate, abandoned ruin, thinking, “They’re turningthisinto some tourist Mecca? That’scrazy.Nobody’s going to come here.”

The most popular tourist attraction in Illinois. Mobs of tourists rush past the Art Institute and Millennium Park to get in line at Bubba Gump Shrimp. Again, maybe this is age talking. When the boys were small, back in the 1990s — the last century! — we did enjoy the Children’s Museum and the Winter Garden. But for the past decade, the only time I visit Navy Pier is when I’m rushing, late, to go on the radio at WBEZ, way the heck at the end of the pier. Pushing through this dense, milling crowd of Iowan families as they waddle from McDonald’s to the teddy bear factory, the air cloying with the scent of sugary nuts, it’s all I can do to get to the station without having my eye put out by a churro.

They’re building a bigger Ferris wheel. Question: If ours is 150 feet tall now, and London’s is 450 feet, and Vegas’ 550 feet, and New York is building one 630 feet, how big will the new Ferris wheel at Navy Pier be? 300 feet? Maybe 500 feet? Or 700 feet? If the wheel were proportional to our civic self-regard, it would be 1,000 feet tall.

No, 196 feet. Only a little bigger. How that’s worth the $26 million it’ll take to do is a mystery to me. But then again, the whole darn thing’s a mystery to me.

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