Very Tiny Voyage: 26th and Cal

26th and Cal(ifornia, if you’re feeling fancy) is a well-known location here in Chicago: the Circuit Court of Cook County criminal court building. Located in Little Village, it’s not a place most people want to go. You’re most likely there because you or someone you care about has had a crime committed against you, because you or someone you care about has been accused of a crime, or because you’ve got jury duty. I went there this week for my first experience with the latter.

The building itself is large but not necessarily impressive. (There are no photos in this story because you’re not allowed to bring electronic devices into the courthouse. There are big signs telling you this everywhere. The deputy, though, will tell you this doesn’t apply to jurors. Whether she’s right or not depends on the security guard you get.) But the inside has some really beautiful architecture and decoration to provide some small perk to having to be in court.

The beautiful bits are, of course, in the old part of the courthouse. The newer administrative area is your basic functional large office building (with a lot of barbed wire out back, if you glance that way). But the older bits have that grand, stately quality that governments used to put into their buildings the way religions used to put it into their houses of worship, before we all decided to abandon awe in institutional spaces and go purely functional and construct nothing but cavernous warehouses anymore.

The entrance way isn’t all that lovely until you look up–and above you, there are stylized white starbursts on fields of blue gridded by golden stalks of wheat. These are the kind of prairie touches that remind you that, although we’re in the midst of a highly industrial urban area, we are still in Illinois, in the Midwest.

Up in the courtroom, it’s less obviously Midwestern and more straightforwardly imposing. Our judge was (rightfully) proud of her courtroom; apparently, many of them are much blander. Hers was all dark wood and leather chairs and marble pillars. It looked a lot like a courtroom on TV would, except way more empty and way less exciting. It did serve its function, though, at least for me: When we were in the jury room, which is like the lamest lunchroom in the basement of the worst Office Depot in the world, I felt very much in command, making jokes about the attorneys and the judge and putting my feet up. But when I was in the courtroom, I felt quiet and reserved and, in fact, submissive. The atmosphere created by the grand and stately space had done its work. And that’s what this place is for, after all–some of the most important work we’ve got to do as a society. Not a place I hope to visit often, but a place I’m glad I saw.

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