Marina City Online: Life Inside the Corncobs

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This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Steven Dahlman is a professional pain in the ass. It’s a skill that serves him well as the scribe of Marina City Online, the de facto community news site of downtown Chicago’s famous twin condo towers.

As a four-year resident of the 60-story corncobs, myself, I can vouch for the seemingly unending–yet highly entertaining–drama and silliness that often ensues here. It’s a state of affairs the condo board would rather not publicize.

“That pesky board has repeatedly tried to silence my website,” says Dahlman. “But that just inspired me to come out with both barrels blazing. Marina City is a fascinating place–and Chicago would be amazed at what goes on here.”

Marina Citizens often hear people liken the place to the Hancock Center. Both are mid-century icons of modern high-rise architecture with parking, commercial space, and hundreds of residential apartments in a carefully planned, mixed-use complex.

“People look at Marina City like an ant farm,” sayd Dahlman. “It’s like, ‘Oh, look at the ants! They’re so cute! They must be angry about something, they’re holding up little picket signs.’ In reality, we’re a lot more complicated than that. We’re a small-town of 1,400 people, and a lot of good and not-so-good–but really juicy–things go on here.”

An Iowa native, Dahlman arrived in the Windy City in 2005, making Marina City his first home. A commercial photographer and software developer, he immediately set to photographing the towers. He quickly realized the lack of information that exists about the history of what architect Bertrand Goldberg called his “city within a city.”

Dahlman decided to put his Internet skills to use and created Marina City Online as a way to share with Chicago the things he was learning about his new home. Along the way, he got an unexpected lesson about life in the corncobs.

“Other bloggers were already writing about the problems,” said Dahlman, referring to Yours Truly and architecture blogger Lynn Becker. “But I wanted to go deeper, as a real community news site.”

Dahlman began to chronicle the seamier side of Marina City, including the Gary Kimmel pimp-dentist scandal, a highly controversial debate to landmark the towers, and flurries of lawsuits between the condo board and rank-and-file owners. In response to the unflattering coverage, the condo board tried to silence Dahlman’s site, attempting to levy fines on a condo owner who advertises on Marina City Online.

It’s a strategy that blew up in the board’s face when the Chicago Tribune profiled the troubles in a February 2009 feature, calling into focus the need for more stringent regulatory controls to rein in allegedly rogue condo boards.

“I think they wanted to silence me from telling the truth about life in the corncobs,” says Dahlman. “It probably came as a shock to discover that I’m not an owner and they couldn’t fine me directly.”

That breathing room has allowed Dahlman to take the time to develop Marina City Online into the Internet’s primary source of background information and current news on the towers. Nifty features include a comprehensive archive of historic information about the genesis of Marina City, pictorials of the development through the years, and de rigeur MLS and rental listings from resident apartment brokers. But the real stars of the show remain Dahlman’s regular, frank community news updates about life and controversy at the towers.

The journalistic slant of Marina City Online comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Dahlman’s background. He spent the better part of 20 years working as a freelance print and broadcast reporter in Des Moines and Minneapolis before arriving in the Windy City in 2005.

But Dahlman never intended to make Marina City a long-term life lifestyle choice. Telling the story of the place, however, has given him a change of heart. “It’s too interesting to leave,” he tells me. “In this life you either get to live somewhere nice or somewhere interesting. I find the intellectual three-ring circus of Marina City very satisfying.”

So expect the virtual record of the real-world drama of the corncobs to go on. And place your bets for the drama to continue, too. Because after four years in the towers I can tell you with exasperated certainty, never a dull moment was had at my Marina City high-rise home.

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