Constable: Drone view of city and suburbs comes to WTTW

Any of us who have flown into Chicago have gazed out the airplane window and tried to spot landmarks, expressways or maybe even our house.

“It's hard to get your bearings. You spot it and five seconds later, it's gone,” says Geoffrey Baer, a WTTW television staple known for feature-length programs about the architecture and history of Chicago and weekly appearances on “Chicago Tonight” shows. “You're craning your neck and you want to see.”

If only there was a way to slow down, even stop, and get closer.

A graduate of Deerfield High School who knows the city and the suburbs, the multiple Emmy Award-winning Baer teams with fellow Emmy Award-winning producer Eddie Griffin to give viewers that experience with a new WTTW special, “Chicago from the Air,” premiering at 7:30 tonight.

Narrated and written by Baer, this is the first WTTW special shot entirely with a drone. The footage by Colin Hinkle and his Soaring Badger crew was captured in 20 days across 70 locations, Griffin says.

But it's not some pretty tourism piece.

“We knew we had to add something. It had to have a heart. We had to have stories,” Griffin says.

As Emmy-winning host of many WTTW specials about architecture and history, Geoffrey Baer combines those loves and more in "Chicago from the Air," a new special shot entirely by drone. Courtesy of WTTW

Baer, 64, blends history, geography and even “racial reckoning” into the show. The view of bucolic Major Taylor Trail, a bike path on Chicago's South Side near where Griffin grew up, comes with a story about how Major Taylor wasn't a military hero. It's named in honor of African American cyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor, a 19th-century “world champion racer who couldn't even race in his own country because he was Black,” Baer says.

Another racial conversation is sparked by the statue of Stephen A. Douglas, a politician whose wife owned slaves, “towering over Bronzeville,” Baer says. Of course, the show also gives us great views of the Statue of the Republic, a smaller version of the piece Daniel Chester French designed for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, and Skylanding, designed by Yoko Ono.

“I'm always thinking, 'What's the story?'” Baer says.

The show features maps of Native American trails from 1804, and shows how those turned into diagonal streets in a system otherwise made on a grid. It also gives the ugly story behind the name of Indian Boundary Golf Course along the Des Plaines River near O'Hare. But every tale is scenic.

“It's about daredevil flying. You can soar between the branches of a tree and dive off a cliff,” Baer says.

One of his favorite scenes is the view from a drone “diving off the cliff at Thornton Quarry.” That quarry, partly visible from cars taking I-294 through the South suburbs, becomes much more majestic through the lens of a drone.

“I really loved the industrial sites,” says Baer, who includes the history behind the canals, skyscrapers, stockyards and expressways. He even speaks eloquently of the wastewater treatment plant in South suburban Stickney.

“You get this mosaic of circular pools reflecting the blue skies and clouds. It's beautiful,” Baer says.

For more traditional beauty, the show gives us unusual views of “houses of worship that take your breath away, regardless of your beliefs,” Baer says. Those include the iconic Bahai Temple in Wilmette, Glencoe's arching North Shore Congregation Israel temple, and the exquisite Hindu temple in Bartlett.

“The stunning Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple was shipped from India to Bartlett in 40,000 pieces,” Baer says. “Some 3,000 artisans chiseled intricate patterns of traditional Indian architecture into the stones to be assembled like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle.”

Griffin got permission from the Bartlett temple to open the gates for close-up shots. “We're WTTW. We didn't want to sneak up on anyone,” he says.

Baer, who notes that “Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon on my 13th birthday,” takes a cosmic approach to “Chicago from the Air.”

“Astronauts call it the overview effect, seeing the tiny, finite world we all share in its beauty and fragility and truly understanding it's the only place we have,” Baer says. “Of course, we can't fly nearly as high, but maybe even this bird's-eye view of our city inspires us to work at healing our differences and cherishing the place we all call home.”

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