Chicago by air geoffrey baer

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.
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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CHICAGO — A new public television special takes viewers on a soaring trip through the air around the Chicago area while offering tidbits of history on the region's landscape, architecture and industry.

Premiering 7:30 p.m. Thursday on WTTW-TV, "Chicago from the Air" is the first of host Geoffrey Baer's roughly 30 documentaries for Chicago's PBS station about the city's history and architecture to be filmed entirely from a drone.

This spring, Baer and longtime producer Eddie Griffin were considering ways to put together another special exploring Chicagoland — past collaborations have included traversing the area via the Chicago River and the CTA — when they came upon the idea to shoot from above.

Find out what's happening in Winnetka-Glencoe with free, real-time updates from Patch.

"Talk about making lemonade. We were like, 'Well, a drone, that's the ultimate social distancing, isn't it?' It's not a concept I had thought of previously," Baer told Patch. "It's this great idea that kind of grew organically out of the need, but it would have been a super-great idea even if we weren't in a pandemic."

Baer's script divides the special into three sections. The first, "On and Off the Grid" examines the city's roads, rail and lost paths, including the stories behind some exceptions to the city's "right-angle rigidity," and the country's first planned suburb.

Find out what's happening in Winnetka-Glencoe with free, real-time updates from Patch.

Next, "Doin' Work" shows how industry has shaped the Chicago area, taking the viewer on a flight above the vast, shimmering Exelon City solar farm in the Pullman neighborhood, around the circular pools of the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant and into the Thornton Quarry.

"Some of the industrial stuff is actually oddly beautiful and mesmerizing," Baer said, recalling his first look at the footage from the quarry, just south of Chicago. "You jump off a cliff and you just start floating down — like you're falling down 450 feet along this rugged limestone wall — and it just was so heart-stopping to watch."

Part three is named after the city's motto, "Urbs in Horto," meaning "city in a garden" in Latin. It focuses on the area's natural and man-made beauty. The third section takes the audience around parks both private and public, and also includes footage from flights above of the houses of worship of several local faith communities.

Baer, a North Shore native and Evanston resident, said the footage of Baháʼí House of Worship in Wilmette and North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe was some of the most compelling of the documentary.

"The thing about the Baháʼí House of Worship that you can't understand except from the air is that all the gardens around it are perfectly symmetrical," he said. "They're slightly different from each other, but arranged in a perfectly symmetrical way around the grounds.

The drone's approach to the 1964-built synagogue designed by modernist architect Minuro Yamasaki also produced one of the host's favorite shots of the special, he recalled.

"They flew in from the lake looking straight down," Baer said. "So first you just see the water then you see the kind of rubbly shoreline there and then some trees and then, all of a sudden, this accordion roof of North Shore Congregation Israel."

RELATED: Take A Virtual Tour Of The Chicago River And Its History With Geoffrey Baer

Baer and Griffin, who directed the show, teamed up with local drone photography company Soaring Badger Productions to capture striking images of the city and the suburbs from above.

Together, they put together the 53-minute documentary with just 19 days of shooting over the summer. While longer Chicago history specials have taken up to a year to write and research in the past, Baer said, "Chicago from the Air" was completed in about four months.

Baer's script and narration offers historical context, while leaving more space to let the visuals speak for themselves than in past specials. On screen, the host himself appears only briefly.

At the beginning and end of the show, Baer is shown on the balcony of a 73rd-floor unit in the recently completed NEMA Chicago tower, the city's tallest apartment tower that Soaring Badger owner Colin Hinkle's real estate connections helped secure.

"That was the one day I really got to see the drone people in action," Baer said. The crew set up about a block away to maintain line-of-sight with the drone, while producers used a phone in his back pocket to time the shot. "I'd be out there waiting for my cue and this little buzzy thing would come out and be floating just off the edge of the balcony — where I couldn't go or I would fall to my death, you know — and I would open a door and walk out on the balcony and the drone would fly away."

"Chicago from the Air" is scheduled to premiere at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 on WTTW, Chicago's PBS affiliate, with an accompanying interactive website set to go live simultaneously.

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Geoffrey Baer

Who hasn’t dreamed of soaring like a bird over their surroundings?

Tonight WTTW-Channel 11 makes that timeless wish come true with “Chicago From the Air,” a one-hour special unlike anything you’ve imagined outside of your dreams.

Geoffrey Baer, who’s been Chicago’s genial tour guide and unofficial historian at the Window to the World Communications station for more than 25 years, has delivered what may be his most spectacular travelogue yet.

Premiering at 7:30 p.m. tonight, “Chicago From the Air” employs drone technology to glide over the city and suburbs with breathtaking clarity and almost hypnotic beauty.

As writer and narrator, Baer worked with producer and director Eddie Griffin to show and tell the stories behind Chicago’s street grid (including diagonal roads that follow ancient Native American trails), how Chicago’s industry and infrastructure reshaped the region, and how the metropolis on the lake truly lives up to its motto as “City in a Garden.”


“We’re always looking for new and compelling ways to explore the Chicago area – by boat, antique car, bicycle, ‘L’ train, on foot, and even through a ‘time machine,’” Baer explained in an interview in WTTW’s monthly magazine. “Filming with a drone – high above and sweeping around the places and spaces of our great city – provides a really thrilling perspective. An added bonus? It’s the ultimate in social distancing! Talk about finding a silver lining.

“I was particularly interested in how the view from the sky helps us understand our familiar surroundings in new ways, and lets us examine things in detail that we can’t see from the ground,” said Baer, who was promoted last year to vice president of original content production for television.

“I also wanted to fulfill a fantasy of really flying, so we dive off the edge of a 400-foot deep quarry in Thornton, and get right up close to statues perched atop buildings that can normally be seen only from far away.”

A companion website at features behind-scenes content and related interviews.

Wednesday’s comment of the day:Ken Davis:One hundred percent enthusiastic agreement with these comments about Justin [Kaufmann]’s virtuoso performance. The guy just knows how to host a talk show. He’s an incredibly hard worker and it shows. He’s also a younger voice, which tracks with some of the comments made here yesterday about radio’s aging-talent problem. His classy open to the show today as he welcomed Sasha-Ann Simons was warm and generous. I hope Chicago will give Sasha-Ann a chance, though. What I’ve heard so far on NPR programming is really impressive, and I think she has the potential to become a first-rate pubradio star. Thanks Justin, and I’ll be listening (or watching) wherever you land next. Louise, above, is right. The radio biz sure is cruel.


Chicago from the Air

  • Skokie Lagoons

    The Skokie Lagoons were carved out of flood-prone swampland during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

    Read more
  • Chicago Botanic Garden

    Opened in 1972, the 385-acre Chicago Botanic Garden features 27 gardens, nine islands, and four natural areas.

    Read more
  • Jackson Park, Wooden Island, and the Sky Landing Sculpture

    Landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed this pleasure ground in the mid-1800s. Before it was finished it was chosen to host the 1893 World’s Fair. Only a few traces of the Fair remain, like the Wooded Island, which hosts a 2016 sculpture by Yoko Ono.

    Read more
  • Museum of Science and Industry

    The Museum of Science and Industry is the last pavilion from the Fair that is still standing.

    Read more
  • Independence Boulevard

    One of America’s first boulevard systems connects a chain of large parks on the South and West Sides dating from the mid-1800s.

  • Garfield Park

    William Le Baron Jenney, later credited with designing the world’s first skyscraper, was the chief landscape designer for Garfield Park.

    Read more
  • Garfield Park Conservatory

    Opened in 1906, this is one of the world’s largest greenhouses, designed by Jens Jensen in the shape of a Midwestern haystack.

    Read more
  • Bahá’i House of Worship

    The Bahá’i temple on the lakefront in Wilmette is one of only ten in the world, and the only one in the United States.

    Read more
  • North Shore Congregation

    Minoru Yamasaki, architect of New York’s World Trade Center towers, designed this mid-twentieth century temple.

    Read more
  • Orland Park Prayer Center

    Opened in 2006, this Islamic center is inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

    Read more
  • BAPS Mandir

    This Hindu temple was literally shipped from India in 40,000 pieces chiseled by some 3,000 artisans.

    Read more
  • St. Mary of the Angels

    Twenty-six angels surround a dome resembling St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on this church built to serve tens of thousands of Polish immigrants.

    Read more
  • St. Stanislaus Kostka

    The Kennedy Expressway was routed around St. Stanislaus Kostka, which is built in the so-called “Polish cathedral” style.

    Read more
  • Quinn Chapel

    This church, founded in 1844, is home to Chicago’s oldest Black congregation. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and hosted famous speakers.

    Read more
  • First United Methodist Church

    This unusual skyscraper was built in 1924 as a combination office building and church. It has a sanctuary at street level and a tiny chapel in the base of the rooftop spire.

    Read more
  • 35th and 41st Street Bridges

    These dramatic pedestrian bridges allow South-Siders access to the lakefront over Lake Shore Drive and the Illinois Central railroad.

    Read more
  • Douglas Tomb

    Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a slaveholder, had an estate in Bronzeville, and his tomb and statue still tower over the Black neighborhood.

    Read more
  • Northerly Island

    The Burnham Plan of 1909 called for a string of manmade islands connected by bridges to the lakefront park, but Northerly Island was the only one ever built.

    Read more
  • Soldier Field

    The Burnham Plan of 1909 called for “athletic grounds,” where Soldier Field now stands.

    Read more
  • Museum Campus

    After the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive were relocated to the west in 1996, the Field Museum joined the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium to form Museum Campus.

    Read more
  • Grant Park

    For years, Grant Park was the stage for bitter battles over access to the lakefront.

    Read more
  • Millennium Park

    In 2004, the last lakefront remnant of railyards was covered up with the completion of MIllennium Park.

    Read more
  • Sours:

    By baer chicago air geoffrey

    Review: WTTW’s ‘Chicago from the Air’ gives a drone’s-eye view of the city, region

    “Chicago from the Air” starts with the right question.

    “What if we could soar like birds?” narrator Geoffrey Baer asks, before noting that we do sometimes see our city — in “brief glimpses” and “limited perspective” — from airplanes and from skyscrapers.

    The opportunity to look more closely from on high, to linger and to be unencumbered in doing so is the considerable charm in this new pledge-period special for WTTW-Ch. 11 (7:30 p.m. Thursday), roughly the 239th from narrator-writer Baer and producer-director Eddie Griffin.

    It offers literally a drone’s look at the city and some of its suburbs, a view from on high of intricately designed parks and all-business limestone quarries, of ornate houses of worship and gritty railway lines.

    There’s even an arguably loving flyover of the sprawling wastewater treatment plant in Stickney. The geometry! The patterns! The merciful lack of Smell-O-Vision!

    239 is an overstatement. There are actually 20some Baer specials that take his inquisitive, architectural docent’s mind throughout Chicagoland, forever finding some new hook on which to hang a TV hour, some new historical tidbit to share with viewers.

    The most recent was March’s “Chicago by ‘L,’” and before it aired Baer and I rode some trains around the city to talk about it, not fully knowing that we were a few weeks away from a full-on pandemic.

    This new one is a special special, not only because Baer saves on the makeup. For the first time I can recall he only briefly appears on camera, on a skyscraper balcony.

    It also, in launching the camera heavenward, gives this viewer, at least, a view that fascinates. Yes, I have wanted to see more out of an airplane — remember airplanes? — flying into O’Hare at night, to be on the other side of the cabin, to have the plane take a slow pass down the length of the lakefront.

    "Chicago from the Air" Host Geoffrey Baer

    And, yes, while standing in the Ledge attraction that juts out from Willis Tower, I’ve wanted the day to be clearer, my eyes to be more penetrating and the glass box to maneuver around to the east side of the building, too.

    “Chicago from the Air” takes you there and beyond. Organized around streets, trainlines, waterways and parks, it presents a Chicago that looks almost docile, especially considering how crowded some of its blocks are. It is a place remarkably leafy and orderly and puffed up with ornate grandeur at spots like the Museum of Science and Industry and Wilmette’s Bahá'í Temple.

    Along the way you will learn new things about the city, probably even if you are a professor of Chicago history. I learned that Rogers Avenue on the North Side is a diagonal because it “followed the so-called Indian Boundary Line,” Baer says, the mark on an 1816 treaty intended to keep Native Americans from living close to the cherished Chicago River.

    Follow that line west and it turns into Forest Preserve Drive and then Indian Boundary Golf Course along the Des Plaines River. The aerial view of holes 16 and 17 was a reminder of too many Titleists that faded right and plunked into the water between them. As at many places during the program, I paused the video for a more detailed study.

    The drone’s view of the statue of Stephen A. Douglas, mid-19th-century politician and owner of enslaved people, emphasizes the way the “Little Giant,” 100 feet high on a column atop his tomb, looms over the African-American Bronzeville neighborhood. It is a monument that seems ripe for reconsideration, and Baer points out that there is local advocacy against it.

    Grant Park and the public lakefront, the host explains, were a gift the city almost managed to turn down. The drone video of it emphasizes what a jewel it is, all the more so for the way it obscures the train lines that cut through it.

    The city’s canopy of trees, too, the host and his camera underscore, is denser in the wealthier neighborhoods. Sandburg Village in River North was an inward-facing “urban renewal” development that replaced, Baer says, a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood called “La Clark.”

    But swooping around the development’s towers doesn’t show this history, only the drab architecture. More aesthetically enticing are fly-bys of Marina Towers and Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower, along with looks at major religious structures in the city and suburbs.

    I found myself rooting for the drone to go up over the top of Willis Tower, once the world’s tallest building, and it did. It also plunged down into the great scar on the earth of Thornton Quarry, south of the city, a limestone source said to have 200 years of mineable rock left in it.

    Less thrilling is the special’s backing music, a steady presence that, in seeming to aim for inoffensiveness, creates a paradox. This would be a more compelling video hour if the score had a little soul and grit to it, its own character to match that of the city being filmed.

    And then there’s the matter of when and how to watch. Baer’s specials are pledge-period winners for WTTW, among the most popular shows the station runs during the periodic direct fundraising that is central to its revenue model.

    This makes sense: Chicagoans love to be told what’s special about our city, and Baer delivers. But assuming you donate already (if you are a viewer of the station,) you can feel justified in watching “Chicago from the Air” directly on the website,, and foregoing the hectoring.

    Baer closes the show on his own note of morality, and he’s not wrong. “Seeing Chicago from the air literally gives you perspective and maybe some hope,” he says, hope that we might work toward “healing our differences.”

    It’s a sentiment that could be written off as trite, but it is also true. The city from above looks more unified than divided, a place woven with connective threads and beset by problems that seem to diminish, at least a little, from a distance. It’s not a terrible message to witness in a tough year.


    A healthy man, he and his mother began to live like six months. At first, he and I were in good spirits, but after the complaints of my mother, they soured. my stepfather threatened to flog me more than once, but I just laughed - flogging an 18-year-old guy. it doesn't happen. I'm already an adult.

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