Who Should Pay for Chicago’s Sidewalk Maps?

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(Photo: A nice amenity for tourists or the end of civilization as we know it? Credit: Looper.)

In July, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin bemoaned the appearance of Chicago’s new sidewalk maps, or more properly, “City Information” signs. If you’ve been in downtown Chicago this summer, you’ve seen them: ten-foot-tall metal pylons containing a glass-encased city map on one side and an ad or cultural announcement on the other. Designed by starchitect Robert A. M. Stern (who also created Chicago’s new, art moderne-influenced bus-stop shelters), in recent months, 75 of the information signs have been installed on sidewalks throughout the Loop. Besides providing wayfinding goodness for those unfamiliar with the city, the signs are installed and maintained by street-advertising heavyweight J.C. Decaux, with not a single dime coming from the public fisc. So what’s the problem? According to Kamin, placing ads on the signs cheapens the streetscape. Ordinarily, I think Kamin’s opinion about the urban built environment is right on target. But in this case, I couldn’t disagree more.

Kamin asserts that while public street maps are a good idea, pairing them with equally sized ads lends legitimacy to the creeping commodification of the public realm. For Kamin, everywhere you turn in the contemporary world you encounter advertising, and the information signs are just an excuse to, ahem, add more ads into daily life. Kamin criticizes the crassness of one of the ads (for the Cartoon Network), doesn’t like the fact that two ads can scroll on a single sign, and thinks the signs are too tall. He also complains that there aren’t enough maps in the mix–some information pylons contain an ad on each side but no map.

That last point is a sore point for me, too. If a ten-foot pylon says “City Information” on it, somewhere on it that’s what it should contain. For that matter, the maps that do exist should show the Pink Line by now (it’s been running for more than a month), but as you can see below, they don’t.

sidewalk map 3.jpg

However, Kamin’s other criticisms ring hollow to me, or at least a tad out of touch. Firstly, cities and commerce have always been inextricably intertwined. As long as there’s been money (read: since antiquity), people have come together in cities to trade, shop, and otherwise pursue commercial goals. And throughout all of that time, there has been advertising. It was a fundamental part of ancient life in China, Greece, and the Roman Empire, so to equate its appearance on the streets of modern Chicago with the fall of polite civilization seems downright silly.

I would think for Kamin it would be a question of degrees. A building-sized billboard or ad wrap hawking the latest sitcom hit or feminine product by all accounts should be a no-no (in fact, this issue of so-called “advertecture” has been a particularly hot topic of debate in New York City, as reported multiple times in recent weeks by Curbed and NY1 News). However, the scale of the city information signs and the ads they contain, as well as the solitary placement of each pylon (one per block), are all identical to what you would find with an average Chicago bus-stop shelter. Looking below, can you see much of a difference?

sidewalk map 2.jpg

Neither can I. Nor can I see much difference between the tenor of the ads chosen for the information signs and those that are posted on bus stops and rail platforms across the city. A cartoon character talking about picking his nose may make for unsavory ad copy, but in the nonstop stream of advertising that bombards Chicago locals on a daily basis, it simply isn’t out of the ordinary.

Among other things not out of the ordinary about the new information signs: their height (tall advertising kiosks have been an urban fixture in European cities for decades); their ability to scroll multiple ads (also a common sight throughout urban Europe and, indeed, downtown Chicago Metra terminals); and their source of funding. It’s the norm on both sides of the Atlantic for cities to pay for street amenities with revenue from the ads contained on them. In this, I fear Kamin is railing against not only common practice but sound fiscal judgment. If you had to decide between using your tax dollars or a private company’s ad revenues to pay for street furniture–especially when your tax dollars could be used for more pressing needs, like education, police, or health care–which would you choose? Unlike Kamin, I’d bet you wouldn’t choose to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Perhaps Kamin was pressed for time when he was writing his article and simply got some bad advice regarding the alleged detrimental effect on the fabric of society from Chicago’s new information signs. In the piece, Kamin quotes Fred Kent, president of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, as saying, “We sort of allow these things to come in under the radar screen and then suddenly they become more overt.” I know, I can’t fully decipher that sentence either. The contract for the information signs and their associated bus shelters and other street furniture certainly wasn’t signed behind closed doors–it was debated widely in local media in the early 2000s. Neither was the plan to fund installation and maintenance out of ad revenue a secret. There’s no doubt in my mind Chicago and Chicagoans knew what they were getting into. Kent goes on to say, “Everywhere we go, we are being inundated with advertising.” Again, not exactly a biblical pronouncement liable to part the nearest large body of water.

Regular readers may recall from last year Kent’s rant about the supposed wholesale failure of Millennium Park as a true people’s park and great public space. His opinion appeared in the Project’s August newsletter and my rebuttal appeared in these pages. I took him to task for being woefully out of touch with the subjects he was writing about then, and given his above quotes, I suspect that propensity continues.

As for Blair Kamin, I guess it’s human nature to yearn for the return of the good-old days, as with every new dawn and every new development they pass further and further into memory. But while I understand the Pulitzer Prize winning critic’s affection for the golden age of an advertising-free urban environment, I really must fault his memory. Because a recollection of a city bereft of street ads is not at all a remembrance of thing past.

It is, more accurately, a remembrance of things that simply have never been.

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