Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

The Streetlights of Chicago

Chicago, that toddlin’ town. What comes to mind when you think of Chicago? Al Capone and gangsters. Skyscrapers. Steel mills and stockyards. L trains rattling by overhead. Trains and planes. Testosterone drenched sweat pouring off shrieking traders in the commodities pits. The Loveable Losers. The blue collar Bears. Rough and tumble immigrant neighborhoods. Machine politics. Old Style at the corner bar.

Like many Midwestern towns, Chicago has always had a decidedly rough edge and masculine character. It’s a place where millions of foreigners came to find the American dream. Where hustlers of all stripes wore out their shoe leather trying to make it big. It’s a place where dreams could become reality. A town that once was confident it would be the world’s largest city. Nothing summed this up quite like Carl Sandberg’s poem “Chicago”:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

I often talk about building design identity and a unique sense of place. And how things as simple as the designs of street lights and signs can create that. Chicago was traditionally Exhibit A in how to do it right. Plop me down on any random street corner in Chicago and I could instantly recognize the city. It’s design just rises up and slaps you in the face.

The street lights of the city have always been a big part of that. Chicago is probably the best lit city in America, maybe the world. There are few sights more impressive than flying over the city on a clear night on approach to O’Hare. The streets literally look like ribbons of light. If you can’t do this, then being in the Hancock observatory at night is the next best thing. Heck, even the alleys are well lit.

Not only was Chicago well lit, it also had a unique street lamp design that fit the image of the city perfectly. Please, as I show these photos, don’t focus on the condition of the lights. The city basically ceased maintenance on the older style lights so it is very difficult to find well-preserved examples today. Imagine them without the rust, however. Without further ado, here’s that light.

Now that’s a street light befitting the “City of Big Shoulders”. Simple, masculine, solid, unpretentious. This is what was used on major streets like this one. A smaller scaled version was in use on residential streets.

These variations provided context appropriate scale while maintaining a continuity of design.

Some time during the 1990’s, the city decided that this classic Chicago design was no longer appropriate to its new “world city” aspirations. As the city embarked on a major program of neighborhood infrastructure and streetscape renewal, the city jettisoned the classic design in favor of new ones. Several iterations have been tried in the last decade. The first of the new designs was this one:

The contrast with the original lights could not be more stark. These highly feminine and decorative standards are radically different from the previous version and Chicago’s traditional brand image. They would be perfectly at home in the suburbs. In fact, here’s a close replica in west suburban Glen Ellyn

This is close, but not close enough. If you want to see an even more stunning example, you’ve got to take a 180 mile drive south to Carmel, Indiana, the Naperville of Indianapolis, where you’ll find these lovelies installed on the streets.

This is almost the exact same street light with a pedestrian level gas lamp bolted on. What works beautifully in a suburb like Carmel is a miserable failure in a city like Chicago.

Even Chicago quickly came to this conclusion. After installing these lights in only a few neighborhoods, though including high profile ones like Lincoln Park and Chinatown (!), it backed off and stopped deployment. Instead, it switched to these new “acorn” lights.

This is a better entry to be sure. The perpendicular crossbar at the top adds a more masculine feel. But the little curlicue brace is a basically art nouveau flourish and the little point at the top an example of “ode de wrought iron fence”. Additional excessive decorations include the clamp around fake base at the bottom and the grooved pole. Here’s a closeup of the top of this.

While this is better, it ultimately is inconsistent with the traditional brand image of Chicago. What’s more, it is undistinctive to boot. I don’t have photos of other locations to compare to, but I’ve clearly seen this design before, in renderings if nowhere else. (Take a look at the cover sketch on this document for example).

To compound matters, these are often interspersed with pure replica gas lamps like this one:

The larger lights often feature hanging flower planters such as these, which provide a nice touch of color and plant life to the concrete of the street.

Of course, these are again straight out of the suburbs. Here again, another photo from Carmel, Indiana.

Think Chicago is trying to change its brand image? You don’t have to look any further than the street lights to realize there’s no doubt about that. Whether this is a good thing or not is to be determined. Great cities, ones that sustain their greatness over the long haul, aren’t afraid to change what needs to be changed order to get fit for the world tomorrow. Chicago has clearly decided that the City of Big Shoulders has got to go. Instead, it wants to be, as near as I can tell, the City of Venti Lattes. Part of this is a deliberate suburbanization of the inner city, something I’ve written about before. The idea seems to be to appeal to a broader base of person than the traditional kids out of school, artists, gays, and empty nesters. Rather, the city wants to figure out ways to keep upscale professional families in the city, and there has been a wholesale remaking of much of the city to try to cater to this.

I’m sympathetic to it to some extent. I’ve long said that no city can be successful until it appeals to the broad middle class. You can’t get by on the suburb’s rejects and the poor. Still, this is not without risk. Chicago is throwing its heritage as a city out the window. It’s jettisoning its traditional masculine, no nonesense, Sandburgian image in favor of an undistinguished “new urbanism” type look. This might pay off for the city, but this is one I’ve been skeptical of. I don’t believe that this type of radical brand shift usually works well or smoothly, and that you’re better off being a new improved version of who you are, than trying to reinvent yourself completely. Even if the reinvention works, so often it has no staying power.

Beyond whether the rebranding is a good thing or not, there are three serious problems with the street light designs. First, the new designs are undistinctive as I noted, in constrast to the previous more unique designs. Second, the proliferation of these types of lights has fractured the sense of design unity the city had. It’s not just that the city is part way through the refresh cycle either. Beyond the three designs above, the city has dabbled with several other designs. Here are some examples.

First, what I call the “IDOT style”.

I call this the IDOT style because it was first used on the Kennedy Expressway reconstruction. It has also been used on south Lake Shore Drive and select other locations such as here on Damen Ave between Diversey and Fullerton. The steep angle misleads a little bit. This is a piece of steel that bends over to a 90 degree angle. While I don’t like this as well as the original, it is sort of like a modernized, streamlined take on the traditional brand image. I think this would have been a better choice than the decorative types that were ultimately selected.

Here’s another variant on this style.

This was also used in a smattering of places, primarily on the south side, such as the Chicago Skyway and Indianapolis Boulevard. A variant of this light is what is in use as the new residential street light standard.

Again, this one is more consistent with the traditional brand image, and works well Chicago, though I would prefer a painted color rather than plain galvanized metal. However, this highlights the third serious problem with Chicago’s new street light scheme, namely that the major street lights and the residential street lights no longer harmonize in style. In fact, they are radically different. What’s more, I’d suggest that if you were going to pick these two styles, you’d actually reverse where they were put, with this design on the major streets and the more feminine designs on the residential streets.

Here you can see how much of this comes together at an interesting intersection with four different styles of street lights all going at the same time. What a mishmash. This is the intersection of Damen, Diversey, and Clybourn, by the way.

And by the way, I’m not done with the recent proliferation of lights. Here are designs used on Michigan Ave. in the Loop and Wacker Drive.

I believe these are replicas of old lights that used to be used on Michigan Ave, so perhaps this one off is more defensible.

Believe it or not, I could cite still more examples, such as the “double gas lamp” designs that exist in a couple of varieties in the Loop, but I am out of pictures. I think this goes to show that Chicago has gone schizophrenic on street lights, and not in a good way. A city that once set the standard on how city should use street lights has lost its way.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Chicago

11 Responses to “The Streetlights of Chicago”

  1. Gary says:

    Nice article. I have always loved Chicago (even with all it’s “sprawl” LOL. I guess that is why they call it Chicagoland.

    The review from ESPN sports today was that LOS is hands down the best Stadium they have ever seen in the NFL.

  2. Gary says:

    Side note: Has anyone noticed we seem to be arresting more IMPD officers than criminals lately.

  3. Gary says:

    oops never mind IMPD and criminal…same thing

  4. Gary says:

    Seems the predicted demise of Northwest air service to Indy was a bit premature. Northwest and Delta both are adding service to Indy. Indianapolis listed as one of the nations fastest growing ports.


    Passenger counts as well as service are on the rise.

  5. Jefferey says:

    Well-lit Chicago was a product of the 1950s, of the first Mayor Daley. Sort of an example of the no-nonsense moderism that took hold in Chicago during the 1950s and 60s.

    The green paint on the poles worked pretty good, too, to blend in on the tree shaded residential side streets

    There were some earlier versions, decorative lights from the 1920s, that survived in some outlying business districts, at least into the 1960s.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You are pretty pretentious to describe city residents as “suburban rejects” as if aspiring to the suburban archetype is the ultimate goal in one’s life. Innovation and creativity come from those who spurned the banalism of suburbia for excitement and diversity.

  7. orlandoman16508@yahoo.com says:

    hey, since its really hard for me to contact you, please kindly pick up where some body else left off,i am traveling from erie,pa to sacremento,cali,all on I-70,i am good as to road directions,kindly show me in pics{ if you have,} from the border of oh, to at least to the middle of the next state.

  8. Anonymous says:

    To assign genders to street lights and assume the city is actually choosing a brand with its street lights all seems a bit silly to me. I don’t think the folks at this city are thinking lighting decisions through in such a detailed, marketing-oriented manner.

  9. Greg says:

    Thanks for an interesting take on a mundane subject. I grew up in Evanston, which chose to update its 1930s cast-iron ornamental streetlights (designed by local architect Thomas Tallmadge)in the 1980s by using the original design, after briefly flirting with “continuous-sweep davit arm” (as those aluminum poles are called). These streetlights are symbols of Evanston. In the downtown area, there’s a mix of old and new fixtures.

    As for Chicago’s 1950s/60s “masculine” lights, anyone want to bet that those came straight out of the catalogue of the time? Of course, they replaced ornamental lights going back to the 1920s.

    So now we’ve come full circle! Perhaps what’s needed is a design competition for a signature “Chicago-style” streelight, instead of the old-is-new again philosophy of street infrastructure.

  10. Anonymous says:

    One thing that never receives any attention in light design (except in Arizona) is light pollution. The glow of Chicago makes it pretty much impossible to see all but the brightest stars and planets. Additionally, there have been studies linking illumination at night with sleep disruption and even disease.

    I'm not opposed to streetlights, but I do wish that people stopped to think about the externalities and ways to mitigate them. I mentioned Arizona because many cities have passed a very strict outdoor lighting code there and it's done wonders for making things safer (bright lights that glare are actually less safe because of shadows) and now you have a fighting chance at seeing some stars from your rooftop or backyard.

  11. Clif says:

    You mentioned that Chicago may be the best lit city in the world.

    In the mid 1970's I worked on the 102nd floor of Sears Tower and witnessed the destruction of the night in Chicago as a wonderland of different colors under a relatively dark sky was absorbed into a uniform yellow-orange glare that not only gives streets the appearance of a prison exercise yard but, but illuminates overhead clouds so well that at times I could read my watch in a nearby suburb from the reflected light originating in Chicago. 50 miles out from the city the dome of yellow-orange appears on the horizon. What an incredible waste of energy.

    Walk along the lakefront bike path north of the North Avenue Beach to see high davit lights directly above "decorative lights" with the higher lamps so bright they cast shadows within the spread of light of the lower lamps. This shows a flagrant disregard for energy conservation. 50% of Chicago's streetlights could be turned off with more than enough light remaining.

    LED's may, I hope, bring back the softer blue hues of the past as the high pressure sodium vapor lamps head for the landfill. The new designs also direct light down and not into the eyes of drivers a block or more away.

    One notable Chicago streetlight design you didn't mention were the three-headed units that made State Street incredibly ugly in the 1960's.

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