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.
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.
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:
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.
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.