2:48 PM CST, January 25, 2013
At first glance, the Chicago Cultural Mile ("Where Culture & Commerce Meet") resembles nothing so much as a gerrymandered congressional district.
According to its website, this officially arty and mercantile stretch begins at Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River (where many visitors walking south currently turn around), heads south down Michigan Avenue and then takes a turn toward the lake on Roosevelt Road, jogs southeast on Columbus Drive, then east again on McFetridge Drive, then briefly back north, then east again on Solidarity Drive. It is, for the record, closer to two miles than one. But then mile markers aren't stakeholders.
Why the serpentine path? Why not keep going south, all the way to Motor Row, between 2200 South and 2500 South Michigan Avenue, the stretch where one used to be able to buy more than 100 makes of automobile, the stretch where many of those historic buildings (including the home of the Chicago Defender) still stand and the stretch that has perhaps the most obviously dynamic potential for tourist-oriented, entertainment-centered economic development in the entire city of Chicago?
Like many such districts, congressional and otherwise, the Chicago Cultural Mile is an inherently artificial entity — Chicago self-evidently has many a cultural mile — designed to promote specific business and nonprofit interests and, of course, designed not to impinge on the jurisdiction of others. The reason for the weird turns is to link such big lakefront museums as the Field Museum of Natural History in the "mile" along with such Michigan Avenue anchors as the Art Institute, the Spertus center and Millennium Park. John W. McCarter Jr., the former president of the Field, joined the board of the nonprofit Chicago Cultural Mile Association last week along with Frank P. Novel of Metropolitan Capital Bank & Trust. The association, a hitherto snoozey but apparently growing nonprofit, also announced the hiring of its first full-time executive director, Sharene Shariatzadeh.
Let's stipulate that the weird trajectory of the Chicago Cultural Mile is indicative of a problem in cultural Chicago, which McCarter knows as well as anyone: the continued lack of a graceful, logical curve (be it path, rail or road) to get visitors from Michigan Avenue to the steps of the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium in a way that does not confound the visitors. Some variation of a graceful curve — as distinct from a counter-intuitive, traffic-dodging series of right-angled turns on streets with a surfeit of concrete — is needed. There are many reasons for the current financial duress at the Field, but one under-acknowledged factor is the renovation of Soldier Field, which made the museum seem more of its own island, far more distant, far harder to reach, if only in people's heads.
But that's not a reason for the Cultural Mile to leave Michigan Avenue.
Motor Row, its natural destination, sits right next to the McCormick Place convention center, a crucial economic generator that was built without an obvious emotional link to its city — a disdain for urban context that extracts a heavy price. Fixing up Motor Row is the best way to change that. As the Tribune reported last fall, things are already happening: The Seattle-based food-circus hybrid known as Teatro ZinZanni is eyeing the 'hood for its long-anticipated Chicago branch. The band Cheap Trick is planning a venue and museum. There is talk of hotels and restaurants. A nearby stop on the Green Line is coming.
However, if you go and stand on Motor Row this week, none of that will be in evidence. But you can smell the potential. Motor Row could be the grittier Chicago equivalent of Downtown Disney in Florida, except the buildings won't be fakes. Perhaps this is a chance to redeem some of the mistakes of Maxwell Street, where history was papered over.
If (let's hope once) Motor Row gets fired up, the next problem will be that of connective tissue. People will want to walk back to the Loop — safely. I took part of that stroll the other day. The northbound trek on South Michigan Avenue allows you to drink in the majesty of the approaching city with singular intensity, a consequence of being hemmed in by tall buildings but discerning broader vistas ahead. It's an asset that will need to be exploited.
Just think, you can walk past the original smoke-filled room at the Blackstone Hotel, snack at the Artist's Cafe, cut your locks at the Headrest Barber Shop, ponder the fusion of Hot Woks and Cool Sushi, take a tour at (or of) the Chicago Architecture Foundation and eat a burger at one of the few Bennigan's to survive the purge. You can ponder the legacy of labor discontent at the Congress Plaza Hotel or the international imprint of Jewish culture at Spertus, sit on a lion (it might chase you off) and play in a fountain. You can take classes at any number of fine educational institutions with ravenous footprints, gauge your hunger at "The Gage," and contemplate what is likely the only block in Chicago where Panera Bread, Starbucks, Caribou, Jamba Juice and Caffe Baci come one, two, three, four, five, just because you gotta compete. There is culture; there is commerce. Michigan Avenue, south of the river, is one great street.
You'll also see the work that needs to be done. The Studebaker Theatre languishes, unloved and unrestored on the Cultural Mile. The Chicago Cultural Center currently sports banners declaring "I Want to Be Ordinary," which do not exactly pull you through its doors.
And there are dead blocks aplenty — including the most pivotal one. The northerly start and end of the Chicago Cultural Mile is marked, on the west side of Michigan, by an empty, blacked-out storefront. And all those pretty lights start on the other side of the river. Of course, that's someone else's jurisdiction.
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