Thursday, January 28, 2021

Flashback 1996: It's Pointless to Shift Gears on State Street

401 N. Wabash, 2004
     As a rule, I look back with satisfaction on past columns. That might be a bad thing. But this one is an exception that makes me wince, a little. Not just that it was wrong. Or terribly bad. But clunky. Definitely a little clunky. 
     Then again, it was my very first regular column, published 25 years ago today, and I thought I would celebrate by putting my feet up  and posting it without allowing myself too much embarrassment. I got better, over time.
     I probably should try to say something about 25 years of  writing a news column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Hmmm... God it was fun. Yes, I think that about covers it.

     Nothing is sadder than a business that time has passed by. The typewriter repair shop, clinging to life. The 1950s era Chinese restaurant, with one customer at noon. The faded tea room in the basement of a once grand hotel, boldly announcing that ladies will no longer be required to wear gloves at the second seating.
     And State Street. The ailing address, turned into an odd hybrid pedestrian mall 17 years ago in a desperate bid to boost business, is now being changed back into a normal street.
     Not that it matters. Those with a financial or political stake will argue the problem with State Street can be fixed with narrower sidewalks and thornless honey locust trees. But who else thinks so? Who thinks that once traffic is allowed back, all those shoppers with money jammed in every pocket will suddenly skip Old Orchard and Woodfield and Oakbrook to make the journey to State Street, to shop at Wanda's Wig World or Cut-Rate Electronics? Who believes that?
     Mayor Daley, for one, apparently. He was at State Street Tuesday, speaking the right words —"dynamic," "rebirth," "boost," "economy" and "tourism"—and his pronunciation was beyond reproach.
     That's his job. Maybe he got back to City Hall and laughed his peculiar Poppin' Fresh tee-hee-hee giggle and said: "Well . . . it's neva gonna work . . . nope nope nope. Neva neva neva."
    Probably not. This is the same guy who is constantly dreaming up giant construction projects —casino mini-cities and transportation hubs and celebratory gateways—vast edifices that would make Ramses II blush.
     State Street is small potatoes, on the pharaonic scale. Perhaps that is why it is actually coming to fruition. There is nothing grand to what is being called the "de-malling" of State Street. Nor original. Nearly a decade has passed since Oak Park and many other communities across the country got rid of their pedestrian malls, attempting to cure the selfsame economic slumps that inspired construction of the malls in the first place.
     These things run in cycles. We can fully expect the city to take an even more frayed State Street, albeit one with Kentucky coffee trees, and re-mall the remaining wreckage, perhaps by order of Mayor Pippen, sometime around the year 2015.
     Don't get me wrong. I'm not mourning the loss of the State Street mall. It was nowhere near as historic as that Mies van der Rohe staircase in the Arts Club and twice as ugly. OK, three times.
     Unlike the Lake Street mall in Oak Park, which was beautiful, with oaks and fountains and benches. Merchants complained that residents were enjoying the parklike setting instead of going into their stores. So the street was put back in. Sixty percent of Oak Park residents opposed the change, but the merchants were delighted.
     "Tremendous," says Bob Proce, owner of the Razzle Dazzle costume shop on Lake Street. "Fabulous. It worked really well. Access is easy. If a guy wants to park his car, he can."
     This would seem to bode well for State Street. But, in a perverse twist, cars will not be allowed to park there.
   "No parking on the street, no standing—that same red city sign," said Sonya Griffin of the city Transportation Department. "That will be enforced."
     Lack of on-street parking may not be so bad, in itself. There's no parking on Michigan Avenue, either, and it still works, except for Stuart Brent. But Michigan Avenue has glamor— Tiffany's and Neiman Marcus and all that. Even if the various North Loop theater renovations actually succeed, how will that help stores during the day? How much glamor will 1920s streetlights create if they are in front of the same two-suits-for-$99 discount outlets lining the street today, with their flashing strobe lights and blaring loudspeakers? That'll pull 'em in from Wheaton.
     The mayor should know this. But Daley has usually been off base when pushing to build his pyramids. He fought for casino gambling even as evidence mounted in New Orleans and Atlantic City that casinos are a civic disaster. Daley similarly got whupped on the Third Airport by a bunch of Southeast Siders who outmaneuvered him, inspired only by the prospect of their homes being turned into Runway Seven.
     Perhaps the problem is genetic. Early last week PBS aired its two-hour special on Daley's father, Richard J., who was very good at commanding underlings but not so good at reacting to social change. He not only constructed the high-rise hells that plague the city to this day, but pushed through the expressways that encouraged downtown workers to flee to suburbia in the first place.
     Daley, the younger, claimed he didn't watch the program, an astounding act of resistance on his part. Were PBS dissecting my dad in prime time, I'd probably find a moment to tune in.
     Maybe he didn't want to see all those clips of his father in a hard hat looking over the construction of famous skyscrapers. Maybe that explains State Street. Daley is just so sick of being thwarted in his grandiose projects that he wants to build something, even if it is just a bunch of planters and subway kiosks. Not quite the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center. But then we live in less heroic times, and a mayor has to grab for glory where he can.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 28, 1996


  1. Let me be the first to salute you on twenty-five years as a Sun-Times columnist, which is no mean feat. You're closing in on the longevity of [choke] Bob Greene (sorry). Eight more years and you'll tie Royko. Unlike either of them, you've spent your whole career with the same team, the way Ernie Banks did.

    Those pictures? They make you look younger than your mid-thirties, or your mid-forties, or even your late fifties. And here's something else to chew on: You've been a Sun-Times columnist longer than either Daley served as mayor.

    As the kids say...grats. Or is it gratz? (Hey, I'm old...)

  2. Great shot of the old office. Everything looks about the way I would imagine it except the baseball picture. Someone break in and hang that up without you knowing?

    1. Fatty Fothergill? I BOUGHT that, from the great baseball photographer George Brace. Bought a number of them. I thought they were beautiful.

    2. Ah. I looked him up, he beat Babe Ruth in a beer drinking contest and was a real good bowler having bowled a perfect game. It is a great picture, I just didn't expect a sports picture.

    3. Robert Roy Fothergill (1897-1938) weighed at least 260 pounds at one point during his playing career (1922-1933) with three American League teams (Tigers, White Sox, and Red Sox). He was not a home run hitter, but was still one of the best hitters in the majors during the late 1920s. Fothergill's lifetime batting average was .325, 38th-best in major league history. The fat man could hit.

  3. I don't see the clunkiness, but what stand out for me are the boldly original metaphors that make this column unmistakably Steinberg.


  4. Having already congratulated you in a belated reply to your 20th anniv. post, I hesitate to do so again. ; )

    "Daley is just so sick of being thwarted in his grandiose projects" that 7 years later he sent the bulldozers in to wreck Meigs Field before he could be thwarted that time...

    I agree with Tate. While a bit off-target in the analysis, perhaps, this column is still largely written in your inimitable style.

    That office, though. That view. There was a time when Charles Foster Kane could write "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper" in a certain movie and it actually made sense to people...

    Fine, despite my hesitation, Congratulations on this noteworthy occasion!

  5. The desk, the desk!! OY. Love it. And you!!

  6. I remember this column in detail, right down to the wig shop and the strobe lights. I was at the time interested in your career because, for a very brief period, we were colleagues at Barrington Press. I remember wondering if you would bring your vivid writing style to the Sun-Times, and being gratified that you did.


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