The New-Yorkification of Chicago

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Mayor Emanuel measuring up.

Donald Trump’s new edifice to ego in Chicago, the Trump International Hotel and Tower, was completed just a few years ago, but Chicago’s mayor just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Rahm Emanuel had to show “The Donald” who had the bigger edifice.

Before everybody gets bent out of shape, I’m not the one who made a national debate out of such a farcical issue as a building sign; especially since some real serious and pressing issues are confronting Chicago and the U.S. And please don’t get upset because I want to poke fun at a couple of wonderfully egocentric guys who have thrust themselves into the public eye over such a silly inconsequential dispute.

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I Had to See for Myself

I was in Chicago a couple of months ago visiting my daughter and her family, and decided to discover the reason for all the hubbub concerning Donald Trump’s big sign on his new 98-story downtown luxury hotel and condominiums. Maybe hubbub isn’t the right word. Maybe brouhaha fits better; or maybe a combination of the words, like “brouhbub.” I say this because hubbub is like a bunch of loud confusing noises where brouhaha suggests the hubbub includes a degree of public criticism. In any event, there was a lot of fuss and national media coverage about Donald Trump’s name being placed on his building . . . in big letters. (This is one of the reasons why Chicago is called the “Windy City.”)

I wanted to see the “Trump Sign,” and asked my daughter where the best place would be to view it. She lives in a condominium on South Michigan Avenue. She told me to go west two blocks on Jackson then turn right on Wabash. The Tower’s address is 401 North Wabash. The building lines up visually with Wabash where the street curves after going over the Chicago River. She said I could view it for the nearly dozen blocks to the site.

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When I made the turn north on to Wabash off of Jackson,  I immediately could see the Tower and part of “THE” sign. But before we get off on the sign itself, let’s visit a little bit about the building . . . the architecture.

Trump’s Tower

The tower is a magnificent piece designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. The fun part for me – being an architect: From my daughter’s condo I can actually look into SOM’s office and see various tower models in their windows. That’s really cool!

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Trump’s Chicago hotel/tower.

The tower design went through lots of iterations, with lots of models built before the architects – and Mr. Trump – settled on what we see today.

In a city rife with great architecture, this building will compete with the best in Chicago and from around the world. It sits alongside some of the 20th century’s most iconic and historic structures, and has already become a part of Chicago architectural lore; and thus part of the many architectural tours available nearly every day in the “Windy City.” As an aside, the architectural tours are some of the world’s finest, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation provides some of the most brilliant docents to educate and entertain you. I would recommend the tours not just to those who visit Chicago, but to everybody who lives there.

As I proceeded north on Wabash towards the tower, I couldn’t help but notice the sharp contrast between the tangled mess of dirt, grime, and noise surrounding the elevated train (the “L”) and the Trump structure’s sleekness and serenity. It’s nearly void of the detail that seems to define many of the buildings and much of the city’s environment. The urban street life’s vivacity in this section revolves around the glare and great diversity of signage. It’s not Times Square or Las Vegas, but it presents quite a hodgepodge of logos, symbols, and signs. I was dismayed to think that Mr. Trump would put up a sign that would disturb the mayor’s design sensibilities or worse; a sign more intrusive than what I was experiencing on Wabash. After hearing the Trump sign controversy, I was expecting to face much worse. I trudged on preparing myself to be aghast.

The Trump Sign

On Wabash’s west side near Madison, around the Jewelers’ Row area, I got my first really clear view. I thought to myself, “Damn . . . that’s a big sign . . . and somewhat tasteful looking.” I was beginning to understand the controversy . . . I think.

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Architecture trumped by sign controversy.

I strolled back across Wabash to the east side for another view. The irony was too great not to take a photo; an arrow pointing to the Trump sign.

Walking north, I finally passed the hustle-bustle of the “L” where it turned west. I moved to the middle of Wabash to get my first clear view . . . a “Full Monty” of Trump’s tower, name and all.

A majority of America’s and the world’s significant buildings have names and numbers on them. Some are engraved in stone. This is purposeful. It imparts a cultural permanence and adds to the community’s living history. It’s what we humans do.

Knowing this, I was actually surprised that “The Donald” merely bolted his sign to his building. He could have tattooed it or stamped it into the metal panels to make it more permanent. But that’s the indication of a brilliant marketer; it won’t be difficult to remove the sign if he decides to cash out and a new owner wants to rename it.

The Controversy

I understand the importance and function of sign ordinances. Consistent implementation of these government regulations can be useful in creating beautiful man-made environments, controlling visual clutter, and lending to the built environment’s civility. But I’m not sure that this sign controversy was really about Mr. Trump’s sign. It seems more about an obfuscation of the city’s real problems and about squeezing a guy with money to get some press, thus giving the appearance of power and control.

I have noticed over the past eight or 10 years that Chicago seems more inundated with “signs” displayed by gangs and graffiti artists. It is pervasive and chilling. And for those of us who understand the invasiveness of gangs, it borders on being frightening. These are merely the telltale signs of the violence and brutality beginning to overwhelm Chicago. It’s merely emblematic of an entire section of a population that either lacks the intelligence, education, or guts to counter such a trend.

I mentioned earlier that signs are a form of displaying cultural permanence. That’s what gangs do with their signs and graffiti artists with their graphics; and that’s all that Trump has done with his sign.

It is important to understand this: If intrusive and brutal behaviors by these archaic forms of governance (gangs) go unchecked, they will become more intrusive, more brutal and more powerful. The thugs will usurp more governing power; it happens all over the world. Consequently, it becomes easier for politicians and bureaucrats, who try to give the appearance of doing something, to shake down and control non-violent citizens rather than try to control the outlaws. The governing response to vandalized property under this scenario is to venerate the graffiti “artist” for their signage, and vilify Donald Trump for his.

This is the same kind of upside down governing behavior that we see from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: trying to dictate the size of drinks you can buy rather than dealing with the underlying causes of obesity. It’s the same governing response we see from Washington DC to the border crisis: revere the lawless and vilify the law-abiding citizen. If you want to understand the nature of institutional decision-making and the evolution of institutional incompetence, you can read about it in a book I wrote a few years ago.

New-Yorkification

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The Donald: leather chair and leather-skinned .

If your community is inundated with crime and visual abuse thrust on you by thugs marking their “territory” with their “signs,” it means you are probably besieged with violence as well. This can cause a wonderful, friendly Midwest City like Chicago to become more caustic and mean in response to every annoyance by gangs. It can also cause extreme distrust of pandering politicians who represent city hall; politicians who want you to believe they are on your side by controlling those people raising big signs and causing all the problems of the world; those 1 percenters. That’s what I mean by the New-Yorkification of Chicago.

To keep up with New York, Chicago’s mayor had to show “the Donald” and the media that he can be as tough, in control, and as foolhardy as New York’s former mayor. But let’s be clear: None of this is about solving real problems, and it surely isn’t about a sign; it’s about setting up a straw-man. The sign controversy is about policymakers not knowing how to deal with real problems. Creating a problem that can be addressed in public makes it seem like the political class is “protecting” us from all the bad things we do to ourselves . . . rather than protecting us from bad guys. This New-Yorkification governing mentality – trying to control every life facet of a person who isn’t causing anybody any harm – is finding its way into every corner of America. This slow, incremental and consistent intrusion by government, and by gangs, which erodes our rights, including our unalienable rights, is a disorder brought on by our governing institutions’ evolutionary bastardization.

The Dichotomy

The diametric opposite of defacing public and private property by gangs – trying to control territory – is what we see from people like Donald Trump: respectful individuals investing to enhance and beautify a community.

The human struggle to create rather than destroy contributes to the conflicts throughout all societies. It attests to the importance and the need for the arts . . . including graffiti art. The myriad of art forms, including architecture, enhances the lives of individuals. It is an underlying foundation for civil societies’ advancement; something that Chicago and New York citizens do exceptionally well.

The art form of architecture is partly a manifestation of human technological improvements that shape our environs and what we do: an expression of who we are as a civilization. Considering such, then Donald Trump’s building speaks volumes as to our dignity, our playfulness, and our brilliance. And for that we should thank the architects and Mr. Trump. We should follow his lead as a decent, respectable contributing citizen, and give him a break on naming his tower . . . even though the sign may be a hair too big.

 

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Bill Asti
Bill Asti (www.AstiArchitect.com) is an architect and an economist in private practice since 1981, as well as author, artist, sculptor, and in younger years, a musician. A member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), he studied under Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Fay Jones, and received his degree in economics from the J. William Fulbright College at the University of Arkansas. Bill created the first U.S. private foundation dedicated to educating about post-industrial, communications-based sustainable communities. Over 30 years ago, he designed the first "Third Wave City of the Future," recognized by the White House. You can read about this in his book, The Chicken Came First.