Welcome to Chicago?

A Downstater's view of tourists and tourism

Reader   

July 3, 1992

An essay for the Reader, in which I offered to my Chicago readers the opinion that Downstaters visit Chicago because they are impressed by the big city, when in fact they come for the thrill of feeling superior to it.

The Reader's copy editors insisted on lowercasing "Downstate." A wise contributor knows better than to get into a fight with a gang of copy editors armed with sharp pencils, so down it stayed.

 

"It's so clean. Not like New York."

 

"The buildings are so tall in New York."

 

"It's not as crowded as San Francisco."

 

I heard this seasonal song--as familiar as that of the robin or the sparrow--being sung by a trio of young women a few weeks ago while crossing the Michigan Avenue Bridge. The tourist season is upon us, when the yokels are thick on the streets. Official counts from the city Convention and Tourism Bureau show that 3.3 million conventioneers and another 7 million leisure visitors come to Chicago each year. City Hall wouldn't be unhappy to see those numbers increase, nor would the city's hoteliers, who have more surplus rooms at the moment than the KGB.

 

Unfortunately for the city's hospitality industry, Chicago promotes tourism like it inspects tunnels. Its efforts are famous for their infighting and factionalism; the Office of Special Events spars with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which feuds with the Tourism Council. The business tourist is well catered to, but if anyone is going to use the new playground at Navy Pier or Mayor Daley's proposed midway of sanitized vice, it will be the pleasure traveler.

 

Chicago and Illinois have never been much good at enticing the pleasure traveler. A catchy slogan is thought to be as essential to the successful huckstering of a city as a good makeup man is to a presidential candidacy. Indeed, the first thing any new tourism director does is to change the official slogan being used by his or her agency the way a new president might change foreign policy, which serves roughly the same purpose.
 

Chicago has had several official slogans in recent years, the most recent being the Chicago Tourism Council's "Chicago's got it." It was not a happy choice of phrase; at its announcement, hundreds of thousands of downstaters were heard to murmur as one, "And I don't want to catch it." Fortunately a meager advertising budget ensured the slogan the lack of prominence it deserved.

Not long ago the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs' office of tourism hired the Chicago office of Ogilvy & Mather to come up with a new theme for Illinois tourism. The O&M man in charge of the campaign told Crain's Chicago Business that the state needed a "bolder call to action" than the previous slogan, one that would generate in the public "a greater sense of urgency."

The result was the phrase "Don't Miss It!", as in "Illinois—Don't Miss It!" or, as applied to separate ads touting the state's premier tourist attraction, "Chicago—Don't Miss It!" O&M officials explained that they wanted potential visitors to think about places like Chicago the way they do about a hot movie, but to the jaundiced ear the phrase may suggest a going-out-of-business sale at a shoe shop.

"Don't Miss It!" was not greeted with the scorn it deserves, of course. The initial run of TV spots reportedly drew nearly five times the usual number of calls to the state tourism bureau's 800 information line. In spite of its success, though, the promotion suffers from more fundamental faults. Like the old campaigns, it mistakes the nature of the city's appeal to the out-of-towner. And it reflects a larger failure to distinguish between tourism promotion and tourism development.

Take for example the attempt to portray Chicago as a fun place. One of the TV spots refers to it as both "America's Summer City" and "Club Chicago," a paradise offering beaches, golf, and parks. Locals will recognize the essential inaccuracy of the comparison between Club Med and Chicago, but for the sake of out-of-town readers I will note that the presence of a beach does not make a city a resort any more than the presence of a mayor makes City Hall the center of government. And it is hard to imagine anyone from the midwest coming to Chicago to tour its parks, unless they collect chicken bones the way other people collect sea shells.

Of course, untruth has never ruined an ad campaign. Most Americans don't mind being lied to; it is the essence of our politics as well as our commerce. (The distinction between the two is, I admit, of diminishing significance.) But folks hate being disappointed.

Often, though, it isn't the brochure on the kitchen table that matters when families decide whether to come to Chicago but the stories recollected around that table by friends and relatives who have already been here. For every person you manage to bilk with a glossy ad, you lose five to some recent visitor's war stories. That may well be because in concentrating on the advertising, the city has neglected to attend to the basic needs of its casual visitors once they get here.

During the 30 years I spent visiting Chicago, I came to think of it as the host who invites friends to his new house and forgets to turn on the porch light. The pleasure tourist shows up on weekends, when the city is not at its best. In the Loop, most of the small eating places and retail stores that make the place interesting and convenient during the week are closed on Sunday, sometimes Saturday as well. There is nothing more heartrending than the sight of tourists on the desolate streets of the west Loop on a Sunday, drawn there by the Sears Tower, looking like the survivors in some post-apocalypse movie.

Worse, while the Loop may be the deadest part of the city on weekends, it's hard for casual tourists to escape from once they're there. Everything from street signs to transit maps to the standards for taxicab operators are lacking or hard to use for the out-of-towner. Putting the maps showing el routes on the station platforms rather than at the foot of the stairs leading to them is the equivalent of putting product labels on the inside of the box.

The average tourist's confusion is further aggravated by the perception of the city as dangerous. Most visitors cling to Michigan Avenue like mountain climbers to a rope. Michigan Avenue is visible, (easy to "read," in tourism-business jargon), safe, the heart of the tourist's Chicago—site of the big hotels, Grant Park, the Art Institute and Orchestra Hall, and the shoppers' bordellos north of the river.

Out-of-towners' unease in other parts of the city shifts the locus of demand and in turn reshapes the city itself. (The Chicago Architecture Foundation, for example, recently moved its Archicenter from the Monadnock Building to the Santa Fe Center, opposite the Art Institute.) Visitors' unwillingness to venture beyond what they know is safe also gives them a skewed experience of the city; I have friends from downstate who marvel that I can afford to drink beer up here, their only experience being of paying $5 per bottle at hotel bars along North Michigan.

These are generic faults; every tourism campaign lies, and very few visitors to any city experience the "real" thing. But Chicago tourism promotions have one flaw that's not universal. Instead of showing visitors a good time, they court the visitors' good opinion. Where New York might be content merely to amuse, Chicago wants--needs--to impress.

Three years ago the firm McConnaughy Barocci Brown came up with a campaign for the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs based on the tag line "Chicago—The American Renaissance." Aimed at upscale international travelers, these print ads hawked Chicago's literature, its learning, its architecture, even its "chic." (Tourism ad writers are impervious to irony.) That campaign extolled Wright, who hated the city, and Hemingway, whose mommy never let him go into it, as quintessential Chicago characters.

The one famous Chicagoan these ads never mentioned was Al Capone. Thanks to Scarface, Chicago already enjoys a marketing identity other cities would kill for. The native is accustomed to people going "rat-a-tat-tat" when he is introduced as being from Chicago. Just recently on American Public Radio's nightly "Marketplace" program, a commentator, noting the extraordinary popularity abroad of American popular culture, proposed turning the whole country into a theme park; Chicago would be the site of "Gangsterland."

Capone would be the perfect mascot for Mayor Daley's $2 billion entertainment complex aimed at the family traveler—as apt as Mickey Mouse is for Disneyland. Never happen, of course; Chicago remains embarrassed by Capone, even though Chicago has been a gangster city since the days of Armour and Pullman and Yerkes. (It still is, although the gangsters today use lawyers instead of machine guns.)

The marketers may have other reasons for not pushing Capone. One is the probability that Capone's moment as a cultural hero has passed; gangsters were very '80s kind of guys, but the '90s look more like Eliot Ness. The other problem with using Capone the way the Aussies used Paul Hogan is that the city wouldn't have to live down his reputation so much as live up to it. Chicago was never as romantic or as exciting as it was during the Prohibition era, and comparisons with the Chicago of today would not be flattering.
 

Fortunately, in-state travelers are easier to impress than, say, Parisians. The Art Institute may not be the Loevre, but it is the classiest mall within a day's drive. And last summer I was able to escort three out-of-town guests to a Grant Park Symphony concert, where we heard Hindemith's Der Schwanendreher, a seldom-performed work for viola and light aircraft. The big city was at its best that night; not Springfield, not even Indianapolis could muster enough ill-mannered people to populate even one Grant Park concert, much less do it week after week.

In short, a touring public that made billionaires of the inventors of Holiday Inns cannot be very demanding. It is a mistake to conclude that the spread of cable TV has eliminated the yokel. I see myself in every downstater who comes to Chicago for its interesting restaurants (the most popular of which is the Rock and Roll McDonald's) or the chance to see a city bus on the streets after 6 PM.

Rubery is a state of mind, not an address, and because of that fact "downstate" begins where the els end. The suburban tourist potential is underdeveloped. Many of these four million souls never venture into the city, perhaps because they don't know how to get here; the Ameritech telephone directories distributed by Illinois Bell in the near west suburbs, for example, show Metra route maps and detailed PACE schedules in their "InfoPages" under "transportation" but no mention of CTA service (bus or rail) into the city even though several CTA lines penetrate Oak Park and Forest Park.

Chicago tourism officials are mindful of this. May 3 was "Chicago Day," organized by DCCA and underwritten by AT&T and WBBM AM for the express purpose of introducing the city to its neighbors. From 10 to 5 visitors could ride free CTA buses from two north-side el stops and Union Station to 11 cultural institutions ranging from Hull House to the Field Museum, which opened their doors to visitors at no charge.
 

A nice gesture, but the barrier to increased tourism from the immediate hinterland is not what people don't know about Chicago but what they do know. The ad makers talk a lot about making the city itself the attraction, but they shrink from actually building a campaign based on it. I had a fairly typical experience last month while squiring an out-of-towner on a Sunday walk about the Loop and Michigan Avenue. We were hit up seven times for money, the last time by a particularly odiferous soul, and saw someone wandering, not drunk but disengaged, down Columbus Drive in the middle of traffic.
 

Big-city people tend to look down on out-of-towners who react to such scenes with the same horror the big-city folks themselves felt before they hardened themselves to it. But for thousands of visitors, the beggars outside the Art Institute give a fairer impression of the city's culture than the paintings inside it. And the aftermath of the Bulls championship made clear to millions across the country that "shopping spree" doesn't mean in Chicago what it means at the mall.

The tourism pros mistakenly assume that downstaters visit Chicago because they are impressed by the big city; more often they come for the pleasures of feeling superior to it. They go home and talk about their brushes with the weird, the dangerous, the disgusting in the same condescending tones that Chicagoans use to describe pig races at the state fair. Rather than shame them for their small-town ways, a trip to Chicago confirms the wisdom of their choice of life-style.

What the marketers need to do is not deny the disgusting and the dangerous but make it fun. Big-city street life should have the same appeal as the carnival ride and the haunted house, even to people for whom life in Elmhurst has deadened all other sensation. A colleague of mine overheard visiting friends of hers carefully calibrate the danger of venturing abroad in the south Loop on a weekday afternoon to visit the new Harold Washington Library. Locals may scoff, but such fear turns an ordinary visit to the library into a thrilling test for the tourist. Much as the light of Paris transforms everything in that city into romance, so the light of Chicago shadows even the mundane with an agreeable taint of menace.

So far the city has not shown a knack for exploiting this. While sitting in an O'Hare waiting room a few weeks ago, I listened, fascinated, as recorded PA announcements welcomed visitors to the city, then warned them variously not to accept solicitations for cabs and not to leave baggage unattended because either thieves will steal it or city cops will remove it.

I first glimpsed a better way a couple of years ago, when I sat in a daylong design charette held by the Chicago Athenaeum at the Hyatt on Wacker. Architects were invited to design a new "gateway" to downtown by redesigning the Kennedy on-off ramps that terminate at Orleans. One team--I promised to not name names--imagined a massive neon sign facing inbound traffic emblazoned with computer-generated messages to motorists. "Welcome to downtown Chicago—please turn your rings," was one suggested message. "Watch your ass," went another. "You're ours now."

Now that's more like it. The slogans practically write themselves. For a campaign aimed at weekenders: "Hey, it's only three days." Or "A trip to Chicago—why not get it over with?"

The buses will be backed up for miles. ■

ILLINOIS BLOGS

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated