What’s In a Name?

The Windy City is a place of hustle and bustle, flowing with energy down every imaginable road. As with every city, some areas and roads are better than others. However life is about persepctive and staying positive. Imagine walking down a crumbling concrete road in Englewood at noon, an area that is not well known for its tourist attraction, but rather for its crime. You may think to yourself, “where is the hope and optimism?” or “why has crime infested this specific area?” Now imagine walking down Michigan Ave. at noon, what might you say to yourself then? Perhaps, “Why have so many companies chosen this spot for their stores?” or “Does this street have anything to offer but big business?” Location plays a dynamic role in making a region walkable. To most pedestrians, walking down the Magnificent Mile is probably more pleasing than walking through Englewood. On the flip-side, many critics of Michigan Avenue might justify this road as being a prime of example of capital at its finest or nothing but greed and lust. However, I implore those cynics to look beyond what they see, and delve deeper into what lay beyond this glittering tourist destination.

Pessimits of Michigan Ave. such as Ben Hecht in his work 1001 Afternoons in Chicago: “Michigan Avenue” view this street as, “A deplorable street — a cement and plate glass Circe…I have squandered an afternoon seduced from labors by this Pied Piper of a street” (24). Althouh Hecth may be correct in saying that this boulevard has an alluring quality to it, I believe that he is overlooking its true beauty and the inspiration it holds. Behind each revolving door, a world of imagination awaits and is longing to be explored.

Stores make a street walkable because of their invitation to explore. Take the above pictures for example, notice the open door concept and large crystal clear glass windows. In addition, the patterned tiling at the front and lightlty stained wooden door. The soft-yellow lighting is warming as I passed by it. Stores like this make a walk feel translucent. This is the store front of Theory on Michigan Ave. The adjacent picture is of the new Apple store on Michigan and Wacker. The monstrous 20,000 square-foot building is harmonious with nature and it is almost hard to distinguish outside from inside. This beautiful new store sits right on the banks of the Chicago River and is a fabulous addition. This type of contemporary architecture is the future because it leaves a lot to the imagination. It is refreshing to not have a collosal brick building towering overhead.

A Brief History

In 1867 the Water Tower was built on what is now Chicago Ave. and Michigan Ave. As many people know, the Chicago Water Tower was one of the few buildings to have survived The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The City of Chicago sought to revitalize the Michigan Avenue area since it was so close to the lake. In addition they wanted to connect the up and coming commercial zone between the northern and southern ends of the city. The Great Depression hit and the beautification of the area had to be halted. Fast forward to post-World War II, when industry began to rise again and pave a new road so to speak. According to the Magnificent Mile Association’s website, “Arthur Rubloff coined the phrase, “‘The Magnificent Mile’” as the thoroughfare began to transform itself into a world-renowned center of retail, dining and culture” (4). It is during the 1950s that we see a Michigan Avenue transforming into what we know today. In 1960 Saks 5th Ave. strings its holiday lights, a first for the area, and in 1975 the contruction of Water Tower Place begins.

Imagination and inspiration are the two strongest forces that drive this stretch of road. Walking this street, I feel surrounded by brilliant people that have contributed so much in the ways of art and history. The masses of tourists crowd the shoppe windows, gazing at mannequiens dressed in the latest trends. Immense thought has been put into the design of each one.

Window Displays: Mirrors to the Soul

Part of the inspiration that I draw from the Mag Mile is the elegant window displays or as I like to call them, window mirrors. Promenading down this stylish street, the sun reflects off the crystal clear glass forming a silhouette around each mannequin. The glow of the window turns into a mirror that reflect that transpose the inspiration from within the store on me. I see myslef wearing the clothes that take up that large glass structure. The walkablity of Michigan Ave. can be contributed to the essence of the large picture windows that line the sidewalks. These windows make for wide stretches of sidewalk for people to stroll and converse on. The windows long to be contemplated and studied. The next big designer gains inspiration from these windows, and it all can be traced back to walking. If this street were not walkable, where would the imagination stem from? Who would view these windows?

One of my all time favorite stores; Zara. From the Michigan Avenue entrance

It is through window displays that the trends of various stores seems to mimic one another. But it is through walking that these clothes take shape. They are made to be worn and swaggered. These displays are invitations for conversation. People congregate in front of them and dream together. Colin Ellard, writer of “Streets With No Game,” discusses how the city should be a place of socialization despite much of the lifeless architecture that is around us by stating, “We seek out such settings with our eyes, our bodies, our hands and our feet”(10). These windows make up for the mind-numbing architecture that Ellard says is so unhealthy for humans. All in all, these windows contribute to the walker of Michigan Ave. because of their uniqueness and the ability to form an area to stop, look, and think. I wanted the representation of the best window displays to be on my own map to capture the essence of imagination and wonder. Mapping the most visually appealing window displays is not often done on a map, but I find it important to show because it makes my map unique.

Walking Means Staying Grounded

Michigan Avenue is by far one of the most populated tourist destinations. Among all the glamour of the high-end stores it can be difficult to see the reality of what is going on around you. When I took the time to truly walk and map out this road I found that there a quite a few homeless people in this area. They sit in front of stores windows begging for any scrap of food or money that can be thrown their way. I feel a multitude of different emotions. On one hand I feel as though camping out on this street is a good idea because of the amount of foot traffic and money that passes in and out of these stores. On the other hand, given this affluent boulevard it may come as no surprise that the passer-byes are neglectful and disrespectful. Some may feel that they diminish curb appeal for many retailers. As much love as I have for Michigan Avenue. I do think that the presence of homeless people is neccessary because it keeps people grounded while they stroll from destination to destination.

On Ohio St. & Michigan Ave. I notice a mother and her 8 year old son begging for any kind of assistance be it food, money, shelter, or just someone to talk to. They seem to be Islamic. Tears stream down the mother’s face as she stares off into the middle of the road. Her son’s eyes following up person as they walk by. I had never seen a scenario like this, they are so young. I feel crushed and just as vulnerable as they do. It is cultural norm to not give homless people on the street money because who knows what they will do with it. This is a gray area of a situation. Scenes such as this one slow down my pace of walking. A major moodshift from awe of the stores to the depressing harshness of reality falls over. What is one to do? I wanted to represent these homeless people on my own map because I feel that they deserve a voice too, that even in an upscale neighborhood such as this one, poverty is still present and real.

Walking is Exteriorly and Interiorly Motivated

Understanding what is behind those store windows is important in comprehending walking as a whole. In the outside world all I can do is gaze and wonder about what lurks behind each door, but on the inside a whole world is waiting to be explored.

Neiman Marcus Michigan Ave. entrance

Take Neiman Marcus for example, instantly one sees a a barrage of colors, and as we learned in week six, color plays a pivotal role in the way we interpret our walk. The front of the store is positioned with mannequins striking uniquely sassy poses to catch the customer’s attetention. From here, along the left and right sides of the store there are smaller desginer boutiques/rooms. These boutiques allow for one to navigate the store more easily and find the exact designer one wants. In here there is order and structure to the flow of things. This juxtaposes the outside world. On the other side of those automatic opening doors walking a lot less structured. No hallways, no rooms, just people. Citizens walking freely and spontaneouly.

There is not always rhyme or reason when walking the streets. Ferris Jabr, contributing author for The New Yorker, makes note of the impact walking can have on the brain when he says, “When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps” (5). Through this quote, Jabr perfectly represents the distinction of interior versus exterior walking. Outside, one must contruct their own map of the area around them, but when walking in an interior space (namely a department store) everything is pretty laid out and represented. On the outside people must draw more of their own conclusions about their surroundings, creating their own map.

Creating my own map of Michigan Ave has given me the ability to explore new viewpoints of this well known street, many of which I had thought about, but not in depth. A map does not always give an accurate representation of an area. My goal of my map of Michigan Avenue was to shed light on the creativity that comes from here. Contrasting the luxuriousness to the poverty on the streets, discussing the motivations of interior versus exterior walking, and contemplating window displays truly encompasses the function of walking down Michigan Avenue. I have learned that walking and noticing go hand-in-hand. One cannot simply saunter without engaging with their surroundings.

Works Cited

Hecht, Ben. “Michigan Avenue.” 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, Gutenberg, p. 24, www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7988/pg7988-images.html.

“History and Timeline of The Mag Mile.” The Magnificent Mile, The Magnificent Mile Association, www.themagnificentmile.com/neighborhood/history/.

Ellard, Colin. “Streets With No Game.” Aeon, Aeon, 15 Sept. 2015, aeon.co/essays/why-boring-streets-make-pedestrians-stressed-and-unhappy.

Jabr, Ferris. “Why Walking Helps Us Think.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/walking-helps-us-think.




writings about walking in chicago

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Tyler Gatz

Tyler Gatz

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