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Cityscape: Welcome to Chicago?

The tourism pros think downstaters visit Chicago because they are impressed by the big city. Actually they come for the thrill of feeling superior to it.

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"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 postapocalypse 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.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.

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