State Street north from Madison Street, with banners for College Days
State Street north from Madison Street, with banners for College Days Credit: Photographic Images of Change, University of Illinois at Chicago. Library. Special Collections Department

What makes a street great?

Maybe you’re partial to a coffee shop with comfortable chairs next to a cannabis dispensary next to a courtyard apartment building next to a bookstore.

And maybe that sounds terrible to you.

Building consensus and communion about what makes a block, sidewalk, or entire street “great” is a messy and involved process. It’s never easy and one might even say that there are as many opinions about what constitutes a “great” street as drops of water in Lake Michigan.

If you don’t like Lake Michigan, well, pick another Great Lake.

Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for State Street, that great street. When I first came to Chicago more than 25 years ago, I walked up and down during the days of the little lamented pedestrian mall and found a range of marvelous urbane moments, including Louis Sullivan’s intricate Carson Pirie Scott entrance, hot dog vendors, and an array of small businesses, including Soul by The Pound, Mort Cooper’s (a men’s clothing store), and the Music Mart at DePaul’s Loop Center.

They are all gone now, save the Carson Pirie Scott entrance. Today you slide on in underneath the master’s iron-work, and you get department store lite and fast casual eats. You may know them respectively as Target and Pret a Manger.

Cities change, of course, and the forces resonating State Street include changing consumer habits, competing retail corridors, and the complete and total ubiquity of shopping from your device on the train, on the toilet, at a dinner where you’re supposed to be on a date, or while avoiding the topic at hand during uncomfortable conference meetings.

There’s not a chamber of commerce or blustery businesspeople’s group working in the realm of bricks and retail revival that’s been able to totally combat the awesome force that is Being Online.

Just ask local news-gathering organizations.

And what do younger folks think about State Street? After all, these will be the folks coming to shop, recreate, wander, explore, and engage in the streetscape, storefronts, planned activities, and unplanned serendipities over the coming decades. I try to keep my eyes and ears close to the ground by talking to my urban studies students to gauge their attitudes towards State Street on a regular basis.

Over the past ten years, I’ve picked up the following bits and pieces of rather astute observations during our visits to State Street:

“I don’t ever plan anything there. Occasionally, I’ve picked things up at Target when I’ve been in the Loop.”

“It seems like there should be more going on there. You’ve got those signs that tell you about the area’s history, but there’s still not much reason to walk up and down the street.”

“People like to eat. Why can’t you buy food right off the street like you can in New York?”

“I wish there was more green around. There’s a tiny park [Pritzker Park] near the library [Harold Washington Library Center]. It just seems largely unused, unless you count the police cruiser that’s parked there all the time.”

My students aren’t professional urban planners or designers. In fact, most Chicagoans aren’t. That’s probably a good thing, as many of the problems facing State Street don’t require advanced degrees to parse out. Let’s assume that we could wave a magic wand, ignoring a thicket of regulations and ordinances, and provide a few changes that might allow for a vibrant and compelling streetscape.

1. Bring back mobile food vendors.

If you go to most large cities anywhere in the world, there is food readily available on the street. People enjoy the experience of discovering new food right there on the sidewalk while talking with friends and the possibility of a serendipitous encounter. Until the removal of State Street’s pedestrian mall, there was a smattering of vendors on State Street. Yes, they were mostly hawking hot dogs and popcorn, but some food is better than no food.

Thinking broadly about such a renewed commitment to food vendors, one can imagine that this would also present a new opportunity for minority- and women-owned businesses to participate in this heavily trafficked area. If there are concerns about space, I’ll suggest taking out a few of those Faux Lloyd Wright-inspired planters. It strikes me that offering visitors to State Street a year round Taste of Chicago right there on the street is a fabulous way to showcase the city’s diverse foodways.

It’s also a tragedy that one cannot buy a hot dog right on State Street, so let me humbly propose that at least one vendor be dedicated to this most noble encased meat product.

2. Create an avenue of conviviality.

When I worked on the University of Chicago Master Plan with Michael Sorkin 20 years ago (a plan that was rejected, I might add), we talked at length about creating “avenues of conviviality” through Hyde Park along 55th and 57th Streets. At its essence, the idea was to bring together opportunities for informal interaction through invigorating small public spaces with performances and public art.

People come to the Loop from other places expecting something that they would see back home, wherever home might be. State Street could become such an avenue if there were dedicated spaces for performers and programmed events that drew on local history and the built environment. Why not a parade down the sidewalk and into the (State) street featuring paper mache versions of the Reliance Building and others? How about commissioning new renditions of “Chicago (That Toddlin Town)” rendered in house music, hip-hop, jazz, polka, mariachi, doo-wop, and other genres that Chicago is so well known for?

While it is difficult to plan for increased serendipity along any major street, it is possible to give a helping hand to encourage such wonderful encounters. These and other ideas could be part of this way forward.

3. Blow up Pritzker Park and start over.

Enough said.  v