By Dan Rafter

Lincolnwood has always seemed more a part of Chicago than a suburb: it juts past Touhy all the way south to Devon. Driving north on Lincoln Avenue, you won’t see any “Welcome to Lincolnwood” sign announcing that you’re leaving the city. But you will see the Pedian Rug sign, whose i is dotted with a star. Just down the road stands Great Beijing restaurant with its bright red pagoda sign. Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria sits on the same strip, its freestanding sign of faded green and yellow topped with an ancient-looking lantern. Then of course there’s the rabbit: a six-foot hare sporting a red vest and a huge grin directs motorists to the Bunny Hutch miniature golf course. The village’s main drag–Lincoln between Devon and Touhy–is a jumble of pole signs, freestanding signs, towering roof signs, and flashing electronic signs. It might as well be the city.

But now that the city is being suburbanized, this northwest suburb wants to look less urban. Lincolnwood’s village council is tired of the way the business districts look, especially the congested strip and the crumbling intersection of Touhy and Crawford. It wants to make the strip look more orderly by eliminating the clutter, and recently it drafted and approved a new sign ordinance to promote uniformity. Jerry Sargent, Lincolnwood’s building commissioner, spent over a year crafting the 65-page ordinance, which went into effect last August. Now Sargent has to notify local merchants when their signs no longer conform to village code and must be removed. It’s no fun telling a merchant he has to come up with thousands of dollars to replace his sign, but Sargent defends the new ordinance, denying that regulated signs will rob Lincolnwood of its character.

“I’ll be glad to see the clutter and confusion gone,” says Sargent. “As it is now, we routinely get very mediocre to poor designs. We get signs with letters that are too narrow to read, or signs with too many words on them. You can’t read them unless you stop in the middle of traffic. We expect the regulations to help create better communications.”

Not everyone agrees. Jung Jun is co-owner of Key Club Cleaners, a tiny business in a strip mall near the intersection of Touhy and Crawford. Her sign, a billboard projecting from the roof, violates the new ordinance, and according to Chicago-area sign installers, removing it could cost as much as $6,000. “The sign we have now is a nice one,” she says. “It never gets rusty. It’s all done with stainless steel. I don’t know why we have to take it down. I know the village wants everything to look nice. They want to develop the economy. But if we change all the signs, I don’t think that will do anything.”

Like most sign regulations, the new ordinance is highly detailed, but it draws a clear distinction between nonconforming signs and prohibited signs. About 23 percent of Lincolnwood’s signs are nonconforming–they violate certain provisions of the ordinance but don’t necessarily have to be removed. Towering signs for the 1st National Bank of Lincolnwood are scattered throughout the village; standing 25 feet high, they exceed the ordinance by seven feet. The Pedian Rug sign stands too close to Lincoln Avenue, as does the freestanding sign outside Lou Malnati’s. But nonconforming signs are grandfathered under the new ordinance: they can stay up unless the business changes or at least half of the sign is destroyed. Any new sign must comply with the ordinance.

Prohibited signs, which include all rooftop, projecting, and abandoned signs, must be removed no matter what. Once notified, business owners have one year to remove rooftop and projecting signs. Abandoned signs must come down within 30 days of notification. Fifteen percent of Lincolnwood’s signs fall into the prohibited category, and that means a lot of angry business owners.

Paul Wax, owner of Galen Prescription Pharmacy, anticipated the ordinance and has already replaced his roof sign with an awning. He agrees that Lincolnwood might look better without the clutter, but he considers the sign ordinance a waste of time. Touhy is filled with potholes and flanked by vacant storefronts. The street is poorly lit, and businesses have little customer parking. “Touhy has to be fixed,” he says. “Right now, it’s broken to hell. It makes Lincolnwood look like a blighted area.”

Wax and Jun do business near Touhy and Crawford, where village officials have decided to begin enforcing the new ordinance. After this business strip and a similar stretch near Devon and Cicero, they’ll move to other areas of the village. Sargent says the two intersections are Lincolnwood’s shabbiest. “When we started working on this ordinance, we heard from people about how bad this part of the village looked,” he says. “They wanted us to make it look better.”

Timothy Clarke, economic development director for Lincolnwood, once worked for the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce and Industry. In Woodstock, he says, merchants would try anything to get around sign ordinances. When a new ordinance was first being enforced, several merchants junked cars in front of their shops, painting signs on the dented hoods and crumpled doors. Technically, the cars didn’t qualify as signs. Says Clarke, “Sign ordinances usually bring on a lot of emotion.”

Creating Lincolnwood’s sign ordinance was especially difficult. The village’s previous ordinance was written in the 60s; some people say it’s even older, drafted in the 40s. Back then, with the automobile’s popularity booming, Lincolnwood merchants wanted big signs that could attract the attention of motorists. They also decided that projecting signs were the way to go. “Small businesses often look at signs as one of the cheapest ways to market and advertise,” says Clarke. “They often say, ‘The more I say, the better.’ But what happens, in fact, is that you get clutter. You can’t read them at all. That’s not effective.”

Tell that to Lee Limperatos: his Lincolnwood Restaurant, located near Jun’s cleaners, has a projecting sign that will have to come down. He has no deep emotional attachment to his sign, but $6,000 is a lot of money to spend on something that won’t improve his service or expand his menu. “I think they’re trying to turn us into Arlington Heights or Schaumburg,” he says. “But a sign ordinance isn’t going to fix our business problems.”

Sargent says the village wants to work with merchants to improve the business districts. They’ve held meetings to discuss the problem and created an economic development commission to look at possible improvements. And the new ordinance allows merchants to appeal violations. For instance, if a merchant can convince the village that his sign is historic, the sign stays, even if it’s prohibited.

Of course, pop culture has made even advertising “historic.” The rabbit standing outside the Bunny Hutch violates the new ordinance; technically a sign is anything that attracts attention to a business, and the Bunny Hutch has three freestanding signs, two more than the law allows. The rabbit is a nonconforming sign, so it will come down only if it’s damaged or if a new owner wants to transform the Bunny Hutch into something else. But the rabbit illustrates the peculiar principle that complicates signage laws: the signs that city planners consider tacky, ugly, and embarrassing are typically the ones that people in town love best, for precisely the same qualities. In Boston, says Clarke, a gigantic Citgo sign stands near Fenway Park; most people would consider the sign an eyesore, but neighbors defend it as a landmark. “Sometimes, people get attached to their signs. You can’t explain it. It just happens.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kim Knight.