In the end of 2005 three announcements were made in Chicago that concerned the closing of three Chicago cultural icons on State Street: Marshall Field’s, Trader Vic’s and the Berghoff. Marshall Field’s ownership has changed twice in the last two years as the department store giant struggled. The killing blow came with the September announcement: once the takeover of the brand is complete in early 2006 the Marshall Field’s name will dropped. The flagship store at 111 North State Street will no longer be Marshall Field’s. It will be Macy’s; it will be New York. Trader Vic’s, the signature Tiki bar and stalwart fixture in the basement of the Palmer House Hotel closed at the end of 2005. We learned of this on December 3rd. On December 29th we learned that the historic Berghoff Restaurant will close at the end of February. A 107-year-old business, the Berghoff was the first Chicago establishment to get a liquor license after Prohibition ended in 1933. It has been at its current location—next door to the original 1898 location—for seventy years.
State and Washington: Marshall Field’s, State and Monroe: Trader Vic’s at the Palmer House, State and Adams: the Berghoff. These three locations are located directly in the heart of downtown Chicago on State Street. During the latter half of the 19th century and through much of the 20th century, State Street was the main thoroughfare in Chicago, particularly for business and shopping. Marshall Field’s State Street business began in 1868. Field suffered the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and contracted Daniel Burnham to build the replacement stores: eventually arriving at the one there today—twelve stories tall, and consuming an entire block of downtown real estate.
And now it is gone. – In an article on Chicago architecture, Lynn Becker writes: From their inception, department stores were like a museum, a riverfront, a memorial, or a stadium—something that defined the unique character of a city. Now they’re just roadkill in Wal-Mart America. But the effect is not limited to just retailers. Defining local culture includes a wide variety of icons: from museums and statesmen, to sports, parades and celebrations, to styles in music, food, drink and pastimes.
My friends have argued that I am being overly sentimental. They remind me that things change. Businesses fold. Buildings are torn down. Fashions go out of style. I understand this. I understand that one of Chicago’s great strengths is its adaptability, its ability to change with—and affect its own changes—throughout time.
What I object to is this: the unnecessary replacement of unique cultural icons with mediocrity and monotony—usually in the name of corporate leverage: greed.
This trend erodes any authentic sense of place. Why is it that so often uniqueness gives way to ubiquity? Why is it just a matter of time until innovators cash in for the big payoff by franchising and a national rollout? Why do we value this as success? It is wrong—cheap, unreflected—to define success as the transformation of a special concept into something homogenized and standardized in order to make it replicable everywhere.
Hell, I ain’t goin’ in there. I’ve seen it already. Got Macy’s back home.
People have told me they had no desire to go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower because they had already seen it—in Las Vegas. Their summer trip to the World Showcase at Disney’s Epcot precludes them from ever needing to travel anywhere else. This strikes me as dangerously short-sighted.
We should value difference. Things are different. People are different. Places are different—or they ought to be. Diversity in experience and point-of-view challenges us and makes us stronger and better people. Marshall Field changed business. He was instrumental in introducing an era of square-dealing. He promoted business ethnics that were at least a generation before his time. Rather than “buyer beware,” Field said “Give the lady what she wants.” There was no pressure to buy, but there was always a sales clerk available if needed. Purchases could be delivered to one’s home. Unprecedented—these purchases could also be returned for any reason. Field lit up his store with electric lights when they became available. He put a sit-down restaurant in the store—the first department store to do so—and offered lounges, rest rooms, a library, nursery, and telephones. The Great Clocks at the corners of State and Washington and State and Randolph streets are common symbols of the company and the area. The idea of treating customers fairly was often ridiculed—ruin was obviously inevitable. Instead his business thrived.
The Berghoff family opened their first bar April 15th, 1898, five years after reporting booming beer sales at the Columbian Exposition. The bar survived Prohibition. The restaurant has hosted celebrities both famous and infamous. Both the prosecution and defense involved in the famed “Chicago Seven” trial after the 1968 Chicago riots took their lunches at the Berghoff. Not that that is a particular endorsement of one form or another, but an example of the cultural impact of the place. Three generations of Berghoffs have owned and managed the business.
Someone like Marshall Field or Daniel Burnham—or even a Herman Joseph Berghoff—all became rich and successful as a side effect of devoting their lives to creating something truely new and unique. In the end, if the alternative is to make things available more cheaply and efficiently, unique local character becomes nothing more than an anachronistic luxury. It becomes a loss. This loss is an assault on culture. Creativity does not flourish from uniformity or constricted choice. Creativity flourishes from the range of possibility that only variety can provide.