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An urban theme park designed for the delectation of conventioneers and plate-collecting tourists

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"The whole summer is a circus," goes the promotional saying for that warehouse of fun known as North Pier. With a minor amendment, this slogan might serve as a motto for Chicago: The whole city is a circus. Or at least it's trying to be.

Take the other pier, for example: Navy Pier, the newest weapon in the city's never-ending battle for market share against New York and Los Angeles. It brings together in one place three of the latest surefire urban cure-alls: an exhibition hall, a shopping mall, and a couple oversize carnival rides.

Carnival rides?

That's right. The newest symbol of Chicago's greatness, as you have doubtless noticed, is Navy Pier's gigantic Ferris wheel, from which one can obtain a view of the city almost as inspiring as that enjoyed from the nearby bridge on Lake Shore Drive. Just as the Hancock and Sears buildings marked our second-to-none status in the heyday of technocracy, the Ferris wheel is a proud marker of our town's unassailable up-to-dateness, our flawless marching to the drumbeat of the Information Age. For the American city is no longer predominantly a place where things are made or traded: it is instead a theme park, a consumer product designed for the delectation of conventioneers and plate-collecting tourists. Chicago, though devoted until quite recently to the urban ideals of the 19th century, is proving to be an adept of the new order.

Since its reopening this summer Navy Pier has been thronged with visitors promenading up and down its 3,300-foot length. But as the jolly maritime signal flags displayed in frames in one of the complex's restaurants admit, it's an imitation of life, a simulacrum of a waterfront. Strangely upscale, too, with none of the seedy elements that characterize the Hobokens of the world. Anything you come across here is going to be expensive, and it's going to be a fully processed corporate product of one kind or another: Pepsi, Rollerblades, a premixed mixed drink called "Mai Tai," and a swarm of pushcarts and shops dealing in a wide variety of ersatz ethnic and faux-urban fare.

On a couple of recent weekends Navy Pier was invaded by about a hundred labor activists, who occupied the roof, unfurled anti-Pepsi banners, and handed out flyers urging a boycott of Pepsi products. (Pepsi buys corn sweeteners from the union-busting firm A.E. Staley.) The demonstrations must have seemed strange to the day's strollers and assorted pleasure-seekers, because Navy Pier is not the appropriate place for such behavior. It is, rather, an object lesson in what writer Stephen Duncombe has called the "colonization" of public space by corporate America. Most of it, of course, is not public at all--it's a meeting hall and an elaborate ballroom designed for use by businesspeople. What's left to us is positively plastered with corporate logos: the admittedly pleasant Navy Pier beer garden is awash in advertisements for Lite beer; every gondola on the Ferris wheel is a plug for McDonald's. I suppose we should be thankful that the wheel doesn't carry a gigantic rendition of the golden arches; that was one of the options under consideration.

Navy Pier may be a postmodernist's dream, but it's just one element in the elaborate counterfeit identity Chicago is constructing for itself. You're probably familiar with this "Chicago" from its appearances on Michigan Avenue and along Ontario and Rush streets; designed to appeal to a certain segment of mobile and freely spending American suburbanites, it's a place of Hard Rock Cafes, Planet Hollywoods, Nike Towns, Baja Beach Clubs, and (a nod here to local history) our own Caponorama. It features a vast array of shops at which you can purchase the latest in hard urban 'tude, everything from Harley-Davidson accessories to a Danny Bonaduce T-shirt.

In any discussion of the postmodern city and the various urban-revitalization schemes that are popular these days, it's never very long before the word "Disney" comes up. Once a dark joke from the pages of Spy magazine, the idea of cities as theme parks for the wealthy is increasingly the reality of our time. As Tom Vanderbilt noted recently in the Nation, Disney is now postindustrial America's leading civic visionary, designing actual towns in addition to making movies, and the principles that propelled the company to cultural preeminence have been enthusiastically adopted as city-planning gospel from Celebration, Florida, to Times Square, New York. The official in charge of Navy Pier marketing and entertainment is a former Disney minion. So is the CEO of Chicago's Convention and Tourism Bureau, who has been quoted in Crain's Chicago Business referring to the city as "a large Walt Disney World."

The Chicago these men are helping to create is predominantly a place of fun for the affluent, a permanent lifestyle carnival in competition with dozens of other permanent lifestyle carnivals across the country. It's a city where the logical use for a municipal pier is as a platform for a Ferris wheel, where the latest in rule-breaking lifestyles can be safely sampled at an immaculately gritty cafe (and you can buy a T-shirt to prove it), where packs of Rollerbladers zip merrily through the parks, their expensive, highly visible accessories and nonstop antics providing a living demonstration of the joys of life on Planet Reebok.

But for Chicago's impoverished and desperate the urban theme park is something quite different--just about the only sector of the economy where jobs are available. The world according to Disney is turning out to be exactly the place once predicted by labor secretary Robert Reich: a two-class system in which well-compensated "symbolic analysts" skip joyously through their sunshiny days while the rest of the population scrambles for the privilege of servicing their every need. At minimum wage, of course.

A few miles south of Navy Pier is another Chicago waterfront, one that nobody considers "revitalizing." Built around a handful of vanished steel mills and now disappearing slowly from the city's consciousness into the advancing undergrowth, the Southeast Side seems a foreign country now, literally unimaginable from the food courts, cafes, and Rollerblading concourses of "Chicago." But while Navy Pier is a trophy of a Chicago that has uncoupled from its past, the Southeast Side refuses to let go. In a gracefully dilapidated field house in Calumet Park, the neighborhood's surviving souls, without corporate subsidy or even curatorial credentials, have built a moving shrine to the memory of their lost city; their collection includes forgotten south-side newspapers, a careful model of their main street as it appeared before the bottom fell out, exhibits detailing the neighborhood's role in the labor battles of the 1930s, and a profusion of articles about local boys who went off on this or that patriotic crusade, back when their neighborhood was part of the United States.

A little farther south, near the point where Illinois, Lake Michigan, and Indiana intersect, stands another relic: the old Falstaff malt factory, built at the beginning of the century and shut down and boarded up since the late 1970s, when the Falstaff brand all but disappeared under the wave of mergers and buyouts that left us drowning in a homogenized, mass-marketed ocean of Miller and Bud. The building, shaped like a giant six pack, towers cathedral-like over the bungalows of Hammond. As a symbol it's a mute but telling counterpoint to the great McDonald's Ferris wheel; where once we made beer (and steel, and cars) for each other, now we serve each other burgers and carnival rides.

The factory's interior remains spookily intact. It's a dangerous place--five years ago a ten-year-old child fell to his death there--but enough light filters in through the massive glass-block windows to navigate its shop floors and marvel at its gigantic hoppers and indecipherable gauges. Wandering the building's labyrinthine interior one thinks of archaeologists in lost tombs, deciphering an ancient civilization from unfamiliar hieroglyphics. What was produced here? Would it be acceptable to consumers at the Navy Pier beer garden? Why did these people abandon such a perfectly viable facility? And how on earth did this way of life, which we know positively to have been conducted in our own language and to have ended only a scant 20 years ago, come to seem so strange, so foreign?

But all is not lost for the remnants of this other Chicago. Given a little ingenuity and the right kind of marketing, they too can find a place in the new Information Order. Last year the Wall Street Journal discussed the efforts of Wichita, Kansas, to integrate its annoying past, all abandonment and decay, into its excellent entertainment-oriented future. All those old factories and mills are still good for one thing, it turns out: they can be dynamited for the cameras of a visiting Hollywood movie crew making the next installment of Lethal Weapon. Offering one such structure to the highest bidder, the Journal coyly notes, Wichita "promised 'no red tape' and 'no permit charges' for any film crew interested in blowing up the 17-story, Depression-era building."

The owners of the Falstaff plant fell right in step with this trend. Just a couple weeks after the Journal story appeared, a Daily Southtown article by Joe Robertson quoted the realtor charged with dumping the place saying he was "really pushing the motion picture angle," touting the building's silos and catwalks, its interior railroad lines, even "the lake as a background when you're up there on top of the silos..."Behold a new form of intercity competition--one at which Chicago can excel! We can barely manage to hang onto our sports teams, at the cost of millions of public dollars, but surely we can beat the likes of Wichita in the race to demolish our infrastructure for Hollywood. Bring on the dynamite--destruction means jobs!

Perhaps it is unfair and even unreasonable to mourn an earlier mode of civilization--marked as it was by horrors of its own--at the expense of the fairly pleasant present. Some would maintain that we're fortunate to be rid of "smokestack industry," even if we've merely moved the smokestacks off to climes more amenable to business interests, where there's even less of that vexing red tape and people will work for drastically reduced wages. Others point out that public pleasure is hardly a new or sinister thing, that the very first Ferris wheel was built here in Chicago, for the Columbian Exposition, the last century's carnival of carnivals. Furthermore, to appraise public architecture and civic planning with terms like "fake" or "authentic" overlooks the fact that all cities are the product of equally ruthless forces: the frivolities and fakeries of River North are just as much a reflection of the current regime--Disney and Time-Warner--as were the stockyards and steel mills of old Chicago.

Perhaps. But the true relationship between the two Chicagos came together for me with astonishing clarity the other day on Navy Pier. In one corner of the spanking new mall at the western end of the complex is a large advertisement for the nearby "Imax 3-D" theater, an ad that depicts a movie audience in mid-dazzlement at the latest spectacular products of the culture industry. It reminded me--perhaps intentionally--of a famous image from our dread 1950s past, that photograph of an audience of politely dressed people staring sedately at a movie screen through ridiculous 3-D glasses. That old picture is a fairly ubiquitous one: adorning angry book and album covers immemorial, it has for years fueled the cynical laughter of the liberated hipster. Perhaps the ad on Navy Pier is supposed to show the distance we have come since those repressed years. Again we are seated in a cinema, again we wear ridiculous 3-D viewing equipment. But today, in this interactive and orgasmic age, we are dressed in the various individualized lifestyle costumes of the 90s; now we do not stare passively at the conformity-inducing screen, but we gape, arms extended, at what is no doubt footage of a factory exploding realistically just in front of us. The orderly audience of the 1950s sat rigidly, hands folded safely in laps, but in this more excellent era we writhe in real ecstasy at the celluloid illusion hovering before us, our faces contorted with credulous wonder and our hands reaching out to our benevolent corporate god.

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

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