This week’s announcement by Bon-Ton Stores that they will be closing the State Street location of Carson Pirie Scott is the latest in a series of well-publicized changes downtown Chicago’s retail landscape. Late last year their State Street neighbor, Marshall Field’s, was swallowed up by Federated Department Stores in a large merger of the country’s two top department store conglomerates. In an effort to streamline advertising and branding costs, Federated announced that the all of the regional chains acquired in the merger–including Field’s–would adopt the Macy’s brand.
From the perspective of urban development, the reaction to these changes is interesting. There was vocal opposition to the Field’s name change, including a petition drive and an impending protest on 9 September when the name change becomes permanent. The reaction to Carsons has been less dramatic–perhaps due to the fact that opposition to the Field’s transition was largely ineffectal.
One of the themes that continues to emerge in local news stories about these changes on State Street was how many people expressed nostalgia and regret that the neighborhood is changing. The Tribune today has an interesting article that briefly reviews the history of State Street as the regional shopping mecca going back more than a century.
State Street has figured prominently in the city’s identity over the years, being memorialized in the 1922 Fred Fisher song made famous by Frank Sinatra, “Chicago,” wherein State Street is referred to as that “Great Street” where “they do things they don’t do on Broadway.” Fisher never clearly discloses what these “things” are–although later in the song he recounts how he “saw a man and he danced with his wife”–but clearly the attempt here is to seek pride in the Chicago’s status as the “Second City.”
As post-War suburbanization commenced in the Chicago region during 1950s, State Street suffered. The big downtown stores–including Carson’s and Fields–set up operations in the big regional shopping malls that were being constructed in suburbia. These new malls, often located in proximity to the new interstate highways, offered the old downtown shopping opportunities in suburban settings closer to the burgeoning middle classes who were fleeing the city in droves.
State Street suffered accordingly and in the late 1970s, the city tried to replicate the mall atmposphere by shutting the street down to private automobile traffic. This idea failed since the street couldn’t really turn into a pedestrian mall becase there was still CTA bus and taxi traffic. The result was a dead zone of very little street life. The city re-opened State Street to all vehicular traffic in 1996 which coincided with the development of more residential properties in the neighborhood. Much of the downtown shopping migrated a mile or so north to the North Michigan Avenue district.
State Street has blossomed into a very different type of neighborhood than it was–which offers a great example of the dynamism of urban spaces. With DePaul’s renovation of the old Goldblatt’s department store building into classroom space, the opening of the University Center dormotory, and the Harold Washington Library serving as anchors, the neighborhood is taking on an eclectic character, merging residential, commercial, and civic functions into a different type of urban space.
Neighborhood change, however, often conflicts with peoples’ preconceptions about the place. This is especially the case when old and prominent institutions leave or change their fundamental character. Interestingly, an article in today’s New York Times profiles Terry Lundgren, the CEO of Federated and the force behind changing Fields into the Macy’s brand. The article largely gives Lundgren positive marks for smoothing over the reaction against consolidating regional stores under the Macy’s name. One anecdote recounted in the story is telling:
To prove the point, Mr. Lundgren tells a story. Soon after Federated disclosed that Marshall Field’s, an upscale Midwest department store, would lose its name, scores of shoppers wrote blistering letters to the company, with several threatening to cut up their Field’s charge cards.
Worried that the reaction might be widespread and hurt the chain’s sales, Mr. Lundgren asked the accounting department to pull the purchase records of the first 100 letter writers. “There was no activity,” he said. “Or incredibly little activity.”
“This is where the tension was coming from,” he continued. “There was a group of people who did not want a change. But do they like the merchandise in the store? Not according to their spending. In their letters, they talked about when they were a child. But nobody was talking in the present tense.”
This reveals the reality of the tensions between people’s identity with a prominent landmark occupying urban space and the reality of corporate interests in a period of increasing consolidation in many industries–inculding retail. Both Field’s and Carson’s have long-ago been acquired by businesses with no measurable ties to the city and are facing increasing pressure by stockholders to maintain competitiveness. These recent decisions show that the ultimate decisions made by these companies are designed with these isolated corporate interests in mind. In fact on the same day that Bon-Ton announced the closure of the State Street Carson’s, their second quarter earnings report was released which failed to meet Wall Street expectations.
Of course, no one expects coporations to engage in activity that is at odds with their bottom line; however, private interests invariably have effects on public spaces. The inevitible tension that results provides the substance of much social and political interest.