#153: The Future of 1871

April 19th, 2013

The young man at the front desk had his hair dyed blonde like he was playing a German in a sitcom.

“This is a shared co-working space for digital startups,” he recited to a slightly chubby couple who had managed to walk through the space without being able to figure out what it was.

A young man with hair like Tintin zipped past on a Razor scooter.

Welcome to the future of Chicago.

Chicago is a town in love with what it likes to pretend its past was like. We celebrate the past, a city pretending to be aged and grizzled. We don’t say Willis, we don’t say Macy’s, we don’t say U.S. Cellular and why has no one fixed the bathrooms at Wrigley since the ’50s?

A town will die building memorials to itself, complains the man re-creating a 1920s newspaper column.

The past gets tiring. I wanted to see a place busting ahead to the next thing. So I signed up for a tour of Chicago’s start-up starter-upper, 1871.

1871′s goal is simple and massive: turn Chicago into Silicon Valley.

This isn’t a puff piece and I don’t know enough about the issue to say if they’re halfway to success or just taking up a 12th-story office in the Merchandise Mart with a bunch of bean bag chairs, a coffee bar, “Free Falling” playing over the loudspeaker and a young woman on a laptop with a Razor scooter parked behind her chair.

That’s a second Razor scooter.

But I can say it was a Wonkaverse of colors and lights, blackboard walls, pasted up signs that say “Please do NOT pet or feed the developers… unless its coffee or Cheetos,” colored glass walls shaded to mimic the river and free pizza and beer on Fridays in a room with Galaga and ping pong and street art murals and a third Razor scooter parked by the recycling bins.

At this point, a man on the tour with me asked about the scooters, pointing out the one by the recycling and two others I hadn’t noticed. Razor scooter tally now at five.

I never know where to stand on the future because most of it will fail, even in this brightly lit room with people on laptops working on couches, ball chairs, rockers, bean bags, Eames-y mod designs and, in one case, a treadmill.

I can’t say if the crackle in the room — and the place did crackle with energy — I can’t say, I just don’t know if any of that will amount to anything.

I can’t say if treadmill man’s start-up will revolutionize bupkis. I can’t say if the Cheeto-fed developers will change the world in six months or if they’ll be begging for change by then. I don’t know if the list of workshops chalked up on the blackboard wall will prove to be the ultimate template for bringing creative people together or if they actually are as silly as the names “MoxieCon 2013″ and “FounderSensei” imply.

That’s the whole point of innovation, isn’t it? Throw it all against the wall and see what sticks.

I often write about hatmakers and typewriter shops — places trying to bring the past to the present. I often write about the present — waving guys on bridges and street people and other folks I come across.

So I enjoyed my little trip to the future, with the brightly lit open areas and kitchy-weird seating arrangements.

Whatever future they do build for Chicago in this open office in the Merchandise Mart, they’ll do it with grit, with determination, with a bit of bravado and, by my final count, with at least eight Razor scooters.

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A bit of lost past on the South Side

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