I was walking by Marshall Field’s on Hubbard’s Trace en route to my Smokey Hollow office when I started wondering why I don’t take better advantage of my city’s more touristy options — trips up the Sears Tower, riding my velocipede to Weegman Park see the White Stockings Base Ball Club or to Comiskey to see the Sioux City Cornhuskers — heck, I’ve never even been to a Decatur Staleys game at Municipal Grant Park Stadium as long as I’ve lived in Fort Dearborn!
Yes, yes, I know. It’s not called Sears Tower.
As a transplant to this city, even one who has lived in town on and off for going on 14 years, I’m going to piss someone off with this column.
We love our old names in this city, old timers recalling lovingly when Wicker Park’s trendy Six Corners was either “The Crotch” or, as an old neighbor of mine told me in ’03, “Hooker Alley.” We insist it’s still Comiskey Park, the Sears Tower or Marshall Field’s, no matter the signs, naming rights negotiations or large decorative holiday trumpets that declare it to be Guaranteed Rate Field, Willis Tower or Macy’s, respectively.
And there’s a seductive logic to these names.
History is transported through names, we feel. Marshall Field’s, we lived and breathed and loved. The famous clock turned clock logo, holiday visits to see the mechanical whirligigs of the storefront windows. Just the thought is making my mouth water for Frango Mints as I type.
Macy’s, with its star logo and inherent New Yorkitude is something the Midwest only knows through “Miracle on 34th Street” and the tedious Thanksgiving parade we use to keep the kids distracted while we try to cook. It feels weird and wrong.
Names can oppress as well. This is true in our rebranded, redefining city. Identities and cultures get swept aside for names that will sell better.
Last year, a developer dropped a plan to rename the neighborhood where the Cabrini-Green projects once stood “NoCA” for “North of Chicago Avenue,” essentially wiping away the struggles of the former housing block’s predominantly black community in a tidy little marketable package for the spot’s future white condo dwellers.
But where should the line be set? NoCA is terrible, but should we still call Maxwell Street “Jew Town”? Is the inspiring if euphemistic name “Bronzeville” black pride in action or is it a whitewashing of the community once called the Black Belt?
And history wasn’t great. For those who deem our heritage a more dignified time than our current corporatocracy, remember that Wrigley Field (formerly Weegman Park), the home of the Chicago Cubs (formerly the White Stockings – figure that one out) is named for bubble gum.
To repeat: The home of our until-recently longsuffering Cubs was named after something you chew up and spit out.
Sears Tower was Sears Tower because Sears was there, a Chicago titan that bestrode the earth from what was then tallest building on the planet.
Now Sears is in a way-cheaper office park in suburban Hoffman Estates, their palace rebranded after a British financial group that’s not even headquartered on this continent. That horrid name “Willis” reminding us that our pride in the homegrown titan was and always had been a corporate advertising opportunity.
We recoil at the corporatization of our pastimes, feeling Charles Comiskey’s rise from player to Hall of Fame executive is somehow betrayed by naming Sox Park after various mobile phone manufacturers and residential mortgage companies willing to shell out to get their name on the sign.
But Comiskey Park was torn down in 1990, its name intact for all its 80 years. They named the newer, shinier, bigger Sox Park after the old Comiskey because nostalgia sells, man.
Are we that horrified to realize our beloved memories are just past brands?
Most of my intro to this story was a joke, but I was walking by Marshall Field’s (now Macy’s) on Hubbard’s Trace (State Street) to my office in Smokey Hollow (River North), and I did stop to think.
I wasn’t thinking about the Decatur Staleys (Chicago Bears) or Sears Tower (Willis, but I still hate that name). I was thinking about the decorative trumpets the store lines the streets with every Christmas season. Macy’s stars and Marshall Field’s clocks dangled from the trumpets, a stab however clumsy at finding balance between past and present.
I’m saying don’t hate name changes. Hate what’s behind them.
Hate the marketer who decides “Avondale” is too low-class a name for a luxury townhome development and wishes “West Roscoe Village” into existence.
Hate the corporation that looks at your beloved White Sox and thinks, “Man, that fan base is a great advertising opportunity.”
But remember the whole time that you don’t call Wrigley “Weegman,” the Sox the “Sioux City Cornhuskers” or Marshall Field’s “P. Palmer & Co. Dry Goods.”
Remember that some little kid toddling to storefront windows will someday be a nostalgic elder, and Christmas to her will mean this mishmash of clocks and stars dangling from Macy’s trumpets.