Considering how to better connect Chicago’s “Cultural Mile”

Chicago Tribune arts critic Chris Jones suggests Chicago’s “cultural mile” is not connected well:

Like many such districts, congressional and otherwise, the Chicago Cultural Mile is an inherently artificial entity — Chicago self-evidently has many a cultural mile — designed to promote specific business and nonprofit interests and, of course, designed not to impinge on the jurisdiction of others. The reason for the weird turns is to link such big lakefront museums as the Field Museum of Natural History in the “mile” along with such Michigan Avenue anchors as the Art Institute, the Spertus center and Millennium Park. John W. McCarter Jr., the former president of the Field, joined the board of the nonprofit Chicago Cultural Mile Association last week along with Frank P. Novel of Metropolitan Capital Bank & Trust. The association, a hitherto snoozey but apparently growing nonprofit, also announced the hiring of its first full-time executive director, Sharene Shariatzadeh.

Let’s stipulate that the weird trajectory of the Chicago Cultural Mile is indicative of a problem in cultural Chicago, which McCarter knows as well as anyone: the continued lack of a graceful, logical curve (be it path, rail or road) to get visitors from Michigan Avenue to the steps of the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium in a way that does not confound the visitors. Some variation of a graceful curve — as distinct from a counter-intuitive, traffic-dodging series of right-angled turns on streets with a surfeit of concrete — is needed. There are many reasons for the current financial duress at the Field, but one under-acknowledged factor is the renovation of Soldier Field, which made the museum seem more of its own island, far more distant, far harder to reach, if only in people’s heads.

But that’s not a reason for the Cultural Mile to leave Michigan Avenue.

Motor Row, its natural destination, sits right next to the McCormick Place convention center, a crucial economic generator that was built without an obvious emotional link to its city — a disdain for urban context that extracts a heavy price. Fixing up Motor Row is the best way to change that. As the Tribune reported last fall, things are already happening: The Seattle-based food-circus hybrid known as Teatro ZinZanni is eyeing the ‘hood for its long-anticipated Chicago branch. The band Cheap Trick is planning a venue and museum. There is talk of hotels and restaurants. A nearby stop on the Green Line is coming.

Jones is suggesting there are three major issues at stake here:

1. The first issue is that there is not a coherent physical connection between these spaces. They exist in proximity to each other but there is not public space that would encourage visitors to travel between them. This is an urban planning issue.

2. The second issue is marketing and selling this stretch as a coherent grouping. Even without a good layout, how many visitors to Chicago know this grouping exists? While the northern end of Michigan Avenue, north of the Chicago River, is well known and visited, this area could use more promotion.

3. A third concern is that this cultural mile could be still expanded to include interesting existing places. As Jones notes, McCormick Place doesn’t really interact with the nearby area even as it attracts thousands of visitors so a nearby site that would attract visitors could be very lucrative and useful.

As someone who has visited this stretch numerous times, I would add another caveat. To get from Michigan Avenue to the museum campus (Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium), the most direct route is to cut southeast from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street through Millennium Park and Grant Park and over to Lake Michigan. This route takes advantage of one of Chicago’s great features: its parks along the lake. However, cutting through the park, getting away from the traffic, and enjoying the nature and different energy of the parks means that I miss out on what is going on along Michigan Avenue. If the city wants more people to follow Michigan Avenue south, does this necessarily mean diverting people away from the parks?

Listing the “coolest suburbs worth a visit”

Critiques of suburbs have often included the charge that they are boring. But perhaps this stereotype is cracking: Travel+Leisure provides a list of the “coolest suburbs worth a visit.” A few things seem to unite these communities: they have “cool” cultural attractions (and some have drawn the attention of celebrities) and have a uniqueness or character that sets them apart from the “typical” suburb.

While I don’t suspect that suburban tourism will soon explode, this is a reminder that there is a lot of interesting things to see and do in suburbs. And if more and more visitors and tourists do head to the suburbs, I’m sure the communities will be happy to see them.