West Chicago: founded around a railroad junction, host to Big Boy, and a missed opportunity to be a railroad tourist center

On Sunday, I had a vision of the suburb of West Chicago. Thousands of people regularly visited the community to see railroad displays and learn about the influence of the railroad on local history, the Chicago region, and the nation as a whole. Both regular and special trains drew onlookers. Local businesses, some with railroad themes, some not, benefited from extra visitors. Even as the car has dominated suburban life for decades, West Chicago remained an exciting testament to the power of the railroad in American life.

This vision may seem outlandish on a regular day but not so this past Sunday. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, Big Boy, one of the largest locomotives ever built, spent several days parked at the Union Pacific facilities just outside downtown West Chicago. On a hot summer Sunday, a large crowd gathered to see the locomotive and several passenger cars. Multiple generations turned out. People waited patiently to walk through one of the passenger cars. People stood next to the giant Big Boy and cheered when it released steam.

BigBoyOverhead

A community roughly thirty miles west of the heart of Chicago’s Loop, the community was founded as Junction around a railroad junction linking several other lines to the first railroad line in and out of Chicago (the Galena & Chicago Union). Workers came for railroad jobs. Factories and industrial facilities located near the railroad lines (including the later-arriving Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway). The community developed an identity around the railroad, with a Main Street that backed up to the railroad, the annual Railroad Days celebration and the prominent locomotive on the city seal. If there is a Chicago area suburb that can claim the railroad as its own, it is West Chicago.

Why doesn’t the suburb attract more visitors with such a rich railroad past? It may not be for a lack of trying. A display on Main Street featured a locomotive for a few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, local groups developed plans to create a downtown railroad theme with one committee member saying West Chicago could become “Railroadsville, Illinois.” In the late 1980s, DuPage County planners said a railroad theme had great potential to offer something unique to families and visitors.

These efforts never quite came together. The suburb still benefits from its multiple transportation advantages – the railroad, DuPage County Airport, proximity to multiple major roads including Illinois Route 59, Illinois Route 64, and Interstate 88. But, the Illinois Railway Museum is located miles away to the northwest. West Chicago’s downtown struggles. The most attention many suburban residents pay to the railroad involves impatience when roadways are blocked by long freight trains or regular passenger trains.

When Big Boy leaves later this morning, perhaps it takes with it any hope that West Chicago can become a railroad tourist center. There is a minor chance it could happen; West Chicago has a history to build on. There is a market: thousands of visitors came out to see Big Boy. However, it would take sustained effort, resources, and some good timing.

Update 7/31/19: An estimated 45,000 people visited West Chicago to see Big Boy.

Bringing in tourists just to see the airport

Airports are often considered gateways to other tourist activities. Yet, they can be tourist destinations in their own right:

Hughey’s at the vanguard of a new phenomenon: terminal tourism. Programs adopted or being considered by a number of airports allow people beyond security checkpoints so they can meet arriving relatives or just hang out. It’s a bit of a return to the days before the 9-11 terrorist attacks, when airport security was more relaxed and you didn’t need a ticket for a flight to get inside. The programs are taking root as airports expand options to fill passenger dwell time, as it’s called — those often mind-numbing hours between when people make it through security and when their flights take off. Now many airports feature live music and art exhibits. There are spas, microbreweries, playgrounds, gourmet restaurants and wine bars.

Pittsburgh was the first airport to open up to non-travelers, in 2017, and Tampa started doing so last month. Seattle-Tacoma is evaluating a pilot it tested earlier this year and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the nation’s busiest, may seek approval for a trial run. The idea is under consideration in Detroit and Austin…

Some view it as a potential money-maker; officials with the facilities in Atlanta and Detroit figure they might see additional revenue from parking and concessions. A survey of visitors during Seattle-Tacoma’s trial showed people stayed an average 2.5 hours — though they spent only an average $10.29.

At Pittsburgh International, the impetus was popular demand, said Chief Executive Officer Christina Cassotis. She was peppered whenever she appeared at public forums. “In the top five questions was always, ‘Why can’t we go back to the airport and see what’s going on out there?”’

I know there are security concerns but I cannot believe it took this long to consider this potential revenue generator given the number of cities interested in tourism. If the buildings are already there, why not invite more people in?

Some of the discussion in the article suggested airport tourists are drawn by food and shopping. I also assume the terminals provide some other nice features: watching airplanes and a safe, controlled, clean environment. In all these senses, airports are then like shopping malls with options for dining, shopping, and entertainment all within a pleasant indoor setting. And having been in almost all of the airports listed above, newer facilities are definitely headed toward shopping mall status with large shopping and dining areas plus interesting amenities for people on the go. For example, Sea-Tac offers a large glass window for watching planes.

Now, if only those struggling shopping malls could find something as interesting as planes landing and taking off to attract visitors…

Popular HGTV show leads to local tourism boost – but what are the lasting effects?

Many HGTV shows are tenuously connected to actual communities – the focus is on the homes and personalities, not the neighborhoods and community. Fixer Upper and the efforts of the Gaines family in Waco, Texas may then be quite unique:

In 2015, they opened Magnolia Market, a home goods store that sells Mrs. Gaines’s mass-produced collections of bohemian farmhouse décor, and quickly followed with a bakery, garden shop and a turf-lawn park built near two old silos that had been constructed in 1950 by the Brazos Valley Cotton Oil Company. They also opened a nearby restaurant, Magnolia Table, in the former Elite Café, a longtime favorite that closed in 2016 after several different owners and renovations. When the Gaineses took it over, they installed subway tile along the walls, exposed the wood beams in the ceiling and stuck an ever-changing marquee sign out front. Naturally, the renovation was featured on their show.

No one’s complaining. The number of tourists to Waco has tripled in the four years since “Fixer Upper” first aired, with some 1.7 million people visiting in the first seven months of 2018 alone, and other local businesses have flourished with the influx. Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the appeal of the “Fixer Upper” brand has had a profound impact on the city.

Several quick thoughts::

1. The article touts increased tourism and a few local businesses that have benefited from the popularity of the show. Lacking are numbers about increased jobs and increased tax revenues.

2. The biggest bonus to Waco seems to be less about economics and more about status: the Gaines have helped make the city cool.

3. How long will this effect last? When Fixer Upper is done, will the family still exert the same pull on people? And if this trend dies down, how will the community of Waco respond? My guess would be that this uptick in tourism and interest will fade away if the Gaines are not as visible.

4. The concept of TV driven tourism is an intriguing one. People want to visit popular TV sites, like the Brady Bunch house for the Soprano’s home. Should more cities take advantage of shows that have strong connections to certain locations? Imagine Chicago building a full campaign around the Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med galaxy.

Creative (trolls out of recycled wood!) and profitable (record attendance!) art at Morton Arboretum

How do you attract more people to a suburban arboretum? Have unique art installations with one large work loom over a busy highway:

Created by famed Danish artist Thomas Dambo, the exhibit features six large troll statues — most 15 to 20 feet high — made of repurposed wood and other recycled and natural materials, and spread throughout the 1,700-acre arboretum…

In July, about 163,000 people visited the arboretum — the most ever reported in a single month, Sargent said. The previous monthly record of 150,000 was set in October 2011. And last month was also a successful one, Sargent said, with more than 140,000 visitors.

In surveys and anecdotally, visitors explain they come specifically to see the trolls, but they’re also staying to see other parts of the arboretum they’ve never seen before, she said…

Dambo told the Tribune earlier this year that after he was approached to work on the exhibit — similar to art installations he’s completed in Copenhagen, Denmark, and South Korea — he would ride his bike around the arboretum to identify spots to place his creations. He wanted people to explore the grounds and its hiking paths to find all the trolls.

Art works often serve two masters: aesthetic beauty and reflection on the world as well as commercial concerns. Artists may not often talk about the commercial imperative – they have to eat too – while other actors may use art to bring in money.

Take public art displayed on street or public spaces of communities. On one hand, the art can enhance the experience of being in particular locations. Think of the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza in Chicago: it is a unique work by a very famous artist that is not easy to interpret. It is still popular decades later. Without the art, the plaza could be interpreted as a dreary concrete land amid tall buildings.

PicassoStatueChicago

On the other hand, art can draw people to a location and help encourage them to spend money. Communities want more visitors because they then buy items in shops, eat at restaurants, and bring in more money through payment to local businesses as well as through tax revenues. Take this statue of Paul Revere on the Freedom Trail in Boston:

paulrevereboston.jpg

The statue commemorates an important historical event but think of all the visitors that come to Boston to partake in this colonial history. Think of how much money they spend on hotels and food and tourist activities. This statue is part of a system that helps the local economy. It is still art but it also helps generate money.

There are inevitably tensions between these two poles: beauty and money. We have terms for this, such as sellout, someone who has given up on the artistic and creative side and now is just in it for the money. With public art, the two sides often go hand in hand: creativity leads to money which can lead back to more funds and will for creativity and so on. It is probably too simple to say everyone can win in these scenarios and yet many communities (and artists) continue to seek public art installations.

When bricks and mortar stores can’t make it even in Manhattan

Heart of one of the world’s leading global cities, Manhattan has its own struggles with keeping brick and mortar retailers in operation:

That’s right: On a nine-block stretch of what’s arguably the world’s most famous avenue, steps south of the bustling Time Warner Center and the planned new Nordstrom department store, lies a shopping wasteland.

Yes, there are bank branches, restaurants, fast-food outlets, theaters, Duane Reades, a vitamin shop and a few tourist-targeted “discount” stores. But mainly there are oodles of empty spaces covered with signs touting SUPERB CORNER RETAIL OPPORTUNITY.

The same crisis blights the rest of Manhattan. The people invested in storefront retailing — real-estate developers, landlords and retail companies themselves — tell us not to worry. It’s a “transitional” situation that will right itself over time. Authoritative-sounding surveys by real-estate and retail companies claim that Manhattan’s overall vacancy is only just 10 percent.

But they are all wrong. Bricks-and-mortar retail is shrinking so swiftly and on such a wide scale, it’s going to require big changes in how we plan our new buildings and our cities — although nobody wants to admit it.

This is an interesting argument to make: even with all of the tourists, wealth, and attention bestowed upon the borough, retail is disappearing from Manhattan. And if shopping disappears, with shopping being one of the favorite leisure activities of Americans, might this negatively affect the business and social life of a Manhattan used to ultra-busy sidewalks?

On the other hand, Manhattan may not be the best example. The median household income in Manhattan is not as high as one might expect, there is not much of a middle class, and the cost of living is high. Add in that Manhattan does have a lot of tourists, workers that arrive for the day and leave at night, and concentrations of residents in different parts of the island. The sheer density of people might suggest that retailers should be able to make it in Manhattan but it is a complicated place.

More broadly, what will tourist locations of the future look like if even more shopping is done online? For decades, the international tourist destination includes significant amounts of shopping. What would fill that space?

Increasing tourism in the Chicago suburbs

Suburbs may not dominate lists of where travelers want to vacation yet tourism is up in the Chicago suburbs:

Growth in tax revenue attributed to tourism from 2015 to 2016.

State receipts      Local tax receipts

Cook County          +4.5%                       +6.8%

DuPage County      +3.7%                       +6.1%

Kane County           +1.9%                       +4.2%

Lake County            +3.3%                       +5.6%

McHenry County    +6.5%                       +8.9%

Will County              +29.6%                     +16.1%

Sources: Illinois Office of Tourism, The Economic Impact of Travel on Illinois Counties 2014, a report prepared by the Research Department of the U.S. Travel Association.

It helps that every suburban region has carved out its own niche, focusing on different travelers. While they all woo convention and business travelers, Rosemont targets the international travelers who come through O’Hare International Airport; DuPage County emphasizes its forest preserves and natural spaces; Aurora focuses on attracting national youth sports tournaments; and Schaumburg eyes business travelers and mall-loving shoppers.

McHenry’s tourism — which saw the biggest gains in the latest reports — developed a niche with agritourism and fall festivities. Things like Richardson Adventure Farm’s world’s largest corn maze; giant fall festivals at local farms; and Quarry Cable Park, the newly renovated wakeboard park in Crystal Lake; are attracting more visitors to the area.

If you can get outsiders to come spend money in your community (rather than just relying on local revenues), it seems like a win for suburbs. Yet, there may also be downsides to increased suburban tourism:

  1. Some people move to suburbs to get away from people and crowds. Bringing in people might change the local atmosphere.
  2. More visitors may lead to a need to construct more infrastructure to support those visitors. This could include everything from roads to new facilities.
  3. As the article hints, this could turn into another venue for competition as suburbs try to draw visitors from other suburbs.

All of this highlights the changed nature of suburbs in recent decades: they are not just bedroom suburbs (and arguably never were) but rather are a diverse set of communities with a number of different attractions (from entertainment scenes to office parks to varied housing types to racial/ethnic and class diversity).

Film about McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard

Here is a review of how a film examining the larger and larger homes built on Martha’s Vineyard:

The premise of the film begins on familiar ground, with Bena casting a critical, almost dogmatic eye on the issue:

“On the first day that I arrived I landed several jobs and it wasn’t long before I was working seven days a week. My main gig was carpentry. At first I really enjoyed the work, but over time I found myself working on larger and larger homes. The larger the home, the more my sense of uneasiness increased. And the fact that they were often third or fourth homes seemed incongruous with their enormous size. They looked more like bus stations or hotels, not summer cottages.

The houses were heated year round and I found the waste of resources shocking and depressing. Not only did the “starter castles” dwarf the cottages and historic homes they replaced, they seemed out of keeping with everything that I love about Martha’s Vineyard. I felt like I was ruining the place that I wanted to call home. And that is why I took off my tool belt and picked up a camera.”

But as the film progresses, Bena’s approach becomes much more nuanced. In talking with other local carpenters who work on these huge houses, we discover that their livelihood depends on these large contracts. We hear from long-time residents, some of whom are uneasy about telling newcomers what to build or not to build. In his interviews with some of these owners of these oversize mansions, we hear the human side of their stories as well. But we also see how some of these wealthy homeowners take advantage of legal loopholes — or even flout them completely — with serious consequences.

This sounds interesting and surprisingly multi-faceted for a story about McMansions.

At the same time, I suspect the story is complicated here because of tourism. This is not a “normal” location but rather one that locals as well as thousands of visitors might consider “home.” Additionally, there is a lot of money involved with what it takes to visit and build (with limited land). When the president travels there and draws attention to this particular issue, this is a special place. The story of McMansions at Martha’s Vineyard might be able to reach more people because of the known location but it isn’t necessarily the same McMansion story as teardowns in Los Angeles neighborhoods or in suburbs outside of Washington D.C. or new McMansions in the exurbs.