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November 26, 2007

Selling the Names of Chicago’s Landmarks? Another Money-Making Scam


“When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything. The IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.” – from the movie, “Fight Club”


We might not have to wait on deep space exploration. We maybe have until just next year. That’s when a consultant hired by the mayor of Chicago is expected to report on the feasibility of selling the naming rights of cash-strapped Chicago landmarks for corporate sponsorship.


After that, don’t be surprised if you can spend the afternoon at Old Navy Pier.


Well, perhaps not, at least for the short term. The mayor’s office has said that it plans to maintain the integrity of the city’s great landmarks.


To say that we should be concerned about the piecing off and sale of the public sphere to private, corporate interests is almost a banality. It’s hard to imagine the person who would disagree with that. Corporations didn’t create civic landmarks. Civic landmarks were made what they are by the people who visited them. Slapping a corporate logo on one cheapens it, cheapens the city in which it exists, cheapens us all as a people by completing the march to the bottom of the barrel when it comes to placing some things off limits the power of money.


Of course the mayor’s office says that the city’s most cherished landmarks will be protected, but in doing so, they used some very curious phrasing. They referenced the city’s “brand integrity.” Most anyone who’s gone through a bankruptcy involving an old, cherished brand might wince at this. The old, cherished brand, at the end of the day is just another asset, and if a company is broken up, someone can buy the brand integrity.


In short, the mayor’s pronouncement that things like Navy Pier or Grant Park are off limits due to brand integrity just means that perhaps in the short term, the city isn’t that strapped for cash. Or that its leaders are concerned about a potential damage to the influx of tourism dollars brought on by crass and shameless commercialization.


The notion isn’t anything new. Cities have been selling sponsorships to events and locations for years, and gone are the days when you might see the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions play football at either Three Rivers Stadium or the Pontiac Silverdome. Today, the game takes place at a location with either Heinz or Ford affixed to the field.


But, it isn’t just specific landmarks co-opted by moneyed interests. The design of malls these days have drifted away from the old, enclosed design to a collection of buildings surrounding a parking lot. The more cannily built ones have false upstairs apartments built into the facade, complete with lighting to make it look like someone’s there. The sense of community is manufactured, a tool by which developers hope to get rich.


The effect is to make it look like a city’s downtown, and represents an investment in something new and false while true downtown areas, owned by the public and steeped in local traditions, continue to deteriorate. These false downtowns come complete with names like “Commons” or “Town Center”, further co-opting the sense of community for the sake of turning a buck. Developers who built one of these things in the city of Lansing, Michigan, even asked for downtown development dollars.


Of course, the apartments are fake and the stores are the same that you can find in any similar mall, which exposes the entire thing as a sham.


We should learn a lesson from this – associating civic landmarks with corporate interests might help cover some bills, but in the end turns whatever it touches into just another scam for turning a buck.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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