Street signage won’t drive traffic into empty malls

What a laugh!  Chicago may be the city that works (some of the time), but it has never really had much of a clue how to market itself to tourists — or locals for that matter.

Lately, when everyone hasn’t been busy trying to deflect attention from the relentless shooting rampages for which the city is garnering worldwide attention, it appears at least one Chicago government type has been trying to figure out how to get more tourists and locals to frequent the giant malls that line the northern end of Michigan Avenue.

And what has Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward come up with as a proposed plan of action?

His proposal on the table in city council calls for erecting large electronic signs on the facades of these malls, including Water Tower Place and the Bloomingdale’s building at 900 N. Michigan.  It’s hard to know exactly what the finished  assemblages of signs would look like on any of these buildings since Reilly’s proposal is still in a fairly undeveloped form  at the moment.

But Reilly has moved quickly to dispel any notion the final signage displays would resemble the spectacular array of neon Jumbotrons and arty billboards that surround passersby in New York’s always teeming Times Square.

Chicago lucky if it could match Times Square

Ald. Brendan Reilly Memo to Reilly.  We, the city of Chicago, should only be so lucky as to come up with a signage display on Michigan Avenue or anywhere else that comes even remotely close to matching the flashy visual grandeur of what has been a centerpiece attraction of Times Square for decades.

Chicagoans almost invariably fail to grasp the value of the inherent drama in many aspects of the New York cityscape, including that gaudy Times Square sign show, that make that metropolis such a compelling attraction to so many. It’s no coincidence, we can assure you, that Times Square has long been known as “The Crossroads of the World.”

But Reilly, whom we had always considered one of the sharper minds at work in city council, seems to believe the signage in Times Square is some sort of eyesore unworthy of admiration or emulation.

Au contraire. We would in fact argue that rich assortment of theatrical advertising and corporate promotional signage on view in the real Times Squares is, in itself, a piece of glorious theater every bit as compelling as any of the scores of shows playing every night in Broadway theaters just a stones throw away.

That gigantic amalgam of billboard displays is also a very visible reminder of New York’s energetic vibe, as well as a great marketing tool that helps draw visitors to the Big Apple in numbers far, far larger than those out-of-towners who meander along North Michigan Avenue.

So, assuming Reilly doesn’t want his scheme to end up turning Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue into another Times Square, what exactly are he and the city likely to wind up with?  Nothing more nor less, we suspect, than a tacky, poor man’s version of the great attraction that is the real Times Square.

Business disappointing in 900 N. Michigan mall

While any kind of signage display on North Michigan Avenue isn’t likely to rival the gripping grandeur of Times Square, our little outdoor display would instead serve as a painful reminder of how desperate for business some stores are that are trapped in these malls with their nondescript facades.

Just to get a better feel for what is really behind Reilly’s call for electronic signage on North Michigan Avenue, we took a walk through the 900 N. Michigan Ave. mall where Bloomingdale’s is the anchor tenant on a recent afternoon. The weather was perfect outside.

Inside, the mall was next to deserted. Store after store was empty of customers, despite summer sale signs prominently displayed in a number of shop windows.

The inner walkways around the mall were equally devoid of traffic.  The Potbelly sandwich shop where we stopped in for a bite was probably the busiest place we saw on our stroll, but it still had only a handful of people chatting among themselves.

Clearly, if the malls aren’t drawing any foot traffic, something has to be done.  But throwing up a smattering of flashing signs on the front of the buildings isn’t going to generate the kind of traffic the Bloomingdale’s mall clearly needs to stay afloat.

Other ways than signage to make city appealing

So, Alderman Reilly, may we suggest you fuhgeddabout this silly signage scheme you’ve concocted for North Michigan Avenue (no doubt because worried merchants were holding a gun to your head).

Instead, why don’t you and the rest of the city council try to focus on some basic initiatives that will make this city more livable for those who still try to call this burg home, as well as a more appealing metropolis for those who still want to visit here.\

Things like cutting crime. Cutting corruption. And cutting taxes. 

Making a useless electronic sign mess on North Michigan Avenue isn’t the answer. 

Contact Lewis Lazare at