When does a window become a wall?

Blank walls

William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center was one of the first urban planning related books I ever read and it first brought to my attention the problem of blank walls. (I understand that it’s now out of print, but that the ideas are contained in The Essential William H. Whyte, a collection of his seminal writings, including the better known, The Organization Man.) Whyte’s Street Life Project studied how people actually use and interact with city streets and public places, and was the genesis of the Project for Public Spaces.

Moving to Chicago from D.C., I saw the problem of blank walls in action in downtown Chicago (though there have been improvements over the years). When I first moved to Chicago I worked downtown in a towering post-modernist building of glass and granite. Two restaurants fronted the several story high lobby, but you couldn’t tell it from the outside. Similarly, as an unfamiliar newcomer, I couldn’t tell what was hidden inside myriad other towering office buildings. As you walked down the street, all you could see were large windows, but they were tinted or mirrored glass so you couldn’t see any activity inside.

I’m sure many Chicagoans and most visitors are not even aware of the number of restaurants and stores inside the famous Sears Tower, for example, because they are hidden from view from the street. With 110 stories and its own zip code though, Sears Tower businesses, and those in office buildings like it, can afford to be isolated from street life. (Though the businesses can afford these blank walls, the city cannot, as it deadens life on the street.)

Similarly, big-box stores, because of how and where they exist, can afford to sport blank wall after blank wall and turn their backs on their surroundings. These are the large discount stores that operate in buildings that might as well be boxes of concrete, and where the only view you have to what’s inside is through the doorway. There’s no need for enticing window displays to draw the customers in. Most of their patrons drive to the store and thus have already made the decision to shop there. Shopping malls are the same way, at least on the exterior.

Fortunately, most of the Milwaukee Avenue buildings in Logan Square were constructed before the popularity and preponderance of international style and post-modernist buildings, big-box stores and shopping malls. Rather than blank walls and tinted glass, Milwaukee Avenue’s old building stock sports many and varied windows to entice shoppers. The problem is what’s being done with the windows that exist.

So, when does a window become a wall?

When people can’t see what’s happening inside.

Windows Become Walls - Milwaukee Ave.

Windows Become Walls – Milwaukee Ave.

In Logan Square, there are a number of Milwaukee Avenue vacant storefronts that have windows covered in brown craft paper or newspaper, in effect putting up walls where they did not previously exist. Even storefronts with existing and operating businesses close their blinds, cover their windows with signs or otherwise obfuscate the business that is–or even that business is–indeed going on inside.

Bricked-In WindowOne business has actually bricked in a window (right), literally putting up a wall where one did not previously exist.

Windows that lack transparency become blank walls to the people walking by them. But, unlike big-box stores and international style office buildings, the small and mostly independent Milwaukee Avenue businesses cannot afford to isolate themselves from life on the street.

They do not have built-in a customer base of 10,000 people like Sears Tower does. For the most part, they are not well-known, destination retailers like the big-box stores are. Milwaukee Avenue businesses, as a whole, could, however, benefit from thinking like the inside of a shopping mall.

Next: Think like a shopping mall

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