Reader Christopher has made a couple of comments disagreeing with my take on signage on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square (see previous posts: Sign of confusion and Sign, sign, everywhere a sign). He advocates for a “messy urban vitality;” and I suspect he means the “urban edginess” that I have referenced. I thought I’d take an opportunity to address his comments in a larger context.
The larger context is important because, while my individual posts may cover a specific element of Milwaukee Avenue, such as signage, there are a myriad of elements that can contribute to the success or failure of Milwaukee Avenue. Not all elements may need to be addressed–or addressed simultaneously, but some do, as the messiness currently overwhelms the vitality. The proper balance must be sought and maintained to keep the messiness from impeding the revitalization of this stretch of Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square, while allowing the place to remain urban.
Motor City magnetism
As a young child in the back seat of my parents’ car driving into Detroit to visit my grandparents is when I became hooked on the city. I was mesmerized by that messy urban vitality. My strongest recollection of the magnetism is the visual cacophony of signs in the commercial strips. There was a paradox: the signs were both attractive and harsh.
As an adult, I made a choice to live in the city — first in D.C. (and across the river in Arlington, Virginia), then in Chicago. When it came time to buy a home, I made a choice to buy a two-flat (a vertical duplex) very much like my grandparents’ Detroit home. The city made an early and lasting impression.
Varying points of view
Yet my vantage point in passing, looking out from the car window, with a child’s eyes, vastly differs from my in the thick of it, usually on foot, adult vantage point. There are several dichotomies of point of view: the passer-through vs. the resident or destination user, car passenger vs. pedestrian, child vs. adult, suburbanite vs. city dweller; and of relative perspective: the long view vs. the close-up, a punctuated impression vs. a sustained consciousness, aesthetics vs. usability.
To be successful, Milwaukee Avenue must find the right balance to appeal to varying points of view. To be a vital commercial strip, Milwaukee Avenue must serve the needs of a diverse group of people. To be successful, it must attract a diverse group of people. No current business owner on this stretch of Milwaukee Avenue has thrown up her hands and said, “That’s it! We have too many customers.”
A storefront must get the attention of the unfamiliar driver passing through Logan Square along Milwaukee Avenue, probably with signs. Signs for the driver passing through must quickly make a clear statement identifying the business and what’s for sale: “Food For Less dollar store here.” “Omar’s jewelry store here.” “Santa Barbara jewelry store over here.” An overwhelming number of signs sends too many messages, more than can be absorbed by a driver who is also paying attention to traffic. A visually appealing presentation can also say: “You may want to stop in on your next visit to the area,” whereas too much of a mess can say: “We don’t bother; why should you?”
A storefront must also appeal to the local resident walking home from the “el,” probably with pedestrian-friendly signage and with an attractive window display. If the inside of a store is completely hidden by signs, a new resident may not feel comfortable entering the unknown. A child is more likely to draw his parent into a store if a toy, rather than yet another sale sign, is displayed at his eye level. I am more likely to be check out a store where the merchandise is pleasantly displayed than a store where the window is used as a stock room.
The current perceived disorder and unpleasantness must be countered with some order, some legibility, some pleasantness and visual delights so that the messiness does not overwhelm the vitality.
A conversation starter: How does your point of view affect your experience of Milwaukee Avenue or another urban commercial area?
Next: Visual order