Messy urban vitality (Part I)

Overwhelming messiness

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.

conversation starter: How does your point of view affect your experience of Milwaukee Avenue or another urban commercial area?

Next: Visual order

One Response to Messy urban vitality (Part I)

  1. Christopher says:

    Hmm… I actually think we mean quite the opposite. I do mean actual visual clutter. That explosion of signs. New York is obviously the best example of this. Every square inch is covered in signs. No one would say, for instance, that Canal Street has no vitality. It absolutely does. And it does because it knows its audience and isn’t afraid to get in your face about it.

    I think there is a difference here of class and aesthetics. I find the oh so quaint signage and historic character of say Georgetown to be frightening. Especially considering how exciting and loud it used to feel in the 1980s even.

    Those windows covered with signs. Work. Or people wouldn’t do them. Why should I have to go into a convenience store to know what kind of international calling cards they sell for instance. The people that need the reassurance to know what the inside of the store look like are the people that are without the streetsmarts to decode the visual language. These are, typically, suburbanites. They need the reassurance that the people inside are the same class and skin color. This is shopping and window viewing as middle-class sport. If they understood how to read the visual language of the street, they wouldn’t need that much hand holding.

    Not to say that there can’t be a mix, but I think there is really something to be said for visual overkill. I am very much against anything that looks like design guidelines. Anything that looks like forced homogenization. Those juxtapositions. That cluttered visual vocabularly (and the ability to decode it) is very much what gives cities and city dwellers their intelligence. For people that have grown up with the sort of forced sameness that the most carefully regulated suburbs provide are distinctly at a disadvantage in the urban environment. Will the city change as new residents move back in? Of course. Should it be forced to? Absolutely not.

    Mind you here, that I grew up in the suburbs, not nearly as zoning intensive as some of Chicago’s NW suburbs. But Geneva, IL, is pretty damn aesthetically homogeneous. I like you, also would visit my grandparents in SE Michigan (no one in my family calls it Detroit, I’ve never actually been in Detroit — “we’re from Pontiac” — which undoubtedly is just old fashioned racism). So I know from sameness. It’s what bothers me so much about Washington, DC. I find it a complete rejection of urbanity in favor of a sort of pastoral quaintness that is of course at the root of suburban thinking and desire. The best cities, New York, London, Tokyo, San Francisco, and even Chicago, are decidedly messy. Inherently visually chaotic. Any attempt to zone that out, only makes the urban environment more bland. Of course, it also makes the urban environment feel “safe” for suburbanites. I hope that’s not the primary goal.

    Christopher: The decidedly urban Jane Jacobs herself writes about pedestrians: “As they walk, they occupy themselves with seeing–seeing in windows….(emphasis added).” That’s a good thing. And, as I’ve pointed out, business owners who receive signs for free from suppliers aren’t necessarily evaluating their utility, just their price. Good merchandising works too, but there’s not a lot of it on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. This photo from The New York Times July 13, 2008 article, “Bohemia Takes Its Final Bows,” shows a decidedly urban explosion of merchandising on a Manhattan street. For me that works, whereas the sign clutter detracts.

    I still think I know what you’re getting at. There are tensions and contradictions that must remain to strike the right balance to achieve what I call an “urban edginess,” rather than a plastic homogeneity. And it all must be viewed in a larger context. What successfully cluttered streets may have that Milwaukee Avenue lacks is a vitality of uses and a concentration of users. Without the use, the clutter is just unwelcome noise.

    And what of the suburban visitor? Is he not welcome on our city streets? ~ Lynn

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