Messy urban vitality (Part II)

Visual order

Reader Christopher advocates for a “messy urban vitality” (see previous posts: Overwhelming messiness, Sign of confusion and Sign, sign, everywhere a sign), and recalls a passage from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, an urban planning classic, to reinforce his point. While I am unable to find the passage that Christopher recalls, Jacobs devotes a chapter to “Visual order: its limitations and possibilities.” In it she notes that we are bombarded with a variety of impressions on city streets (signs, buildings, storefronts, etc.), and we are able to sort through those and weed out those that are irrelevant to give order to our surroundings, “…unless those impressions are too strong to ignore (emphasis added).” Unfortunately, that is what we face on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square.

Relative perspective

City streets can be viewed in relative perspectives: aesthetics vs. usability, the long view vs. the close-up, and a punctuated impression vs. a sustained consciousness, for example.When I select a photo to post, I zoom in to illustrate a point and crop the photo to eliminate distractions from the point I’m making. Among photos that may illustrate the point, I choose the one most aesthetically pleasing to the appearance of the post.

The photos of restaurants (example below), that I’ve used so far, lack customers for a similar reason. Without customers, I can show you a better view of what the restaurant itself looks like. If the restaurant were peopled at the time of the photo, it would be messier and not show off the restaurant itself, but the activity in the restaurant. For my blog posts I’m faced with the choice of aesthetics vs. showing the usability of a place. I’m all for the activity and vitality that people bring to a restaurant. In fact it’s that usability
that will draw me into a restaurant. A convivial crowd will entice me to try out a restaurant before an empty room will. But a crowded restaurant may not best illustrate a particular point I’m making in a post.

In zooming in on a particular point, I and readers are looking at a part of Milwaukee Avenue in isolation. A wider view of the same subject might convey a different impression. The photo below is a wider view of the storefront where the top photo was taken. Now you no longer vividly see the point that I was illustrating in the top photo about windows becoming blank walls when they are covered in signs, but you see the storefront in a wider
context. You see sign clutter; you see carelessness in a falling sign; you see cardboard boxes stored in the display window; you see water damage on the ceiling; you see chipped tiles; you see a gated doorway that suggests a lack of safety. Of course, you may not be able to identify all those things without zooming in, but I can assure you they are there. What you may like close-up or in isolation, you may not like once you take the long view and have a context.

Even the photo to the left is seen in isolation from the whole of the street. And the whole of present day Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square conveys a run-down and chaotic impression too strong to ignore. While a one-time visitor may find vitality in the chaos, for those of us who experience it daily, it begins to wear. We have a sustained consciousness of a dirty and dilapidated Milwaukee Avenue that zaps the vitality from the place.

It is not a hopeless situation. There are numerous advantages to Milwaukee Avenue, and the disorder and unpleasantness can be countered with sustained attention to the bits and pieces that may offer some pleasantness and visual delights to convey a visual order to the whole.


A conversation starter: Appealing landmarks or other eye-catchers and unifying elements can give visual order to a city street. What street features help you make sense of a place?


Sensory perception:

On the nearby residential street of Albany (one of the Best blocks in Logan Square), neighbors share this visual delight of baubles and light.

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