A Petition to Chicago’s Mayor: Where Advertisement Meets Historic Architecture [OPINION]

“There are some places where advertising actually may be a beautification.”

– Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago

Do you think Times Square in New York City is festooned top-to-bottom with advertisements for the sake of beautification? For some reason, I doubt it.

The city of Chicago, according to Emanuel’s plan, would allow the purchase of advertising space on city property by private corporations. As of right now, the plan is open-ended and could include everything from government buildings to dump trucks to parking meter boxes. In short: if you can name a piece of city property, chances are, you likely can slap your company’s name on it.

Chicago Bridge Houses


Ironically, it wouldn’t be the first time an Illinois government official has attempted the same. Former Mayor Daley and former Governor Rod Blagojevich tried themselves. Both failed miserably. It’s an idea that has been rife with problems from the time it was conceived. It began with former Mayor Richard Daley proposing the idea of using the Chicago River bridge houses as space for advertisers, and that is the exact same idea Emanuel is trying to promote.

The latest problem stemmed from the adhesive. Actually being mindful of historic structures – and how mounting something to them could compromise their structural integrity – they began testing an adhesive to prevent any damage to the mounting surface. The problem? If it drops below 48 degrees outside, or if it rains? It doesn’t stick. I’m actually glad it doesn’t. If adhesive is the magic fixative for these advertisements, they could be placed just about anywhere. Mother Nature, luckily, seems to disagree with the mayor’s plan.

Between the eagerness of the city to sell ad space, and the terrifying flexibility that adhesive allows, there is nothing to make these advertisements special. Nothing to make one any more exclusive than another. Nothing to make the passerby consumers think any inkling of creative thought was incorporated into the placement of the ad. It ultimately is a failure in aim, in specificity, and in imagination.

From that, would you gather that the aim of such a project was beautification?

Of course not. The aim is money.

The Bean

One of Chicago’s best advertisements, and reason to come visit the city: The Bean!

This isn’t to say it is impossible for private and public interests to merge at an intersection of mutual understanding. Take Millennium Park, for example: beautiful, world-class public exhibits and space are sponsored – and consequently, named after – private sponsors. People come from all over the world for Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” better known colloquially as “The Bean.” That park is likely one of the greatest public spaces in the world, and attracts both locals and tourists in throngs. In the summertime, you can shuck your sandals and walk barefoot through the Crown Fountain. In the wintertime, they’ve an ice skating rink with a million-dollar view from it. Millions have come and more still will, at all times of the year. I’m more than sure those visitors bring in revenue for the city.

If you’re going to have an argument for placing a billboard on this city’s back, I suggest you make a stronger one than that, Mayor. The signs you may be able to take down, but you will not be able to remove the fact you sold your city out from the history books.

Chicago doesn’t need to be promoting other companies. It needs to be promoting itself.

The city can sell itself without selling out.

Have a little more faith, Rahm.

What do you think of Mayor Emanuel’s city advertising initiative? Is this beautification or just B.S.?

Image credit to CHICAGO-PHOTO.COM, DESIGNSLINGER.COM, and Ermanec.

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Jay

    I think it’s great because graffiti artists will now ethically (yes, there is a code of ethics) be able to paint over said advertisements on historic architecture as painting on historic buildings is a no-no. I would prefer to see a 10 or 20 foot piece on a billboard rather than what’s really on the billboard any day.

    More room for graffiti = good for Jay.

    • Eric

      And…my blog’s lit-up like the Griswold house at Christmastime (yes, just totally made an 80’s holiday film reference).

      Personally, Jay, I don’t care if they go bananas tagging those ads, so long as it’s appropriate stuff. Hell, they’d probably get a lot more attention, and earn a lot more return on their investment if they made their ads to look like graffiti on the sides of historic buildings.

  2. JPorretto

    With all due respect, this state is a financial mess. As long as ads don’t harm the landmark they’re on, I’m ok with selling ad space if it actually leads to making the city a better place to live. Ads are a fact of life now. Everyone was scared that adding advertisements to the classic Fenway park (the home of the Boston Red Sox for you non-sports people) would ruin the fan experience. Instead they had the financial resources to field a better team and won the world series for the first time in 84 years. Think the fans are still upset about the ads?

    • Eric

      Wrigley encountered the same problem, here. I’m not a Cubs fan, so I’ve never set foot inside the stadium, but from what I’ve seen on TV…I’ve never even noticed the Toyota billboard behind the outfield. Then again, historic stadium. The stakes are a lot higher there than at, say, the old U.S. Cellular Field, where slapping anything with a little color on it would make it look nicer than the concrete bomb shelter it was.

      Fans get used to it. Think about those rotating billboards behind the plate, or on the sidelines at basketball games. Ten years ago, we’d never even think they’d do such a thing, and now, we’re long since used to it.

  3. amy

    Saw this article more quite a controversial topic, I’d say 😉

    I’m still on the fence regarding the issue, I see the good and the bad.

    • Amanda

      I agree Amy. I can’t decide how I feel about the ads either. It’s not ideal to see ads plastered everywhere, but maybe it’s the best choice…

    • Eric

      Crazy ‘ol Eric, ruffling peoples’ feathers…hey. Makes for some pretty good conversation, I’ll admit.

      • Amy Swanson

        Hahahaha “Crazy ‘ol Eric, ruffling peoples’ feathers” cracks me up! This topic is very interesting for sure and one that I’m sure won’t be ending any time soon.

  4. Mandy Kilinskis

    I guess it depends on where the money is going. If the money is going to support education, job creation, or government-sponsored programs that benefit the community, I’m all for it.

    If this is going to line some politicians’ pockets, then I think it’s an abomination.

    Also, if they could just put up more billboards along I-88 instead of charging more in tolls, that would be super, too.

    • Eric

      Total agreement, Mandy. I’ve seen nothing but the signs announcing the tollway fee hikes for 2012, and – like yourself – the first thing to pop into my head was, “I wonder how our government will spend that money irresponsibly, that is, if they’ve not yet already.” Originally the tollway charged fees to pay-off the cost of building itself. Once they caught onto the idea that it’s an incredibly consistent revenue stream, they probably thought they’d be damned not to keep them as tollways. Anyhow, I only hope – and I mean hope – that the money coming from these goes to a legitimate cause.

  5. david k waltz

    Ads are really an eyesore. We have driven to Florida before and the highway south of Macon, GA is just awful with billboards.

    But to the point above, sitting in the mayor’s shoes, he was left with a budget deficit, due in part to the prior mayor’s leasing off assets to plug operating deficits. So now less assets to lease out, and less revenue coming in to cover the now bigger deficits. (You can read more about this topic on my blog – )

    So, while it is a lousy situation to be in, I think I prefer selling ads than a property tax increase, or a sales tax increase. It could be worse for QLP – assuming its customers pay sales tax, or it will pay higher rent when the landlords pass through a property tax increase.

    I am not sure on the expense side what else is eligible for pruning to close the budget gap, but considering the flak Rahm is getting so far, it is going to the bone in some folks eyes.

    • Eric

      Well, if it doesn’t drive folks out of the city by itself, it’ll be another reason to. Sure, there are financial holes to be plugged. And sure, this is actually an easy way to raise and return some of that money. If contributions from large corporations buying advertising space helps alleviate some of the 34789347894789 raised taxes on the rest the city’s occupants, I’m all for it. Like you said, some folks already feel they’re taxed to the bone and who’s to say how much more they can take before it’s simpler to just move out. Can’t have a city without its people, so if that’s what it takes to keep them there, well, so be it.

  6. Cybernetic SAM

    I think having ads is already a huge pollution in this country, they are already EVERYWHERE! I think this would just make me madder than anything. It is already too crowded with this, too distracting, and a little overwhelming. The world is really becoming more and more like Idiocracy every day. If this passes I will surely be disappointed and a little bitter.

    • Eric

      Honestly, I think there are small, subtler ways to accomplish the same goal, and still sell advertising space and make money for the city. People like clever, unexpected, thoughtful advertising (akin to Amy’s post awhile back with those bus stops). If you make it fun, or thought-provoking, there’s much less a possibility of overwhelming backlash. If you go posting obnoxiously-behemoth-sized ads in any space that can fit them, well, yeah…people will get pretty ticked off, and I wouldn’t blame them.

  7. Eric

    Who knew! I was just looking to get through a slow week of writing for myself! I don’t think it’s a terrible idea. I just think there needs to be a little more thought behind it so it doesn’t seem like a giant walked through our city with his label-maker and went overboard.

    • Amanda

      It’s sad I think….but I’m doubting that they’ll be able to hold them off forever. The architecture is beautiful as it is, and I wish they wouldn’t plaster ads all over it, but I think it will happen soon enough. Hopefully the companies can do it in a tasteful, interesting way at least. Great post Eric!! =)

  8. Jen

    Interesting post Eric. I love historic Chicago architecture, but I have to agree with selling ad space. I think it’s an easy way for the city to make money. I’m not crazy about the idea of slapping a banner on every surface of the city, but if they want to advertise on parking meters, garbage cans and dump trucks then be my guest. Those are eye sores anyway, I just hope they stay away from the buildings as much as possible.

  9. Jill Tooley

    Wow, you’ve gotten quite the debate going on this post! 😉

    I also have to admit that I’m somewhat divided on this whole issue. On one hand, it appalls me to think that historic buildings will soon be plastered head-to-toe with advertisements for male enhancement tablets or cell phone plans. THAT would be a sad day for me. However, if the ads were limited to locations like garbage cans or parking meters, then I could probably deal with that. Unfortunately, though, it seems like Emanuel’s plan is all or nothing.

    I don’t like seeing blatant advertisements as much as the next person, but sadly that seems to be the way our society works now. Like Mandy, I might be okay with this plan if the money was actually going to community-benefiting programs and NOT politicians’ fat pockets.

    Furthermore, I do agree with you 100% that Chicago needs to be promoting itself as well. It’s a gorgeous city with a rich history and there’s so much potential that’s still untapped…

    Awesome post, Eric! 🙂

  10. Eric

    That’s my only issue. I don’t know. Rahm is coming off, to me, at least like a guy who’s in debt, and instead of getting a second job, he just runs off and sells a kidney to make ends meet. Yeah, sure, it is a temporary solution to the problem, but aren’t you going to wish you have that kidney back, at some point? I’d say our dignity’s at stake here, as well as our respect for the architecture, and if he’d have faith in the city itself, we could sell Chicago without selling Chicago OUT. All it took in the past were some fiberglass cows. Or painted couches. Or a giant, mirrored bean sculpture. In conclusion, yes, this solves the budget problem, but no, it’s no more than a short-term (and short-sighted solution).

    I just can’t see selling the city out, and I know – at the end of the day – the money from it won’t be going to some worthwhile cause. It is a city, but it’s home, too. If someone started slapping ads all over your mailbox, house, car, trash cans…how’d you feel about it? Sure, you’d like that money you’d get up-front. After you went off and spent it, you’ve got to live with those ads.

    I think there’ll be less fence-sitting on the issue over time. Some, for it, others, against it, but it’ll be the end of indecision.

    • Amanda

      Wow, very well said Eric. You never fail to say things in the most interesting ways! “Rahm is coming off, to me, at least like a guy who’s in debt, and instead of getting a second job, he just runs off and sells a kidney to make ends meet.” This line alone is worth at least 50 pts!! And honestly, after reading your comment, I agree with you! It really does seem like small, short term way to make extra money, and you’re right–it won’t fix the problems we have. So it probably would end up being an eye sore that isn’t worth it. Great points Eric. =)

      • Eric

        Huzzah! Thanks, Amanda! Well, you have to also consider what benefits or return – if any – will come to any of the companies renting out the space for advertisement. The city makes money simply by letting someone use their space, while the companies have no figures, facts, or proof that this is going to make them a single dime more than they’re making currently. Only time will tell, I guess.

  11. Mike

    Advertising went way overboard a long time ago, and it’s one of the biggest sources of pollution, and not just trash, but noise pollution, among all other like pollutions.

    How about reducing the pay of so-called civil servants and make them budget responsibly. Also get rid of their perks, as they were originally intended to make up for pay that was next to nothing, which it hasn’t been in my lifetime.

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