Happy natals, Route 66! It’s your birthday week, and we here at the CuriousTraveler66 blog will raise some discussion this week about the past, present and future of the former U.S. Route 66 – now Historic Route 66, that most iconic American road, now recognized by the World Monument Fund and an official National Scenic Byway in Illinois – especially here in Chicago at the eastern terminus. The route was born on November 11, 1926 and was decertified in Illinois in the 1970s when the last part of it here was replaced by I-55. Today, the National Park Service has a U.S. Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program to support this historic highway. We could spend today’s installment recapping the history of how the route came to be and how it got its name(s) and number designation, but we’ll leave that for later next week. Today, we’re going to do something different: provide you with an analysis of the condition/visibility of the route in Chicago, present you with a proposal of how the route should be marked in the city (because it really isn’t, except for a rare highway sign now and then), and explain how and why we’d like to see the city step up and capitalize on the presence of the historic road.
In other words: think of this as a discussion about what would help to preserve and popularize your favorite road trip. It’s overdue, and the route’s 88th anniversary this week (which went completely unnoticed by the city) is the best opportunity for this timely discussion. And since the city of Chicago is always scrambling for more money to put its budget back in the black and attract more tourism – especially the international kind – it’s time for city officials to finally pay attention, too.
The tourism studies that have been done regarding Historic Route 66, in Illinois and on the route as a whole, have a consensus on a few things. One is that the route’s various venues attract an older clientele – the median age is 55 – and only 11 percent of those surveyed have been in the 20 to 39 age category. The route is also bad at attracting Hispanic Americans (perhaps it has no historical meaning for them?) – but it’s very attractive to international visitors, especially Europeans (including the Spanish, paradoxically). Moreover, European visitors on average spend three times as much at places along the route as do domestic travelers, and Europeans represent the majority of international travelers (you’d have thought, perhaps, that Canadians and Latin Americans would be the bulk, but you’d be wrong).
Meanwhile, Chicago and Cook County get more international visitors than the rest of the state combined … and most of them never make it down Route 66. Many don’t even realize that it begins (and always has) in Chicago, let alone where in Chicago – because the city does absolutely NOTHING to publicize that. At the other end (the western terminus) in Santa Monica, there’s a huge gate and other displays marking the end of the route. Nothing against Santa Monica, but Route 66 is virtually its entire claim to fame: except for the pier and beach, it has nothing distinctive to brag about (unless you count the fact that it’s home to the RAND Corporation, the famous think tank. No? Right: we thought so). What’s needed is for Route 66 to be sold to potential visitors as a whole – the entire route through the state but especially in Chicago, where there are more places to visit connected to the route than people realize. Especially people and venues downstate.
So why doesn’t Chicago make a bigger deal of the fact that we’re the home of Route 66, the place where it all began – without which the route would not exist? Possibly because Chicago has so many other things to brag about … or perhaps because Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city fathers are still trying to dump that image associated with Prohibition and Al Capone. Whatever. The point is: if the city wants to attract a whole lot more foreign tourists and tourism dollars, it needs to get up off its collective behind and start publicizing Route 66 – because international visitors LOVE Route 66! And no, that stupid little vest-pocket park they want to create under the L tracks at Wabash and Adams isn’t going to cut it – that’s a throwaway to make desperate Wabash Avenue merchants happy, not something that will actually work for publicizing the route (I’ll get to why later, below).
So: this being Route 66 Week, here’s what I’d like to see the city do, in order to do itself and Route 66 tourism a favor. It starts with marketing, of course – specific to the route, and not some throwaway idea tacked onto another strategy for another purpose. It will also require some cooperation with tourism and convention visitors’ bureaus (CVBs) not only throughout the metro area, but also throughout the state. I mean the part south of Joliet, where they like to claim that’s the place where Route 66 really begins – oh, really?? Is Chicago going to take that hogwash unanswered? Or perhaps the city doesn’t realize that its downstate neighbors are dissing it that way in order to grab Route 66 travelers that otherwise might stay longer here to investigate the route before moving on down the road? All I know is that both the Chicago area and the downstate venues would get a lot more business if the two sides cooperated instead trying to undercut one another.
As it happens, there’s already one entity specifically charged with publicizing and promoting Route 66 in Illinois: the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway, the agency for which is down in Springfield. Many folks in metro Chicago don’t even realize that Route 66 is a National Scenic Byway in Illinois, or that that’s a big deal. The byway agency is small, underfunded and largely ignored by Chicago, but the city ought to be doing much more to work with the byway, because those folks are doing a great job at keeping the route in Illinois in visitors’ minds. But it sure could use some cooperation from the City of Chicago (pay attention, Rahm: it means money down the line, money your budget sorely needs). Moreover, the byway already has a well organized marketing campaign and uniform branding in place. And that’s where my specific suggestions begin.
First: there needs to be a BIG something marking the start of the route. The intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue is the Gateway to Historic Route 66, because that’s where it all began on November 11, 1926. Those relatively small highway signs on Adams Street west of Michigan are only traffic markers – they’re in a bad spot to be seen by most people and an even worse, crowded spot for travelers to have their pictures taken below them. That spot’s inaccurate and totally inappropriate. The southeast corner of Michigan and Jackson, on the other hand, is quite another matter: completely appropriate, and not just from a historical standpoint. That corner, which is part of Grant Park, is wide open – anything you put on it will be seen from a great distance, making it easy to spot regardless of season or time of day, yet it won’t get in the way of everyday Chicagoans trying to do business, because most locals use the sidewalks on the other side of the street, where the shops and office buildings are. And there’s more than enough room there.
Moreover, the buildings on the other three corners were all there in 1926 and remain today, essentially unchanged; that includes the Art Institute and the Fountain of the Great Lakes, which is now in the South Garden on the NE corner of the intersection but was originally on the south side of the museum, out in the open. If any piece of public art can be said to mark the start of Route 66, it’s not Buckingham Fountain, which wasn’t even a hole in the ground in 1926 – it’s the Fountain of the Great Lakes, very appropriate considering that our position on the lake is the reason Chicago is here in the first place, and Chicago is half the reason that the route existed at all (the other half is the need for an all-season road to the West Coast, but that’s another discussion). However, that fountain can’t serve as a marker because it’s hidden away in the South Garden, probably on purpose (yet another story).
Chicago needs something at that intersection that’s big enough and easily recognizable that is easily seen from a distance in order to mark the Gateway to Route 66. Santa Monica uses the gateway to its pier as a stand-in for that: Colorado Avenue (aka Colorado Boulevard further up the route) was extended onto the pier, under the gateway, and the sign marking the end of Route 66 is at the foot of the street, on the pier itself. Nothing similar is possible at Michigan and Jackson. An actual gate may not be the way to go in Chicago because physically and logistically, it just wouldn’t fit between the skyscrapers on the west side of Michigan Avenue on those narrow sidewalks; whether at Jackson or at Adams Street, it just doesn’t work and would interfere with pedestrian traffic (bad!). A gate across Jackson Drive between the Art Institute and Grant Park, on the other hand, would ruin the profile of the area – and you’d probably have a fight over it with groups like Friends of the Park. So an unsightly gate is out. But an information hub and a wayside marker, like the byway installs in other places along the route in Illinois? Great idea!!!
An information hub sitting on the SE corner of Michigan and Jackson – where everyone could see it from a distance (especially when it was lit up at night), out of the way of daily pedestrian traffic yet easily accessible to tourists, and where drivers could pull over and park around the corner on Columbus Drive so they could get out and take photos there – would work. Logistically and historically, it’s the best solution with minimal cost, too. In addition to the customary map of Route 66 in Illinois on one side (that side ideally facing NW), the side facing SE could incorporate a historic photo of the intersection and the gateway in 1926 – so that visitors could compare for themselves the skyline and the view down Jackson Boulevard today with the view in 1926, when Route 66 was brand new. They could see exactly what travelers back then saw when starting their Route 66 journey. Awesome. The bonus: the buildings that were there on three of the four corners of that intersection in 1926 are still there and look very much the same today – it’s like looking back at history through a window in time. Who wouldn’t be impressed by that?
In addition to a byway information hub on the Grant Park corner of Jackson Drive and Michigan Avenue (it’s Jackson Drive on the park side of Michigan, and Jackson Boulevard on the west or business side of the street), the city and the byway authority could install a wayside marker there plus eight other wayside markers in specific places throughout the Loop, West Loop and Near West Side. Why? Because history and historical sites are a major reason visitors travel Route 66, and the wayside markers are a cost-effective way of immediately providing some of that history on a permanent, continuing basis – at the visitor’s convenience. Also, wayside markers with entertaining, accurate historical information encourage visitors to look around more closely at nearby points of interest – and, possibly, to stay longer and spend more.
Then there’s the obvious reason: these wayside markers are the least expensive, most effective permanent means of marking Route 66 while providing visitors with information they want. They’re both signposts indicating the route’s path and educational displays – and they’ve already proven that they work well. The markers and infohubs have a standardized design; anyone who’s traveled Route 66 in Illinois already knows to look for them. They’d be big enough and easy to spot but not huge and garish, and you can get business sponsors to help pay for them. Meaning: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, Mr. Mayor. Finally, by getting the wayside markers installed and seeing how well they work over time, Route 66 promoters in Illinois may very well encourage the city of Chicago to do more Route 66-oriented tourism marketing, including co-op ads. That would help downstate Route 66 communities as well as Chicago and the Route 66 suburbs.
The SE corner of Michigan and Jackson has plenty of room: you could easily put a byway information hub there, with the history of Route 66 described on it, plus a wayside marker discussing the four buildings at that intersection: the Railway Exchange (NW corner), designed by D.H. Burnham & Co. and home to the Chicago Architecture Foundation; the S.W. Straus & Co. Building, aka Metropolitan Tower (SW corner), designed by Daniel Burnham’s successor firm, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White; Grant Park, whose present design we owe largely to architect and city planner Daniel Burnham and his assistant/partner in the 1909 Plan of Chicago, Edward H. Bennett; and the Art Institute of Chicago (NE corner), the highest rated museum in the world as of this year, according to TripAdvisor, and one of the treasures of Chicago. We bet you could even get someone at CAF to help write the wayside marker text. And then you’d have something worthy of the Gateway to Route 66. Smashing!
The eight proposed markers and rationale for each of them would be as follows (please note that two of these – the marker at DePaul Center and the one at Tailor Lofts – would be right where students would see them and would be a constant reminder of Route 66):
- In front of DePaul Center at Jackson & State: about the Loop Retail Historic District (3 relevant buildings at that corner: the Lytton Store Building (now owned by DePaul), A.M. Rothschild & Co. store building (DePaul Center), and Maurice L. Rothschild Building (now part of John Marshall Law School)
- In Federal Plaza across from the Marquette Building, SW corner of Adams & Dearborn: celebrating the first and second Chicago Schools of Architecture, examples of which completely surround the plaza; (first school: the Marquette Building, Edison Building and Monadnock Building; second school: the Federal Center itself)
- At the Chicago Board of Trade east plaza, at Jackson & LaSalle: about Chicago’s Financial District (highlighting the CBOT, Continental Illinois Bank Bldg., Federal Reserve Bank, and Insurance Exchange Bldg.)
- At Riverside Plaza between Adams & Jackson, overlooking the South Branch: commemorating Chicago’s Historic Bridges, all of which Landmarks Illinois considers endangered
- At Jackson & Clinton, SE corner: about Chicago as the nation’s transportation hub, via canals, rail and roads (the marker would mention Union Station, the Burlington Building and Lou Mitchell’s, serving millions of hungry travelers since 1923); please note that there is an empty parking lot here at this writing that is about to be turned into a transit center for buses across from Union Station (more on that in a future post). Putting the wayside marker on the SE corner by the new bus terminal would put it out of the way of most pedestrian traffic yet allow it to be seen from a distance.
- At Adams & Desplaines, NW corner: about Old St. Patrick’s Church, Chicago’s oldest public building and a survivor of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, with a magnificent Celtic Revival interior & glass by Chicago artist Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy (if this church doesn’t deserve a wayside marker for its history and glorious interior, then nothing does)
- In front of Tailor Lofts, Jackson & Peoria St.: commemorating Chicago’s old Garment District and clothing manufacturers at the International Tailoring Co. Building, plus nearby Greektown
- In the garden on the NW corner of Ogden & Taylor St., next to Ferrara Original Bakery: in honor of the Near West Side Corridor, with the Illinois Medical District, the Tri-Taylor Historic District, and the west end of Little Italy, including Ferrara Original Bakery (1908)
Note: at this writing, there are plans afoot by a group of downtown merchants to possibly create a small vest-pocket park on Adams Street that would celebrate the CSO and, only incidentally, Route 66. The location in question is the SE corner of Adams and Wabash Street, in a cast-iron fenced area that was an outdoor patio for the former Rhapsody restaurant (now occupied by the Tesori restaurant). An architectural rendering has been prepared, and press releases have been issued; however, it’s a bad location for several reasons – not just because it’s not where the route begins or where it began in 1926, but because:
• You won’t be able to see it from Michigan Avenue (which is where most of the tourists are);
• It’s usually dark under the L line on Wabash, and people might miss it driving by;
• There’s nowhere to park nearby in case people want to stop and take a photo, which will discourage visitors;
• Unless drivers on Adams are stopped at the traffic light at Wabash, the only way they’ll notice that tiny little park is in their rear-view mirrors as they go by, which is too late;
• It’s on a street with a narrow sidewalk, the patio/garden is separated from the sidewalk by a wrought-iron fence that completely encloses it, and the architect’s rendering shows shrubbery that will only serve to obscure it (dumb move); and
• IT’S NOT WHERE ROUTE 66 BEGINS, and the city still needs some way of marking the eastern terminus gateway in the right place – which is at Michigan and Jackson Drive.
Moreover, the merchants’ real aim in creating this tiny park isn’t to promote Route 66 but to do something to spruce up that dark stretch under the L line, where they’re desperate to lure more tourists. Mayor Emanuel, meanwhile, seems to think this half-baked idea will be enough homage to Route 66, and then he can forget about it. Extremely short-sighted for a guy who wants more international tourists to come to Chicago, and it won’t accomplish what it needs to in order to attract those tourists.
Never mind the Wabash Avenue merchants, Rahm. They need a different solution for fixing their problems, which have nothing to do with publicizing Route 66 (which you ought to do with great enthusiasm, BTW). Wise up: I just gave you the right answer, and it won’t even cost you much (let the CSO have that silly park). So start, already. Call Bill Kelly over at the byway at 217-525-9308 and get moving. With luck, everything will be in place for the spring thaw, if not sooner. Route 66 is a year-round phenomenon. Help people find it, and they’ll love you for it and leave more money in your pocket. Whatcha waiting for?!?
Until next time,
Your own Route 66 cheerleader, Marie