State Street’s Not “That Great Street” Anymore, but Better Than in the Recent Past

The Gateway, on the State Street Median between Lake Street and Wacker Drive.

The Gateway, on the State Street Median between Lake Street and Wacker Drive.

Walking on State Street today is a pleasant experience where a lively bustle of shoppers, college students and office workers populate the street. The street itself projects a charm upon its users and an urban experience that feels unique to Chicago. However, things weren’t always this way. State Street had to go through numerous physical alterations to become as it is today. Despite the gains already made, State Street’s revival is just getting started.

At the turn of the 20th century, State Street was in its full glory, being one of the most vibrant commercial corridors in the entire country. Unfortunately, the only constant in urban development is change and State Street was no exception. By 1950, State Street had lost significant business to North Michigan Avenue and suburban shopping malls. In 1979, Chicago planners wanted to switch things up on State Street and redesigned it into a pedestrian mall open only to bus traffic. The pedestrian mall proved to be a bust, with the broadened sidewalks making the street feel empty and deadened. State Street continued to lose business tenants and the future looked grim.

Acknowledging their mistake, Chicago urban planners realized that State Street needed another makeover. In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley commissioned the powerhouse firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to lead the redesign. SOM reached deep into Chicago’s history and decided to use the Beaux-Arts tradition. The concept was realized with handsome lampposts, elegant entrances to CTA Red Line stations and lush planters. The use of classicism in the street furnishings complemented State Street’s historic architecture like the Reliance Building and Carson Pirie Scott Building. The redesign produced a harmonious aesthetic on State Street. By looking into the past SOM brought State Street into the future.

Taking the baton from S.O.M. is the Chicago Loop Alliance, a member-based business organization “focused on uniting businesses and organizations in creation of a vibrant and flourishing downtown.” The C.L.A. has a particular focus on State Street where is has made contributions to the streetscape. Vacant storefronts are turned into pop up galleries. Tall reeds with color changing L.E.D. lights are in planters looking like electronic flowers. A small public plaza called “The Gateway” located at State Street And Wacker Drive provides a place to place to sit and relax or eat lunch. The C.L.A. has significantly activated State Street in a way that enriches the urban experience. Indeed, the goal is to draw people to State Street and turn the pedestrians into shoppers.

Perhaps State Street’s biggest dud and best opportunity for activating the public realm is Pritzker Park on the northwest corner of State and Jackson. There is something gravely ill about this half park/ half plaza. It is surrounded by thousands of college students attending DePaul, Robert Morris and John Marshall yet none of them can be found there. The parklet is simply too passive to attract users. Still it remains one of the only green spaces within the loop in close proximity to potential users. It is almost crying out for a redesign!

Although State Street has not returned to its former glory, it has certainly recaptured much of its charm. But, with a strong advocate like the Chicago Loop Alliance it is reasonable to believe that State Street is on the rise.

Author: Paul Kulon

Paul Kulon is a Chicagoan and blogger. You can see more of Paul’s photos and musings on his Tumblr feed, Bohemian Embassy

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