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Change happens. But where do we draw the line?

Updated: May 23, 2013 6:36AM



The default position — the hard-wired opinion that most folks naturally revert to — is to resist change.

Change frightens us — offends us, almost, particularly when we realize on the small, hard, practical reasons behind the trashing of our beloved icons. Federated Department Stores changed the name of Marshall Field’s to Macy’s so they could run one unified block of national TV advertising, and to avoid the inefficiency of ordering red bags for all their stores nationwide except this little island of dark green bags in Chicago. Part of our civic heart was cut out to save on plastic bags.

The Berghoff Restaurant, a fixture on Adams Street since 1898, was closed in 2006 in order to fire its union waitstaff — they didn’t publicly announce that, but it’s true. The family later stealthily re-opened, but stalwarts never went back — I certainly didn’t, and nobody I know has gone, or would go back. There are too many other restaurants that didn’t make an obscene gesture in the faces of their loyal customers in order to make yet more money. Besides, Miller’s is right around the corner.

That “make more money” ethos stokes a lot of change, though when it happens it can seem like kill-the-golden-goose folly. The Ricketts family, owner of the Cubs, wants to put a JumboTron in Wrigley Field, supposedly to show replays, something that fans have done just fine without for nearly a century. Besides, very soon, if not already, fans will have their own portable electronic gizmos that can replay any play of any game, in Wrigley Field or anywhere else, now and throughout time.

No, the enormous screen will be used to flash ads though, here again, the Internet saps that value — it’s a flashing ad business, one so ubiquitous you wonder when we will rebel. I can’t get in an elevator without being poked in the eye with ads. A JumboTron will be one more reason not to go to the ballpark.

Then again, they said that about lights, insisting that Wrigley’s “intimacy is lost in the lights.” Was it? I remember the ballpark before the lights, and can’t say games now reflect any significant deterioration.

Now that I think of it, I was there the night they turned them on for the first time, Aug. 8, 1988. It was exciting. What I recall most about that night is walking down a side street in Wrigleyville, looking up, and seeing the Goodyear blimp motoring low, directly overhead, filling the sky, a marvel. That and the game-ending downpour that sent people jamming into bars around Wrigley — not as many then — sopping in their 8-8-88 T-shirts.

Since people are so reflexively nostalgic, resisting change, no matter how commonsensical — carmakers fought air bags as the ruin of the industry — I try to give change the benefit of the doubt, and try not to confuse the unacceptable with the merely new. Sure, a JumboTron is an aesthetic blight, but so was the Eiffel Tower, at first, a “useless and monstrous” blot on the city of Paris. But people got used to it.

You can hardly take a walk around downtown Chicago without seeing a beloved icon retrofitted in some significant way: the plaza around Marina Towers cluttered with the box of Smith & Wollensky; the flying saucer permanently docked atop Soldier Field. Do people still pass either and wince, the way they used to? The key is, the structures still survive, and if our children or grandchildren suddenly embrace architectural purism, well, what is installed can always be stripped away — the JumboTron, hated, booed, mooted by the iPad on every toddler’s knee, can always be yanked like a tired starting pitcher.

Before the InterContentinal Hotel on Michigan Avenue was restored to its original 1920s splendor, some soul-dead interior designer in the 1960s covered the bas reliefs of Babylonian lions and elaborate mosaics with faux wood paneling and drop-ceiling acoustical tiles. But the splendor slumbered, waiting to be rediscovered. At least they didn’t tear it all out — probably because it was cheaper to leave it in. The God of the Pinched Penny cuts both ways, both saving and destroying.

Carson Pirie Scott downtown, as you know, is now a Target. And yes, it is jarring, the first time, to walk in and see it so brightly lit, and all those red bull’s-eyes and shopping carts. I was intrigued by the little special escalator that brings your cart up from one level to another, but am told that isn’t new; I guess I need to shop more.

Carson’s, to me, was the place you went when Field’s didn’t have what you wanted. A new arrival, coming to Chicago and moving downtown, popping into the State Street Target for some gum, won’t think twice about it. When you go to see ballgames in other cities, you don’t look across the field and think, “Damn, another JumboTron, well, might as well go home now.” We adjust to everything — well, most everything. I still avert my gaze and hurry past the Berghoff. You have to draw the line somewhere.



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