Guest Column: A struggle for the soul of Michigan Avenue | by John P. McCormick

John P. McCormick, the longtime award-winning editor of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial page, is one of the most elegant writers I know. For years he tried to guide Illinois and Chicago toward fiscal sanity. For that he made Rod Blagojevich’s enemies list. He is a valued friend and colleague, and it is my great honor to welcome him as the first guest columnist here. As you will read, McCormick  brought his “A” game today. -JSK.


By John P. McCormick

A wry allegory in the T-shirts of a woman and a man, evidently strangers, sauntering southbound on Michigan Avenue:

Her shirt is olive green and sports four big letters, HOPE. His shirt, trailing by maybe three blocks, is faded blue with an unwitting retort to her optimism: NOPE.

There in the scalding sun of high noon burns a Chicago dilemma — the uncertain future of Michigan Avenue. What’ll it be? Hope or, well, nope.

For those of us who walked this street as children, Michigan Avenue spoke of possibility, of opportunity. South of the Chicago River, this had been the original lake shore drive — before landfills of debris from the Great Fire of 1871 moved the lakefront a quarter-mile east. North of the river this had been drab Pine Street, until completion of the bascule DuSable Bridge in 1920 created today’s Michigan Avenue.

My family came here each summer from a county seat town in Iowa. Between ballgames and evening strolls, my father found gentle ways to say that I could be more than a big-eyed visitor in this capital of the Midwest. Lucky for me, he was right. The last time he and I walked these sidewalks together, I was halfway through four decades of working on and near Michigan Avenue.

Back then thieves and muggers made cameo appearances on Michigan Avenue. But this wasn’t yet a playpen for robbery crews or daylight gunmen or looters stuffing merchandise into stolen getaway cars. Raise your hand if, in the past year or so, you haven’t heard a dozen discussions about the perils on Michigan Avenue. And more broadly, about fearless outlaws who’ve changed the perception, and the reality, of downtown Chicago.

It’s fashionable for some among us in metropolitan Chicago to declare Michigan Avenue a dead, dried husk. That’s wrong. Aside from some buildings that use the pandemic as an excuse to limit access, the street now is mostly as you recall it before plywood replaced broken windows. But walk its downtown length a few times — convenient because it’s less crowded — and you can’t miss the unspoken tension among the locals if not the tourists.

The new neighborhood sport is threat assessment. The fast-walking office workers and the hospital nurses in scrubs eyeball those around them more than before. A cop who isn’t new to the beat muses that out here, you can’t tell which mask is protective, which one a disguise. Just north of the river, someone has outfitted the bust of Chicago’s founder, Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, with a mask that’s simple decoration. Steps north at Tribune Tower, Nathan Hale instead fled Michigan Avenue; he had but one statue to lose to the building’s redevelopment.

Nearer Millennium Park, though, the Michigan Avenue of possibility and opportunity endures. A little boy in red shorts, a blue shirt and a blue baseball cap lopes with his mom as if hustling from the dugout to take centerfield. And at the Pritzker Pavilion, a female vocalist practicing lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “ ’Til I Hear You Sing” mesmerizes a little girl riding her dad’s right hip. Maybe someday she too will swagger on this stage. Over at The Bean, small groups cluster for selfies. Those on the west curvature photograph themselves against the muscular background of the Michigan Avenue streetwall: Here they can see themselves as fixtures in Chicago.

Which of these competing imperatives wins the struggle — the wariness of those who’ve seen Michigan Avenue degenerate? Or the promise and joy of newcomers who, as they make their own strolls, chatter in the tongues of Eastern Europe or South America or Central Asia?

Don’t look to Cook County’s top prosecutors or City Hall’s politicians for the answer. They’re focused more than they’ll admit on placating the voters who’ll determine their fates in elections of 2022 and 2023. Lest the politicians look heavy-handed or hector anyone but the police about rising crime, they’ll keep ceding Michigan Avenue and the rest of downtown to whatever lawlessness or revival comes its way.

So the struggle for the soul of Michigan Avenue falls to the rest of us. We can demand that the politicians provide enough protection to let its once-magnificent miles again thrive. Or we can add this avenue to the long list of streets where Chicagoans cower and criminals needn’t fear consequences.

Choose your T-shirt. Walk boldly with the woman in olive green. Or hang back with the man in faded blue.

-30-

John P. McCormick is a native of Manchester, Iowa, and a graduate of Northwestern University. He’s had little luck finding work far from Michigan Avenue. Among his jobs: night copy clerk at the late Chicago Daily News, Midwest bureau chief for Newsweek Magazine and editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune.