Send the auto show to the suburbs
02/22/2012 10:00 PM
At some point walking to the Chicago Auto Show last week I came up with a profound question: Whatís it doing in a neighborhood where cars arenít necessary? Many of us carless people in the South Loop may want to look at automobiles for old timeís sake, or to see what it feels like to sit in a car again. But as much as I like having the enormous 101-year-old spectacle perking up the South Loop environment, itís a fish out of water. A hubcap off the wheel.
I say this wistfully and sorrowfully, but the show belongs in the suburbs ó where cars are more part of the lifestyle.
After I put a post up on Facebook from my South Loop Observer blog about visiting the show last week, one of my South Loop neighbors at Roosevelt Road and State Street posted a message. He said years ago when he and his son walked over to the car show (from an apartment slightly south of McCormick Place that they lived in before they moved to the South Loop), they were stopped by a survey-taker. She asked them how they got there. When my neighbor told her they walked, the questioner got all ruffled. There wasnít a check box for that one. She wanted to fudge and say they took the bus.
I canít say that walking to the car show was always an option in the South Loop. Darkness and desolation around McCormick Place used to preempt such a decision. Even taking a bus or a commuter train was a bit dicey. Today, the carless can walk easily, comfortably and assuredly because the area is built up and populated and peppered with lots of housing, lots of light and lots of action. And unless the pavement is coated with ice ó which can certainly happen in early February ó itís a great way to get an after-work or weekend workout in.
Furthermore, a walk to McCormick Place from the South Loop to visit the car show serves as a history lesson. The gallivant forms a timeline of Chicagoís past, from the site of the Ft. Dearborn Massacre in 1812 at 18th and Calumet to the Trader Joeís at Roosevelt and Wabash, one of the most recent additions to the South Loop landscape. You can pass by the Gilded Age on Prairie Avenue, or the very spot where the Everleigh Sisters plied their version of the oldest profession at Dearborn and Cermak. You can swirl past speakeasies where gangsters did their thing, and the actual buildings along Michigan Avenue that housed many of the first car showrooms at the turn of the 20th century.
When you walk to the car show, you arenít captive to the Connieís pizza and the Chicago hot dogs sold in the aisles. You can stop on the walk home and have great Thai food, bar food or a burrito courtesy of your Reeboks or your Uggs, depending on the weather.
There is one drawback, however, to being a carless walker to the show. The personnel donít want to have anything to do with you. If you say honestly, ďNo, Iím just hear to see the sights. Itís a nice place to visit but I wouldnít want to live with any of these gas-guzzling, Taliban-supporting, environment-destroying things anymore,Ē they move on. They donít want to hear that all you want to buy is a small box of Rybaís Fudge (because where else can you get it at this time of year?).
It was hard pulling a few answers about the Scion out of the car company employees after I said I wasnít in the market for a car. That the 1987 Volvo 240 DL wagon I own hasnít been driven since the year 2000 and sits in my garage storing old junk at Roosevelt and State, a few blocks away. I wanted to know if there were as many cab drivers in New York driving Scions as in Chicago? But his hungry marketing eyes looked over my shoulder for a live one.
When I took a test drive in a Prius so I could get a demo of the car that parks itself, the same thing happened. ďHow could this system possibly work on the crowded streets of Chicago?Ē I asked (Especially if someone has an old kitchen chair in a freshly swept-of-snow space?).
ďDonít know exactly how it works,Ē I was told by the Toyota guy. ďOk, timeís up.Ē I was pushed out of the car, and they took back one of my two free Toyota reusable shopping bags. ďOnly one to a person,Ē they said. I bet if I told them I wanted to buy a Prius, they would have given me a whole shopping bag full of shopping bags. And an engineering prototype on how the car parks itself.
When I tried riding in a Jeep over some rough terrain constructed for the show, the driver looked like he wanted to put me under the Jeep and run over me instead. ďItís the cost of the plates, the sticker, the gas, the maintenance, the insurance!Ē I exclaimed, explaining why I fell out of love with cars. ďNot to mention the limits on my personal freedom ó no imbibing, texting, non-seatbelt wearing, makeup application or reading; all things you can do easily on the Blue Line!Ē
So in spite of my love for the South Loop and ways to showcase itís beauty and charm, I do think itís silly to keep hosting a show that becomes less and less relevant to our residents every year. But at the same time, we need the revenue and the hoopla in the neighborhood, donít we? So how about the Reebok convention taking its place? Or a big 5K race called the ďTo-and-From McCormick Place Shuffle?Ē Stopping midway for all the Rybaís fudge you can eat.