How do the characters of individual neighbourhoods affect the image of a city?
This week, we head to the US to explore the city of Chicago and some of its lesser-known neighbourhoods. We’re in the company of Borough & Block, a Chicago-based brand agency who are engaged in the Whistlestops project, which aims to highlight the concept of ‘neighbourhood’ and explore how its nuances tie into the overall brand of a city. PlacesBrands speaks to Chris Huizenga of Borough & Block.
PlacesBrands: Chris, what are some of the best local tourism attractions that you’ve discovered in ‘lesser-known’ Chicago during the course of this project?
Chris Huizenga: Some interesting attractions show up as you explore each neighborhood. For example: Superdawg by Norwood Park, Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar and Pleasant House Bakery in Bridgeport, City Newstand in Six Corners and the retro-era antique stores of Edgewater. But the most interesting discoveries have been each place’s ‘functional identity’ and how that translates into brand. It is interesting to think of how these understated neighborhoods have impacted local, national and global culture and shaped the history of politics, art, and even workforce relations here and abroad.
Take Bridgeport for instance. This neighborhood in Chicago has always been a working class neighborhood, but its name was originally Hardscrabble, a word that is defined as ‘involving work and struggle.’ When you’re there you can feel that tension, though you may not readily understand why you feel it, but there it is – it’s ethereal and present in the relationship between the streets and the people. Dig a little deeper and you learn about the neighborhood’s proximity to the former Union Stock Yard and the meat processing plants of the late 19th century.
Suddenly it dawns on you that this place, at one time, supplied an arguably overwhelming percentage of the exploited workforce Upton Sinclair describes in The Jungle, which not only changed public health thanks to the muckraking nature of the novel, but it also contributed to the chain of events that sought improvements in safer working conditions and the formation of organized labor the world over. And yet, this community also produced five of Chicago’s mayors.
Take all of this into consideration and you start to get a glimpse of the cultural DNA of this place, a sense that this surreal connection between (what amounts to be) royalty and surmounting work ethic is the brand that is passed on from one generation of community stewards to the next.
Has the Whistlestops campaign altered your personal view of Chicago in any way?
I love this project because it is absolutely changing how and what we think about this community, even having lived here for over fifteen years. When you move from one neighborhood into another, you essentially enter into an entirely new world that has a symbiotic relationship with this larger hub of Chicago. These communities are unique, but they need one another. We are becoming profoundly aware of a (somewhat) tense and uneasy cooperation between the neighborhoods.
For the most part these communities are warmly competitive, but there exists an opportunity for these neighborhoods to translate their commonality and to pursue true equity with and for one another. Our methodology of immersive research has enabled us to stop seeing just block-after-block of buildings and shops. Instead we now see the city as a type of stage, complete with interesting and dynamic characters playing their part in a story that has been going on for generations. People make places fascinating.
One of our goals is to help community leaders and economic development groups see these fascinating characters as well and to understand what’s true about these places and the people that make them up. Recently we had a conversation with an economic development committee that represented one of these communities, and we were stunned to hear that they had never considered the residents living nearby as stakeholders in their ecosystem; they had only done so much research as to try and make improvements in the place that would attract certain types of visitors to certain types of retail and entertainment enterprises.
We see this as a terrific oversight on the committee’s part, where their approach was really all about place-marketing, which is fine, in theory. But historically we’ve seen time and time again how that approach can push out the very people it is trying to help. Place-marketing aims, in part, to create/promote a place that may not exist based on what a certain customer base would want; very little of the brand is grounded in more than economic data of what might be… the approach is highly suggestive and largely (though not entirely) responsible for great swaths of single-use sprawl that make places indistinguishable from one another. These are the same places that become popular overnight but lack staying power and are outdated the further the sprawl reaches over time.
Borough & Block prefers to look at what is and what has been before creating strategies that draw out those positive assets of each place to set the community on a course with long-term stability and wellbeing. Our job is to find and leverage those assets that are authentic, consistent, desirable, and ultimately inheritable – we must find those things that work and supply them with more fuel to sustain their momentum. We must always operate from a mindset that considers people first if we are to create communities and brands that are truly authentic and sustainable.
How can local residents contribute meaningfully to developing the identity of a place?
There is tremendous need for residents to participate in political and community endeavors. Unfortunately, Chicago’s political history is rife with mistrust, abuse of power, special interest and shady
deals. As a result, many residents have become passively aggressive with the government (and process thereof) and arguably the absence of their voice exacerbates the trouble.
Similarly, there are too few voices, too few ‘cultural characters’ (as Jane Jacobs describes them) to steward the unified identity of the neighborhood, and as such, special interest developers fill that vacuum. One recommendation is for residents to make an intentional effort at becoming neighbors. I know this sounds silly and obscene, but a recent survey indicates that 75% of Americans do not know their next door neighbor!
If residents organize, even informally, they will (by default) build a critical mass around ideas which can establish shared goals and help provide a vision for what the neighborhood will (and won’t) stand for. Residents and business owners will begin to outline the kinds of experiences they want for residents, workers and visitors alike. The neighborhood will explore what it wants to be known for, what types of destinations and experiences it will want to make available. We must see more initiative from residents
and business owners to organize and determine the true identity of the place.
How would you sum up Chicago’s present identity in a nutshell?
Chicago is a beautiful and global city. It is a city that loves its dining, its sports teams, its cultural institutions and museums, its lake and its institutions of higher learning. It is a city that is in love with its architecture, which is constantly in (re)development. Something is always being made, torn down and remade. It seems to happen overnight, to the point that wayfaring one’s route by landmarks is almost comical at this point. It is a city that loves to work. It has to. It can’t not work. After all, the poet Carl Sandburg called it the ‘city of the big shoulders,’ and it certainly is.
Unfortunately, Chicago is also wrought with inequities and hardship, as it has been throughout its history. As a couple who not only practice and teach branding, design and PR/marketing, but who live here as well, Chicago is, to us, a butcher writing love sonnets. He is surgically precise and intentional at both his crafts. He feels everything and he is impulsive, his impatience gives him little time to make those deeply needed improvements he knows he needs but struggles to grasp.
He is prone to wild mood swings, his hot temper finds solace in painting, sailing and fishing. He has a PhD in both cultural studies and street-smarts. He is as likely to show you his fine paintings as he is the scars from his fights, and he can show you how to be a blacksmith or a jazz pianist – he’s quite good at both. Despite his faculties, he struggles to like himself. He knows he has it in him to be better, and he strives to be. His work ethic never tires, even if his soul does.
And that right here may be the grace that saves Chicago: it will never stop remaking itself into something better, try and fail though it might. Our hope with this project is to help Chicago learn a thing or two about its functional identity: who it is and why that matters. The city must have an identity to steer towards.
What gave you the idea to create Borough and Block?
Erin (my wife and business partner) and I both created and worked on EPIC. This is a nonprofit organization that taps high-level creative talent from the design, advertising and marketing industries to volunteer their talents on behalf of other social organizations who provide incredible value but who ultimately lack the resources to pay for branding and marketing. Both Erin and I love to teach, and part of that love is in guiding people towards making change happen. We also realized that we have highly complementary skills in design consulting, teaching, branding, advertising, public relations and marketing, and we decided to combine our strengths and see what kind of trouble we could get into.
We were compelled to look at place branding as a means to help large and small communities that are suffering from economic depression, but also from a lack of identity. We began wondering if helping a
community understand its identity could be the impetus for stability, if it could help stem the exodus of young people from leaving small towns for large metro areas, especially given that the world economy is available at one’s fingertips. Can identity help communities become who they want to become? Can place branding unite and restore communities? Can it help centralize the population and make for a more sustainable, and even playful, society?
And finally, what do you hope to achieve by the end of the 100 days?
We hope to reignite a sense of wonderment in people about the story happening right outside their doors, and for which they have a role to play. We hope to see residents, workers and visitors with an increased curiosity about their surroundings, and to be more aware of the assets of their community and their role in adding lines to the cultural narrative. We want them to take the road less travelled, or in this case, the rail. We would love to inspire more desire to develop an entire poster series for #Whistlestops for the sake of Chicago tourism for not only out-of-towners, but also to inspire localized tourism.