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Open Letter

Don't let the sky scrape your ass on the way out. There is only one downside to your imminent renaming: Sears Tower by any other name is still Sears Tower.

My antipathy toward you is two-fold. I despise the craven avarice of your former corporate master, and aesthetically, I loathe your every I-beam.

If only there was one single aspect of you which I did not despise, I could easily work up some feeling for this passing piece of Chicago history. Normally my nostalgia knows no bounds. Two of the chairs in my dining room are seats from the original Comiskey Park. I eat my breakfast cereal every day with a spoon I stole from the Berghoff about 20 years ago. It has "The Berghoff" written in a graceful script on the handle. I still miss the Magikist sign at 85th and the Dan Ryan, which I rank right up there with the Water Tower. It was prettier, too. It glowed red.

Just to be clear on this point, I refer to the so-called "Metra Electric Line" as "the IC". The Chicago Cultural Center is and always will be the library. The Thompson Center remains the State of Illinois Center, Aon Center is the Standard Oil Building, and the Calumet Expressway has no religious title.

I realize something now. Some years back, one of my kids asked why a word was that particular word and not some other word. That is, why were those sounds chosen to represent a particular object? In the ensuing discussion of language, I mentioned it would be kind of funny if someone raised their children, in some isolated setting, by making up nonsense words for everything. I pointed out that when the kids eventually encountered the civilized world, they'd be unable to communicate with anyone, a concept that astounded my daughters at the time. I didn't mean to, but in a way I've actually done this, albeit on a smaller scale.

For you Sears Tower, I will make an exception. I won't even wait for it to become official - I'll begin calling you Willis Tower right now, today. When other people refer to "Willis Tower," my kids will know what they're talking about. Why the Willis people would pay to have their name associated with the biggest, ugliest building in the country's third largest city, I can't imagine. But I'm happy to accommodate them.

Did I say "ugly"? I should have said "ugly enough to serve as the Gates of Hell." I'm aware that Sears Tower was built as it was to house vast numbers of Sears employees on its lower floors, and that it's considered an engineering feat. The "bundled tube" design by Fazlur R. Khan and all that. However, feats of engineering are not, by definition, beloved, beautiful, or even faintly attractive. The Archimedes screw is a feat of engineering, but it would be perverse to force a city of three million people to look at a 110-story screw whenever they surveyed their skyline. (Then again, the Chicago Spire will look much like a giant Archimedes screw, and it should be much more attractive than Sears Tower.)

Bruce Graham, the architect who designed both the John Hancock and Sears Tower, is quoted in the Encyclopedia of Chicago calling architecture "the design of space, both interior and exterior." Fine. But then he goes on, "And it's the idea, of course, in modern architecture . . . to express that space so the people understand it rather than imperial palaces and imperial avenues . . . (A)nd that search for creating as I call a dance is what tells what's a good architect and what's a bad architect. They don't have the sense of movement of spacing . . . "

Maybe. My feeling is that one can use conceptual phrases to dress up something like Sears Tower, but anything that can literally be recreated by a three-year-old with a shoebox full of Lego - or just a few different shoeboxes - falls somewhere short of artistic genius.

The Sears Tower entry in the 1993 edition of the AIA Guide to Chicago, written by Michael Bordenaro, even admits that "Sears Tower has always been more of a structural engineering triumph than an architectural accomplishment. While Graham and Kahn were like a well-oiled twin-cam engine firing on all cylinders when they designed the elegant John Hancock Center, the architectural manifold was slightly backfiring when they were running the Sears 500."

I'm not much for modern architecture, but who doesn't like the John Hancock? I think modern architecture is a bit like pornography: good modern architecture is something average people (rather than pretentious architects and intellectuals) just like when they see it. If you have to come up with convoluted metaphors about dancing and such to prove a piece of modern architecture is beautiful, then it's probably not. More likely it just sucks.

I find it deeply embarrassing that you, Sears Tower - sorry, Willis Tower! - are inextricably linked with Chicago in the world's mind. New York gets the likes of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, and we're stuck with a colossal steel replica of the cardboard recycling pile on my back porch.

I've been bitterly disappointed since you were built, a process that started when I was just six years old. My grandparents had brought me a small gold-colored Empire State Building pencil sharpener from a visit to New York, and during your construction, I greatly anticipated having something just as beautiful to call our own here in Chicago. My mini-Empire State Building would get some company. As it turned out, you were not worth the price of a pencil sharpener.

I'm reminded of my friend Rob's first tiny Manhattan condo in a hideous '50's-era high-rise that mutilates a terrific stretch of 12th Street. It's a wonderful block of brownstones and greystones and whateverstones. When I first saw it, Rob seemed a bit embarrassed by his own building, particularly the stark contrast with its neighbors. But I pointed out that if he was going to live on that block, better to live inside the ugly building and look at the beautiful ones than live in the beautiful ones and look at the big ugly one. He got the better view. Sears Tower is literally the largest example of this principle in the Western Hemisphere. Who cares what it's called? The building will remain revolting as ever. The view from the observatory won't change, at least not instantly, and not because of the new name.

Now, onto my animosity for your former corporate masters. Hello! Sears abandoned Chicago in 1992.

Maybe it's true that Sears needed cheaper housing for its 6,000-employee Merchandise Group, and space at Sears Tower had become too valuable for them. There was the accusation at the time that Sears moved to Hoffman Estates because it was a convenient way to shed a lot of minority city workers. I never thought it was that simple. I thought it was unmitigated greed coupled with a complete disregard for its employees and the city of Chicago. In short, I figured it might as well have been true.

Sears was contributing to a very troublesome trend. One Tribune article examining the move quoted a 1983 study by the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, which found, "In general, job growth is occurring in extremely racially segregated areas in which population growth is overwhelmingly white."

Yes, Sears established a system of vans and subscription Pace buses to serve a headquarters deliberately placed nowhere near public transportation. That couldn't mean much to the South Siders who found themselves with daiy two-hour commutes, one-way.

Sears could hardly expect these workers to afford a move to the northwest suburbs, either. A Tribune article quoted one Sears employee who had to triple her mortgage when she moved from Bellwood to Hoffman Estates - and she had to pay her own moving costs too. Way to go, Sears.

But alright - let's say Sears just couldn't afford to keep its headquarters in Sears Tower. Let's say they had to move to cheaper digs. Mayor Daley aggressively courted Sears. The then-undeveloped South Loop wasn't good enough for them, oh no. Daley came up with something you might think would be attractive to a company then estimated to have 52,000 out-of-town business visitors per year: a huge chunk of land on the north side of O'Hare, south of the Northwest Tollway between Wolf and Lee Roads. Gov. Jim Thompson promised that the state's incentive package for Sears to stay in Illinois could be "applied equally" to either city or suburban sites. It was never entirely clear if Thompson broke that promise, but even if he did, the O'Hare land package could not have been shabby. Still, no deal.

Did Sears care about the economic impact on Chicago? Apparently not. At the time, John R. Lanahan, then partner in Laventhol & Horwath's Chicago office, analyzed the Sears move and told the Tribune the city's economy would lose "a minimum of $700 million a year," plus another $60 million per year that would have been spent in Chicago by Sears business visitors.

Chicago's Economic Development Commission estimated the city would have gained "$86 million in economic benefits over the next eight years" if Sears had taken the proffered O'Hare site, according to another Tribune article. And Laventhol's Lanahan pointed out that Chicago also missed out on the approximately $200 million spent on construction of the new Sears office headquarters and the hundreds of construction jobs involved.

Instead, Sears took what was then the most expensive incentive package ever from the state of Illinois to screw over Chicago, in the process forcing about 3,000 Chicagoans to either move to the suburbs and spend far more on housing, endure an inhumane commute, or lose their jobs. That doesn't even include the workers from south and west suburbs, many of whom faced commutes as bad, or worse, than their city colleagues.

So I've enjoyed watching Sears continue its descent into retail purgatory these past 17 years. Others may "buy black" or direct their purchases only to organic stores or mom-and-pop stores. My strategy is don't-buy-Sears. When I discovered that Abt Electronics both delivers to the South Side and services there, I was truly set free. I made an exception about four years ago for a Kenmore hyper-allergenic vacuum cleaner rated highest by Consumer Reports, and it's worked out just the way a deal with the devil always does. In this case, at least two trips a year to the Sears service center. Never again.

Willis Tower, I will always dislike you. Even if they actually paint you silver, although it might help your dowdy look. However, you have atoned for half your sins by dumping the accursed Sears name. I suppose it's only fair to dislike you 50% less. Which raises the age-old question: Is the glass half-empty or half-full? In your case, of course, the question will be whether your office space is half-empty.


Cate Plys


Open Letter is open to letters.


See who else Cate has written to - from Lin Brehmer and The Person Who Let Their Dog Defecate Near The Southeast Corner Of 58th And Kimbark to Fellow Parents Planning Birthday Parties and Macy's - in the Open Letter archive.


Posted on March 16, 2009

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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