An Open Letter to Mr. Laurence Geller and Mr. Lou Raizin:
As a Chicagoan, I appreciate the investments you make in the city and the work you continue to do to improve Chicago. Your newest venture however concerns me. The concept you’ve recently proposed–a 17-story aerial gondola from Navy Pier to the South Branch of the Chicago River–is quite frankly a dumb idea. Sorry for raining on this parade, but building tourist traps should not be a priority for the city, now or ever. While tourism can play an important part in a city’s economy the responsibility of government and civic leaders should be the well-being of the city first and visitors second. Indeed, a healthy and vibrant city for residents is a healthy and vibrant city for visitors.
Let’s begin with a little anecdote: When I first visited London in the winter of 2012 I asked a hostel employee working the desk for interesting recommendations. They were local and I figured their opinion about do’s and don’t’s in London would be best. Their immediate answer was this: Avoid the London Eye. Don’t ride it. Don’t pay for it. And if you can, don’t even go near it. Enjoy it from a distance sure, but otherwise it’s best to stay away.
I hadn’t even brough up the Eye and this was the unsolicited response I got. The Eye in the eyes of the average Londoner was the tourist trap of tourists traps. As the hostel employee put it “you’ll pay 30 pound, see everything in the first five minutes and then awkwardly spend 25 minutes with total strangers in a pod.”
How apropos that the designers of the Eye are on your consultation team.
Let’s heed this warning though. Tourists traps can draw visitors, but how often do they add to a city’s actual quality of life and the experiences of residents? While I acknowledge the importance with which you view tourism as part of Chicago’s economy I would hope that you would focus more on quality than gimmicks. Great cities draw visitors (and residents) not because of the potential to ride a ferris wheel or gondola, but by virtue of them being great cities. Keep this in mind. I’m not here to be a NIMBY, but rather a QIMBY (QUALITY In My BackYard).
As you move forward to improve the tourist experience and draw to Chicago ask yourself: How will these gondolas also serve and benefit the people who actually live in Chicago? A gondola system itself is not a bad idea. Your proposed gondola system is a bad and unnecessary idea however, because it doesn’t add to the experience of living in Chicago and only serves tourists (assuming its succesful). On the other hand proposals for gondolas in Washington, D.C. and New York City both show how they have the potential to become integral parts to a city’s public transportation network while also serving tourists. Because they’re right for some cities doesn’t mean they’re right for all cities though.
You have put forward some great ideas that shouldn’t be overlooked for gondolas. These are the ones we should move forward; this includes working with the Lyric Opera to organize summer time open air operas on the river. This adds to the experience of being a Chicagoan by providing residents (and tourists) greater access to culture, while also raising the profile of one of the city’s great cultural institutions. This is an investment that enriches people’s lives and creates good jobs, not just any jobs. (I can only assume many of the jobs associated with a gondola would be rather low quality service sector jobs.)
Work with what Chicago has and use your influence, money, and minds to reinforce and improve these assets. How can we make Chicago’s theater and comedy scene stronger? How can we support the Chicago Architecture Biennale, which focuses on our great architectural heritage? How can we protect that heritage!? How can we improve the museums we already have (which are ample and amazing) before courting new ones? What transit projects should we support that help residents and tourists alike get around? What makes people want to not just visit a city, but live there too? These are the questions to ask.
So, I appreciate and encourage the enthusiasm, but don’t let it get the better of you and become a glittery distraction. People didn’t start visiting London because of the Eye, they visited and continue to visit London, because it’s an amazing city.