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Small retail finds home on Division Street

Strip filled with restaurants and nightlife

"the bauhaus was a school founded in 1919 by walter gropius at weimar, germany, and later located successively at dessau, berlin, and chicago, to develop a functional architecture based on a correlation between creative design and modern industry and science. the work of the bauhaus to move towards a level of clarity in design and production also directly affected their opinions on typography. germany at this time preferred heavy, complicated, gothic style fonts; known as fracturs. this style had been used traditionally in german printing, but was difficult to read. the simplicity of san serif designs was an attractive alternative to the bauhaus. herbert bayer, a teacher at the bauhaus, proposed a new system of writing. 'why should we write and print in two alphabets? both a large sign and a small sign are not necessary to identify a single sound. we do not speak in a capital a and a small a. a single alphabet gives us practically the same result as the mixture of upper and lower case letters, and at the same time is less of a burden on all who write.'"--"Bauhaus" 1919-1928

Hanig's Footwear is about to close on Michigan Avenue, where it stood as the last independent store. Every other space is controlled by one of three symbols of our time: the large retail chain, such as Pottery Barn;  the large corporation mixing sales with brand definition, such as Garmin; and the large real estate developer, such as Northbridge's John Buck Company.

Architecture becomes an expression of these national and international companies and the highly formalized relationships between the customer and their self-image and the objects of their desire. Michigan Avenue has become a total marketing experience, where retail is spelled with a capital "R." It's a place, an expression of modernism and an expression of the self-image of those who walk its sidewalks.

Is there a place in Chicago that is all these things, but where retail is spelled with a small "r"?

Take Division Street. At its eastern end, in the Gold Coast, it's filled with restaurants and nightlife. Traveling west, its character changes with every mile, from the re-building neighborhood around Cabrini Green to the post-industrial character of Goose Island. Farther west, the street becomes the focal point for different ethnic communities, such as the area bounded by the iron Puerto Rican flags. Division seems to re-invent itself with each block--a phenomenon that is common to many arterial streets in the city. The city is at its best when you encounter the unexpected. Division Street, between Ashland and Western, is unexpected.

There are still the old standards--Alliance Bakery, Zakopane, L. Miller & Son Lumber, Gold Star Bar and, of course, the "All Day Tire Shop," which occupies a prominent corner storefront. Along with these durable, old favorites, there is Caffe Gelato, Mirai, Porte Rouge, Goldilocks & Gremlins, Mas, Bravo, Cassona, Black Walnut, Letizia's, Elevenzees, Bob San, Pizza Metro, Paper Doll and more.

As if to emphasize that Division Street is not Michigan Avenue, there are a remarkable number of stores that subscribe to the bauhaus preference for the lowercase--plein aire (apparel), grow (for children), symmetry, cattails, casa de soul (a conceptual lifestyle boutique), penelope's, an-je-nu, blend, fingers & toes, noir, tatine, dynamic hair studio and best of all, d/vision, an eye glass retailer.

The only things missing are brand names--no Gap, no Banana Republic and no Williams -Sonoma. For years the only brand name on this section of Division Street was Shell Oil. The Starbuck's near Ashland and the Chase Bank at Damen are the exceptions that prove these brands have stores everywhere.

Also missing is the homogenization of the urban landscape, with graphics and architecture that remind us of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The space of the street adds to the sense of the unexpected. Like Michigan Avenue, Division Street is wide, measuring 100 feet between the faces of the buildings (normally it's 70 feet), including sidewalks of generous width, with space for trees, pedestrians and enough room to stop, look around and take in a place that corporate brands have forgotten (or more frightening, haven't yet discovered).

Modernism is both pluralistic and idiosyncratic, emphasizing innovation over the coherence of the message. While Michigan Avenue has traded being original for being understood, Division Street makes no such compromise in its architecture, nor in the goods and services it offers for popular consumption. The people who have invested in this street are both innovators and gamblers, betting on design.

Walk into Porte Rouge, a store devoted to specialty tableware, gourmet teas and home furnishings, and let the staff talk to you with semi-religious fervor about a brand of French tableware of which you have never heard. It's all so unexpected.

When the people of Dessau, home of the bauhaus, elected a Nazi city council in 1933, they quickly passed a law banning the practice of using all lower case letters, calling it subversive and un-Germanic.

Published: May 28, 2007
Issue: Summer 2007 Urban Living