It’s mid-March in Chicago and pre-spring fever is gripping the city. When you live in a town where winter grabs hold in November and tosses you about for four long months, harbingers of spring cause a condition approaching mass hysteria among the populace. One might weep at the first sighting of a robin. The first day above 60 degrees is likely to bring out every bush league ballplayer in the city to the diamonds in Grant Park, where the familiar crack of the bat and thwump of horsehide crashing into a leather glove evoke memories of childhood and losing Cubs teams. People cautiously open their windows for a few hours, admitting outside air into their homes for the first time in months, thus allowing the residual aroma of St. Patrick’s day corned beef and cabbage (not to mention the smell of fried perch left over from that ice fishing expedition in January) to dissipate in the breeze.
Of course, it’s an illusion. Jack Frost has no intention of vacating his comfortable perch for a good month or more, as any long time Chicagoan can attest. Memories of late April snowstorms abound — vicious Alberta clippers careening down from Canada with Old Man Winter at the helm, laughing at us mortals who mistook a couple of weeks of moderating temperatures as a sign that spring was here to stay.
But something evil is stalking the city as the seasons turn and opening day at Wrigley Field looms closer. The city fathers seem incapable of recognizing the danger, while ordinary citizens stand frozen in disbelief and outrage. It is an attack on the city’s identity, it’s self-image, it’s id and ego. And what really sticks in everyone’s craw is that there is absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. There is no defense, only surrender to the inevitable.
I speak of the ghastly news that London-based insurance broker Willis Group Holdings will buy Chicago’s landmark Sears Tower and change its name to the Willis Tower.
The shock to the populace could not have been more complete. Dozens of petitions have sprung up online calling on the city to prevent the name change. Angry residents have clogged phone lines of local talk radio shows to express their outrage. People gather outside of the building as if attending a wake, taking pictures and reminiscing about the first time they took the fastest elevator in the world to the observation deck. And from one end of the city to the other, the cry goes up …
Who the hell is Willis?
To an outsider, this probably looks faintly ridiculous, all of this brouhaha over the name change for a building. But outsiders do not understand the history of Chicago and the Sears Tower, nor the peculiar inferiority complex that Chicagoans have been carrying around for almost 100 years.
While the nickname “Second City” was a derogatory appellation stuck on Chicago by a New York columnist in the 1950s, for most of the 20th century Chicagoans were well aware of their status as a pale echo of New York in the eyes of east coast elites. Known world wide as a haven for gangsters rather than for its stunning architecture, world class museums, and artistic community, the city could not escape being compared to New York.
The Sears Tower is not just the tallest building in Chicago. The fact that it is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere is immaterial to the emotional attachment the city has for the building. For many years, the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world, a source of immense pride for residents. For a city that has stood in the shadow of New York for so long, it was the one thing Chicagoans could point to; no matter how superior New York seemed in many eyes, the Big Apple couldn’t top the Tower.
From its completion in 1974 until 1998, Chicago had this distinction. It has since been surpassed by three other buildings but remains the tallest in the United States. And now, a bunch of foreigners are moving in and claiming the right to alter the landmark, to bury the distinction.
It is at times like this that the city misses it’s signature columnist, Mike Royko. A writer whose withering, sarcastic broadsides made a laughing stock of the elder Mayor Daley and his machine, Royko also had a deep and abiding affection for Chicago — its ball teams, its neighborhoods, and, most of all, the ordinary people who made the city the special place it still is in most people’s hearts.
I can imagine the columnist writing a piece on the Sears Tower name change and using his alter ego and Chicago everyman Slats Grobnik to comment on the absolute tone deafness of Willis CEO Joseph Plumeri, who couldn’t understand what all the hub-bub was about:
“Would you rather have an iconic building with nobody in it, which doesn’t say a lot about Chicago, or someone with enough faith to take the space?” he asked. “The headline should be: A company has decided to invest money in Chicago, and if you miss that headline, you’ve missed the side of the building by a mile and a half.”
Slats Grobnik may have inquired whether this fellow Willis was the new shortstop for the Cubs. But Royko would have skewered that kind of stupidity the same way he hammered on heartless bureaucrats, crooked pols, and greedy businessmen for 20 years. (Royko left the Sun Times in 1984, when Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, saying, “no self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.”)
Meanwhile, the current Mayor Daley doesn’t want to get involved in the controversy. He stood aside when Macy’s bought Chicago’s premier department store, Marshall Fields, and changed the name of their flagship store on State Street — a move that caused nearly as much angst as the current to-do over the Sears Tower. Besides, as Hizzoner points out, Sears moved out of the building a long time ago. But it was not the company that people associated with the tower, but rather that feeling it gave them that Chicago was not just some poor knock off of a major city but a glittering place in its own right. The advent of the Sears Tower heralded an era in Chicago where its symphony became recognized as the best in the world, live theater underwent a remarkable revival, and its grand architecture once again became the model for the world.
And now, a bunch of insurance salesmen want to destroy that special feeling. A good explanation of the inexplicable was given by Dr. Joel Whalen of De Paul University:
We know one of the hallmarks of quality is constancy, and change is not always good. We’re friendly to everyone but we don’t make friends quickly. It takes years to make a friend. You’re from out of town and we don’t know who you are.
There has been an almost universal sentiment expressed in man in the street interviews by local media that Chicagoans will never call the building Willis Tower but will always refer to it as the Sears Tower. Willis can put their name on it but that won’t change the salient fact that most Chicagoans can’t see that name when they look at the city’s magnificent skyline and see the building towering above the rest of the skyscrapers, reminding residents that their city is indeed a special place — a place of which all can take pride.