Mayor Rahm Emanuel's push to attract more tourists to Chicago creates a classic "frenemy" situation: The tourist city is both friend and enemy of the real city. It lures visitors and their dollars, yet in catering to tourist expectations, it threatens to undermine authentic city life. If you doubt this, head to Navy Pier and its theme-park version of Chicago.
Two high-profile initiatives to boost Chicago's tourism numbers further reveal this tension: Emanuel's drive to find designers who will come up with a plan to light Chicago's bridges, buildings and other key locations; and his quest to land the "cultural arts" museum of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas. Both carry substantial risks.
The lighting initiative, revealed last week, looks promising at first glance. It's based on the sensible idea that tourist-friendly cities, like London and Berlin, offer clear paths of light to link areas that tourists visit.
Why not turn up the lights to make it easier for tourists to find their way between such attractions as Navy Pier and Millennium Park? And why not, as the city is suggesting, light up iconic buildings like the Willis Tower if that will make Chicago more camera-ready and improve its global image? What could be wrong with that?
Well, plenty, if you're part of the "dark-sky" movement that seeks to reduce light pollution so city dwellers have a chance to see the stars and go to sleep without lights shining in their windows.
As Audrey Fischer, a director of the Chicago Astronomical Society, told Tribune reporter John Byrne: The mayor is "willing to use these lights to lure tourists in like spotlights lure bugs, and he wants to do it at the expense of the citizens who live here."
There are further risks: Depending on their energy efficiency, new lights could either enhance or diminish efforts begun by former Mayor Richard M. Daley to make Chicago a greener city. The lights could also be garish. Chicago isn't Las Vegas or Times Square. It's an archetypal Midwestern city that appreciates glamour, not glitz.
You'd think this wouldn't be an issue. But our current mayor has championed the idea of digital billboards along Chicago expressways. His administration also greenlighted the grotesquely over-scaled sign that Donald Trump is installing on his riverfront tower. The New York real estate developer, who gave Emanuel a $50,000 campaign contribution in 2010, defended his "TRUMP" sign in an interview Thursday, telling me, "As time passes, it'll be like the Hollywood sign,"
The drive for the Lucas museum, which would house a collection that includes Norman Rockwell paintings, "Star Wars" memorabilia and Hollywood special effects that Lucas pioneered at his Industrial Light & Magic, is even more potentially destructive.
Lucas, whose wife lives in Chicago, demanded a waterfront site after he lost his bid in San Francisco to locate the museum in a national park called the Presidio that looks out on San Francisco Bay.
Chicago is offering two parking lots between Soldier Field and McCormick Place for the facility, which would be known as the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum. City officials say the parking lots would be turned into parkland; Lucas would build new lots underground. And Emanuel is selling the idea that the museum would be part of the Museum Campus.
Again, the conflict between the tourist city and the real city comes into play.
Getting rid of the parking lots would displace Bears' tailgaters who gather in the lots before and after games at Soldier Field. In addition, despite the mayor's claims, the Lucas museum wouldn't be so much a part of the Museum Campus as a hard-to-reach adjunct, separated from the campus by the football stadium. Tourists would face a long walk — or even a cab ride — there.
Then there's the paramount issue: Should the museum, a private institution, get a spot on Chicago's public lakefront?
The advocacy group Friends of the Parks has correctly opposed Emanuel's chosen site because the 17-acre plot would violate the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. The law says that Lake Michigan and the parks along it should be "devoted only to public purposes" and bans further private development east of Lake Shore Drive.
That language is clear — the lakefront is not for sale. Boosting tourism is important, but preserving and protecting the lakefront for the benefit of millions of Chicagoans (and visitors) is more important. Chicago should come up with another site. If Lucas takes his museum to San Francisco, which is now offering him a choice site near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, then so be it.