Are the names of Chicago’s landmarks for sale?

By Julie Lord

The holiday season has officially begun, and with it comes the inevitable retail mania and three-ring circus of commercialism. Black Friday brought 4 a.m. “doorbuster sales” and a crowd of insane shoppers that I have a feeling would make an excellent social experiment, if only anyone with half of a brain would wake up early enough to conduct the research.

Aside from shopping fever, the holidays are also associated with another powerful social component: tradition. Every family has a set of rules to follow where major holidays are concerned, and when those traditions are compromised, heads will roll.

My favorite family tradition combines Christmas, shopping, family and food into one glorious event. For many years, my extended family has been waking up very early to trek into Chicago, eat breakfast at Marshall Fields’ Walnut Room and then shop in the city’s most famous department store.

Of course, every self-respecting Chicagoan knows how this tradition has been compromised in recent years. Marshall Fields was bought out by Macy’s, and though it has maintained the Walnut Room and legendary Christmas windows, it just isn’t the same.

When the changeover happened, many Chicago residents were outraged. Letters were written, protests were staged and plenty of people swore they’d never shop at the store again.

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    The powers that be replied with a general statement of “It’s practically the same store, what’s the problem here?” They failed to see the point: The store itself is not the problem. It is the tradition associated with the store that caused the controversy.

    The City of Chicago is getting in on the commercialist action, as it has recently hired a firm to develop a marketing plan that will grant naming rights to corporations as a way to raise funds for the city. In other words, people could soon be riding the Sony Chicago El or shopping at Verizon Navy Pier.

    Chicago is not the first city to do this, as New York and Las Vegas have entered into contracts for similar marketing concepts. But where do we draw the line? At what point is commercialism so prominent we can no longer separate it from the life and traditions that matter to us?

    As a society, we tend to lose sight of what is important during the holiday season – which is, of course, when we should be acknowledging it most. However, Chicago’s decision to sell some of its most important traditions and institutions represents the ongoing battle we face against the rising tide of consumerism.

    Family values and traditions seem to be dissipating at an alarming rate, and the world around us is reflecting that change. As with holiday shopping rituals, consumerism may in fact be part of the tradition; however, it shouldn’t become a lifestyle.

    If cities go on sale, where do we go from there?

    This holiday season, when consumerism is attacking from every angle, it might be a good idea to make a statement about what really matters to you. Take advantage of opportunities to help the less fortunate, from appeasing bell-ringers to donating food items. Spend time on thoughtful gifts that can’t come from any store.

    If we don’t show the people in power what our traditions mean to us, we could lose them. Chicago may be asking Santa for corporate gifts this Christmas, but we can take a stand against consumer-mania by showing them we’re not buying it.