Corporatizing Chicago's Subway Stations

Novelist David Foster Wallace once fantasized that naming rights to years would eventually be auctioned off, leading to a future year being widely known as Y.A.D.U., for The Year of Adult Depends Undergarment. Chicago just took a step in that direction by letting Apple Computers spend $4 million to renovate a subway stop, the North/Clybourn station on the city’s near north side, in return for exclusive advertising rights throughout the station. It is clearly a case of testing the waters for selling naming rights and exclusive marketing to other subway stations in the Chicago Transit Authority system. In this case, Apple has a store nearby, and the company evidently thought that it could “do well by doing good” by spending so much money for such a high-visibility advertising shrine (er, make that a “productive public/private partnership”).

The “Apple station” is another case of the corporate world “flipping” public resources into private control by exploiting the public sector’s long-term structural budget problems (which companies themselves have done a lot to induce, by fighting taxation for themselves, for example). One observer took a fatalistic position: “The CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] may as well profit from the inevitable. Sell Apple the naming rights, for a big chunk of change. People are going to call it the Apple stop anyway.” Apple reportedly asked the CTA to rename the station, “The Apple Red Line,” but no official response has been given. Will people rally to fight the corporatization of their subway system and other municipal infrastructure – or will they consent to selling off the city’s crown jewels (for a fraction of total operating costs of the system) simply because of the lazy cultural prejudice that the private sector will simply do everything better? The Apple stop is clearly a test case.

The sad part is that no one within political circles seems to be stepping up to defend the importance of adequate city support of vital city resources, with the argument that that’s the responsible thing for a self-respecting city to do. The attitude seems to be, “Oh, wtf, let’s take the path of least political resistance and not bother raising taxes on ourselves to make our public facilities wonderful. Let’s just let some rich corporation do it for “free” and let it claim nominal “ownership” of the equity assets that generations of Chicago citizens have built over decades.” The sense seems to be, “We live in a corporate world anyway. Why resist?”

And so the thin veneer of citizenship and civic pride that exists modern America will be eviscerated, as public icons and spaces are converted into private corporate spaces.  Our mindshare if not our fealty will belong to Apple, Fox, Exxon and Depend Undergarments, not to standing symbols of shared public purpose.  We will see an erosion of civic identity in return for some "free" corporate revenues. In the face of such civic demoralization, it’s no wonder that corporate predators are able to plunder the common wealth with such ease.