Scaling Cool:: How Money Follows Norms

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


Thirty years ago in Chicago, there were only three reasons to venture west of Halsted on Fulton Market after the sun set. 

You were an artist who lived in one of the few habitable — and affordable —loft buildings in the neighborhood, which was all but desolate during the week after the meatpackers and forklift drivers called it a day.

Or you were looking for a bar called Shelter. And you were going the wrong way.

Or you were bound for some kind of thrill at Mars Gallery located on the second floor of one of the red brick low rises that lined W. Fulton Market.

At the time, the arresting desolation of the streets, the smell of authentic urban decay, and a lone, intimate art gallery that hosted some wildly entertaining events made Fulton Market ground zero for the cool and the brave.

Now, Google stands across the street from Mars Gallery, which is closing this month.

The surrounding area is anything but desolate. And there are lots of things open after sunset:: restaurants, bars, hotels, music venues. And Starbucks. There are at least twelve of them in a one mile radius. 

All of this makes Fulton Market in Chicago’s West Loop cool — again — but for different reasons, and to a different group of actors:: the mainstream.

In 1988, the founders of Mars Gallery — Peter Mars, Jimmy Turk, Barb Gazdik — helped to create the norms for the ultra-cool and the ultramodern of Chicago first and, in time, for everybody else. 

Like Andy Warhol, they defined the edge and then convinced the rest of the world that it was the center.

And, true to the norms of progress, a tiny little starving arts community was edged out by new apartments, new restaurants, new retailers, and became cool — and safely trendy — for the masses.

It took 30 years or so but it happened. It always does.

Some either praise or blame the Great Recession of 2008; or the vision of residential developers; or the calculated boldness of leaders in the commercial and retail sectors. (Who does the praising or blaming can be indicative of who did the investing over the years and who didn't.)

One or all of those factors certainly contributed to the rise of the West Loop and the death of the Mars Gallery scene but the prime mover was social norms; rather a shift in expectations among a plurality of actors — people — regarding where they should and should not live and dine and play.

And invest.

When norms shift, or are completely obliterated, communities, organizations, and, yes, markets move.

Power follows money; and money follows norms.

And everyone likes to follow cool, some when it's dangerous, some when it's not. ::

Howell Malham