The new larger Sundays on State car-free fest is awesome. Here’s how it could be even better.
Last Sunday, the Chicago Loop Alliance held this year’s second Sundays on State car-free event, which pedestrianizes several blocks of State Street in the Loop for live performances and art; vendor booths; food trucks; and family-friendly activities. Launched in 2021, the program seems likely to become an annual happening.
This year the footprint of the fest has been extended one block north to Lake Street and one block south to Monroe Street. Cross traffic was permitted on all east-west streets last year, carving up the party into block-sized chunks. Things are somewhat better this year, with Randolph Street pedestrianized at State. However, motorists are still allowed to drive across the event at Washington and Madison streets.
CLA said in a press release that the July 24 Sunday on State was a resounding success, with over 110,000 attendees passing through between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Even during pre-pandemic times, that would have represented a huge increase of foot traffic for the iconic strip, which CLA tracks via 16 pedestrian counters situated along State Street. So obviously the increase in pedestrian activity was a shot in the arm for a retail strip that still hasn’t fully recovered from its COVID-19 pandemic slump in sales.
Umbrella in hand to fend off some light rain, I took the train downtown to check out the August 7 event. The drizzle didn’t keep people away. I arrived around 3 p.m. to find a good-sized crowd milling up and down State, visiting tables with wares from local artisans, info about public services, and educational materials, which lined both sides of the street. People queued up at food trucks and gathered for performances at three different stages.
Blue Cartier, account manager at Moor’s Brewing Company, said business at their table had been quite good thus far. The brewery—Chicago’s only Black-owned and operated one – had already gone through four kegs and several cases of cans. Anthony Bell, Moor’s Brewing’s chief marketing officer, was also happy with the event. “The sponsor has been good to us. And hey, we’re on State Street, that great street. We’re proud to be representing Chicago.”
After trying a marvelously well-balanced imperial pale ale, I stopped by the Chicago Public Library table to renew my card. Justin Shannon, who works in CPL’s Teen Services, said the day had been busy with visitors renewing their library cards, getting their very first card, and checking out books from a small selection shelved behind an attention-grabbing bubble machine. Shannon said the event had been a good way to inform locals about their neighborhood branch and get the word out about the Harold Washington Library’s Maker Lab, which gives any cardholder free access to sewing machines, laser cutters, and a 3-D printer.
I wandered down the center of State Street, which was freed from car traffic and filled with art installations, seating, games, play areas, and combinations thereof. At Madison, I paused to watch attendees try their feet at double dutch, accompanied by live drummers. Taylor Sabb, a festival attendee who had never before jumped two ropes at the same time, stepped in and got the hang of it in three tries. Sabb and her two friends were visiting from Atlanta and had nothing but glowing words about the event. “I feel included,” Sabb said. “People want you to show up. It’s a great sense of community. And there’s so much to do in downtown Chicago – the museums, the art, the architecture. We want to move here.”
Sabb’s friend Charite Mattis said they attended Sundays on State during their visit because their Chicagoan friend recommended it. “We want to do what locals do: Hear house music, try the food. Not just go to touristy bars,” she said. Mattis said Atlanta doesn’t have a comparable car-free street fair, at least not one that is recurring and on the scale of Sundays on State.
Earlier in the day the Joffrey Academy, Porchlight Music Theater, and Chicago Children’s Theater had performed, and THE HIVE studios taught a series of dance classes throughout the day. While I unfortunately missed these, I did witness over 50 people join in the Macarena dance in front of a small DJ stage just south of the Madison intersection. It was the largest group of strangers participating in a spontaneous act of joy I’d seen in a long time.
The main stage stood at the south end of the festival, backing up to the Monroe Street. The final performance of the day was jazz combo Petra’s Recession Seven. Folding chairs and tables were arranged for the comfort of a somewhat older crowd. I ran into an acquaintance and his out-of-town friend, who had been at the Grant Park Music Festival and ran into Sundays on State by chance. Another friend of mine – a lifelong Chicagoan – showed up a few minutes later to hear the band. We danced to a song and each time she turned to face north down State Street she exclaimed, “What a view!”
The view down State Street is stunning. And was notably more so when the thoroughfare populated with people of all descriptions dancing, eating, listening to music, shopping, and playing, instead of clogged with cars. The city could improve Sundays on State further by rerouting traffic around the entire length of the event, as is the case with most street fairs in Chicago. Considering how light downtown traffic is on Sundays, and that the event only runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., fully pedestrianizing the footprint would be a highly visible demonstration of the positive impacts of prioritizing people over cars, with a relatively minor disruption of car traffic.
It would also be great to see more dates on the calendar. There are only four Sundays on State this year, about half as many as in 2021. The two remaining dates are August 21 and September 4.