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CHICAGO (CBS) — The Wabash Avenue Bridge won a prize as the most beautiful steel bridge of the year when it was completed in 1930, but suddenly this month, it has become a bridge brought to you by Bank of America.
Seven vinyl banners with the Bank of America logo and the slogan, “Bank of Opportunity” were mounted last week on the sides of the twin limestone tender houses on the bridge. They will be there until Dec. 12.
One of them hangs directly above the plaque from when the bridge was first dedicated under Mayor William Hale Thompson. The banners all stand out in prominence over the tiny plaques that say the official name of the bridge is the Irv Kupcinet Bridge, honoring the late Chicago legend.
Bank of America paid $4,500 to put seven signs on the bridge for about a month, Mayor’s Economic Council spokeswoman Kathleen Strand tells the Associated Press.
It’s all part of an effort called “municipal marketing,” which was approved as part of the 2012 budget. City officials have said it could raise some $25 million.
A Chicago Sun-Times report on municipal marketing earlier this month said we could expect to see ads on such mundane pieces of the cityscape as parking meter payboxes, Big Belly solar trash compactors, and the boxes that operate street lights.
But it turns out bridges were part of the deal too.
Strand told the AP that the city is promising the municipal marketing campaign will have “policies to protect the integrity of Chicago’s façade,” and likened the initiative to the Chicago Transit Authority bringing in about $20 million annually from abundant ads on buses and elevated trains that don’t seem to anger anybody.
On a rainy Tuesday morning, few passersby seemed to be paying much attention to the ads as they labored through the wind with umbrellas over their heads.
Joseph Brown was waiting at a bus stop at Wabash Avenue and Wacker Drive, and he said the ads didn’t bother him, particularly compared to an ad that might appear draped across a building.
He also conceded that the city needs the money the ads are generating, although “advertising on architecture is sort of a bad way to go.”
But D.J. Salmon said he found the ads obtrusive, and wondered where it all might stop.
“What’s next, are you going to put it on the Water Tower?” he said.
Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin is not a fan of the ads either. In an entry on his “Cityscapes” journal last week, he called the ads “a grotesque cheapening of the public realm,” and said “they offer a nightmarish hint of what the plan might deliver: the uglification of the City Beautiful.”
Kamin complained that the ads are “visually insensitive” and said the root problem is not corporate sponsorship itself, but how the sponsor is recognized.
“There are more discreet ways to do this, like the unobtrusive, chiseled-in-stone recognitions of donors in Millennium Park,” Kamin wrote. “Sticking a corporate name on a beautiful object disparages both the object and the company whose name goes on it.”
But in an editorial last week, the Chicago Sun-Times said the ads might just be a necessary evil.
“The first Bank of America banners, which went up Monday on the limestone Wabash Avenue bridge house, are anything but becoming,” the Sun-Times said in its editorial. “But cities that have gone bust don’t hold much charm, either, and Chicago is in desperate need of cash.”
Bank of America spokeswoman Diane Wagner told the AP the company said yes when Chicago officials asked if the bank wanted to advertise on the bridge because it’s a major employer and philanthropic supporter in the city.
“We agreed to be the first company to display on the bridge because we want to help the city explore new revenue sources and we think this is an innovative way to generate new revenue,” Wagner said.
CBS Chicago Web Producer Adam Harrington contributed to this report.
(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)