Clifton Avenue in Uptown gets decorative string lights, the first to be allowed over a public street in Chicago

UPTOWN — A new feature of Uptown’s Clifton Avenue Street Art Gallery marks a first for Chicago: decorative lighting on a public street.

String lights were added to Clifton Avenue just north of Wilson Avenue in late May. The “festoon” lamps are stretched across the street and provide extra light and atmosphere in the neighborhood.

The lights are intended to be a decorative element for the growing street art gallery on that stretch of Clifton Avenue, and organizers hope they improve neighbors’ commutes during major CTA work, the local chamber of commerce said.

They are also a first in Chicago’s modern history.

According to the Uptown Chamber of Commerce and city officials, city officials had never previously authorized the hanging of decorative string lights over a public street.

Similar lighting was added to Sheffield Avenue in Lakeview, where upgrades were made thanks to the city’s extensive outdoor dining program, but the lights were not properly allowed, according to sources.

The only historic example of the city to approve such lighting was over a dead end alley, but it was never approved for a publicly accessible street open to vehicular traffic, according to the Department of Business and Consumer Protection.

The city has authorized the installation of string lights above Clifton Avenue after a multi-agency review that began more than a year ago, said Justin Weidl, director of neighborhood services at Uptown United, the business development arm of the chamber organization.

“Historically, that was only allowed in alleys,” Weidl said. “Clifton Avenue is a very unique street. It is narrow, has limited access for cars.”

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
Decorative “festoon” lighting hangs above Clifton Avenue in Uptown.

Clifton Avenue is a one-block street between Wilson Avenue and Broadway in Uptown that wraps around the rebuilt Wilson Red Line station.

The street is a one-way street to the south and functions as an alley, with garbage cans and loading areas. They are home care institutions and religious organizations.

Since 2019, it has also been home to a street art gallery. That gallery is the centerpiece of the annual Uptown Art Week, which has contributed more than 70 murals to the brick walls along Clifton Avenue.

The idea behind the lights was in part to add to the experience of walking through the Clifton art gallery. But the project took on added significance as the local chamber wanted to help the neighborhood get through the major Red Line work, Weidl said.

With the Lawrence Avenue Red Line out of service for years due to a remodeling project, Uptown United knew more neighbors would walk south to the Wilson stop for their commute.

Adding the pendulum lights would make the walk from Lawrence Avenue to the Wilson Red Line station more enjoyable for commuters, Weidl said.

“We’ve Always Seen” [Clifton Avenue] as a deliberate pedestrian diversion,” he said. “It’s about how we make that walk as comfortable as possible.”

The idea had to be approved by the offices of Business Affairs and Consumer Protections and the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Clifton Avenue in Uptown gets decorative string lights, the first to be allowed over a public street in ChicagoCredit: Facebook/Uptown United
A Chicago Bears-themed mural is added to Clifton Avenue during an earlier Uptown Art Week.

The agencies coordinated an assessment of the Uptown room’s unique request for public access, the issuing of permits for use on public roads and the installation of wiring and cables above or below public property, said Elisa Sledzinska, spokesperson for Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

The business division and CDOT Public Roads Office “has the existing powers, permit types and review processes to regulate this occupation of the public road,” she said in a statement.

The permit is valid for five years, but can be revoked if problems arise.

The lighting is a hit with neighbors and businesses, Weidl said. The lights will come on at night and will be operational shortly.

“It’s gotten a lot of good feedback,” he said.

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