The Center On Halsted: A Case Study on Virtue Signaling


The Center on Halsted is a 175,000 square-foot lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons’ community amenity located at 3656 North Halsted Street in the heart of Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. Completed in 2007, the Center is “dedicated to advancing community and securing the health and well-being of the LGBTQ people of Chicagoland” through diverse programming, business incubation, and other support services like behavioral counseling, sexological research, and political advocacy. With over 1,000 visitors daily, it claims to be the largest LGBTQ community center in the Midwest.

The Windy City is itself an ideal choice for establishing a place branding rubric, as “Chicago has a long background of place marketing practices.” The metropolis is the most appropriate place in America for framing the evolution of branding after property deregulation enabled a saturated market of places. Today, within the city, the “degree of decentralization is great, and the Chicago metropolitan region has 1,400 governments, which makes competition and rivalry among places tough.” The municipality has seventy-seven officially designated emergent community areas that can each have individualized economic programs. The three preconditions for the constitution of a community are:

  1. Members must be capable of a specific form of sign-interpretation.

  2. There must be some sort of connection or relation, of a communicative sort, between sign users.

  3. There must be some sense of community engagement among the members, which is akin to a feeling simply labeled “ours.”

For the purposes of this study, “[c]ommunity engagement refers to the avenues through which” a place brand “encourages feelings of resident empowerment, investment in housing, and interaction between residents, which lead to positive feelings of community ownership and satisfaction,” which buoys the place brand to non-resident stakeholders. Sustained and effective community engagement is described as “vibrant.” But these preconditions can also be ecologically manufactured. Some place branding interventions “tout the sale of community and boutique lifestyles to fulfill urban dreams [in] a world in which the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism” defaults to protect that which is most scarce in high-density areas: space as an input-output of organizational capacity. In other words, the processes of property market rescaling “change[s] the focus of community action toward the defence of property values and individualized identities” as sociospatial constructs both produced and consumed by place brands. One significant consequence of this cycling is that “the urban is no longer defined in opposition to an ontology ‘other’ located beyond or ‘outside’ it.” Instead, the new urban condition, place-branded and commodified, is “at once the framework and the basis for the many forms of sociospatial differentiation that continue to proliferate under contemporary capitalist conditions.”

The Boystown neighborhood, however, fulfills community preconditions naturally. It boasts, among many historical achievements, being the first officially recognized LGBT community in the United States. During the 1970s and 80s, “low property prices and early buy-in from gay entrepreneurs helped cement the future direction of the neighborhood.” The growing financial and voting power of domestic investors helped to both safeguard and promote community connections, and so today, Boystown is one of the largest cultural centers for the natural LGBT class in the country — and its public events attract more than 1,000,000 people from abroad annually. In 1997, two important events occur under then Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley: the first is the formation of the Chicago Partnership for Economic Development; the second is the unveiling of the North Halsted Street plan, a three-quarters-of-a-mile stretch where the Center on Halsted now sits.

As Patrick M. Sheahan, then Executive Director of Public Affairs at multinational investment bank UBS Group A.G. tells Crain’s Chicago Business:

“The need for such a center had been apparent to many of us for years. After two attempts that were not successful, a $1.5-million grant from Governor George Ryan in 1999 and approval from Mayor Daley allowed plans for the center to proceed. We purchased the property from the city of Chicago and, in June 2001, a steering committee was organized to raise the necessary funds. I agreed to chair it, and we set a goal of $20 million.”

Simultaneously then built and branded by architecture firm Gensler and design agency Sparc, respectively — and billed by Sparc as “a utopia or a model for all community centers,” the Center on Halsted aimed to be “a safe and nurturing environment [that] serves as a catalyst for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community that links and provides community resources, and enriches life experiences.” Sparc worked with Center on Halsted CEO Modesto Valle “from the very beginning before the building's groundbreaking to manifest his vision for the Center through an aspirational and flash-forward capital campaign.”

The Center surpassed its $20 million to meet a Kresge Foundation challenge grant of $950,000. Other notable gifts “include those from the federal, state and city governments, foundations, corporations and individuals including Miriam U. Hoover, who donated the Center’s largest gift from an individual.” The Center opened officially in 2007 with a Whole Foods as its anchoring tenant. Just one year after its unveiling, “[a] group led by Syndicated Equities Corp. bought the [Whole Foods space] from the developer, Chicago-based Bond Cos. The price was $615 per square foot.” The original Syndicated Equities acquisition was financed with a $19-million loan from Cole Taylor Bank. Bond Cos. was expected to invest about $20.5 million more, “according to a 2006 agreement between the Center and the Daley administration, which subsidized the project;” while the sale price for the grocery store remained about $7.6 million more than Bond Cos.’ projected investment —  meaning, basically, that everybody got what they wanted. The Center on Halsted still owns the site. The land is valued at $6,762,611 million; the building is valued at $14,853,452 million. The property has no direct or portfolio foreign investments; the Whole Foods lease, though, does.

Unlike archetypal place branding projects, however, the Center on Halsted’s founding capital breaks down across a mixed collection of contributors accordingly:

  1. 35% from federal, state, and city government grants

  2. 19% from special events fundraising

  3. 19% from corporation and foundation contributions

  4. 17% from individual donations

  5. 5% from in-kind donations

  6. 5% from earned sources

This was achievable for a number of reasons, and we are preoccupied with these facts because “the notion of sense of community is, ultimately, a straightforward framework for understanding how a brand, as a fundamental sign, can generate meanings that are based on culture” to generate revenue. When a place brand creates “a favourable infrastructure for the desired target markets like foreign inward investment” or community engagement, it is then necessary “to transfer the wanted identity to be understood by the selected target markets as favourable images toward the place.” And on this front, Sparc delivered. In the Center’s case, Sparc’s “Human F1RST” campaign appealed interpretively to different target groups for different reasons and at different scales. The brand identity successfully tapped into Boystown locally, Chicago regionally, and investors abroad.

The Center is so woven into the city’s urban fabric that Choose Chicago, “the official destination marketing organization” for the metropolitan area, now features the Center on Halsted in its opening value proposition for Boystown. One lesson from the Center’s starting capital campaign is that an effective place brand activates the “spatial concentration of the means of production, population and infrastructure [as] a potent generative force that continues to ignite waves of capital accumulation” across similar projects around the world. It is important to remember that “[a] place brand does not refer to the physical, concrete characteristics of the place, but to the perception” of the nature of their existence by “linking variables or presenting substantiated causal relationships” from sign to metaphor to pataphor. Connecting semiotic symbols to spatial contexts is key to generating long-lasting place brand process coincidence inputs because “emergent qualities are causally relevant to the physical.” Ten years later, the Center’s revenue streams remain essentially identical:

  1. 41% from federal, state, and city government grants

  2. 19% from corporation and foundation contributions

  3. 14% from individual contributions

  4. 13% from special event revenue

  5. 6% from earned sources

  6. 2% from program fees

  7. 2% from in-kind donations

  8. 2% from its endowment

  9. 1% from community events

To effectuate this consistent (and desirable) organizational capacity, place brands must extend actual and virtual wayfinding to their stakeholders.

Actual wayfinding is more quantitative and has concrete, immediate returns on participation; virtual wayfinding is more qualitative and has abstract returns that either manifest over time or are indirectly beneficial. The University of Chicago’s Policy Research Team explains further:

“Because the built environment shapes the way residents interact and engage with each other, shared spaces, both residential and public, [...] can make or break the potential scope for community engagement. Well constructed communal spaces can foster community involvement and promote two important hallmarks of vibrancy — community engagement (which involves interaction amongst community members, creation of community programming, and collaboration to reach common goals) and a sense of ownership and belonging in their residences.”

Actual wayfinding means articulated spatial navigation options, like “equal access to communal spaces,” while virtual wayfinding means clarified sociological navigation options, as in “programming that encourages relationship-building across tenure groups.” Actual wayfinding means “[t]he location of the space should be easily accessible [...] and the times of operation of the space should also be set to be as inclusive as possible,” while virtual wayfinding means these place brand touchpoints “are practical preconditions for better schools, safer streets, faster economic growth, more effective government, and even healthier and longer lives.” These ecological concepts apply across scales, from buildings to regions to cities.

The Center is certified LEED® Silver and features four expansive, easily navigable elevations housing small, medium, and large conference rooms, classrooms, a theater, a reception hall, a rooftoop deck, and a gymnasium. About half of its eastern facade is historical, a polychrome terra-cotta exterior originally built by David Saul Klafter in 1924; it was dismantled and reconstructed during the Center’s development. For its first three years, the Center featured a controversial side door. It was only for members of the Center’s youth program, designed to provide users with privacy. However, after much backlash, the Center changed its policy — and now, all doors are accessible. These actual wayfinding touchpoints are just some of the ways the Center has adapted to process coincidence inputs. Other examples over time include:

  1. Arming security guards with guns (following bomb threats)

  2. Only employing LGBT security officers

  3. The inclusion of gender-neutral and unisex bathrooms

  4. Implementing a “restorative justice” program in partnership with Whole Foods

  5. Creating a senior housing project in partnership with Heartland Housing

On the other hand, these specific autopoietic products and services are also examples of place brands further entrenching “the construction of ‘premium ecological enclaves’ that are substantially delinked from extant infrastructural systems” — as neoliberal interventions that also “intensify inherited patterns of territorial exclusion.”

As place brands continue to engage in supply-side interventions, “they take a greater role in planning and funding infrastructure improvements, and they offer job retraining designed to provide a flexible labor force for the new economy.” As previously detailed, one distinct objective of place branding is to produce advocates who will protect the brand. Through community engagement, a sign eventually becomes a pataphor, “a sign that has the capacity to replicate ideas, and thus, memories.” Memories protect advocates’ own psychological identities, because effective brands “awaken emotions in interpreters that [...] create for themselves a branded consciousness.” Job (re)training and education programs that commoditize knowledge and expertise are necessary virtual wayfinding components needed to perpetuate the very systems that politically contextualize them.

As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes in 1992:

“We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure. [...] The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms. [...] The different internments or spaces of enclosure through which the individual passes are independent variables: each time one is supposed to start from zero, and although a common language for all these places exists, it is
analogical. On the other hand, the different control mechanisms are inseparable variations, forming a system of variable geometry the language of which is numerical. Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are modulations, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other.”

In consideration of these dynamics, it is of utmost importance to point out that youth, as developing stakeholders, are “our future leaders and thus must be considered key players in the process of building vibrant communities.” The Center on Halsted’s “Youth Program prepares young people for a responsible adulthood by offering assistance in preparing for and finding work,” and it is considered a cornerstone of the Center’s programming. As a category expense, the Youth Program has consistently ranked second at the Center, absorbing 18% of operating expense in 2006 and 17% in 2015, trailing only behind mental health services at 25% and HIV services at 25%, respectively.


Akerlof, George A. and Kranton, Rachel E. “Economics and Identity.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 105, 3, 2000.

Bennett, P.D. “Dictionary of Marketing Terms, Second Edition.” American Marketing Association, Chicago, 1995.

Center on Halsted. “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax Form 990.” United States Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, 2016.

Chicago Policy Research Team. “Building Vibrant Communities.” University of Chicago, 2016.

Gensler. “Center on Halsted Architectural Materials.” Chicago History Museum, 2005. Collection ID: 2009.0072.

Gensler. “Center on Halsted Visual Materials.” Chicago History Museum, 2007. Collection ID: 2009.0072.

Igleski, McGuire and Associates, Inc. “Center on Halsted Facade Restoration.”

Kohl, Robert & Valle, Modesto. “Center on Halsted: Supporting and Enriching Community.” Center on Halsted, 2007.

Sosin, Kate. “Center on Halsted CEO on Controversies, Five-Year Anniversary.” Windy City Times, 2012.

Thellefsen, L. T., Andersen, C., Sørensen, B., & Danesi, M. “A Semiotic Note on Branding.” Cybernetics & Human Knowing: A Journal of Second Order Cybernetics, Autopoiesis and Cyber-Semiotics, 2008.

Sevy Perez