“I want nothing less than for our efforts over the coming months to truly warrant a fifth star on our flag,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot told the Economic Club of Chicago on Wednesday — the second time in a week she's brought it up — as she laid out her plan for overcoming COVID-19.
That’s an ambitious goal, but does the Chicago flag really need another star? And if so, is COVID-19 the event worth commemorating with it?
One of the many wonderful things about Chicago's star-spangled banner is that, like the American flag, it’s designed to change with history. When the Chicago flag was first adopted, in 1917, it had only two stars: one for the Fire of 1871, another for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. A third star was added in 1933, for the Century of Progress. The fourth and final star was affixed to the flag in 1937, to honor the victims at Fort Dearborn. And so it’s remained.
Since then, there have been numerous proposals to add a fifth star: for the first nuclear chain reaction, at the University of Chicago; for the election of Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor; for the flood of 1992; for the Olympics, which never came to Chicago; for the Special Olympics, which were founded here.
None of those proposals went anywhere. And today, it may be more controversial than ever to add a fifth star.
That’s because four six-sided red stars have come to symbolize Chicago, appearing not just on the flag, but, as Robert Loerzel wrote for this magazine in 2013, “on T-shirts, hats, messenger bags, guitars, golf balls, coffee mugs, pillows, shower curtains, and bars of soap. Sometimes, the standard is distorted into new shapes — shamrocks, hearts, pizza slices — or its stars are replaced with sports logos.”
The Chicago Red Stars soccer team went so far as to take its name from the flag. If the city added a fifth star, they'd have to redesign their jerseys.
And then there are the tattoos. Chicagoans love inking four red stars on their flesh so much there’s a website devoted to the practice. Great Lakes Tattoo, in West Town, gets so many flag requests that it sells a “Know Your Flag” poster, which outlines the banner's history and symbolism:
Would flag bearers go back to tattoo parlors for a fifth star?
“I've had this question from friends before, especially when people were talking about adding a fifth star if we got the 2016 Olympics,” says Nicolle Neulist, who's had a Chicago flag tattoo on their left shoulder since 2007. “I'm leaving it unaltered, since the flag had four stars when I decided it meant enough to me to get it inked on my body for the rest of my life.”
Sara Lukens, who runs ChiTown Magpie, a Chicago-themed gift shop in Rogers Park, likes the flag the way it is. But she concedes that a redesigned flag could be good for business, since vendors would have to redesign all her tchotckes. The store sells “magnets, mugs, pillows, art, postcards, greeting cards, onesies,” Lukens said. “Everybody would want [a new] one, so guaranteed sales.”
Beyond the question of whether we should add a fifth star is whether COVID-19 warrants one. Two of the stars on the flag commemorate disasters that killed Chicagoans, but they were disasters that only affected Chicagoans.
“While some might argue that an added star might dilute the strong design value of the current flag, that would be an aesthetic judgment,” said Ted Kaye, secretary of the North American Vexillological Association, which rates Chicago as the second-best city flag, after Washington, D.C. “In my personal view, the COVID-19 crisis is global and not unique to Chicago, so it does not rate a new star on the city’s great flag.”
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa feels the same way. “Adding a 5th COVID-19 related star doesn't make any sense,” he tweeted. “Each of the 4 current stars represent a place/event that is unique to Chicago: Ft. Dearborn, Great Fire, 1893 Columbian Exposition, 1933 World's Fair. Is Chicago the only city facing COVID-19? Is our response unique?”
Lightfoot’s goal to make our COVID-19 response worthy of a fifth star is a noble one, and our flag is one of the greatest because it has room to accommodate further greatness. But both things can be true. This may not be the occasion for a new star, but Chicagoans ought to always strive to do something worthy of one.