Pump up the Jam

Pump up the Jam

Shipping containers are being transformed into micro-retail kiosks for local entrepreneurs.
Courtesy Formed Space

Tactical urbanism is having a moment in Chicago. In 2013 the city elected to advance arts, culture, and retail for its 49 underused pint-sized public spaces. The gig went to Latent Design, who responded to a request for proposals with a pitch for micro-retail kiosks as a way to activate forgotten bits of the public sphere. The firm spent a year working with city departments and the mayor to craft an ordinance legalizing the sale of goods and services on public rights-of-way.

“We’ve done a number of design interventions, but eventually you have to move past the acupuncture and get to a system,” said Katherine Darnstadt, founder and principal of Latent Design. “This is a time of dwindling city services, so we’re asking through design and placemaking how we can decentralize services, bring arts and culture deeper into neighborhoods, and support small local businesses.”

Darnstadt brought the kiosk concept to design-build firm Formed Space. “Her idea was fantastic,” said Formed Space founder Conrad Szajna. “With a tight budget and quick turnaround, we chose to work with shipping containers.” Szajna sourced them from a container graveyard on the South Side for $1,000 to $3,500 a pop. He keeps to the lower end and the scrappers cut and weld onsite before delivering the modified containers to Formed Space’s warehouse.


The first modular, pre-fabricated Boombox was installed September 15 on a narrow Wicker Park plaza owned by the Chicago Department of Transportation. Over the next three years Latent Design will manage, develop, and brand (controversially) the kiosks and other installations across 600,000 square feet of public space—much like they’ve done with their pop-up People Spots.

For the prototype, Darnstadt and Szajna supplanted all four fixed walls with an accordion facet that creates nooks for storage so vendors won’t overwhelm their 200- to 400-square-foot sales floor with countertops and shelving. In the future, they may cut out the ceiling for extra clearance or double the depth by fusing containers. The hope is that Boomboxes will live at their sites for three years, but when it comes time to pack it in, collapsibility ensures a quick and easy relocation.

Rents at the first Boombox site will be on par with that stretch of the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, but a little cheaper than weekend festivals. “You can go to Renegade [Craft Fair] and be hot and sweaty or you can have your own storefront with air conditioning and steady foot traffic,” said Darnstadt.

It could be a proving ground for entrepreneurs with limited capital. Lease terms of two weeks to three months are the sweet spot, particularly in the warm season, but vendors can make a case for longer stays.

Latent Design took the space through September to work out the kinks. An Architecture Biennial installation settled in for October, a lending library booked it for November, and private vendors will arrive in December ahead of the holidays.