Sunday, November 3, 2013

“What Was Is Not Irrelevant”: Public Art in Humboldt Park


The following post first appeared over at General Admisison, a podcast dedicated to discussing and discovering art in Chicago. Check it out, yo. 


This past February I went on an unsatisfactory date with a gentleman who used to sleep in my bedroom. I thought he was a liar, but after listening to him describe the door to the fire escape located to the left of my bed, I decided that he was a creep who was maybe going to kill me.

“No!” he shouted when I asked him if this was the case. My date then proceeded to describe the mural across the street from my house, down to the burning cop car. This made me believe him, although I had never noticed the car he spoke of. I had only noticed the flames.
The first time I saw The Great Puerto Rican Wall: A Look at Our Legacy, I was apartment-searching with my roommate, gazing out of what would later become our living room window. It’s covered in gardenias and children and swirls and the alphabet and a declaration of Puerto Rican independence. Standing next to me, my roommate asked me if I minded living so close to the Family Dollar. I didn’t realize what she was talking about until she pointed out the store’s sign at the building’s front.

When she asked me that question, my immediate response was, Who cares? People do care, though. People care a lot about the type of building they live next to. I couldn’t tell you what half the businesses on my part of Division are, but I can tell you where the frog spray-painted on the sidewalk is, or what part of the Bloomingdale Trail you need to duck under in order to find the mural of strange and beautiful geometric shapes, and I’d recommend that if you want to go to the Walgreens at North and Western, you take Artesian, which passes La Crucifixión de Don Pedro Albizu Campos: a bright, stark mural depicting nine Puerto Ricans who struggled for independence from Spain and the United States, three of whom are depicted on crosses.

There is the art that people make and then there is the art that people make of this art: how they do or don’t treat the mural that needs to be touched up, what and where street artists and renegade youth choose to tag and paint, why someone put a cap on the statue of the man with the broom in January. Whether it’s officially sponsored or whether it springs up in the middle of the night, a neighborhood that has public art is a neighborhood that has not given up.

“[Humboldt Park] won’t become gentrified because of organizations like Bickerdike, etc., but even if half the neighborhood became young urban professionals, it’s very important to realize that they didn’t choose this place because they only want to live with people like themselves. Cities are a crossroads, where you can exchange, mix and match. You want a city to thrive, you want that mix. Maintaining mural traces are a testimony to what was, and what was is not irrelevant.”

This all comes out in one long breath from John Pitman Weber, a public artist with a great mustache and a mind as steady as his hand and quicker than my fastest mile pace. John chooses his words with humor and force. I get the feeling that he’s restraining himself from swearing because he thinks I am a lady.
We’re standing next to the scaffold he jumped from when I yelled, “Excuse me, sir, but do you mind if I take a coupla pictures?” It’s July, and I’m finishing up yet another illicit run on the old elevated Bloomingdale Trail when I pass by a mural I have long admired on the corner of Le Moyne and Rockwell. Today, it’s getting a little touch-up, courtesy of John and Alexy Lanza, a young man and fellow artist who is very friendly and also thinks, I get the sense, that I am insane. He might be right. I am very sweaty, but I have had a lot of questions about this mural and I can’t resist the opportunity to ask a few questions and snap a few pictures of these men at work.

Originally produced in 1971, Rompiendo las Cadenas depicts black, white, and brown hands as they clasp each other and break through the words injustice, racism, poverty, and drugs. These words are linked like steel on a background of protest—people, flowers, and a building on fire.

In the four decades since John first painted this mural, the building beneath it has undergone transformations that are as apt an example as any of the history this art is meant to record. The 47-unit-strong space went from being a privately owned apartment building to an abandoned burnt structure in the 80s. Now, 1456 N. Rockwell Street is part of a network of properties known as Borinquen Bella, an effort spearheaded by Latin United Community Housing Association to save multi-family housing in the neighborhood. I stand and watch now as Alexy’s brown hand carefully attends to the final details on a larger-than-life white one. To his right, a painted woman leans out a window. Her hand is up and outstretched, her mouth open. Behind her, the flames loom large.

There’s a rededication ceremony for the mural in August. In attendance are four women who had been children living in the building at the time of its first painting. I am unable to attend, but in September, John tells me on the phone that it was important. We talk for a long time about the history and various forms of public art. His knowledge is exceptional, and I find myself a little lost in the swirl of his words until the end, when he shares with me the type of identity public art gives him: “I become a neighborhood character,” he laughs, “in the neighborhood story.”

I get that. John describes the murals and mosaics he’s worked on in this city and in the world as “internal landmarks.” He’s right. These murals map out the city for me on my runs and bike rides more so than street names or the direction of the sun. “It’s the nature of urban living in general,” John says, “Especially for a town built on a grid. Physically I can be placed but psychologically I don’t know where the hell I am. People need points of reference.” And he’s right about that too. The public art in this city reminds me that I am in Chicago. The mural outside my living room window is how I knew I was home.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely love this... It would be cool if you added more photos (if you had them)

    ReplyDelete

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