Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Auburn-Gresham's Litter-Free Zone Keeps on Bagging

One of the more frustrating parts of being a South Side Chicagoan is lack of access to recycling. I speak from experience. As a South Sider without a car, it's been impossible for me to get recycling to a drop-off station, and now the city's much-criticized Blue Bag program has been discontinued, with only a handful of neighborhoods involved in the new Blue Cart recycling effort.

Things would be much better if I lived even further south, in Auburn Gresham. Last spring the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation kicked off a one-square-mile Litter Free Zone, which includes both door-to-door and curbside recycling. They got way ahead of the city's curve, which had Auburn Gresham slated to begin recycling until 2011. So far they've collected more than 65,000 pounds of recyclable materials.

According to this recent article at the GADC website, the Shedd Aquarium came down for a visit and is thinking about how to take the idea and work it into their own community partnerships.

Perhaps there some wisdom in here for the Obama administration to consider when thinking about green-collar jobs and neighborhoods.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Note to Transition Team: Hire Local to Weatherize

While scientists are celebrating one of their own getting the top spot at the U.S. Department of Energy, folks in Chicago are thinking about how Obama's promise to promote weatherization could benefit neighborhoods.

Late last week I spoke with Angela Hurlock of Claretian Associates, who wanted to know how to suggest to Team Obama while they're thinking globally about reducing energy use, they might want to start acting locally by training a corps of neighbors to help neighbors weatherize those 1 million homes a year.

Angela and many of her friends and neighbors in South Chicago are very interested in "green-collar" jobs and promoting energy efficiency and sustainability around the neighborhood. Recently, more than 30 neighbors came together to learn about LEED certification for homes and neighborhoods. They want to know how to make their existing homes greener, especially by reducing water and energy use.

Watch for an upcoming story on the New Communities Program web site about what they're learning.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Power of Five Challenge Bonus: Colby Luckenbill @ Colby Gallery

I'm going to give Colby Luckenbill of Colby Gallery the last word on Pilsen, art and community. In addition to running a gallery of international stature, Colby serves as a community rep on the Cooper Elementary Local School Council. She's been living in Pilsen for five years now.

Of her space, she said, "It's more of a salon-style gallery. It encourages civic activity and brainstorming, networking and inspiration." That was true. I engaged in more conversations with strangers about the art there than anywhere else. And I met a Little Village artist, Carolina I. Reyes, who was showing her own work in the Little Village Art Fest the next day.

Colby has been involved with Pilsen Open Studios since its inception. Although her gallery has shown works from many Latin American and especially Mexican artists, in 2005 she hosted a major retrospective of a German artist. "He was in his 80s and flew over for the show. It's a cultural exchange, showing local artists and artists from around the world. Art helps to connect the heart and the head. We need that in all aspects of life."

Like many of the artists I spoke with, she thought the open studios was a refreshing contrast to the more formalized and highly structured arts scene in East Pilsen, which is dominated by real estate mogul John Podmajersky, who made a conscious decision to rent his buildings to artists years ago in an effort to revitalize the area. While his plan has succeeded, some find the East Pilsen arts scene too controlled and too organized from the top down. "Here on the west side we think of it as one place. It's all Pilsen. It's open. It's artist-run. This has a certain kind of soul."

Power of Five Challenge #5: A Public Private Place

Much as Placemaking Chicago likes to stress accessibility being important to making a place, I think lots of us who like to ramble around Chicago want to know the cool hideaways, the spots somewhat off the beaten track.

The photo above is from one such hideaway. The Art House Studio in Pilsen is closer to the historic Heart of Italy strip at 24th and Oakley than it is to the bustling gallery scene along 18th east and west of Ashland. Outside it looks like just another pretty Chicago two-flat, but then you look in the garden apartment and see colors everywhere, like this:

The Art House is a space shared by Brazilian women artists living and working in Pilsen. Artist Patricia Peixoto says in addition to being part of events like Pilsen Open Studios, they have had their neighbors over for informal parties in the summertime. In this way, the Art House becomes both a hub for the immediate area and a bridge in and out of the neighborhood.

In October, Peixoto and longtime friend and colleague Magda Dejose showed off The White Garden, a set of peephole installations exploring femininity, and a set of paintings commemorating the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigration to Brazil. Like Colibri Gallery, the Art House hosts an event every fourth Saturday of the month. Theirs is an afternoon opening from 1 to 4 p.m. If you wanted to make a day of it, you could stitch a visit to their gallery together with a couple more great places, like stops at Tianguis and Golden Age, followed by a break at Cafe Mestizo and a leisurely dinner at Mundial Cocina Mestiza to keep you occupied until the fandango.

And that, my friends, is placemaking at its finest.

P.S. Since I cheated and gave you the same place twice earlier, I'm going to add a 5b with another space so you do get to see five cool Pilsen locales in this series. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Power of Five Challenge #4: Golden Age Gallery

Pilsen's Golden Age Gallery, co-owned by Marco Kane Braunschweiler and Martine Syms, showcases experimental music and limited-edition art books. The photo above shows the pair (center and right) with a customer (left) during Pilsen Open Studios. Earlier in the weekend, an entire busload of Northern Illinois University students stopped in on a tour.

Golden Age has been open a little more than a year now and was featured in the Chicago Reader in September. Artists themselves, Braunshweiler and Syms wanted to create a space featuring interesting yet affordable imports and hard-to-get items.

Their unusual blend of inexpensive retail items and high-end artworks gives artists wider exposure than they might receive in a traditional gallery setting. "As a retail store, we have really high volume compared to a gallery. We have 500 items. A gallery might only have 10 items," said Braunsweiler. "When we started last year it was really well received, and it's only getting better. The greater mission of this store is to develop an emerging artists' network."

Braunschweiler and Syms flexed their networking muscles from the get-go by consulting with Tianguis' Irasema Salinas on potential storefronts before settling on their current West 18th Street location. In addition to running Golden Age in Pilsen, they also live in the neighborhood.

"West Pilsen is a really nice place, especially right now. So many new things are happening and so many young people are coming, and yet it's such an established art center, with all the murals and the museum. West Pilsen is evolving in a really natural and beautiful way."

I asked Braunschweiler to comment on the relationship between the presence of artists in a neighborhood and the likelihood that neighborhood would be gentrified sooner or later. In response, he made the point that most artists are not wealthy, and steep rises in rents and property taxes force them to move, too. "That's the big ruse: artists benefit from gentrification," he noted.

"I think neighborhoods change. It's inevitable Pilsen will not be in 10 years what it is now," Braunschweiler added. The real problem is institutionalized racism. Gentrification is an aspect of that. The most important thing now is to open a dialogue. That's why we're trying to be a part of the Pilsen art world."

For more about Golden Age and its owners, see this interview.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Power of Five Challenge #3: Roberto Ferreyra @ Colbri Gallery

OK, I cheated, sort of. Colibri Gallery is the same place twice, but for a different reason each time. And that's a key part of what placemaking is all about. As Placemaking Chicago puts it, "What makes some places succeed while others fail? In part, it is having a variety of things to do in one spot." Colibri Gallery has taken that idea to heart.

On the fourth Saturday of each month, the gallery becomes dance hall and jam session in one. Ferreyra and at least half a dozen musical friends play drums, violin and a variety of guitars, including small ones popular in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Veracruz. It's the monthly fandango, featuring traditional Mexican music but not limited to that style. For example, Colombian folk music and Cuban Jose Marti's "Guantanamera," made famous by Pete Seeger here in the U.S. were on the ticket both times I've stopped by. UPDATE: This month the fandango will be taking a break for the holidays.

After midnight, people carried out a wooden stand to dance on. The dance involved lots of complex rhythmic footwork. To me it looked a little like tap. A beginner got out there with her friend and they did a simple pattern I tried to keep up with from my seat. For another take on the fandango, click here.

Unfortunately, I don't have any audio of this fandango to share, but I can highly recommend Sones de Mexico as Pilsen and Chicago's finest traditional Mexican folk ensemble. About this time last year, they were featured on NPR when their album Es Tierra Es Tuya (This Land Is Your Land) was nominated for Best Folk Album. On their own web site, you can listen to a clip of "Huapango Club Remix," which gives you a bit of the flavor of what you might hear on a Saturday night at Colibri.

Colibri Gallery's fandango will resume on the fourth Saturday of January, 2009. Suggested donation is $8. Sometimes there's a raffle of nice art, too. Hope to see you there sometime!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Power challenge: What's your number?

Okay, Maureen Kelleher, if your intent with those Power of Five posts about Pilsen artists was to get us to wonder what you're talking about, it worked.

But I'm confused.

When I went to, I found out what the idea meant, except that they call it the Power of 10. Twice as good as your version?

Whatever the number, it's a terrific concept: that a "place" has to be more than one popular attraction or person or landmark, but a whole collection of things that make people want to be there. I've started tallying it up for my home community of Rogers Park and we've got Power of 100 up here -- No, Power of 1,000! – but come to think of it so do most neighborhoods.

I like it. And I wonder if the NCP neighborhoods might start creating attractive Google or Yahoo maps with photos and locations, showing their powers to the world.

New life blooms in Washington Park

One remarkable thing about the final planning "summit" in Washington Park on Saturday morning was that the big room at St. Edmund's Church was almost full by 9:30 a.m. despite two inches of fresh snow outside. Another was that after a full year of sometimes-contentious planning meetings – and at least six detailed rewrites of the evolving plan – the crowd was as enthusiastic as ever. These 50 people and about 170 other participants had gotten to know each other across the months of talking, touring and debating the future of their community.

And they were feeling pretty good about the whole darn thing.

The meeting itself was almost perfunctory. After Alderman Willie Cochran welcomed the crowd and cracked a few jokes, community leaders ran through the high points of the plan and then declared the formal part of the meeting over. But there was "Willie's Chili" in crock pots on a table in back, and flowering bulbs in decorative pots for everyone to take home, and sign-up sheets for each of the strategy areas.

People talked, committed themselves on the sign-up sheets, talked some more, took photos and promoted their latest programs. They did business, talked about the economy and wished each other a happy holiday.

They hung together for more than an hour talking about all the things that people in a healthy community talk about, and to me, that's a pretty clear sign that the planning process worked. Now the hard work of implementation can begin.

Read Richard Muhammad's full report on the Washington Park NCP web site. Also thanks to Richard for the photos.

Power of Five Challenge #2: Montserrat Alsina @ Colibri Gallery

(Photo: Visitors at Colibri Gallery during Pilsen Open Studios. The woman on the left holds this year's "passport.")

Printmaker, dancer, performance artist and community-builder Montserrat Alsina was instrumental in organizing this year's Pilsen Open Studios. One of her bright ideas was to create a "passport" -- a small booklet which visitors could take with them and have the artists sign or stamp. Visitors were encouraged to tear out the last page of the passport with their comments and put it in a raffle to win free art classes, a t-shirt or a print.

Though the idea was to use this as a carrot to draw young people--the passports were distributed at three local schools before the weekend event--older folks used it, too. "When I was going on the bus, I saw the grownups were getting really into it! They were going up to the artists and getting their signatures," she said.

The studio/gallery space she shares with her husband, Roberto Ferreyra, was the starting point for this year's tour. The gallery features not only their own prints and drawings but also work from Mexican artists with whom they have arranged an exchange program.

As the weekend wound down, Alsina observed they had met the goal of drawing more local residents. "I'm seeing more people from the community." Though often artists' communities are associated with a rise in property taxes and changing neighborhoods, she and other West Pilsen artists see their role as based in the existing community. "We want to keep people here and the children here and the taxes down. There's a lot of things that can be done in the community."

It's tough to raise Pilsen's profile in a positive way without accelerating gentrification, but it can be done by building community from the inside out. "You take the risk that more people will want to move this way and it will change us. If we stay together as artists and communicate more with the Latino community, I think we can encourage people to stay here."

For more information about Alsina, check out this post from art pilsen.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Power of Five Challenge #1: Giselle Mercier @ Tianguis

It took a little longer than I intended, but here's a snippet from artist Giselle Mercier, whose studio is upstairs from Tianguis, a fabulous cafe featuring fine teas and contemporary Latina/o literature you won't always find elsewhere. The store is also a cosponsor of the amazing bilingual spoken word showcase, Proyecto Latina, which will celebrate the start of its fourth year on January 19. Tianguis is very convenient, located right across the street from the entrance to the Pink Line's Damen Avenue stop.

Mercier is both a teaching and a working artist. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, she now teaches there and at Columbia College. Mercier's own artistic work is grounded in her experience coming to the United States from Panama in the early 1980s. She often reuses the same objects in piece after piece. Thus, while each of her altarpieces or installations may not be permanent,the objects that make them up live on in her work over time. "I do a lot of work that has to do with rebuilding memory," she said. "If you become displaced, objects can give you back roots."

Mercier had a great time showing her work at Tianguis during Pilsen Open Studios. While we chatted over cups of tea, Tianguis' owner Irasema Salinas introduced Mercier to new friends. An old friend of Mercier's also stopped by, halting our interview for a long, welcoming hug. "It's been really great," said Mercier. "People have been asking lots of questions, being very open about their compliments."

Tianguis got its start as two foldout tables at an Open Studios location in 2005 and has supported the event ever since. But this year, the double whammy of Pilsen Open Studios and the Little Village Arts Fest in the same weekend was too much. "Having Little Village and Pilsen in the same weekend is tough. You can't do both," said Salinas. And she wanted to, since she's lived in Little Village all her life.

Giselle Mercier and Tianguis are the first installment in the Power of Five Placemaking Challenge, inspired by Placemaking Chicago.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Auburn Gresham's Rising Star: Ronnie Mosley

Ronnie Mosley, pictured here in his prom tux, is a young man of many talents. Now a senior at Simeon High School, he's been an intern with the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation and served on the planning team for Elev8 at Perspectives-Calumet Middle School. He's also received an award from the National Foundation for Youth Entrepreneurship. (Photo credit: Carlos Nelson.)

This week, Catalyst Chicago published an interview with Ronnie in his role as an honorary student member of the Chicago Board of Education. He shadows board president Rufus Williams, attends board meetings, and will soon sit down with his fellow honorary student members to craft an action agenda and bring it to the board by June 2009. Check out his take on funding, safety and health as they relate to Chicago schools, among other issues, by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Neighborhoods, Social Capital and Schools Part II

Today's Chicago Schools Policy Luncheon featured students from Orr High School talking about the effects of last year's decision to "turnaround" Orr by putting all the adults' jobs up for grabs. Last year was the fourth time in a decade Orr has faced wholesale restructuring. So far, none of these efforts have showed lasting academic improvement for students.

Here's the quote of the day, from senior Antwan Ward, which sparked spontaneous applause:

"I think that the reason why the school has been turned around so many times is because of the community. There’s nothing being done in the community to help that community grow. If you don’t put anything positive in a community then the negative things in the community is going to seep into the school around it. And if you don’t put anything positive in the neighborhood, it doesn’t matter how many times you turn the school over; you’re going to get the same results each and every time."

Five Chicago neighborhoods and schools are now working together to put more positive resources in both places through Elev8. Thanks to Elev8, students at all five schools are getting better nutrition, free shots and physicals and new after-school programming. Reavis Elementary in North Kenwood had standing-room-only parent presence at a showcase of summer program activities last August. Marquette Elementary in Chicago Lawn has teachers making home visits to schools. Perspectives Calumet Middle School is working to promote student safety and reduce gang participation, and Ames Middle School is pioneering age-appropriate sex education for early teens.

For more on Elev8, check out this Catalyst Chicago story from September.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Englewood's Viaduct

I just happened upon this cool post over at the Windy Citizen, featuring Growing Home and the viaduct right next to it. Last summer I went up on that viaduct with some neighbor kids and had a great time. Unfortunately, the poster encountered a pack of stray dogs. Fortunately, everything turned out OK.

Last summer when I went up there I thought of the Bloomingdale Trail. Oh, for the day when the Bloomingdale Trail is done and Englewood is safe enough to think about a similar park.