The Equity Factor

Will New Museums and Parks Fight Chicago Crime?

Proponents think the city’s latest community-focused cultural boom can make a difference.

Maggie Daley Park is under construction in Chicago. (Rendering: MVVA)

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In times of tightening municipal budgets and cuts in federal funding, some City Halls get to make budgeting decisions with only local scrutiny from the city’s media and community activists. But in Chicago, two vastly different cultural scenes are making national headlines. As the city embarks on one of its biggest cultural booms in decades — with new parks, museums and festivals — stories about the felling of young citizens by gang gunshots reach from Boston to L.A.

In June, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Chicago would become the home of Star Wars creator George Lucas’ Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Then, during the July 4th weekend, 60 people were shot and nine killed, throwing the city under a wide critical spotlight. (To be sure, Chicago is not the most violent city, as a recent Pew Research Center study details.)

Newspaper editorials and some local politicians insist that Mayor Rahm Emanuel should focus on repairing gang-infested areas and improving the battered public school system. Yet many activists in the communities vying for some of the planned cultural institutions say that art and culture can be a major factor in renewing neighborhoods.

For his part, the Mayor’s on a mission to attract more international tourism to the Windy City. His goal is to bring 55 million visitors to town by 2020. “It’s not a challenge I expect to back down from,” he told me via email recently.

Chicago hasn’t only won over George Lucas: Backers of the pending national American Writers Museum have their hearts set on a Chicago location. (Both projects would be privately funded.) And, on a smaller scale, but no less grand and influential when it comes to neighborhood renewal, is the new Maggie Daley Park and the 606, an abandoned rail line being resurrected in the spirit of New York’s High Line.

Design plan for the American Writers Museum

A vision for The 606 in Chicago

Two other projects have potential to renew neighborhoods. Chicago is one of several cities vying to be the home of the the Barak Obama Presidential Library. Neighborhood leaders in Bronzeville and Hyde Park insist that building it on their turf would benefit the young by providing educational opportunities and instilling pride. (The Obamas maintain a home in the Kenwood section of Hyde Park.)

As a Chicago Tribune story notes:

Across the city, groups that work with troubled and disadvantaged youths are joining campaigns to draw the library to their neighborhoods. Not only do they see a presidential library as an economic engine that would generate jobs and revitalization, they view it as a catalyst for social change, a means to curb violence and instill hope.

However, Chicagoans are split over whether to use city funds to lure the project, according to poll results the Tribune released this week:

Less than half of those surveyed in a Chicago Tribune poll — 47 percent — said they favored the idea of using tax money to attract or build the library, while 45 percent said they opposed it and 8 percent were undecided. There was a gap along racial lines: 61 percent of black voters polled were in support and 60 percent of white voters opposed.

Organizers are billing October’s inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival as “what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans” and what the “Running of the Bulls is to Pamplona.” They’re “in 15 Chicago neighborhoods this summer with our Mobile Photo Factory, collecting thousands of stories of Grit & Resilience” to be presented at the $100,000 city-funded event — to take place on the Chicago River and neighborhoods throughout the city. The festival is part of Emanuel’s mission to turn the waterway into a cultural institution.

But who is this all for? Star Wars geeks? Or kids who walk out the door every day wondering if they will be shot? Lucas, the mayor and the committee that fought for the museum say it is for everyone. (Another recent Tribune poll of locals about the Lucas project showed that “six in 10 respondents said they would be likely to visit the museum.”)

Terry Nichols Clark, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and author of Can Tocqueville Karaoke, points out that “the rise in cultural participation in the last 20 years is more among lower- than upper-status persons.”

For Alderman Willie Cochran whose wards include the poor and crime-plagued Woodlawn and Englewood neighborhoods, creating culture and art outlets for the young are among his top priorities as a means to lower gang conflicts, increase education and create jobs.

Bart Schultz, a University of Chicago humanities and philosophy professor, heads the Civic Knowledge Project, which runs philosophy classes in disadvantaged neighborhoods. He says the Obama library “would really help the South Side. The Lucas Museum is a wonderful idea, but we also have to have cultural growth at the community level,” Schultz says.

Emanuel is working closely with Theaster Gates to expand arts and culture into the neighborhoods. Gates recently told the Chicago Sun-Times: “Sometimes we spend time on the wrong end of the narrative. We spend time on how violent the place is, how bad the schools are. But we also never give platform to the amazing things that are possible there.” He echoes the thoughts of many Chicago artists and community leaders. In essence, they say, it’s only through expression, pride and recognition that neighborhoods can rise from the ashes, and art and culture inspire learning. The boom in the Windy City is yet another of its Phoenix-rising transformations, but this time with more focus on community. And that, say creatives such as Gates, will make all difference.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Lori Rotenberk is an award-winning journalist based in Chicago. Her work appears on Grist and Civil Eats. She’s written for the Boston Globe and the New York Times and was a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times.

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