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Public Art Beyond Downtown: Assessing Art Initiatives on the Northwest Side of Chicago

Clifford D. Deaton


This paper explores the creation and implementation of two different public art initiatives on the Northwest side of Chicago. The first is a sculpture park and healing garden in the Albany Park neighborhood planned by a local community development organization, while the second is a mural initiative in the 45th Ward coordinated by the alderman’s office. Through analysis of both interviews and site visits, this paper demonstrates that communities take up art initiatives for the perceived benefits of both economic growth and community development. This paper finds that political fragmentation is a major problem for urban art initiatives. Art initiatives led by the 45th Ward alderman have been generally more successful in the short-term because political leadership avoids the worst effects of fragmentation, but this paper theorizes that community-led projects have the potential to be more durable over time because they don’t have to contend with electoral turnover. While there is no direct evidence demonstrating a positive connection between art initiatives and economic development, the paper concludes that community development is a tangible result of art initiatives. Along with focused leadership, community involvement in the planning and implementation stages of an art initiative is of vital importance to the overall success of the project. Furthermore, the successful inclusion of local aerosol artists within the 45th Ward project signals the benefits of integrating this vital arts community in urban art initiatives.

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This research has been supported by the Echols Memorial Grant, Department of Political Science, University of Illinois at Chicago.


1Cities and public art have long been connected. From the ancient world until today, rulers and governments have sought to memorialize events and demonstrate greatness through monuments and public art. But since the era of mass tourism in the 19th century, public art has been increasingly used by cities to attract new residents and visitors, and to provide a spectacle worthy of global attention. With the shift from an industrial to a more ‘flexible’ post-modern economy, art and culture driven growth has become increasingly an important part of a city’s revenue stream and an increasingly important factor shaping the demographic makeup and public identity of a city (Harvey 1999). As the competition for global tourist dollars increases, artistic public works like waterfront plazas, sculpture gardens, and museums have become a staple in each city’s tourist portfolio (Judd and Fainstein 1999). Given these changes, it seems that global cities like Chicago require great public art.

2Downtown Chicago is currently renowned for its works of public art. From Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, more commonly called the “Bean”, to the Pritzker Pavilion designed by the internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry, Chicago’s Millennium Park is the location where tourists and locals alike can experience site-specific art designed for a public audience. Of course, the city has had a longstanding commitment to public art downtown. As early as the City Beautiful movement in the 1890s and the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, Chicago sought out tourism and visual spectacle through public art (Boyer 1996: 268). In the 1960s, Chicago’s Daley Plaza became home to the well-known Chicago Picasso, and by the 1990s, the Magnificent Mile along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue was the location of the first Cow Parade exhibition in the United States. The City of Chicago has made a big commitment to beautifying its downtown, attracting global attention and tourist dollars with impressive displays of public art. As of 1978, new and renovated municipal construction in Chicago is required to reserve 1.33% of total cost for original public art. There is no stipulation for the ‘percent for public art’ on any construction other than that paid for by the city.

3Discussing these downtown changes begs the question of the current condition of public art in less-central urban areas. Many great works of art, such as murals and sculpture, exist in neighborhoods beyond downtown, but little is known about how public art initiatives work in the patchwork of neighborhoods and political wards that make up the vast majority of the ‘Windy City,’ especially since recent research has demonstrated the spatial and economic polarization taking place between urban downtowns and their respective neighborhoods in many post-industrial cities (Mallach 2015). Hence the goal of this article is to show some of the ways Chicago neighborhoods are using public art to mitigate this polarization. In addition, how are political, economic, and social forces shaping public art initiatives in Chicago neighborhoods, and what potential benefits can accrue to a city neighborhood that invests in public art? This paper explores these important questions through a comparative analysis of public art projects on the Northwest side of Chicago.

Understanding public art on the Northwest side of Chicago

4Figure 1 shows the Northwest side, located north of Diversey Avenue, and west of the Chicago River. Unlike the Chicago lakefront and wealthy neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Lakeview, the Northwest side of Chicago has not been the site of massive expenditures of public and private money on art. This area of Chicago is not a legal or administrative district, but rather a name for the portion of the city between the predominantly African-American west side neighborhoods like Austin and the predominantly white and affluent north side. The Northwest side is an ethnically diverse district, home to the well-known Milwaukee Avenue Polish corridor from Avondale in the south to Jefferson Park in the north, as well as Korea Town in Albany Park, and a large Latino population distributed across the entire area. The district is also diverse in economic terms as well. For example, Albany Park is one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse communities in the city, while Jefferson Park is a primarily white, middle-class and residential neighborhood home to many city employees. Ethnicity and class perspectives inform the character of the urban landscape on the Northwest side, including the linguistic variation in signage for shops, the architectural style of churches or community buildings, and the subject matter of murals like the depictions of internationally-famous buildings on the underpass at the intersection of Irving Park and Pulaski roads. Ethnically-informed visual displays like those on the Northwest side have the power to affirm and create a community’s identity.

Figure 1: The Northwest side of Chicago

Figure 1: The Northwest side of Chicago

Source: the author, 2015. Note: the neighborhoods of Avondale, Albany Park, Irving Park, Jefferson Park, and Portage Park are highlighted in orange. The central business district is highlighted in pink.

5Chicago’s Northwest side might not have the attention of the global art world, but it is currently a laboratory for compelling art initiatives that have the potential to reshape the area politically, economically, and culturally. Though success and failure depend on many factors, including the territorially-fragmented political boundaries and access to capital financing, the research presented here demonstrates that successful art initiatives have the potential to beautify the neighborhood, grow a sense of community identity and public safety through resident engagement, while also creating the sense that economic development and new residents are coming to the area.

6The insights on local art initiatives discussed in this paper are developed out of fifteen semi-structured interviews conducted from the fall of 2013 to the fall of 2014, as well as observational data gathered during three site visits. The site visits included a sculpture garden in Albany Park and two guided murals walks in Chicago’s 45th Ward, a jurisdiction located across most of Jefferson Park and parts of Portage Park and Irving Park. Interviewees include the alderman and aldermanic staff in the 45th Ward, the U.S. 5th District staff that serve a wide swath of the north side of Chicago, city offices like the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and city-wide funding organizations like Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago, local community arts organizations including Arts Alive Chicago, community development organizations including the North River Commission (NRC), local chambers of commerce, and public artists themselves. The interviewees were all committed to a range of support of public art initiatives, but had a range of opinions on what art can actually accomplish for communities outside of downtown.

7All interviewees suggested that the primary restriction on initiating and completing art initiatives was financial; lack of access to capital funds and the high cost of insurance and upkeep have prevented many well-planned and community supported projects from continued success, including the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Gardens in the Albany Park neighborhood. Additionally, this study of Chicago’s Northwest side demonstrates that political, ethnic, and economic fragmentation shapes the success and failure of many art initiatives. Even so, community groups, arts organizations, and aldermanic offices on the Northwest side are confronting the challenges of fragmentation and tight economic situations to create public art, and are having demonstrable success in doing so.

8The rest of this article is divided into three sections. The first develops a conceptual framework that puts into perspective the multiple forces and relationships shaping art initiatives in non-urban core communities. This section draws on the work of Jane Jacobs (1961) and others on neighborhood development, such as Miwon Kwon’s (2002) work on site-specific public art, as well as scholars of political fragmentation. The framework suggests that there are many challenges to creating public art, but that new art initiatives have the potential to transform a community in positive ways by beautifying the urban landscape, increasing civic engagement and public safety, and by drawing in new economic development to the area.

9The findings section is an account of successful and less than successful art initiatives across Chicago’s Northwest side. It presents a portrait of the converging and diverging forces related to public art on the Northwest side of Chicago by painting a description of fifteen successful mural projects organized in Chicago’s 45th Ward, as well as the stalled development of the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden and the successfully sited public sculpture at the CTA station in Albany Park. Success is loosely defined by the completion of the project, since completion is a challenge in and of itself, but also by assessing the type of contribution an initiative makes to the wider community. Successful projects create a more lively and beautiful visual landscape in the neighborhood, increase the participation of local residents either in the planning or execution stages of particular projects, and ideally increase economic opportunities for long-time residents. Assessing an economic contribution is certainly the most challenging aspect of evaluating successful art initiatives, and is the point at which many of the public art projects on the Northwest side fall short. There is as yet not enough evidence to suggest that art initiatives on the Northwest side have, in fact, stimulated economic growth while also combating blight and involving the community. Finally, successful projects showcase the various artistic styles and character of the neighborhood by employing local artists and creatively representing the people who live there.

10The discussion section synthesizes the insights presented in the findings sections and lays out the general conditions for successful public arts projects, including policy implications for local leaders and community groups that want to take up art initiatives. Overall, understanding the level of political fragmentation that exists within the neighborhood is of primary importance. Political and administrative divisions within and across neighborhoods can make or break a public art initiative. The costs associated with making and siting public sculpture can also be prohibitive for some communities; by contrast, mural projects are generally inexpensive and have the potential to create a dramatic change in the visual landscape.

11Regardless of the type of project, it is critical to gain public input on public art initiatives. Some form of community involvement in the planning process, either in the form of an arts advisory council or community meetings, is necessary for a project to have long-term viability. The input of presumably supportive community members helps to sanction a work of public art, transforming it from simply a publicly-visibly work of art into an aspect of a growing community. Furthermore, the reshaping of the visual landscape may also be a transformation (or even a creation of) the community itself. Attention must be paid to how public art can attract new residents and new economic development, potentially leading to gentrification. The displacement of current residents in favor of higher income residents drawn to the neighborhood by a growing arts scene must be tempered by a renewed commitment by local leadership to implement housing policy and zoning that supports those already-existing people, networks, and spaces that made local art initiatives succeed in the first place.

What can public art do for a community?

12In her influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs (1961: 372) argues that the city is not a work of art. For Jacobs, art is a mostly individualistic practice, and even though utopian planners created unique townscapes, no one individual should try to determine the shape of a city; to do so would be an injustice to the complex and interdependent nature of urban life. Yet for her, cities have a visual landscape, and a diverse and interesting landscape is one component of a healthy neighborhood. Having short blocks with many different architectural styles, as well as eye-catching and thought provoking murals or sculptures creates an experience for the resident and the visitor alike, potentially drawing attention and dollars to a community. Jacobs (1961: 375) suggests that neighborhoods should employ a “strategy ennobling both to art and to life: a strategy of illuminating and clarifying life”. Public art has the potential to help urban residents better understand their community overall by developing a sense of collective urban experience through publicly placed murals or sculptures; it can put more ‘eyes on the street’ as residents feel more comfortable walking their block, and it can offer insight on healthy roles for residents within the community. Furthermore, a heighted sense of neighborhood community has the potential to lead to fewer ‘broken windows’ or indicators of decay and vandalism, as residents take greater care of their area and become more willing to report vandalism (Sampson 2012).

13In recent years, other scholars and researchers have begun to consider what public art can do for urban neighborhoods both in terms of community development and economic growth. The potential benefits of art initiatives include “increasing tourism, stabilizing property values, and promoting jobs. Other, less tangible benefits are improving intercultural relationship and building a more cohesive, participatory civic life” (Mattern 2001: 1). In his study, Lee (2013) demonstrates that participation in art initiatives can lead directly to community groups developing tighter bonds among members, while also reaching out and incorporating new members. The famous Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky (1971) suggested similar insights, demonstrating how protests against development and community meetings can galvanize a neighborhood for positive social change. Grodach (2010) suggested that the ability of art initiatives to realize both a positive civic and economic impact is directly related to the particular public spaces in which they are located, and that a greater attention to the environment of an area can enhance that impact. An example of this closer attention to public space can be seen in New York’s ‘tactical urbanism’ where motivated residents take on beautification projects themselves (Lydon 2012), or Toronto’s Articipation arts collective use of public art to improve the most inhospitable locations within the city, such as underneath the Gardiner Expressway (Stonyk 2006).

14The selection of a location is crucial to the success of an arts initiative. Carter (2012: 335) argues that the “location of a work of art must always be sanctioned [by the community] if it is not to be irreverently defaced and in all likelihood destroyed”. There is always the chance for defacement in any setting; yet community-sanctioned projects have a reduced likelihood of vandalism because they incorporate more neighborhood voices into the planning and execution of the public art project. People can come together around a public art project, but to increase a project’s durability within the community it must be one that is generated within, or is at least sanctioned by, that community.

15While community sanction is important for neighborhood art projects, a large public work like Millennium Park in Chicago may escape the need for neighborhood sanctioning for two reasons: the park is well guarded by foot patrols and cameras day and night to deter vandalism, and the area around Millennium Park is not primarily a residential area. While there were (and are) many complaints about the cost of the park, it is generally beloved by the people of Chicago, visiting tourists, and is a major component of downtown Chicago’s economic growth (Kamin 2014). If a downtown project like Millennium Park is to be sanctioned, then it would need to be sanctioned by the community that is the entire city of Chicago, a singular abstraction that does not exist. Justifications for public art like Millennium Park are created through use by tourists and locals alike, and through increasing city revenue.

16As suggested above, public art projects are always site-specific. In her pathbreaking work One Place after Another, Miwon Kwon (2002: 5) repositions the process of public, site specific art as a spatial and political problem. Since the 1970s, site specificity has become a “programmatic imperative [of] local, state, and national public art agencies” which “presumed the humanizing influence of art over the inhumanity of urban architecture”. Simply put, site specificity means that a work of art is created in tandem with the redevelopment of an existing urban space. Each work of art is therefore unique and uniquely positioned within urban space; it cannot be disentangled from its urban context. Siting is a political process that ideally takes into account the passions of a community, as well as the desires for redevelopment or beautification. Site specific works of art, like the murals at the intersection of Irving Park Road and the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago that describe the history of Old Irving Park, or Josh Garber’s Hope and Renewal sculpture built at the Kimball Brown Line CTA station in Albany Park, demonstrate their meaning precisely because of their position within urban space.

17As Kwon suggests, the political situation in urban neighborhoods directly influences the scope and success of public art initiatives. Political fragmentation, the multiple layering of governmental jurisdiction or authority within and across urban areas, has long been considered an important factor in urban governance (Morgan and Mareschal 1999, Ostrom et al. 1961). Moreover it is a factor that often, unfortunately limits the potential for redevelopment and healthy urban change (Judd and Swanstrom 2014). The visual and historic landscape of Chicago, as with many other cities, is shaped by this fundamental urban reality. Zhang (2013) argues that Chicago’s ward structure creates a system of territorial fragmentation, where the city is divided up into aldermanic ‘fiefdoms’. She demonstrates that projects within a single ward or led by an alderman have a greater chance for success, but that major urban projects like historic preservation are difficult, if not impossible to implement across aldermanic wards. In terms of public art, Zhang’s analysis suggests that alderman’s offices have the power to support art initiatives as long as those projects are located within a single ward, and that public art projects that cross ward boundaries or that do not have the blessing of the alderman are less likely to succeed.

18The existence of multiple authorities within a single neighborhood, or the misfortune of having a neighborhood divided into multiple aldermanic wards, can make it difficult to realize a project even when many community members are behind it. This is because local leaders or community groups may be reluctant to take on the risks of an art initiative if they believe that they will not reap full reward for the project because that project crosses a political boundary. Furthermore, public utilities like the Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and public corporations like the Chicago Transit Authority or the Chicago Parks District own portions of many neighborhoods, and have different policies and requirements for their property. Their interest in and ability to support an art initiative may be very limited, even when a local community group or alderman supports a project. The existence of fragmented authority shapes the site specific nature urban public art at its most basic level.

19Site specific public art is also part of the larger political economy of a city. Market forces shape neighborhoods and direct flows of labor, foster local investment, and have brought stability to some, and boom or bust to other cities depending on their position within the global economy. Globalization and deindustrialization have transformed Chicago’s economy from an industrial powerhouse into a postindustrial service and tourism economy. Unfortunately for Chicago and other American cities, urban economic policy has shifted away from large-scale public sector investment in neighborhoods that could provide for healthy communities (Sassen 2012). In large part, the federal government has adopted market-based economic strategies, leading to a cut in funding for urban areas. This reality has forced municipalities to solicit private investments by issuing bonds and establishing tax increment finance (TIF) districts in order to cover the costs of neighborhood development (Judd and Swanstrom 2014). Chicago and other cities have chosen to subsidize private sector development, especially in the downtown core, to the detriment to outer-ring neighborhoods (Sampson 2012, Mallach 2015). These restrictions suggest that there will be fewer capital investment opportunities to pay for large-scale art projects in areas like the Northwest side of Chicago, and that neighborhood art initiatives will be largely implemented through volunteer community engagement and small grants or donations.

20Even as there are fewer dollars in city budgets to support art initiatives, especially at the neighborhood level, many scholars have suggested that public art and artists living within a community can be a potential driver of economic development. In his much criticized The Rise of The Creative Class, Richard Florida (2014) argues that people with artistic temperament and training have become a new innovative cohort that will shape urban life and the future political economy. As talented and creative workers begin to favor urban over suburban living, and thus move back to the city, dynamic neighborhoods have the potential to attract those residents and create a positive feedback loop where those new creative residents foster further economic growth. Richard Lloyd (2010) documented this phenomenon in the Chicago neighborhood of Wicker Park during the 1990 and 2000s. The case of Wicker Park demonstrates that artists can be urban pioneers, gentrifying the landscape and preparing the neighborhood for dramatic increases in property values and an influx of wealthier residents drawn to the ‘grit and glamour’ of culturally dynamic neighborhoods. The effects of gentrification show up in rising housing prices, higher rents, displacement, and demographic change, and often entail a transformation of the physical and cultural landscape of the neighborhood (Betancur 2011). Ultimately Lloyd (2010) and Betancur (2011) demonstrate that gentrification can price artists out of the new community that they help to create.

21Located beyond a gentrified areas like West Town, the Northwest side of Chicago has experienced less demographic change overall than more centrally-located neighborhoods. For example, Wicker Park/Bucktown portion of West Town has seen a dramatic increase in the non-Hispanic white population, from 35% in 1990 to 58% of the population in 2007 and a reduction in the Hispanic population by 23% over the same time period (WPB SSA 2009). But as wealthy demographic groups move back to urban areas, and as these localities actively use art initiatives as an economic engine, the future of Chicago’s Northwest side may be parallel to that of Wicker Park and other gentrified neighborhoods only a few short miles to the south. The Northwest side shares some traits with the Wicker Park of the 1990s: it is located along the Blue and Brown CTA “EL” lines with easy access to downtown, and there are many low-rent buildings available to repurpose as art studios or ‘live-work’ spaces. While unfettered gentrification is a threat to the health of a community, many of the local politicians and community organizers interviewed for this research suggested that attracting more artist-types could signal a bright future for their neighborhood.

Art initiatives on the Northwest side

22A general overview of the interviews conducted on the Northwest side of Chicago demonstrates the range of art projects highlighted for this study. The primary focus of this study is to deal with visible public art projects, specifically murals and sculpture. A majority of the interviewees, ten out of fifteen, discussed their involvement with planning or painting murals, or were involved with the long process of funding, creating, and siting sculpture within the community. Seven of the fifteen interviewees expressed their support for such community projects as local theaters and public theatrical productions, publicized art walks and street festivals, and community gardens that work as a form of neighborhood beautification. Interviewees, in seven of the fifteen interviews, also specifically voiced a desire for more theaters, restaurants, and music venues within the area. Finally, a slightly smaller portion of the interviewees, only six out of fifteen, voiced support for change within a neighborhood, emphasizing the economic benefits that can accrue to a locality by attracting new, higher-income residents. Many of the other interviewees questioned the uneven development can come as a result of a growing arts scene.

23Overall there were two large themes that became apparent over the course of conducting these interviews: that art initiatives can be a tool to bring communities together and foster a sense of public safety, and that there is a perception that art initiatives can be an economic engine to drive neighborhood revitalization. This section deals with both of these themes through two Northwest side case studies, one on the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden and nearby ‘EL’ station in Albany Park, and the other a mural initiative in Chicago’s 45th Ward.

Sculpture initiatives in Albany Park

24The most common element emphasized by interviewees was the role art could play as a positive force for civic involvement. Interviewees from Albany Park described civic involvement as the primary purpose for the creation of the Multicultural Park and Healing Garden. Planned and located at Ronan Park, a plot of land managed by the Chicago Parks District along the Chicago River in the Albany Park Neighborhood, this sculpture park is intended as a space to bring together the diverse residents who live in the area. Albany Park, a neighborhood roughly two square miles in area with a population of about 51,000 residents, is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Chicago, and among the most diverse places in the country. Calling itself ‘Chicago’s Gateway to the World’, Albany Park is the primary port of entry for immigrants from Korea, the Philippines, and Guatemala, as well as many other countries (Albany Park Chamber of Commerce 2014). It is also home to the Cambodian Association of Illinois, and a sizable Cambodian population, many of whom are refugees from that country. As demonstrated in Figure 2, the neighborhood is also fragmented politically; both before and after the 2010 census Albany Park was cut up among three different wards, currently the 33rd, 35th, and 39th Wards (Ramos 2012).

Figure 2: Ward Fragmentation on the Northwest Side

Figure 2: Ward Fragmentation on the Northwest Side

Source: the author, 2015. Note: Albany Park is divided by the 33rd, 35th, and 39th Wards. The 45th Ward is highlighted in blue.

25According to the interviews conducted in Albany Park, the Multicultural Park and Healing Garden was initiated through the expressed desires of many different community members for a new public space. During a series of community meetings held in 2004 and 2005 by Albany Park’s North River Commission (NRC), the local community development organization, a five year plan was developed to facilitate the creation of this new park. Two public figures were instrumental in developing and actualizing this plan: Kompah Seth from the Cambodian Association of Illinois and Mark McKernan, an art professor at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), a university located in Albany Park (R. Rico, personal interview, August 19, 2013). Diverse opinions were voiced during public meetings, and the large group was unable to develop a coherent design for the park. Tannys Langdon, architect and local resident, was tapped to be the park’s designer. During a NRC community meeting, Langdon had community members draw what they imagined the park should look like and took those designs, synthesizing them into what would become the final architectural plan (T. Langdon, personal interview, October 1, 2013). A plot of land owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) on the east side of the river was the initial site chosen as the location for the park, but the planned location of the park was moved across the river to Ronan Park after the MWRD pulled out of the project over security concerns. The Chicago Parks District, the owner of Ronan Park, proved a more reliable partner for the sculpture park initiative by providing the 7.5 acre portion of Ronan Park as the location for the new sculpture park (Multiple interviews, 2013).

26The purpose of the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden is to provide Albany Park residents a place where they can ‘bump into and experience art’ (M. McKernin, personal interview, September 3, 2013). The plan originally was to have sculptures rotated in and out of the park on a regular basis and Northeastern Illinois University provided the sculptures that were installed for the 2011 groundbreaking. Created by NEIU students, and financed by the university, the three works of art were created to “reflect the culture and community of residents” (Silva 2011). One interviewee suggested that the sculptures helped the university art students engage with the local community and provided them with employment. This interviewee also suggested that struggling artists do not always receive due credit for the effort they put into public art projects, referencing specifically a mural painted by students in the Avondale neighborhood, also on the Northwest side (M. McKernin, personal interview, September 3, 2013). Artists are often asked to work for nothing, or for the exposure that a piece can bring, but for many interviewees this is not a sufficient reward. Interviewees across the Northwest side suggested that successful art initiatives must support the valorization of local artists, while also securing funding to actually pay those artists for their hard work (Multiple interviews, 2013 and 2014).

27The hard work put into the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden came to fruition in 2011 when the community and local leaders broke ground on the project, but progress on the sculpture park has stalled in recent years. After the initial sculptures were vandalized, they were removed and no new sculptures have been installed (M. McKernin, personal interview, September 3, 2013). Multiple interviewees suggested that the cost of insurance for public sculptures makes the siting of such works prohibitively expensive (Multiple interviews, 2013). Seed funding for the Albany Park project came from the Local Investment Support Corporation (LISC) of Chicago, and the cost of the initial sculptures was supported by NEIU, but the North River Commission has been unable to raise further capital funds to sustain the sculpture garden. One interviewee suggested this was due to the recent economic recession and overall poor economic climate since 2008 (K. Blackwell, personal interview, August 27, 2013).

28Yet successes have come along with disappointment for the Ronan Park project. Part of the project includes a ‘healing garden’ located on city property immediately west of Ronan Park on land owned by the city. Unlike Park District land that prohibits the growing of food, the cultivation of vacant city property was supported and even encouraged. In their community meetings, NRC learned that access to fresh food was a major concern of the many immigrant groups in the neighborhood. Partnering with the Peterson Garden Project, a community farm was developed that gave people the chance to grow their own food, particularly varieties of vegetables uncommon in Chicago supermarkets but vital for ethnic cuisine. One interviewee suggested that the community farm was a space where immigrants from different lands could meet one another, share gardening tips and seeds, and develop healthy relationships within the community. The act of growing one’s own vegetables is seen by the community as therapeutic for the refugee population of Albany Park. Additionally, in recent months Ronan Park has become the location for local ethnic music festivals, and a permanent stage has been installed to showcase local musical talent during the summer months. While it may not be the project originally envisioned by community members, the Ronan Park site is still striving to fulfill its mission as a space for multicultural celebration (R. Rico, personal interview, August 19, 2013).

29Just across Lawrence Avenue from the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden is the Kimball Brown Line ‘EL’ station. A central fixture of the neighborhood and terminus of the Brown Line, the Kimball station is also home to a site-specific work of sculpture called Hope and Renewal. Installed in 2007 by the artist Josh Garber, this work incorporates lotus-shaped benches and pillars into the edifice of the station, creating a unique place for people waiting for the bus or passing on their way into the train. In recent years, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) received funds from the Federal Transit Authority for beautification of rail stations. The CTA developed a plan to revitalize existing stations with works of art and solicited projects from local and national artists, including Hope and Renewal (C. Hosinski, personal interview, August 25, 2013). Unlike the sculptures in nearby Ronan Park, the CTA sculptures have not been seriously vandalized, perhaps because of their daily use and proximity to CTA surveillance cameras.

Figure 3: Hope & Renewal

Figure 3: Hope & Renewal

Source: Josh Garber

30While not a resident of Albany Park, Garber desired a piece that would connect with the neighborhood. He talked with community members, including Kompah Seth who was involved in initiating the Ronan Park project, and learned of the significance of the lotus flower for the Southeast Asian community as well as the local saying ‘plant a lotus flower for hope and renewal’ that inspired the title of the sculpture. Even though some community members contributed inspiration to the project, other community members who felt they weren’t consulted complained to the CTA and local aldermen about the phallic nature of the columns (J. Garber, personal interview, November 27, 2013). Also, the brick wall on the west side of the Kimball station has long been slated for a mural project, but lack of community consensus on the subject matter of the mural has prevented the initiative from getting off the ground (R. Rico, personal interview, August 19, 2013). These initiatives suggest how important different images and art themes are for different parts of the Albany Park community. While lack of consensus may lead to lack of action in painting wall murals, it also indicates that there is a real dialogue going on in Albany Park around the meaning of art, neighborhood beautification, and community identity.

The 45th Ward murals initiative

31A few blocks west of Albany Park in Chicago’s 45th Ward, an ongoing arts initiative has its primary focus on both civic engagement and on economic development. As demonstrated in Figure 2, the 45th Ward cuts across a number of different neighborhoods, including Jefferson Park, Portage Park, and parts of Irving Park, but is unified under a single aldermanic office. While there were a few murals on walls in the ward before, art initiatives became a priority after the election of a new alderman in 2011. Alderman Arena has a background in commercial art and believes that ‘money follows artistic communities.’ According to the Alderman, beautifying areas can lead to a new discourse within a neighborhood as visual images displace the discourse of ‘chaos and decline’ shown in vacant storefronts and crumbling viaducts (J. Arena, personal interview, October 15, 2013). Arena established an arts advisory council within his office and hired the first aldermanic arts liaison in the city. Arena and his office strive to “use arts and culture as a means to revitalize the ward, attract new business and offer a sense of pride of place for residents” (Kogan 2014).

32According to interviews conducted in the 45th Ward, the planned art initiatives needed more funding than could be gathered from local small business donations. In order to comply with local Chicago ordinances that restrict aldermanic expenditures, the alderman and the arts liaison officer formed Arts Alive 45, a 501-C3 non-profit to apply for grants and spearhead art initiatives within the ward (Multiple interviews, 2013). According to one interviewee, it is still under debate whether city funds can be spent beautifying non-publicly owned spaces. In Chicago this means that city funds cannot currently be spent painting murals on privately owned land, the CTA, the Parks District, or on land owned by other local institutions (J. Arena, personal interview, October 15, 2013). So in order to realize the ward’s art initiatives, the Arts Alive 45, recently rebranded Arts Alive Chicago, applies for grants and solicits donations of money and supplies from local businesses and residents. Along with supporting an art advisory council and Arts Alive Chicago, the 45th Ward also conducts participatory budgeting, where community members have voted in favor of allocating a portion of the Ward’s discretionary budget towards art initiatives (J. Arena, personal interview, October 15, 2013).

33The first arts initiative taken up by Arts Alive Chicago was the painting of murals on vacant storefronts along Milwaukee Avenue. A longtime shopping district through the middle of the 20th century, the Six Corners intersection at Cicero, Milwaukee and Irving Park avenues has seen a period of decline since the 1970s (Perry 2004). Even today, many storefronts lay vacant. In order to attract economic development, and to combat blight, Arts Alive Chicago got permission from some business owners to paint the windows with interesting designs and bright colors. In locations where new businesses were gearing up to come into a storefront, Arts Alive Chicago painted the windows with images of the future establishment, such as theatrical dancers for an incoming theater or Italian dinner themes like pasta and wine for an incoming Italian restaurant (C. Smilie, personal interview, October 1, 2013). One interviewee at a local chamber of commerce suggested that even if the storefront murals do not help to attract new business, ‘at least it looks nicer’ and that having more artists living and working within the area will help the economy because artists are more inclined to spend their money locally (G. Borovik, personal interview, May 10, 2014). Even though we can point to a number of new businesses in the neighborhood, we cannot directly correlate this economic growth to the new murals. Yet interviewees voiced the opinion that both the murals and new businesses in the ward demonstrate that new economic growth and community development are underway in the 45th Ward.

34The mural project in the 45th Ward began as a strategy to jumpstart economic development, but out of this economic arts initiative, civic participation increased as well. Working with the Alderman’s office, Arts Alive Chicago began painting larger-scale murals on walls and under viaducts within the ward. According to one interviewee, on the first day of painting the mural community members and passers-by stopped to compliment them on their work, and to donate paint, supplies and food. Residents living nearby the murals also took it upon themselves to clean up the street and to tidy up the green spaces around the sidewalk and street (C. Smilie, personal interview, October 1, 2013). One recently repainted viaduct is on a major footpath between a residential district and the Jefferson Park transit station; residents have suggested that the now beautified underpass makes the daily commute more enjoyable (Site visit, October 23, 2014). Overall, there are fifteen new or refurbished murals within the communities of the 45th Ward, each one with a different theme and most were painted by different artists who live in the neighborhood (Arts Alive Chicago 2015).

35A new sense of safety has come along with the beautification of the streets with murals and resident’s engagement with cleaning up their block. Community residents have expressed to the Alderman’s office that the newly cleaned and repainted viaducts are no longer scary places to walk with children or at night. Colorful murals on formerly dark, pigeon-infested underpasses are more pleasant, and interviewees suggest that a mural’s vibrant colors and design make it more likely that people will walk down the street during different hours of the day (Multiple interviews 2013, site visit October 23, 2014). As Jacobs (1961) suggested, having more ‘eyes on the street’ is no guarantee of protection from crime, but it is certainly safer and more pleasant than the previously dark and dingy underpass.

36Like most neighborhoods in Chicago, tagging and graffiti art are still relatively common in the 45th, and viaduct underpasses in the area are a common place to find unsanctioned spray-painted designs. Yet, Arts Alive Chicago claims that only two of its murals out of fifteen have been tagged since the beginning of the murals initiative in 2011, and only one was seriously defaced (C. Smilie, personal interview, October 1, 2013, site visit October 23, 2014). Alderman Arena is sympathetic to the ‘aerosol artists’ within his community and along with Arts Alive Chicago has sought out their participation for the mural initiative (J. Arena, personal interview, October 15, 2013). Because of this inclusive approach, aerosol artists have painted a number of vibrant and unique murals along Milwaukee Avenue north of Irving Park road. By including the community members with skill in aerosol art as a part the project itself, the 45th Ward murals initiative has helped a talented portion of the community gain public recognition. Furthermore, aerosol art is often narrowly and erroneously associated with gang activity. So by showcasing this style of art in a public venue, the murals initiative in the 45th Ward helps to legitimize a uniquely urban artistic style that is not related to gang activity, while representing and validating the identity of a valuable portion of the community. It is crucial to note that, according to Silo Arts Space’s Facebook account, many of these aerosol artists work together, and that with aldermanic support they established a new art gallery within the neighborhood that showcases local art.

Towards a general understanding of the impact of urban art

37Art initiatives on the Northwest side of Chicago demonstrate a number of clear successes that deserve to be highlighted. Arts Alive Chicago’s ability to plan and execute over 15 murals within a three year timespan is remarkable. Coordinated leadership from the alderman’s office made the arts a priority within the ward, and this leadership made actual, physical change possible at street-level. Since the project was initially organized out of the alderman’s office, and focused only in the 45th Ward, it escaped the worst effects of fragmentation. Coherent leadership has been the hallmark of this project from its inception. Overall, the murals initiative has been able to draw in community members, reduce the worst effects of vandalism, heighten a sense of safety on the street, and beautify the community. Similarly in Albany Park, the coherent, non-fragmented leadership of the CTA allowed for the successful completion of the Hope and Renewal sculpture.

38Unlike the politically directed 45th Ward project, the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden was led by the North River Commission (NRC), a long-time community development organization located within the neighborhood since 1962. While the three aldermanic offices that make up Albany Park were generally supportive of the project, the Albany Park initiative lacked the same type of targeted political leadership that exists in the 45th Ward. To its credit, the NRC was able to bring together a community in a comprehensive way, involving them in the earliest stages of the process, and integrating their hopes, desires, and concerns so that the project became an outgrowth of this community itself. Unfortunately, the vandalism of the sculptures indicates that perhaps some part of the neighborhood didn’t sanction the project, or that the cultural value of the art had not been adequately communicated to the entire community. Albany Park has a history of gang violence, and interviews suggested that many community members view aerosol arts as a medium unworthy for public display because of its relationship to gang tagging. Unlike the 45th Ward that worked to incorporate the aerosol artists in the public art process, and forestalled some graffiti vandalism, this population was excluded from the sculpture park project in Albany Park.

39The 45th Ward murals initiative also relied on the strengths of its community members, and in doing so demonstrates some of the economic truth about public art in urban space. The alderman tapped a single community member and artist to spearhead the initiative, and she chose murals as the public art form of choice for pragmatic reasons: they are relatively easy to execute and less expensive to maintain and insure. While some sculptures have come to the 45th Ward through a city-wide sculpture initiative, the cost of insurance for sculpture led Arts Alive Chicago to concentrate on murals as a community development strategy. Because of the community meetings that established its form, the Albany Park project was committed to sculptures from the beginning, and when LISC seed grant funding ran out there was not enough capital to continue the sculpture project in the face of expensive insurance costs. Even so, NRC demonstrated flexibility in the face of this economic hardship when they pivoted to use the open space of the Multicultural Park as a permanent neighborhood venue for music and cultural festivals, as well as procuring the adjacent plot for the community farm.

40In sum, these observations demonstrate a few general insights useful for future studies of art initiatives, as well as for communities looking to engage in a new art initiative:

Political systems shape initiatives

41Successful art initiatives must begin with a comprehensive understanding of the political, economic, and geographic scope of the project. Who is taking up an arts initiative is the first order of importance; is the project initiated by local government, or is a community development organization spearheading the effort? Is the community fragmented across political jurisdictions, or does one political office direct permitting and policy for the neighborhood? Does the local political leadership offer only symbolic support for the project, or does that support extend to helping pay for the initiative? How many different political jurisdictions or authorities does the project plan to involve? For many well-intentioned efforts, the level of political fragmentation, with people in each area pulling in different directions may be the factor makes or breaks a project.

42While the 45th Ward saw remarkable success in its politically-led mural initiative, political art initiatives can be constrained by elections. A discussion of a politically-led arts initiative must ask the question of what happens to public arts projects when an arts supportive alderman loses an election. City councilors or aldermen all have terms in office and the fact of an incumbent losing an election may throw the whole art initiative into limbo. The new local leader might not be as sympathetic to art as an engine for growth, or may not want to continue a program begun by their predecessor. So while local political leadership can be targeted and successful within a short time, politically-led projects have the potential to be volatile in the long run. In constrast, community organizations may have more initial problems like raising money and gathering support, but because they are not beholden to the electorate they have the durability to see projects through to completion regardless of electoral turnover. While there is some stability, community organizations also face turnover in leadership and agenda. Furthermore, it is likely that new and different arts organizations will emerge as more neighborhoods turn to the arts as an engine for development. Thus what type of organization takes up a public art initiative is potentially as important as where that initiative is located.

Local involvement leads to success

43The economic and human resources of the organization undertaking the initiative, as well as the overall wealth of the community, directly influence the potential successes of art initiatives. While a sculpture park may seem like a fantastic idea, practical experience from the Northwest side demonstrates that murals are a more reliable choice for lower-income communities and communities located further away from the downtown core. Murals beautify without the higher costs associated with sculpture, and have the potential to showcase the unique character of the neighborhood. Perhaps over time, as a neighborhood becomes known for its interesting murals and its arts scene, lending institutions and city government will be more likely to contribute the capital funding necessary to sustain sculpture projects, or to help defray the costs of insurance.

44Furthermore, community outreach is essential for the overall success of a project. Whether it is through an aldermanic office’s arts advisory council or consistent community meetings led by a local organization, successful projects make an effort to reach out and involve the whole community. The interviews demonstrate that community members who are engaged by meetings and councils are the ones likely to plan and execute the murals, draw architectural designs, or provide material resources like paint or supplies. Even if a neighborhood has the capital funds to hire professional artists to paint the murals, much of the organization of the project will be done by volunteers out of love for the community and love for the arts. Moreover, a community can save money and expand engagement by hiring local artists to paint murals, instead of hiring artists from outside the community. Hiring local artists means that the project is more economical, that the money spent returns to the community, and that it is further sanctioned by community participation itself. The more an arts initiative can formally engage with the community through its planning and implementation process, the more likely it is to have that crucial support needed to make it a success.

The future neighborhood is created in the present

45The form an art initiative takes directly affects the future shape of a community. By reaching out to aerosol artists and other cultural producers outside the mainstream, the 45th Ward initiative has made a commitment to a vital but often under-engaged or marginal portion of the existing community. This commitment bodes well for the 45th Ward’s current and future residents. Local leadership should recognize that a community is more than property values or median income, and work to promote economic and ethnic diversity within their community.

46While nearby neighborhoods like Logan Square are experiencing gentrification, there is no data to support claims of major demographic and economic change on the Northwest side of Chicago (Vorhees Center 2015). Many of the neighborhoods studied in this article are stable, yet statistical measures of stability belie the fact of blighted storefronts in historic shopping districts like 6 Corners in Jefferson Park. While there is currently not enough data to demonstrate a connection between economic development and storefront murals and other art initiatives across the Northwest side, the leadership of the 45th Ward is committed to a vision that neighborhood art and culture lead to economic development, and continues to promote art as a strategy for growth. While demonstrating a direct link between economic development and art initiatives is challenging, what is more readily apparent from this study is the change that takes place when neighbors meet one another while working on a mural project or during a public meeting, and the sense of safety that comes from clean viaducts and colorful, attended storefronts.

47Even if a claim of economic growth cannot be supported by this study, it is demonstrated that the renovation of blighted spaces along with its associated community development has provided solid cultural results. Perhaps the best example of this is the work done to transform the stalled Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden into a community music venue, and the formerly abandoned city lot nearby into a community garden. These community spaces let refugees and immigrants revive their agricultural and musical heritage in a new land, and help to integrate new residents into the larger community of Chicago. The successful integration of immigrants and their cultural heritage continue to be an important part of what makes Chicago a global city.

48Demographic and economic pressures will continue to reshape urban areas in our era of global cities. More affluent white populations are returning to the city. As gentrification pressures begin to transform neighborhoods like the ones on the Northwest side of Chicago, political leadership should continue to support space for low-income residents and artistic producers within the neighborhood. Using art as an engine for urbanization should also include a commitment to sustaining art initiatives within the neighborhood. Local artists rent, own, spend money, and produce value within a neighborhood, and local leadership should preserve this fragile community resource so that the force which attracted investment in the first place is sustained over time. A commitment to an artistic community is not just a willingness to put up cutting-edge art on the walls of buildings or elsewhere in the hopes of making a trendy neighborhood. The commitment must also extend to supporting low-cost housing and work space that makes sure artistic producers can continue living and producing within the community. This commitment to diversity through art will help provide for the neighborhood’s economic and cultural viability.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: The Northwest side of Chicago
Credits Source: the author, 2015. Note: the neighborhoods of Avondale, Albany Park, Irving Park, Jefferson Park, and Portage Park are highlighted in orange. The central business district is highlighted in pink.
File image/jpeg, 84k
Title Figure 2: Ward Fragmentation on the Northwest Side
Credits Source: the author, 2015. Note: Albany Park is divided by the 33rd, 35th, and 39th Wards. The 45th Ward is highlighted in blue.
File image/jpeg, 92k
Title Figure 3: Hope & Renewal
Credits Source: Josh Garber
File image/jpeg, 1.2M
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Electronic reference

Clifford D. Deaton, « Public Art Beyond Downtown: Assessing Art Initiatives on the Northwest Side of Chicago », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Special issue 7 | 2015, Online since 05 August 2015, connection on 19 September 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/articulo.2828

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About the author

Clifford D. Deaton

Dr. Clifford D. Deaton is a Lecturer of Urban Politics at the Department of Liberal Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Email:

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