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Back to the Walls

Public art advocates rally to save the last remnants of the famous "Mural Revolution."



Twenty-five years ago, artist John Pitman Weber painted an outdoor mural at the northeast corner of Fullerton and Washtenaw. He did it with help from Logan Square residents.

The 90-foot-long wall was roughly divided in half: the southern part showed a racially mixed group of people embracing their homes, while the northern end had smaller figures fending off such threats as gangs and real-estate speculators. An image of a pinball machine provided the work's primary title--Tilt: Together Protect the Community.

"It was enormously popular in the neighborhood," recalls Weber, now an art professor at Elmhurst College. "It reflects a part of our American aspirations--it's certainly what Logan Square aspires to. The fact that it's been published over and over again says the image still has power, still has meaning."

Tilt has become a poster for multiculturalism. Over the years it's shown up in textbooks--including two used by the Chicago Public Schools--and most recently it's been featured in a 2001 calendar distributed by King County, Washington.

There's only one problem: the mural has badly deteriorated--the colors have withered, and its message is barely readable. Publishers have had to rely on old slides.

"At what point do things become historical, when you're going to be sorry if you don't keep something?" asks Weber. Even art historians, he says, didn't see the value of saving the WPA's interior murals until the 1970s. "Now nobody would dream of destroying government-sponsored works from the 1930s, even if they're ugly."

The government didn't sponsor Tilt. The community mural movement started in the late 60s on the walls of undistinguished buildings, and its politics were overwhelmingly antigovernment (at least the dehumanizing, institutional side of government). The materials were modest, but the mission was ambitious. Messages were promoted through the making of the works--the artists addressed specific neighborhoods, and often used local nonprofessionals, so the murals became an accepted part of each community and hopefully improved it.

Tilt "has become part of the geography of Logan Square and the mental geography of the city," Weber says. "It's a recognized landmark, and a recognized landmark is worth saving, even though it's faded and dilapidated."

He thought about raising funds to repaint the mural. Then, about a year and a half ago, he got bad news: the building on which it was painted, the Midas muffler shop at 2654 W. Fullerton, as well as two neighboring businesses--the music venue Fireside Bowl and a bar, Bunky's Club--would be acquired by the city through eminent domain. The one-acre Haas Park, whose field house is located on Washtenaw across from the mural, was considered too small to accommodate increased recreational activities and needed to be expanded.

In public meetings, some residents came forward to defend the mural, and the Chicago Park District worked diligently to find a compromise. Gradually it floated ideas to save Tilt, such as preserving the shell of the Midas building for an indoor playground. Others proposed re-creating the mural in the new field house or art garden. Some hoped the businesses might be able to stay. With work on the park slated to start in 2003, the mural's fate has yet to be decided.

"The neighborhood has grown used to it," says Phil Jones, an area carpenter superintendent who heads the Haas Park Advisory Council. "A lot of people would like to see the message saved."

Weber's heartened to see the community come together to protect the mural--an

affirmation of the ideals that led him to paint it in the first place--"but I'm not counting my chickens. There's a lot of things that could still happen. There's many a slip between the cup and the lip."

Chicago's known as the cradle of the community mural movement, which was inaugurated in 1967 when William Walker and more than 20 other African-American artists painted Wall of Respect on a grocery and liquor store at 43rd and Langley. Three years later the city had 30 street murals; seven years after Wall of Respect there were 130.

Walker and Weber founded the Chicago Mural Group in 1970, and its members were soon joined by other groups--like the Public Art Workshop, the Puerto Rican Art Association, and MARCH (Movimiento Artistico Chicano). These artists painted hundreds of walls as a way to confront social problems and encourage racial and class solidarity. But far fewer murals are being painted today than in the halcyon days of the movement. In 1985, as muralists became more concerned with the limited lifespans of their works, CMG changed its name to the Chicago Public Art Group, reflecting a new emphasis on producing work in more durable media. Its artists continue to collaborate with neighborhood residents and schoolchildren to create mosaics, sculptures, and park designs, as well as murals.

Yet as new works have been created, the older murals have faded away--or been snuffed out by demolitions and building rehabs. Little thought is given to notifying anyone before a mural's date with the wrecking ball. In the last several years the problem has become critical: many of the city's classic community murals--a significant though largely overlooked part of our cultural legacy--need to be restored before it's too late.

"Without restoration in the next few years, many important murals will be irrevocably lost," says Jon Pounds, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group. "For the most part, after years, even decades, they are still topical and graffiti free. They are worn by exposure or faded by the sun. Our temperature range is much more extreme than in California," he says, referring to the state with the most outdoor murals. "Anything out-of-doors 365 days a year, especially in our harsh winters and humid summers, requires regular maintenance."

CPAG has identified ten murals, most dating from the 1970s, that deserve to be brought back to life. Along with Tilt, the list includes such works as All of Mankind, painted by Walker from 1971 to '73 at the Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church near Clybourn and Evergreen; Wall of Daydreaming/Man's Inhumanity to Man (1975), by Walker and the late Mitchell Caton, at 47th and Calumet; and Roots and Wings (1976), by Caryl Yasko and Lucyna Radycki, at 63rd and Saint Louis. These works--and the names of the artists--loom large in the history of community murals.

CPAG has managed to save four murals in the last eight years, but raising funds for a full-fledged restoration program has been difficult, says Pounds. His group relies on private foundations and federal and state grants; the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs contributes small amounts of money too. Muralists in Los Angeles and San Francisco--the other major centers of mural activity in the U.S.--benefit from city-funded maintenance programs. Chicago doesn't provide money to restore outdoor murals unless the works were commissioned by a city agency.

So CPAG has had to improvise, concentrating on one mural at a time. In 1998, for example, artist Bernard Williams restored Walker's History of the Packinghouse Worker (1974) with a $23,000 grant from the Chicago Housing Authority. Walker had painted the piece on the side of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union Hall at 4859 S. Wabash. After the union moved out of the building in the 1980s, the mural deteriorated. The CHA purchased the facility in 1997, turning it into the Charles A. Hayes Family Investment Center, which provides high-tech-job training to low-income residents. Had the agency not kicked in the cash, one of the few public artworks that memorializes the city's rich labor history could have vanished.

"Reviving these murals is not unlike what a museum conservator does for aged paintings," explains Williams, who made copies of old master paintings in the Art Institute as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To restore History of the Packinghouse Worker, he studied original photo documentation and conferred with Walker, who's now 75.

"Consulting with Bill was a memorable experience," says Williams. "He spoke of his research, his drawing and redrawing of certain areas, and the meaning of elements in the mural. I felt like I was being exposed to the family secrets of the mural masters. I feel a lot of connection to him. He's from Alabama, where my parents are from. And he's the father of muralists, so there's that family connection too."

Crowds gathered to watch Wall of Respect as the painting progressed. The work featured 50 portraits of famous black Americans, figures like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Marcus Garvey, and Nat Turner. The building it was on had been slated for demolition under urban renewal. "This Wall," its legend stated, "was Created to Honor Our Black Heroes, and to Beautify Our Community." Though the mural was destroyed when the building burned in 1971, the wall sparked the "people's art" movement that spread from Chicago's minority and working-class neighborhoods to other parts of the country--and beyond. CPAG is the nation's oldest coalition of community muralists.

But the city doesn't recognize the value of its murals, says Weber, who's created over 30 projects in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Georgia, France, and Nicaragua. (His Breaking the Chains, painted in 1971 at Rockwell and LeMoyne, is thought to be the oldest intact outdoor mural in the U.S.) "Chicago still hasn't got it. Our murals are world famous...a number of them, like Peace and Salvation, are in art history books. But our city sees them as a minimal resource."

The monumental Peace and Salvation: Wall of Understanding (1970) was painted by Walker on a five-story building at the edge of Cabrini-Green. It spoke to racial hatred and gun violence, and it urged people of all colors and backgrounds to unite in goodwill. In the best tradition of community murals, it exposed problems and proposed solutions; it featured images of resistance and affirmation. "Maybe one of these days the city will realize it was a wonderful period," Walker once told me. "We were making meaningful statements and we contributed greatly to this city. We worked like hell, my friend, like hell."

In 1991, the decaying wall at 872 N. Orleans was whitewashed and replaced with periodically changing canvas advertisements. When contacted about it a decade ago, Walker didn't seem too upset. He said that 21 years was a long enough time for people to have the wall. If residents had decided to restore it, he might've done so. But given the mural's condition, and the lack of money and will, Walker thought it best to let the piece die.

Yet the loss of the mural spurred CPAG to take steps to ensure that other threatened murals didn't meet the same fate. Over the years, scores of outdoor works have succumbed to the ravages of time and the elements, to neglect and redevelopment. About the same time Peace and Salvation was being erased, two more historic street murals bit the dust: Metaphysics (Peace) and Wall of Brotherhood, each painted by Mario Castillo, now a Columbia College art professor, and youths in the vicinity of 18th and Halsted. These works helped to mark Pilsen as a center of mural activity and to launch the contemporary Mexican mural movement in this country. They were also important statements in the formative days of Chicano consciousness. In the case of Metaphysics (Peace), the building was rehabbed; the structure that bore Wall of Brotherhood was razed to make way for a bank.

Like posters for a political rally, some murals lose their relevance long before the paint begins to peel. Jon Pounds says people have told him Tilt "presents a cliched, utopian image," but it remains valid to the community. "It's considered cliched only because many later murals make reference to it. And utopian images are important to us so we can imagine what the possibilities are."

"Some murals have had their time and passed away," acknowledges Olivia Gude, an 18-year CPAG artist and an art education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "If a mural doesn't speak to people in the community anymore, then it should be allowed to fade and something else should take its place. But some are so good aesthetically, so continuously meaningful, that their spiritual life deserves to be re-created."

In 1993, still stinging from the destruction of Peace and Salvation, Gude and Bernard Williams restored Childhood Is Without Prejudice, which Walker had painted in 1977 on the Metra underpass at 56th Street. The artists power-washed the concrete wall, which knocked off loose paint. Then, consulting photographs, they applied acrylic onto the now matte surface of the original enamel. It was then coated with a polymer varnish. The rehab took three weeks and cost $2,500; the tab was picked up by CPAG and local residents.

"It was a labor of love," recalls Gude, who was inspired to become a muralist in the early 1980s after seeing Hyde Park's many outdoor works. "Bill Walker is truly beloved by and influential to many muralists. But the mural was getting dirtier and dirtier, and I didn't want to see it fade. Throughout the restoration, neighborhood people came up to us and expressed their happiness that it was being saved."

It was CPAG's first restoration of an earlier, classic work--and Childhood Is Without Prejudice still looks as good as new. Weeks later, the Donnelley Youth Center at 40th and Michigan helped finance the $10,000 renovation of Another Time's Voice Remembers My Passion's Humanity, painted in 1979 by the team of Calvin Jones and Mitchell Caton. Once again, Williams was called in to coax the jazzy, Afrocentric montage back to life.

Until the mid-1980s, many Chicago murals were created with oil or enamel paints, which made them susceptible to weather damage and prolonged exposure to the sun. But now the use of pricier, water-soluble acrylic--with a finishing coat of clear sealant--provides greater protection against the elements. (Tilt was one of a few early acrylic murals, which is why the paint isn't flaking--the color is just bleached out.)

Artists in Pilsen have also had to rally community support to save endangered landmarks. In 1994, Marcos Raya and Sal Vega repainted the facade of the Casa Aztlan social service facility and A la Esperanza at Juarez High School; both artists had helped paint these works in the 1970s. The $20,000 cost of restoring the Juarez mural was shared by the school and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council.

"I've gotten more money repainting my murals than I ever did painting them," says Raya, who filled the barrio with social messages for 30 years and is now an internationally exhibited artist. "You have to do something to bring back color and hope to the neighborhood. Now these murals make you feel that there is life here again. They give back cultural and political identity to the street scene. But we had to do it ourselves before the murals disappeared."

In 1995 CPAG launched its mural restoration project to raise funds for the renewal of ten significant murals. "Significant," according to Pounds, means they're recognized as artistically valuable, they're major works by influential muralists, or they're important to the community that helped to create them, and are now a continuing source of pride and tradition.

"Economically, tourists do come to see our murals--they're something the city is known for," he explains. "Spiritually, a community art project can act on people over time. The fact that they haven't been messed with says they're still meaningful to the community. These are pivotal works that have been a positive influence in their communities. They've had an aesthetic impact and been inspirational, to residents and artists alike."

Pounds puts the price tag of the project at $210,000, and that includes the creation of a new work at 43rd and Langley in homage to Wall of Respect. CPAG is trying to recruit some of the wall's original artists to work with youngsters on the new mural. For what Pounds thinks isn't a lot of money, "these works can be refreshed for residents in the neighborhood, and be an attraction to visitors from the region and around the world."

Over the years, Pounds says, he has "encouraged and requested" officials at the city's Department of Cultural Affairs to consider funding mural restorations--ideally, he'd like to see a line item in the city budget to support such a program, perhaps through the Department of Streets and Sanitation. He has written to the mayor's wife, Maggie Daley, an avid arts supporter, to no avail. He's met with "eight or nine" aldermen who, while supporting the idea, generally "didn't have a strong sense of how to implement funding," Pounds says. The city simply doesn't have to pay for the repair of artworks it doesn't own.

That's not the case in California. Since instituting its "mural rescue" program in 1989, the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles has brought back 25 damaged or deteriorating outdoor works with the active support of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, the LA County Arts Commission, and the California Arts Council, according to board member Robin Dunitz, a mural historian. In addition, she says, the city has helped fund two inventories since 1994 to assess the condition of murals--LA is an open-air gallery of more than 1,000 pieces (Chicago has at least 200). Pounds notes that several years ago San Francisco Bay-area mural groups began receiving federal enterprise-zone funds to help restore works.

In April 1999, the Chicago City Council passed an amended Public Art Ordinance that, among other things, gave the Department of Cultural Affairs a larger budget and more authority to safeguard percent-for-art commissions and artworks owned by other municipal agencies, like the Chicago Park District. After the ordinance passed, Public Art Program director Mike Lash told me he hoped to create a policy to maintain and conserve works not owned by the city, which would include murals and other community art pieces created by nonprofits. That hasn't happened, and some wonder whether the program--charged with fiscal mismanagement and plagued by bad publicity surrounding the misplacement of artworks--can handle the responsibility of oversight.

Lash maintains the measure is still on his agenda; he says the program is "darned close to completing" an inventory of all the city's sculptures and then it'll turn its attention to an accounting of other artworks. He hopes to create what he calls a "template for a program of watchdogging community-based art" in about three years. "We want to be a one-stop shopping place no matter who owns the piece."

Back in 1976 Weber got permission to paint over the graffiti-covered wall of the Midas muffler shop at Fullerton and Washtenaw. The mural's theme was then worked out in a series of community meetings, and what emerged, wrote Weber, "was a collection of negatives, all the things people didn't want in their area, what they wanted to keep out. The list reflected the anxieties of lower-middle-class people in a somewhat changing older neighborhood." The Logan Square Neighborhood Association--along with area residents, churches, youth groups, business owners, and the Chicago Park District--lent financial support and materials. Weber and his assistants also went door-to-door soliciting money and ideas. Some residents were skeptical at first, says Weber. "But we won people over step-by-step as they saw it come to life." In an effort to win the "grandmother vote," as Weber puts it, artists included old-fashioned wallpaper designs in the mural's background. The October 1976 dedication attracted several hundred people.

The expansion of Haas Park isn't being foisted on the neighborhood either--the Park District has been working with community groups for over two years. The issue at this point isn't whether the park will be enlarged; it's a matter of how it will be done.

"It's still in the working stages," says Phil Jones of the Haas Park Advisory Council. "We're just trying to figure out the best way to plan this thing out. There will still be many different ideas. We just want to have a new, good park that everybody in the neighborhood can enjoy."

A lifelong resident of Logan Square, Jones used to hang out in Haas Park when he was a kid. When he was 15 years old, the mural went up across the street, and he and his buddies helped to move the scaffolding. Now some of his kids--he has five--use the park. When Jones assumed leadership of the park advisory council several years ago, he realized Haas was running out of room.

A 1998 city survey concluded that Logan Square needed more green space. Despite its one-acre size, Haas Park--which sits between Fairfield and Washtenaw along Fullerton to the alley--ranks, according to Jones, as Chicago's busiest Class D park (meaning it's a playground with a field house). It's seventh overall in the number of youths participating in organized health, physical fitness, and arts activities. The park and its field house were created in 1928 and named for Joseph Haas, an alderman, state senator, and Cook County official.

In April 1999 Jones approached 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio about building a new field house, but a feasibility study determined it couldn't be done in the existing space. So Ocasio proposed expanding the park eastward toward Talman, more than doubling its size, and cutting off Washtenaw and Fairfield with culs-de-sac. That would mean dislocating nearly a block of businesses, including the Midas shop and Fireside Bowl. (Oscar Wastyn Cycles, at the east end of the block, would be spared.)

The Park District convened several community meetings over the following winter and spring. Initially these talks didn't touch on saving the mural, says Jones. Then in May 2000 the agency notified businesses that their buildings had been designated by the city for acquisition. Owners are entitled to receive fair market value, and they can dispute the price.

"We're still trying to fight it--we definitely want to stay," says Rick Chaquinga, who's worked at Midas for a decade. Two years ago he bought the business. "We want the community to be a better place for everyone. But my main concern is my business. We've been a fixture of the community for 35 years, and it's hard for people to pick up and leave--70 percent of our customer base is repeat business. If there is no viable place to go, you can't take people with you." He doesn't think Haas Park needs to be expanded. "From my point of view, I have seen nothing for myself that it's one of the busiest parks--it has not increased dramatically in ten years. So why make it bigger for more gangs to loiter?" Chaquinga says the city initially offered him $30,000 ("for the fixtures you can't take with you"), but his final price and relocation costs are still being negotiated. He doesn't own the building; the actual property owner stands to make much more. As for Tilt, Chaquinga says, he and his employees "have been trying to take care of it the best we can"--they've cleaned graffiti off it. He adds that if he's allowed to stay, the Midas company would be willing to pay for the mural's restoration.

Last fall, the Park District came up with an "approved concept plan" for Haas Park. It includes demolishing the existing field house to make way for an outdoor basketball court and "an interactive water feature," erecting a new field house with an indoor gym just west of the bike shop, and converting the Midas building into an "indoor contained playstructure," a year-round playground. Tilt would be refurbished with the help of Park District funds.

"One of the key things was trying to preserve the mural," says Chris Gent, a senior project manager with the Park District. "In talking with the artist and some community people, we realized that it was very important to people to maintain the mural in its existing location, and that's what's reflected in our plan. It's significant in the history of community-based art."

The mural appeared to be saved, but the plan still faced hurdles. In March, at a public meeting attended by city officials, Logan Square Concerned Citizens chairman Larry Ligas presented his own design proposal for Haas Park. The new plan--which he says was formulated with many others in the community, incorporating "65 different inputs"--called for razing businesses all the way east to Talman, as well as for preserving the current field house and restoring it to its original form as an open-air shelter. The bike shop building would be converted into a new field house, with the mural repainted inside. The absence of outdoor basketball courts prompted accusations that Ligas was trying to discourage teen activities and make the new park safe for monied newcomers. He runs Alligas Enterprises, a company that he says specializes in "converting and restoring" properties.

Ligas has become one of the great characters of north-side politics, popping up on various sides of a host of issues. A onetime supporter of Helen Shiller, he turned against the alderman in the last election, dubbing her a "poverty pimp," and he worked on Vilma Colom's successful campaign for 35th Ward alderman in 1995. Ligas once sent out a press release claiming he was the behind-the-scenes informant for the Sun-Times investigation of Roberto Clemente High School.

By the June 19 public meeting about the Haas Park redesign, Ligas had shifted strategies. He presented a slightly modified plan and then defended the targeted businesses, proposing other sites. "Alderman Ocasio's plan is a poor plan," Ligas says. "We need park space desperately. But why wipe out good quality businesses like Midas and the Fireside Bowl for additional open space?"

Ligas thinks the city's plan is a "cover-up" to get rid of the Fireside Bowl music club. In a September 2000 Post No Bills column, Reader writer Peter Margasak quoted Ocasio's chief of staff, Hector Villagrana, saying the proposed expansion of Haas Park "kills two birds with one stone. We cut down on some community problems, plus we provide more park space."

Ligas isn't opposed to expanding the park. But now he thinks that going north across the alley would be the best thing to do: with about a half dozen property acquisitions it would be bigger than the district's proposal. He claims he's already talked to homeowners on Fairfield and Washtenaw who'd be willing to sell. He's also pushing for the relocation of affected businesses to a vacant parcel on the southeast corner of Fullerton and Campbell. On July 27 he sent a letter to parks superintendent David Doig outlining "several alternatives for additional park space."

Ligas says he recognizes the value of Tilt and would like to see it restored on the Midas wall or in a new field house. He says that Logan Square Concerned Citizens would like to re-create another local landmark, The Mural of Heroes, which had been painted by Jose Berrios and youths on the side of the LaSalle Bank building facing Firemen's Memorial Park at Diversey, Kimball, and Milwaukee. The mural, which honored three firemen who died fighting a nearby arson in 1985, was destroyed last year when the bank rehabilitated the wall.

Haas Park's Phil Jones doesn't want to see that happen to Tilt. "It's been there a long time and we'd like to keep it in the community." But he's keeping his options open too. If it turns out the building or the mural isn't salvageable, he wonders if Weber would consider redoing it elsewhere in the park. "Maybe we can re-create it another way and keep the same story," Jones says. Perhaps the artwork could be repainted inside or outside the new field house near Talman, or Weber (or someone else) could make a "stone or mosaic replica" as part of the park's proposed art garden.

"My attitude is, I'm not an all-or-nothing person," says Weber. "First of all, the park has to function to meet needs. I'm willing to work with architects and the community. My first choice is to keep [the mural] where it is. It wouldn't be the same thing if you move it, but for certain murals it is worth it. Would I want to do something for the new field house? Of course I would. I'm as fanatic as anyone about having murals in their original spots, but there are times when you have to settle for portions, or reproductions, of them."

The Park District's Gent concedes that the Haas Park expansion plan has a long way to go. But he thinks "there's a good likelihood that our plan, or some variation of it, will be implemented." Once the land has been acquired--perhaps by the end of next year--there will be more public meetings to "revisit the design," he says, adding that concerns about security have prompted the Park District to consider "opening up" the field house so attendants can more easily monitor outdoor activities. Then development drawings would be done. These would also be subject to community approval and wouldn't be finalized until mid-2003. Construction would begin by the end of that year, and the new park would be completed in 2004.

Jon Pounds recently got some good news. State senator Margaret Smith, whose south-side Third District includes several endangered murals, has agreed to help find some cash in the 2002 Illinois budget for the Chicago Public Art Group's restoration program. In June the group received a $20,000 Illinois Arts Council grant to help cover the costs of repainting Black Women Emerging, a 1977 work by Justine DeVan at 40th and Cottage Grove, and Builders of the Cultural Present, painted in 1981 by Mitchell Caton and Calvin Jones at 71st and Jeffery. Rehab work on the walls is expected to begin this month.

That still leaves Tilt: Together Protect the Community. No one's certain what will ultimately happen, but Weber is hoping for the best. "When people see it restored, they'll be glad," he says. "They'll say, 'Wow, that's wonderful.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry/Dan Machnik/Roy Lewis/.

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