News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Marguerite Horberg's post-HotHouse venture, Portoluz, revisits the WPA

by

1 comment

Here's a business model for hard times: hit the street and sell whatever you've got. Marguerite Horberg, founder and longtime potentate of the now defunct world-music club HotHouse, was doing it last week,

on the sidewalk in front of Robin Richman's shop on Damen during Richman's annual yard sale. Horberg was offering passersby vintage clothing and fabric to benefit her new endeavor, a HotHouse 2.0 called Portoluz.

Ousted by a runaway board in 2006 after putting more than 20 years of her life into HotHouse, Horberg is still smarting. Part of what rankles is the loss of the archives of those busy years, and of the name itself. Part is having to deal with what she says are lingering misconceptions about what went down there (HotHouse closed the year after she was locked out). The rest is the aggravation of having to start over, in the worst economy of her lifetime: "It was a monumental undertaking to build HotHouse. I was 19 when I started it. Now I'm 54."

Initially, Horberg and supporters who'd followed her thought they'd "make a lateral move"—get another location and take up where they'd left off, including a planned expansion to New York. "That was naive," she says now. The economy seized up in 2008; by 2009 they let the New York plans go.

Horberg still has her eye on a Bronzeville compound, however—two buildings and some vacant land she'd like to turn into a performing arts center, restaurant, visiting artists' residence, and community garden. She figures they'd need $2.5 million to make that happen. "Banks aren't really lending now unless you have about 50 percent cash," she says. "And one thing I learned from HotHouse, I do not want to be running an organization that's handicapped by a lack of capital."

Meanwhile, Portoluz is humming as a programmer, currently generating events under the thematic umbrella of "WPA 2.0," a sort of mini humanities festival held in various locations over an 18-month period, with lots of partners. HotHouse was primarily about music, and Portoluz is currently producing both a jazz and a Latin music series, but as an itinerant organization without its own venue (and, especially, its own bar), Horberg says, they found that one-off music programming was a quick way to lose money. For now, she says, they've shifted their emphasis "more into humanities," which is less expensive. Last year they focused on the 50th anniversary of many African countries. This year, she says, "everybody wanted to talk about the economy—employment and jobs."

Detail of a WPA mural at Lane Technical College Prep depicting Hiawatha
  • Detail of a WPA mural at Lane Technical College Prep depicting Hiawatha

The events kicked off in April and are in full swing this month. On June 9 Portoluz is partnering with Preservation Chicago for a public tour of WPA and other murals at the high school formerly known as Lane Tech. The fact that Lane is now formally Lane Technical College Prep is fodder for another WPA 2.0 event, a talk by former machinist and labor guru Dan Swinney that's scheduled for June 12, 5 PM, at a Hyde Park home. (Free, but e-mail portoluz@gmail.com for reservations and the address.)

Swinney's event has a glaze-over title—"A New Educational Model for Working-Class Youth"—but never mind. Head of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council and the force behind Austin Polytechnical Academy, he claims to have a fix for our fast-fading economy. "Lane Tech was a celebrated vocational school," he says. "But American education turned away from manufacturing."

Chicago lost 3,000 out of 7,000 factories in the 1980s, a "trend that continued into the '90s and caused poverty as we know it," Swinney says. "While low-skill manufacturing has gone offshore for good," he's convinced there's an opportunity—a window of maybe ten years—in which we could establish ourselves as "the global leader in the manufacture of complex products," something he calls "advanced manufacturing."

While we have 13 million unemployed people, there are three million advanced manufacturing jobs left unfilled because we don't have workers educated to do them, Swinney estimates. He maintains, the economic impact of each of those jobs would create five more.

Only 10 percent of our workforce is in manufacturing, Swinney says. If we double that, and if his impact ratio is right, there'll be jobs for all of us. An average manufacturing pay in the U.S. is a robust $74,000.

It should be an interesting discussion. According to U.S. Department of Labor stats, the average wage for manufacturing in China was $1.36 an hour, less than $3,000 a year.

Got anything to hawk? 

E-mail Deanna Isaacs at disaacs@chicagoreader.com .

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Add a comment