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Rogers Park Hits the Wall

Self-Portraits of a Neighborhood

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Once a year, artists and other people with brushes decorate the long, low wall facing the beach in Loyola Park. Here's how Rogers Park sees itself, based on the murals that appeared last weekend:

Chicago's Riviera. Rogers Park is the only Chicago neighborhood with unmediated access to the lake. There's no Lake Shore Drive, no clifflike condos hogging the best beaches. The water is right at the end of your block. Corey Martin spent his growing years on Estes Avenue, "a block from the beach." His mom moved him out to the landlocked corner of Pratt and Ridge a while ago, but he came back to paint a tribute to his boyhood hangout. Called Night and Day, it's black on one end, blue on the other.

"It's gonna be day and night at the beach, how they look," Martin announced, as he filled in his primary colors. A young romantic who might have enjoyed the song "Moonlight Serenade" if he'd been born a lot earlier, Martin wanted to depict all he'd seen on his nighttime strolls along the beach, especially the glowing road the moon lays down on the water.

"The beach looks better at night," Martin opined, "even though you can't go swimming, 'cause of the way the moon shines off the lake, and the way the water looks."

The place the 60s went to retire. The Heartland Cafe, No Exit, the Waldorf School, Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co.--it's a travesty the Utne Reader has never named Rogers Park one of America's hippest neighborhoods. A lot of people who developed artistic tendencies in the 60s ended up in Rogers Park, and they've shared their political opinions and spiritual beliefs throughout the eight years the wall has been painted. Once someone did a mural against the death penalty, with prisoners on a treadmill leading to an electric chair.

"You get a lot of points of view," said Bill Paige, who was in charge of the wall painting, but not in any hierarchical way. He preferred the title "music coordinator."

Officially, artists were asked to paint on the theme "2001: A Neighborhood Odyssey," but if that stifled your creativity, well, you could paint whatever you wanted. "Some people just say, 'I want to paint on the wall, man!'" said organizer Katy Hogan, cofounder of the Heartland Cafe.

As she had done in the past, Teri Veras painted a mural in honor of her guru, Meher Baba, an Indian mystic who died in 1969 and preached "selfless service and annihilation of ego."

"I follow him," Veras explained. "He's my spiritual master. I think it's beneficial for people to hear some of the things he has said. It's a sharing, really. He says that he is a God-man, the ancient one, avatar of the age. For this age, he is the God-man that comes back again and again."

Alongside a portrait of Meher Baba, a man with flowing black hair and a Carlos Santana mustache, Veras elegantly wrote this quote: "The life of the spirit does not consist in turning away from worldly spheres of experience, but in reclaiming them for the divine purpose, which is to bring love, peace, happiness, beauty and spiritual perfection within reach of everyone."

Veras said she pays for a classified ad with a Meher Baba quote in every issue of the Reader. This week, she can save her money.

One of the most diverse neighborhoods in the United States. It actually is, according to Alderman Joe Moore's reading of the latest census figures, which he says showed the neighborhood is 32 percent white, 30 percent black, 28 percent Latino, and 6 percent Asian (West Rogers Park is 23 percent Asian). Where else would you find Chinese takeout, a taqueria, a Kosher butcher shop, and a Belizean barber and pool hall all on a two-block stretch?

Artist Frank Saviano points to the wall. "Everything that happens is represented," he says. "All cultures are represented. The musicians, the poets, the painters, the people who inhabit here. It's everybody's turf."

Paige says that's nothing new. "There've always been panels that glorify the diversity of Rogers Park."

The last line of defense against gentrification. In the good old days, when nobody wanted to live in Chicago, David Libman paid $250 for an apartment in Lincoln Park. Now, driven north by escalating rents, he pays twice as much in Rogers Park. He's making his stand here. Libman painted a multicultural mob brandishing spears and pitchforks against a hairy Cyclops advancing up the lakefront.

"After destroying affordable housing in Lincoln and Wicker parks, the beast was slain in Rogers Park," the legend reads.

Libman was playing off the official "Odyssey" theme. The Cyclops menaced Odysseus and his crew, until they stabbed him in the eye with a hot, sharp stick. Developers, Libman pleaded, read Homer's book. If they're not familiar with it, the festival's press release notes that it's "the inspiration for the recent hit movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?" That was a contemporary interpretation of the classic. As was Libman's mural.

"The Cyclops was the beast in the Odyssey," Libman explained. "It seems kind of obvious to me that he's a representation of gentrification in modern times. I think he's ruthless and bites the head off people without morality or regard to affordable housing."

The goal of a heroic quest. While everyone's artwork was equally valid, there was a winning muralist: Stephen Titra, a commercial artist who lives on Columbia Avenue. He drew the Howard el train transformed, in an explosion of surf, into Odysseus's ship.

"It's about taking the Red Line all the way to the end of the line," Titra said. "If you do, you'll find Odysseus's ship waiting for you. If you remember the Odyssey, he spent 20 years trying to get home, and he realized all the things that were important to him were there--his wife, his friends, his family. And Rogers Park is it for us."

Ever since Titra was a student at Loyola, Rogers Park has been his Ithaca. Riding the el back from a class at the downtown campus, he'd bless the train for bearing him home. After graduating, he stayed here to get married, raise a family, and watch his hair turn white. This is the first time he's painted a mural, but he's always been proud to live near the colorful wall.

"Every time visitors come, I take them down here," Titra said, standing in front of his mural with his wife and children. "They're always knocked out when they come down and see this on the beach. This is the best place in the world to live."

Now, honestly, have you ever heard that in Edgewater?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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