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Melissa Sobin // Senior Anthropology Honors Thesis


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  • 1. Behind the Paint: Gentrification, Commodified Culture, and Public Art in Pilsen Melissa Sobin Anthropology Department Northwestern University Thesis Advisor: Professor Ana Aparicio Secondary Reader: Professor Jessica Winegar May 3, 2013
  • 2. Sobin 1 Abstract “Culture” is the new urban trend captivating contemporary cities. The use and marketing of culture has become a cornerstone in the ways that neoliberal cities refashion themselves in an era of globalization and industrial urban decline. This thesis asks how neoliberal city governments use culture to transform cities and neighborhoods. I explore this question through an in-depth study of a City of Chicago sponsored public art initiative in Pilsen, a predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood in Chicago that is undergoing rapid gentrification. Neoliberal trends in urban development are often connected to the privatization and interiorization of space. While it may seem contradictory that public art emerges just as social theorists announce the death of the public sphere, I will ultimately show that this is not a contradiction at all; public art intersects with processes of urban restructuring and neoliberalism, albeit in less overt ways. Like Miles (1997) and Deutsche (1996), I seek to contest the universal romantic view of public art, whose promotion appears to politically neutralize its use within the city yet masks its political outcomes, particularly on those excluded from the new image created. Through ethnographic analysis and critical scrutiny of Pilsen’s Art in Public Places Initiative, I expose the tensions and contradictions behind the initiative’s visual, rhetorical, and spatial veil. In so doing, I reveal the power dynamics and gentrification strategies masked behind layers of paint.
  • 3. Sobin 2 Introduction On a dreary, white-skied Sunday morning in late October, I found myself squished against a window in a crowded and buzzing trolley, conveniently stalled at the foot of the Pink Line 18th street ‘L’ stop in the commercial district of Pilsen. Drawn by a sleekly designed advertisement of fuchsia, lime green and turquoise that had been promoted in the Chicago Reader and in cyberspace at large, I had come to the free trolley ride – proudly sponsored by 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis to showcase the murals in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago – to glimpse of the new “Art in Public Places” initiative in-progress. While the trolley wove through the residential streets of Pilsen, I peeked at the host of murals that adorned public and private walls in the neighborhood, familiar from months of fieldwork earlier last year. As the trolley turned right onto 16th street from Ashland Ave and made its way down the several mile span to Damen Ave, the etchings on the cement wall that clings to the railroad tracks transitioned from fading murals produced by local artists decades ago into the freshly painted eye-catching murals of the Art in Public Places’ urban regeneration initiative. A one and a half mile stretch of wall space from Halsted St. to Damen Ave that was once tagged with graffiti and blotchy with brown paint from the Chicago Graffiti Blasters program now boasted several large pieces, including colorful abstract pieces by big name street artists from around the world: an enormous possum that bore a cavernous hole in its stomach as an optical illusion, a stylistic glaring owl spray painted in blacks and yellows, and a mural featuring bright stacks of Chicago-based books, among several others. After twenty minutes, the trolley pulled back to its starting place at the foot of the ‘L’ tracks, beckoning to new visitors, and I emerged from the voyeuristic exposition of Pilsen’s murals with the swaths of tourists that would be none the wiser of the tensions, debates, and hierarchies of power hiding behind the paint. Scholars have declared a cultural revolution in contemporary cities. The use and marketing of “culture” has become a cornerstone in the ways that cities refashion themselves in an era of globalization and industrial urban decline. Tourism and entertainment based- developments are growing, while cultural workers and ‘creative classes,’ including architects, entertainers, artists, and opinion makers, are increasingly recognized to be central to the economic vitality of modern cities (Zukin 2010; Dávila 2012; Goode 2004; Sassen 2001). Cultural initiatives take center stage as the “motor of economic growth” as city governments increasingly compete for tourist dollars and financial investments, including businesses and corporate elites, by bolstering the city’s image as a center of cultural innovation (Zukin
  • 4. Sobin 3 1995:148; Logan and Molotch 1987). However, not everyone and everything affected by this cultural revolution benefits equally. Culture forms the basis of what Zukin calls the “symbolic economy” and is comprised of two parallel production systems: the production of space, in which aesthetic ideals, cultural meanings, and themes are incorporated into the look and feel of architecture, streets, and parks (the public landscape); and the production of symbols, in which more abstract or cultural representations influence how particular spaces within cities should preferably be “consumed” or used and by whom (Zukin 1995:145; see also Ouroussoff 2009). The symbolic economy is intertwined politics and power, as people with economic and political power have the greatest opportunity to shape public culture and anchor place to profit. As Zukin writes, “…if visible culture is wealth… the ability to frame the vision brings power” (1995:15). This thesis asks how neoliberal city governments work through culture to transform cities and neighborhoods. I explore this question through an in-depth study of a City of Chicago sponsored public art initiative in Pilsen, a predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood in Chicago that is undergoing rapid gentrification. Public art continues to be viewed as a democratic way to beautify the city and as a way to empower communities. The reality on the ground is much more complex. In many ways, the initiative can be seen as part of the culture and arts industry that is being developed to turn the city center (and its neighborhoods) into a landscape of consumption, attracting the commerce of the overconsuming ‘haves’: suburbanites and urban gentry. As Harvey (2005), di Leonardo (2008), and Logan and Molotch (1987) note, neoliberalization is characterized by uneven geographic development and creates increasing stratifications, most obvious in the “rapidly changing land use patterns that tip and re-tip property away from use-value and toward exchange value” (di Leonardo 2008: 12). Neoliberal
  • 5. Sobin 4 trends in urban development are often connected to the privatization and interiorization of space. While it may seem contradictory that public art emerges just as social theorists announce the death of the public sphere, I will ultimately show that this is not a contradiction at all; public art intersects with such processes of urban restructuring and neoliberalism, albeit in less overt ways. As Dávila notes, “Neoliberalism is often connected with homelessness and poverty, residential segregation, and other indexes of inequality, yet ‘culture,’ a well-known instrument of entrepreneurship used by government and businesses, a medium to sell, frame, structure, claim, and reclaim space, is closely implicated in such processes and always in demand of closer scrutiny” (9). Indeed, as a nexus of culture and place, public art is still firmly attached to the apparatus of urban redevelopment and must be placed within the context of the consumer-driven landscape and the ongoing pressures presented by gentrification. This research contributes to a growing body of work that links culture to urban redevelopment, neoliberalism, and gentrification, and offers a) an examination of public art, which Kim Babon (2000) has referred to as a “blindspot” in the social scientific analysis of urban space and social processes, and b) a detailed ethnographic account of the ways in which various residents, actors, and stakeholders of Pilsen’s Art in Public Places initiative think of and imagine the initiative. Like Miles (1997) and Deutsche (1996), I seek to contest the universal romantic view of public art, whose promotion appears to politically neutralize its use within the city yet masks its political outcomes, particularly on those excluded from the new image created. In analyzing the macro-level politico-economic processes of neoliberalism, the socio-political context of Pilsen, and the micro-level human perspectives surrounding the Art in Public Places initiative, I will ultimately expose the tensions and contradictions behind the initiative’s visual,
  • 6. Sobin 5 rhetorical, and spatial veil, exposing the power dynamics and gentrification strategies masked behind layers of paint. Research Site & Methodology Pilsen, a predominantly working-class Mexican neighborhood in Southwest Chicago, is a contested site in which various populations, stakeholders, and developers project varying visions for the future. Also known as the Lower West Side, Pilsen is just southwest of the Chicago’s Central Business District, referred to as the “Loop.” Immediately west of the Dan Ryan Expressway and south of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC),1 its official boundaries are Western Avenue to the West, 16th street to the North, and the South Branch of the Chicago River to the East and South. Pilsen is easily accessible by the Chicago Transit Authority’s blue and pink lines, providing a direct route to and from Chicago’s Central Business District. It is a community with a long multicultural immigrant history – a formerly Bohemian, Lithuanian, Italian, Czech, and Polish neighborhood. The large influx of Latinos/as – predominantly Mexican – into Pilsen began in the early 1950s, reflecting an expanding Latino population in the United States. In 1970, Pilsen became the first majority Latino community in Chicago. While other Chicago neighborhoods now surpass Pilsen in terms of their Mexican ethnic makeup, it is still referred to by many as the “heart” of Chicago’s Mexican American community (Lutton 2012; 25th Ward Website 2013).                                                                                                                 1 In late 1960, Richard J. Daley offered the Near West Side’s Harrison-Halsted site for the construction of the University of Illinois campus in Chicago without consulting the Near West Side Planning Board; although it was opposed by many leaders and residents, the construction ultimately went forward in 1963 and displaced thousands of Mexican Americans from the Taylor Street neighborhood on the other side of the railroad tracks from Pilsen. This, along with urban renewal projects and the construction of federal expressways, forced many into the neighborhood of Pilsen. While many Mexican American leaders and residents opposed the project, Alderman Danny Solis was included in a university oversight committee to plan and monitor the UIC expansion and supported the university endeavor. This geographical movement in the 1960s precipitated the emergence of social and political activism, particularly among second generation Mexican Americans. For more information, see Betancur 2005.
  • 7. Sobin 6 I first became familiar with Pilsen in Fall of 2011 while working on a research project regarding notions of legitimacy and acceptability of graffiti in the neighborhood. However, it was not until October 2012 when I stumbled upon the trolley tour advertised in the Chicago Reader that the focus of this thesis began to take shape. In Summer 2012, Chicago’s 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis launched his “Art in Public Places: A 25th Ward Community Initiative” (which I refer to as AiPP throughout this thesis). The Alderman financed AiPP with $15,000 from his campaign fund; his goal was to have national, international and local artists create murals throughout Pilsen. The keystone of this initiative – and my research site within the larger context of the neighborhood – is a one and a half mile stretch of murals painted along the railroad viaduct that lines 16th Street, running east from Damen Avenue to Halsted Street. The viaduct, seen by many as the entrance into Pilsen, has older murals to the West of the AiPP site, although many are fading and in need of restoration. I conducted ethnographic and archival research in Pilsen over the course of six months. My methods consisted of frequent visits to the neighborhood, participation and observation at public events, interviews, archival research, and photographic documentation. Additionally, I conducted seven semi-structured interviews that lasted roughly an hour each in cafés, restaurants, informants’ homes, and organizations in the neighborhood. I prefaced each discussion by asking the informant’s permission to record the interview; all informants gave their consent. Interviews were recorded either on a tape recorder or smart phone, transcribed, and supplemented by brief field notes. Interviewees represented a wide range of stakeholders in both the AiPP initiative and the Pilsen neighborhood who exhibited varying viewpoints regarding AiPP, although their titles blurred the boundaries: two organizational representatives, one from Yollocalli Arts Reach, a
  • 8. Sobin 7 cultural institution that offers free art programming to teens and young adults2 , and the other from Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization committed to developing grassroots leadership in Pilsen3 ; four local artists, including a long-time resident and Mexican muralist, an artist/educator at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, a political artist who also manages the “Image Task Force” 4 in Pilsen, a recent Pilsen resident and working artist who is contributing to AiPP, and one of the AiPP organizers/special assistant to Alderman Danny Solis.5 Two of my informants are participating in the initiative. All of my informants currently live or work in the Pilsen neighborhood, and their lengths of residence in the neighborhood range from three years to over twenty. Before or after interviews I would collect field notes in the neighborhood, making sure to walk or drive past the 16th Street location of the AiPP “art walk” to document any progress and speak informally with people passing by. Participant observation consisted of attending both a Chicago Public School community meeting regarding potential school closings in Pilsen6 and also one “2nd Fridays Gallery Night,” an event organized by real estate mogul John Podmajersky III, who owns much of the property in East Pilsen7 . Both events drew very different crowds:                                                                                                                 2 They have painted over 30 murals in the neighborhood, and contributed a piece to AiPP. Sam is also contributing. 3 They are also an anti-gentrification group. 4 Her role as part of the Pilsen Quality of Life Plan, created in 2005 by a wide range of stakeholders in the neighborhood with the goal of ensuring development in the neighborhood would benefit local residents and the community. 5 As a measure of protecting the confidentiality of my informants, I have replaced their names with pseudonyms in this thesis. 6 This showed me how the community mobilizes itself in the face of harm to the neighborhood and presents itself to authorities. It showed me the strong attachment residents feel to their neighborhood. Residents have taken other great strides to protect their schools and community spaces. In one notorious example, parents and residents staged a 43-day sit-in at Whittier Elementary School to prevent the demolition of an adjacent field house, arguing that the building should be turned into a library. 7 During 2nd Fridays Gallery Night, the gallery spaces throughout what the developer terms “Podland” – both the large galleries and the workshops in which the artists also live – flaunt their wares at the encouragement of their realtor and provide wine and cheese. This event is part of Podmajersky’s marketing tactic to attract young, artsy- types to his properties; tourists are directed towards the Podmajersky information office, open only on 2nd Fridays, at 18th and Halsted. Along the top of one of its large glass windows, floating grey letters indicate that one has entered the “Chicago Arts District” (CAD). Here, visitors can pick up a map of the galleries and Podmajersky property promotional material, including business cards and pamphlets that tout the slogan “Building SoHo in Chicago.”
  • 9. Sobin 8 Pilsen residents, parents, teachers, and children in the first case; and a diverse group of hip, artsy- types in their 20s and 30s in the latter – the very crowd that the new Art in Public Places initiative seeks to attract. My participant observation permeated the digital sphere as well: I followed several Pilsen Neighborhood groups on Facebook, which offered me an important on- the-ground insight into the uber-local information that other followers consumed, how followers responded to postings regarding local happenings, and built upon each other’s discourses. Archival data collection consisted of research on shifts in demographics and housing prices; local policy and organizing; and most prominently the ways in which the Alderman, Pilsen, and AiPP are marketed to the general public. Neoliberalism and Gentrification in Pilsen Pilsen is attractive to real-estate developers and potential residents alike due to its proximity to “the Loop,” the center of the City of Chicago’s business district, its recognition as an ethnic community with a large stock of murals, and the local government and city’s branding of the city as a tourist attraction. Pilsen has gentrified at a rate much slower than other cities in the country, largely due to residents’ and activists’ ability to mobilize (J. Mumm, personal communication, February 17, 2013). However, as local government has ushered in “upscale” development, this has changed (see Betancur 2005). In the past 12 years, over 10,000 Latinos have been displaced from the neighborhood as gentrifiers have entered, reflecting a 25.5% drop in the Hispanic population (see table 1).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       According to their website, Podmajersky “founded the Chicago Arts District to assist with strategic development” and “provide overall support” to the artists and businesses in the neighborhood, though if you look at an aerial view map on their website, Pilsen is not even identified and the map cuts off just several blocks to the west of the district. John Podmajersky III created CAD in 2002 “with the goal of creating a destination art community.” There are several rumors that Podmajersky is waiting for his father, the original visionary of the artist colony, to pass away so that he can sell the buildings to other developers.
  • 10. Sobin 9 Table 1 This is not an uncommon trend in neighborhoods bordering the Loop. Accompanying these population shifts has been a host of neoliberal policies, all of which disproportionately affect working class residents: rising rents, government withdrawal from the social sector, and welfare cuts. In June 2012, unemployment estimates for Pilsen were 25%, compared to the estimate for Chicago at 8.7%. The Pilsen poverty rate is over 36% for children. Two of the largest employers in Pilsen – coal-fired power plants – are slated for closure in 2014, which will terminate 550 union jobs in the neighborhoods. And while Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Superintendent Garry McCarthy made an announcement in April 2013 that homicides fell sharply in the first quarter of the year 2013 compared to 2012, gang-related violence keeps happening in Pilsen and affects the entire community (Fadden 2012). Rahm Emanuel was elected as Mayor of Chicago in February 2011 and has since then pursued a strongly neoliberal agenda; for example, in 2012 the city gave a $524 million dollar tax break to the owners of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and simultaneously closed six of the 12 mental health clinics in Chicago (Vevea 2012; Joravsky 2012). This year his
  • 11. Sobin 10 administration proposed the largest round of public school closures in history, 8 disproportionately affecting Chicago’s poorest children; 38 of these were located in Pilsen and neighboring Little Village.9 The Chicago Cultural Plan In addition to school reform, in one of his first acts as Mayor of the City of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel reinvigorated the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) to revisit Chicago’s cultural plan, which had been untouched since 1995. Unveiled in October 2012, the plan is a framework to guide the city’s cultural and economic growth. The promotional materials for the plan fervently emphasize that it is as a community-guided initiative: “The plan, too, was created by visionary thinkers – you, the citizens of Chicago,” reads a foreword written by Mayor Emanuel and the Commissioner of DCASE. This assertion of inclusivity10 accompanies the growth motivations that fuel the plan. . The government claims that it will be the centerpiece that continues “to elevate the City as a global destination for creativity, innovation, and excellence in the arts," and it also posits that the "inclusive" plan will simultaneously enhance the community's assets and local networks.                                                                                                                 8 At the same time, the government valorized and approved the opening of dozens of privatized charter schools. For more information on the neoliberal policies of Emanuel, see Chicago Reader reporter Ben Joravsky. 9 When the first list of possible school closures came out, 38 potential school closures were located in Pilsen and neighboring Little Village. I attended one of the CPS community hearing meetings regarding the potential school closings. It drew over a thousand parents, teachers, and students and I was filed into a spillover room where upset residents voiced their frustration at the administration (and at the fact that they were unable to attend the actual meeting in the downstairs auditorium): “My son is downstairs in the main room,” one woman exclaimed. “How will he know that I’m here fighting for his school, for his future?” The meeting showcased the organizational ability and power of the community: “This community operates from the grassroots,” one student’s father stated in a public testimonial. “We are the boss of this community.” In a show of collective power, the mom of the student downstairs interrupted CPS’ slideshow and urged everyone to flee to the auditorium; outside the guarded doors (by 8 police), the mob chanted, “Let us in! Let us in!” 10 This is perhaps best illustrated by the page following the cover for the plan that features photos of post-it notes that varying Chicago residents created responding to the question, “what is culture?” Responses range from “Music, music, music” to “quality of life/happiness,” but none referenced anything relating to money, growth, or competition on a global scale.
  • 12. Sobin 11 Chicago’s use of culture to polish its image and jump-start investment is nothing new. City governments across the United States promote and create neoliberal reform that includes cultural incentives to revamp their cities as centers of innovation and global destinations to attract industry. The Chicago Cultural Plan builds upon Mayor Richard M. Daley’s regime of revitalization, which aimed to transform downtrodden areas in the city into desirable ones. He focused on Chicago as a tourist destination as opposed to a manufacturing base, and spearheaded the conversion of Navy Pier into a popular tourist destination, expanded parkland, added flower planters along many primary streets, and expanded the Museum Park district. His signature development in the city center was Millennium Park – a twenty-five-acre site for art, music, and recreation that replaced a wasteland of rail lines. The park opened in 2004, and between 2004 and 2008 the park helped boost tourism to Chicago by nearly fifty per cent and has become one of its most important public spaces (Osnos 2010). He also oversaw the revitalization plan of the North Side, which destroyed thousands of units of public housing in favor of mixed-income housing and upscale development. Cultural strategies of renewal make up an industrial policy for a new economic age, with city officials running on a fast-paced treadmill of global competition (Zukin 2010). Chicago competes with cities like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles to be a “global cultural destination;” however, it self-consciously sees this as a goal yet to be achieved: “While Chicago boasts premier cultural offerings- its world class institutions and events- it must continue to strive to reach its full potential as a global cultural destination…In 2011, Chicago ranked 34th among global cities in innovation…Given our vast cultural assets, Chicago should rank much higher.” 11 (City of Chicago Cultural Plan 2012:8). Striving to remain relevant in an                                                                                                                 11 It continues with a comparison to other cities with higher tourism rates: “In 2011, Chicago welcomed 1.2 million international visitors. Six other U.S. cities received more international visitors than Chicago (New York, 4.6M;
  • 13. Sobin 12 interconnected world, Chicago sees cultural tourism as the key to its future. One of the ways in which it hopes to promote itself as a unique site is by highlighting and building upon the “culture” that exists in neighborhoods that frame the corporate city, expanding its cultural regime into new territories. One of the three primary goals of the Chicago Cultural Plan is to “elevate and expand neighborhood cultural assets,” in conjunction with aestheticizing the city as a whole: “This priority [of expanding neighborhoods’ cultural assets] focuses on cross-pollinating neighborhood experiences; broadening cultural participation citywide; communicating the diverse cultural assets throughout Chicago; and integrating art in public places to its fullest potential” (City of Chicago Cultural Plan 2012: 12). The Chicago Cultural Plan thus fits into broader varied policies affecting people in Pilsen. Selling Pilsen: The Packaging and Promotion of a Mexican American Neighborhood It’s all here in Pilsen: architecture, ethnic restaurants, art (street and gallery), churches and its own vibe, all in a compact district easily reached by CTA ‘L’ train…It begs to be explored, for its surprises are everywhere, from galleries and shops to carts selling tamales to exterior wall murals that can be beautiful, or challenging, or both…With the colors storefronts (be sure to look up) and murals, and the vibrancy of the people, the museum and neighborhood seem as one.” -Chicago Office of Tourism website (cited in Wilson, Walters, and Grammenos 2004: 1176) Perched on the corner of 18th and Wood St, you get the sense that this is a working-class Latino community that wears its Mexican identity on its sleeve: vendors sell tamales and corn in pushcarts on the street; children noisily scuttle out of Orozco Academy, adorned with colorful mosaic tile portraits depicting significant Mexican and Mexican American men and women; a panadería borders a lunch locale that will sell you a molette with a side dish; and enormous murals featuring “Mexican heroes,” as one respondent called them. You are standing on the edge of Harrison Park, just several blocks from the home and studio of Oscar Martín, a Mexican muralist (and interview subject of mine) who has been painting murals in the neighborhood since the 1980s; his work is oftentimes featured in the local museum, along with many of the other community-based Mexican artists in the neighborhood. Homes surrounding the park bear Spanish last names on their mailboxes; La Virgín is not an uncommon site in this neighborhood, whether tacked on a window or painted along a passing building. As you continue East down 18th street, the landscape shifts to something altogether different: buildings take on a more modern look and vintage shops crop up. The sidewalk boasts                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Miami, 3.7M; Los Angeles, 2.9M; Newark, NJ, 1.7M; Honolulu, 1.6M; San Francisco, 1.5M)” (Chicago Cultural Plan 2012: 8).
  • 14. Sobin 13 less foot traffic, less chaos, although it is still connected aesthetically to West Pilsen through the continuity of lamp posts featuring the Mexican symbol of the eagle and snake, marking the neighborhood as Pilsen12 . The area is still connected to the West Pilsen commercial district through the continuity of lamp posts adorned with the that mark the neighborhood as Pilsen. Passing through East Pilsen and Halted St, there is a subtle uniformity at play: half-orange, half-blue address signs affiliate the eclectic mix of buildings, gated and sheltered from the heavy traffic on the street. The buildings belong to one of the largest and most powerful real estate developers in Chicago – Podmajersky, Inc. who have been cultivating the area as an artist colony since the 1960s.13 The artists and students who live in these properties are transforming the neighborhood in ways that Neil Smith, David Harvey, and Sharon Zukin describe. However, this reshaping is capitalized upon and catalyzed with the help of the local government and city officials. Chicago’s efforts to attract capital are not limited to the city center, but pervade the surrounding neighborhoods as well. Stakeholders in attracting capital and people to places often leverage the cultural context of existing residents to reinvent the perception of place. This often manifests itself in the manipulation and commodification of the cultural representation of a community’s existing fabric in order to market as a unique place that outsiders and tourists are encouraged to visit and “experience” (Judd and Fainestein 1999). Ethnic Commodification and Tourism Tourism in Pilsen became a major development initiative and industry as part of a citywide growth agenda in the 1990s, and since the early 2000s Alderman Danny Solis has been one of its main advocates (see PPC-Quality-of-Life-Plan, 2006; as cited in Sternberg 2012). Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the City of Chicago began marketing Pilsen as an authentic Mexican neighborhood; this was part of a larger strategy of packaging Chicago in a tourism bundle to visitors, an endeavor encapsulated succinctly by Office of Tourism representative Patricia Sullivan:                                                                                                                 12 The city sponsored an initiative to put up banners and lampposts celebrating Pilsen’s Mexican heritage at a time when members of the community were being displaced. 13 Podmajersky’s development has been seen as one of the moves that opened the doorway to Pilsen’s gentrification (Sternberg 2012; see also footnote 7).
  • 15. Sobin 14 Pilsen and Chicago go hand-in-hand. A true Mexican neighborhood like Pilsen is one part of the total ethnic puzzle that makes Chicago a diverse ethnic city…preserving this ethnicity is key. It is our job to identify [this], capture [this], and sell [this]” (discussion, 8 July 2002; cited in Wilson et. all, 2004:1186). As part of Chicago’s role in attracting capital, Pilsen needed to become a vibrant neighborhood to serve the purposes of the city’s entrepreneur and competitive ethos; the goal here was and still is to anchor Pilsen for future profit, and this has particular consequences for whoever has a right to this space. This “commodity-ethnicity” development team, featuring the Chicago Office of Tourism and Alderman Danny Solis14 , enact several prominent themes in their growth agenda: a need to upscale Pilsen physically, to cultivate entrepreneurial spirit, to establish a stronger area retail base, and to embellish and display Mexican ethnicity (Wilson et. all 2004). The manipulation of cultural heritage is evident in the branding of Pilsen on Alderman Solis’ 25th Ward’s website: Pilsen is the heart of Chicago’s Mexican-American community whose wealth of restaurants and shops is matched by its cultural riches, much of which is found in a renowned museum. A recent influx of public art murals and galleries has given rise to a bustling Chicago Arts District. The adjoining Heart of Chicago community also has deep Northern Italian roots best experienced through its top-rated restaurants. Chicago’s Official Tourism website brands  local  culture  in  a  similar  way,  commodifying  both   the  neighborhood’s  walls  and  people:  “…with the colors storefronts…and murals, and the vibrancy of the people, the museum and neighborhood seem as one” (cited in Wilson et. all 2004). Local residents and activists have inserted themselves into these processes as well in order to ensure that the community benefits from tourism. For example, Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization dedicated to empowering and improving the lives of local residents, has been working on a campaign to expand upon the Pilsen Historic District in order to incorporate the                                                                                                                 14 Mayor Daley appointed Alderman Solis 25th Ward Alderman in 1996.
  • 16. Sobin 15 interests of immigrant, working class residents and create Living Wage jobs for residents. Miguel, the organization’s director, explained to me that they hope these efforts ensure the permanence of local residents: So tourism is something that’s been happening anyway…People are attracted to the murals, the food, the culture, and that’s a cool thing. We just don’t want it to be a façade, like a Mexican Disney World or something. If you’re going to sell this community as a Mexican community, how do you make it Mexican without the Mexicans? You don’t make it Mexican just by hanging up a bunch of eagles from the light poles.15 If tourism is going to be the name of the game in the neighborhood, Miguel believes Pilsen residents should have the jobs in that industry in order to make living wages and reap the benefits of tourism. “We had to unfortunately get in the business of doing business,” he chuckled. “Tourism can go both ways, but if you participate, at least it can go your way. If you never participate, it’s never going to go your way.” Art in Public Places: A 25th Ward Community Initiative In late August 2012, Chicago’s 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis announced the “Art in Public Places: A 25th Ward Community Initiative” (AiPP). As per his office, the new initiative is “a diverse selection of creative community experiences in the 25th Ward [that] builds the community’s overall creation of a pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing environment for residents, business owners and visitors” (Press Release a). The keystone of this initiative – and the focus of my research – is the conversion of a 15-block stretch of wallspace in Pilsen from graffiti-ridden “blight” into an “art walk” that boasts murals16 by international, out-of-state, and local artists. Alderman Solis boasts the benefits of the initiative in the 25th Ward press release,                                                                                                                 15 He is referencing an initiative in which the city put up banners and lampposts featuring the Mexican symbol of the eagle and snake to celebrate Pilsen’s Mexican heritage, even as many members of the community were displaced. 16 A descriptor disputed by several of my interview informants; I will delve into this later.
  • 17. Sobin 16 arguing that the effort will also “create and enhance17 the cultural, educational, and artistic value for the community.” But in the case of Pilsen, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that has been the target of urban redevelopment initiatives supported by the local government for decades, this public art initiative demands closer scrutiny. Alderman Solis personally selected Aimee Arango as special assistant to the alderman and the lead for the initiative. Aimee runs Chicago Urban Art Society (CUAS), a gallery space nestled in a converted factory in East Pilsen; for this reason, Ald. Solis sees her as the binding link between Pilsen’s intermittedly overlapping worlds of politics and art. Aimee selected Matt Martins, co-founder of Wicker Park’s Pawn Works Gallery, as the initiative’s other curatorial partner. While Aimee focuses on local talent, Pawn Works is responsible for recruiting and bringing in the international and out-of-state talent. As of April 2013, Alderman Solis had personally commissioned and flown in several renown international and out of state street artists – from Belgium, Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, Spain, UK, Canada, Australia, Nevada, and more – to contribute to the art walk. Several Chicago-based artists and two youth-focused cultural institutions supplemented these contributions. While the seed money for the initiative comes from Alderman Solis’s personal campaign funds18 , the AiPP team is currently dedicated to figuring out how to use more government money – such as Tax Increment Financing dollars – and solicit further funding from the City of Chicago. The AiPP plan is a four-year plan, and the first two years are dedicated to “getting the press and the marketing component of it together,” Aimee explained. Indeed, even as a project                                                                                                                 17 Note the close parallel to the City of Chicago Cultural Plan’s rhetoric: “expand and enhance cultural assets” (see page 18 Danny Solis has what Natalia termed a “campaign treasure chest.” In 2011, a single donor to Danny Solis’s campaign to be re-elected for alderman – the New Chicago PAC, Rahm Emanuel’s funding wing – gave more to Solis than all of his opponent’s donors combined, dropping a total of $38,000 on the Emanuel-backed incumbent (see Guzzardi 2011).
  • 18. Sobin 17 in-progress, the initiative has generated extensive media coverage and promotion. To help promote the initiative, Alderman Solis sponsored a free trolley tour of Pilsen’s murals, featuring both older murals and the murals-in-progress, an experience I described earlier. A Google search for “Art in Public Places: Pilsen” generates a laundry list of news articles, websites, and blogs that reference the highly acclaimed initiative, including, a decisively tourist-oriented piece of media. A piece about AiPP, decorated with several photos of murals in-progress featuring prominently those by renowned street artists ROA and GAI, urges visitors to “take a stroll down Pilsen’s public galleries.” In an attempt to repackage and “sell” Pilsen, they continue, “Today, because of the Art in Public Spaces campaign, you can witness the transformation of problem areas in Pilsen to dynamic and beautiful works of art created by a variety of American and overseas artists” (Gonzales 2012). AiPP Goals While Aimee and Alderman Solis’s official narrative regarding AiPP seems democratic, community-oriented, and inclusive, closer inspection shows that the unofficial narrative differs, particularly in the goals and motivations underlying the initiative. Aimee and Alderman Solis’s primary goal for AiPP is to combat unsanctioned graffiti and tagging in the ward. “It came at perfect timing, the [Chicago] Sun Times had just come out that the mayor had just cut a significant amount of the Graffiti Blaster program,” Aimee told me. “The fact that we have this blight that sort of cuts through our community, that’s not well maintained by the property owners, that millions of city dollars are being used to paint over graffiti, whether its graffiti art or gang territorial stuff. It’s a problem. So lets recognize that these walls are an asset. So what do you do? Fucking paint on the walls!”19                                                                                                                 19 Using art to prevent graffiti and gang tagging is not a new idea; in fact, several Pilsen residents and businesses have done and continue to paint murals on the facades of their homes and stores informally, leveraging local networks of artists. While doing fieldwork last fall, I stumbled upon a property owner who was having an angel painted on her garage door. Because of her proximity to Carpenter Street, which divides two gang boundaries, her house is the target of much tagging. By having an angel painted on her garage door, a message (in her words) to
  • 19. Sobin 18 One of my informants celebrated the initiative as a beautification effort. Christina, the director of Yollocalli Arts Reach who is raising her son in Pilsen, appreciates the new initiative because “it’s just nice to continue to have space that wasn’t being used at all, to now be a piece of public art.” However, conversations with local artists and with the AiPP illuminate contradictory messages. When I asked Aimee what her personal goals were for the 16th Street “art walk,” her response diverged from the initiative’s purported goals: Well, I want to make sure that Chicago is put on the map for strong public art projects… There’s no reason Chicago can’t compete with some of these more innovative, boundary- pushing cities, and I think with regard to...this railroad, these walls have been an issue for the community. And it just makes simple sense for people to activate it in particular with the arts, and so I would like to let people know that these inventory of murals is a way to best sort of support an art community, whether they’re legacy or rotating or roving or whatever you call it, to sort of move forward with it. But it’s a tourist attraction, community beautification, it serves every possible agenda that makes sense. Until you get to a taste level, you know? Some people have different tastes and interests, but ultimately its putting Chicago on the map with some of these other large-scale public art projects in other cities. (emphasis added) While the goals for the local community involve combating graffiti and beautification, they are but a façade for the underlying growth goal anchoring initiative. Her “unofficial” response aligns with the goals of the Chicago growth machine and the Chicago Cultural Plan: to refashion Chicago as a global city and to increase Chicago’s stance as a cultural destination for tourists. Pilsen, for her, is a proxy for the City of Chicago, and the insertion of culture and art into the neighborhood need not be attached to the community in which it is displayed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       “stay away knuckleheads,” she is proactively curbing graffiti tags. In a conversation with an employee of the 18th Street Development Cooperation, he told me that he constantly urges his boss to paint a mural on the side of the building to stop tagging. Gómez advocates for more murals in neighborhoods with a high degree of graffiti activity, saying that "murals themselves, whether they contain an anti-graffiti message or not, discourage graffiti because writers tend to respect artwork" (695).
  • 20. Sobin 19 Thus, it is clear that this is an urban redevelopment initiative to position Chicago advantageously in relation to other cities. The press release of AiPP also discusses the abstract “economic benefits” to be had through the implementation of the initiative. “With the significant press, on sort of this revitalization of public art in Pilsen, has contributed a lot of attention [sic],” Aimee told me. “They’re coming to the area to look at the murals because it’s pretty awesome to see a big stretch of murals that are pretty contemporary. Some of the more traditional stuff incorporated in there as well. But it’s bringing in these people and they’re coming to Pilsen not just to check out the artwork but then they’re also going to shop, they’re also going to eat, so that industry is further stimulated. It’s cooler with the murals as a backdrop.” Aimee made sure to clarify to me that they were not “spearheading any major tourist attraction,” but simply adding to it. Simultaneously, she discussed her plans to create special events involving the 16th street art walk that indeed sound like curated tourist events. The first is “Open Streets,” which shuts down 5 miles along 16th and 18th Street from car traffic to encourage tourists and residents to walk along 16th Street to view the murals and then to shop and eat on 18th Street. Additionally, she has plans to introduce a Renegade Craft fair to those streets, a “curated indie-craft marketplace showcasing the brightest talents in contemporary craft and design” ( While proponents of AiPP and similar programs claim that such initiatives will benefit local residents, research has shown that the benefits of growth associated with public art do not successfully trickle down the social hierarchy (Sharp 2005). Indeed, most urban redevelopment is accompanied by deepening social inequalities (Sharp 2005; Dávila 2004). Dávila (2004) links urban development initiatives to gentrification, and claims that "gentrification – whether called urban renewal, revitalization, upgrading, or uplifting – always involves the expansion and
  • 21. Sobin 20 transformation of neighborhoods through rapid economic investment and population shifts, and yet it is equally always implicated with social inequalities" (11). The Problems of Process: Cultural Domination and Exclusion “If people think it's just so romantic and separate from the humans that exist here. The thing is though, that Aimee's promoting that agenda -- that art is separate from the life here, it's separate from ideas and the lived experience and the homelife and the dreams and's this other thing.” -Amanda, local artist, educator, and Pilsen resident Here, I will I analyze the ways in which artists were recruited for the project and the overarching process of the initiative. Art in Public Places is not only marketed as, but also symbolically named as, a “community initiative.” Specifically, Aimee and Alderman Solis defined the 16th street initiative as a “community project” consisting of a “diverse selection of local and out-of-state murals.” The reality on the ground is more complicated, and like the underlying goals of AiPP, it may be that Aimee is selling one thing and ending up with another. Recruitment and Selection Procedures In our discussion, Aimee told me that anyone could apply to paint a mural as part of the initiative. The press release put out to the general public confirms this: “individuals can submit proposals on a rolling basis by visiting the Alderman’s website.” However, closer inspection of the materials put out to the public and discussions with my interview subjects illuminated a much more selective process, contesting the initiative’s façade of inclusion. While the press release links visitors to the 25th ward website, it fails to direct visitors to any specific place in which they can learn about the application procedures and apply. In my site visits to local cafes and to the Museum of Mexican Art, I did not see any notices either. Natalia, a political artists, activist, and
  • 22. Sobin 21 co-chair of the image task force of Pilsen, articulated the initiative’s exclusive recruitment procedures: Anyone who's been on that wall has been through direct contact with the Alderman's office because they knew that this was supposed to be coming. And they do have to submit information and plans, whatever their plans are for the thing, but it's not like an open call, it's not like they put it on their website – like ‘if you want to put a mural on 16th street, here are the steps you have to follow.’ If it was open to everybody in the public, it should be on their website. I have yet to see it on their website. I have yet to see any postings at the museum, at any of the parks, at any of the cafes, nowhere. Nowhere where the artists and the public gather. Nowhere. So it's not open. You have to be able to negotiate with Aimee to get a space on the wall. Point blank. (emphasis added) Indeed, two of my subjects participating in the initiative, Christina of Yollocalli and Diana Kirk, told me that Aimee had contacted them directly to encourage them to contribute. While the 16th street murals features work by several local artists and community youth-based arts organizations alongside the out-of-state talent, Amanda sees this integration as a strategy to appease the public and promote an aura of inclusivity: “It's not that she didn't very carefully and strategically pick Chema and Ricardo and Yollocalli to be in there mixed in with the others. She's very strategic. She's a shark, you gotta watch her.” Because the application is inaccessible to those not in direct contact with Aimee, local artists who are not seen as favorable to her are “walled off,” as Oscar told me, from the initiative. From their perspective, Aimee has erected only a façade of inclusivity. The way in which Aimee selected contributors to paint murals on 16th Street rests on her understanding of who is significant and valuable in the art world. Aimee later articulated, although indirectly, her top-down selection procedure. When I asked her about the associated curatorial partners – Chicago Urban Art Society and Pawn Works – she told me, “CUAS is involved to the extent that I am CUAS, right? And the network and my relationships that I bring to the table. So I know my local artists, mid career, established, what we consider to be really
  • 23. Sobin 22 important and relevant and famous artists, so we could bring those people to the table.” Embedded within this answer is the elite ways in which she defines “important,” “relevant,” and “famous artists,” eschewing the value of those artists who were not selected as part of the process. Oscar Martín, a generally respected and well-known muralist in the community, told me that he and other artists in the community were not contacted to participate, and again acknowledged the lack of community-based marketing for the initiative and the application process. Aimee, Alderman Solis, and Matt believe that the out-of-state talent serves two functions: 1- it stimulates national and international press attention; and 2- it helps to separate the space from other mural sites. Artists were selected for their international reputation and recognition, or, their ability to stimulate the press. I argue that they were selected because of the cultural capital associated with their name. Indeed, the wide cache behind several of these artists has catalyzed the exponential spread of awareness of the Pilsen-based project, as it has been written up in New York based blogs and on the websites of these artists. The initiative has been featured in various other mainstream media outlets, such as TimeOut Chicago and Chicago Sun Times, and nontraditional cultural media outlets, such as street art blogs and Chicago’s free paper, Redeye. Indeed, generating media hype and press is a key component of the initiative; it helps facilitate the branding of Pilsen as a “trendy, sexy” place (to use Aimee’s descriptors) to visit and it attracts the attention of the “new elitists” that Kahn terms “cultural omnivores” (2012). Conclusively, one of Aimee’s goals for AiPP is to “beef up Pilsen’s cache as being a cool, artsy community as well, an inviting community.” Ironically, the venues through which AiPP is marketed and written about seem to elide the “inviting community” to which it hopes to attract visitors. The media overwhelmingly emphasizes the out-of-state talent recruited to contribute to
  • 24. Sobin 23 AiPP. Like major celebrities, musicians, and architects, these high profile out-of-state artists’ names represent brands in the international economy. Their presence or involvement in a project attracts attention to that particular place, and AiPP strategically leverage the cultural capital instilled in their name to attract cultural consumers. Natalia saw Belgian-based artist ROA’s involvement in the initiative as a way to lure in culture-savvy consumers: “That’s for the tourists, that’s to try to attract people that will go ‘ooh, they have a ROA. Let’s go see it.’” The strategic selection of the artists and their corresponding art styles falls in line with consumer-driven market trends: the urge to consume authenticity, which I will discuss later. Contesting the “Community” in “AIPP: A 25th Ward Community Process” AiPP is not only named as, but also strategically marketed as, a “community initiative,” although several local artists contest the existence of community involvement in the initiative’s process. Many of my informants criticized the “parachuting in” of non-local artists, who have little knowledge of the community in which they were painting. Rather than encouraging artists to work together and with the community to create something that resonates with locals, like Judy Baca’s murals in Los Angeles or Mary Jane Jacobs’ public art project in Chicago, the AiPP initiative promotes middle class/neoliberal ideologies of individual self-expression and competition without community-based oversight. Thus, most of the art on 16th street is divorced from the social, historical, and cultural context in which it was produced. For example, one Brooklyn-based street artist painted a large naked green giant with Chicago Cubs-themed rollerblades because he had a dream that he was naked and rollerblading in the park (see Appendix A). While the Cubs logo on the rollerblades may have been an attempt to localize his work in some way, Diana, a local artist who is contributing to AiPP but criticized the process, thought that this piece not only failed to reflect the local community, but also symbolized the
  • 25. Sobin 24 way the initiative was rapidly curated and the artwork was selected in a way that did not reflect the community and local culture: “Maybe it’s cause I’m a Southsider,20 but I really hate that they put that piece up with the Cubs on it… I just don’t think people are wisely putting things together. They’re in a rush to make sure Chicago doesn’t fall off the map, that Chicago isn’t forgotten about…and to try to be like ‘oh yeah, we did that, we can do this, we can do that.’” Natalia also criticized Belgian-based street artist ROA for insensitively painting a mural on 16th Street that did not reflect well on the community. His illustration (see Appendix B) – a 50-ft possum with an enormous chunk missing from the middle of its body as if chewed out by another animal, with its innards on display – has stimulated the most media attention, but it has also offended many residents: Natalia: It went up at a time that we were getting reports of a spike in the rats that we were having, I was like eh, not good timing. You didn't look into where you were going, you just wanted to be hip and put a ROA up…And that to me is like lazy art. It's also very ivory tower. You've got your little idea and nothing's going to change you off that little idea. And it shows that you're not very much about the community, which goes against what murals are about. Murals are about community. Diana: I love ROA’s work but…in a neighborhood like Pilsen, it’s like ok Danny Solis, did you talk to him about what he was going to put up on the walls? Do you think it’s actually ok that he put up a giant rat with his entire stomach gone? What does that say to the people here? And that can go all kinds of ways…but understanding some of the people who live here that are of a lower income and have grown up in this neighborhood when it was poor and gang ridden, what does something like that say to those people? Natalia dismissed the majority of the AiPP pieces as murals, addressing them as simply large- scale paintings because of their dislocation from (and in this case, the disrespect for) the community in which they were produced. Public Art in Pilsen, as I mentioned before, predates this initiative and has always vested importance on sensitively reflecting, standing for, and contributing to the community. A thriving network of local artists in Pilsen not only operate                                                                                                                 20 The Cubs and the White Sox are the two American League Professional Baseball Teams in Chicago. The Cubs are generally supported by Northsiders and the White Sox by Southsiders. Pilsen technically falls within White Sox “territory.”
  • 26. Sobin 25 studios out of their homes, but also teach art classes in local schools, paint murals, and collaborate amongst each other; deeply entrenched and interconnected, they are the ones who form the heart of the arts in Pilsen. Natalia continues: That's what happens when you get someone who's not from the community who doesn't know murals, doesn't know the history or aesthetic of those things, you know, doesn't. I mean, they're thinking like the Caves of Lascaux, let's just put handprints up here and ‘ooh ah, we're cool and hip.’ And it's like no, that's not at all what the history of a mural is about. This speaks to the artistic and cultural aspirations of the local government: “The supposed universal appeal and applicability of art prevails over its ever present ethnic, cultural, and social content and significance” (Dávila 2004: 201). In fact, Natalia is alluding to a long history of locally-produced public art in the neighborhood. For decades Pilsen’s Latino residents, business owners, artists and cultural organizations have been inscribing their memories, histories, and sentiments upon public and private walls in the neighborhood through murals; they have done so as part of a process of community identification, legitimization and representation, and oftentimes to advocate for social rights and push grassroots local agendas. The Pilsen mural movement was born out of the Chicano movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and Casa Aztlan, a social service agency and community center in the neighborhood, is well known as the center of this movement.21 In the face of proposed harmful urban renewal projects such as the Chicago 21 Plan, murals were leveraged as a form of community building and resistance by simultaneously constructing local cultural identity and territorially legitimizing Pilsen as a Mexican neighborhood under the motto “we shall not be moved” (Betancur 2005: 23; LaWare 1998).                                                                                                                 21 One of the oldest social service agencies in Pilsen, it was founded in 1970 to serve the immigrant Mexican families that began arriving in great numbers two decades earlier. Providing advocacy, counseling, and other services, including after school programs, it was a focal point for the community, providing a variety of services needed to adapt to life in a new urban environment while preserving their culture and maintaining their values. The building is currently slated for closure.
  • 27. Sobin 26 Murals are still central to the neighborhood today: they adorn school buildings and businesses in the neighborhood, and several cultural institutions in the neighborhood teach mural painting to local youth (see Appendix C for examples of such murals). Artists have mostly been local residents and, occasionally, outside artists working on a pro bono basis to help the community give voice to resident sentiments (Sternberg 2012: 65). Unlike the art works and artists that are rooted in the community, the AiPP process is one that is fundamentally not inclusive of the community in which it is entrenched. Young (2000) provides a succinct definition of inclusion as “a democratic decision (being) normatively legitimate only if all those affected by it are included in the process of discussion and decision making” (22; cited in Sharp 2005: 1017). Her emphasis is on the processes through which collective decisions are made. Critical here is that the processes by which artwork is selected should involve those who are part and parcel of the community, and that the process affords equal status to everyone. In the case of the AiPP initiative, rather than involving the varying voices of community members, local artists, and residents, their opinions and desires appear to have been muted: “My concern is…it's the manner in which she's going about this. It's the approach she's taking. And it's the fact that it's not a community process…Can you imagine walking out of your house and seeing those murals, that rat, and no one asked you about it? Like, baloney! Community artists aren’t like that. They’re either from there and they know everybody who…what would you consider them, your constituency? Like, you’d be consulting them!” (Amanda). The lack of community involvement and control fundamentally contradicts the ways murals have been painted in Pilsen before AiPP. Amanda, who had spoken with muralist Oscar Martín earlier in the week regarding her own grassroots cultural project, relayed to me that, for reasons mentioned above, Oscar had declared this initiative the decisive termination of the mural movement in Pilsen:
  • 28. Sobin 27 “He says the mural movement started in the 70s, and it started in Casa Aztlan.22 And it’s over now, because Aimee is doing that on 16th street. It was deep when he said that, that the mural movement has ended officially now that we have, you know, a puppet for the man, deciding what is visible and invisible.” Furthermore, AiPP diminishes the contributions of local artists and residents’ efforts to beautify the neighborhood for the community. Natalia pointed out how Aimee’s mentality of “bringing culture into Pilsen” resonated with that of imperialists: And it's also offensive because at the same time it's like, you're back to treating us like we're a bunch of philistines around here, and we're not. We've had arts and culture in this community since back in the days of the Czechs and the Bohemians, that didn't stop with the Mexicans moving in. As a matter of fact, we have lots of arts and artists, arts based organizations, cultural events that happen in this community, without having put this giant rodent on the wall. This giant rodent did not add to our cultural history, it did not add to anything that we were already doing. As a matter of fact it was kind of like a backhand to what we were doing. That's how a lot of people took it. This was a backhand of all the work we've put into trying to improve Harrison Park, trying to improve Dvorak Park, putting muralism in different parts of the community that were lead by youth that were very much about their experience of this community and trying to uplift the community and change the image of this community as being you know violent and not a safe place to be. You know. So it was really irritating for those reasons. The AiPP treatment of culture represents a direct challenge to the dominant definitions and uses of culture in Pilsen, where cultural initiatives have been recurrent resources for struggles over rights, representations, and identity. AiPP’s façade of inclusivity not only stealthily cloaks the underlying growth goal of the initiative, but it also devalues “homegrown” artists who are overlooked and excluded from AiPP.                                                                                                                 22 Casa Aztlan is well known as the center of this mural movement in Pilsen and is regarded as an important neighborhood landmark vested with many use values. However, it is currently slated for closure. One of the oldest social service agencies in Pilsen, it was founded in 1970 to serve the immigrant Mexican families that began arriving in great numbers two decades earlier. Providing advocacy, counseling, and other services, including after school programs, it was a focal point for the community, providing a variety of services needed to adapt to life in a new urban environment while preserving their culture and maintaining their values. The building is currently slated for closure.
  • 29. Sobin 28 Aesthetics and the Manufacturing of Authenticity: Power and Representations in Public Space Some of the artists that were being brought into that 16th St. initiative fit into that other kind of public art idea, which is that we drop a something on an area and declare it public art and everyone should go ‘ooh’ and ‘ah.’ I've heard people calling it the ‘turd’ variety of public art, which you just drop something there and people are just supposed to like it whether the community had anything to do with it or not. So it fits much more into that idea of what public art is -- we're going to bring something and not really care what your community thinks, says, feels about it, and you're just supposed to like it because it's public art. It's been declared good by the tastemakers. -Natalia For us, it’s all about getting work on as many walls as possible and boosting Chicago’s position in the international [street-art] scene. -Pawn Works cofounder Matt Martins, discussing AiPP goals with TimeOut Chicago While AiPP gives off an aura of inclusivity, closer scrutiny exposes the ‘imposed’ nature and centralization of the initiative. As Zukin argues, the intervention of elites in the cultivation of top-down representations of the city has significant implications as to what – and who – is visible in the city based on images, memories, and “uses of aesthetic power” delineated by people with economic and political power (1995:145). This vision has guided and continues to guide urban development projects that seek to eliminate black, brown, and impoverished people from the central city as a way to package places as safe, entertaining, and attractive to consumers (Judd and Fainstein 1999; Zukin 1995; Mele 2000). People with this representational power can influence the look and feel of anything from the city’s public art to a restaurant staff’s visible division of social and ethnic labor, manifested in the spatial arrangement of employees in New York City restaurants – those who embody more cultural capital for consuming elites work in the “front” of restaurants while immigrants and marginalized peoples labor in the “back” (Zukin 1995:181).
  • 30. Sobin 29 This representational power is paralleled in the Art in Public Places initiative. Aimee, and by proxy the local government’s, favoring of particular aesthetics or visual cultures and the repudiating of others creates and perpetuates new forms of urban inequality – cultural and symbolic injustices (Fraser 1995; cited in Sharp 2005). Amanda took offense to the imperial, selective nature of the initiative: You know, gentrification has brought about this state where the Alderman's office hand picks people from the neighborhood and out-of-towners and friends of theirs through CUAS where she works, and there's this way they go about deciding who's in and who's out. That's not that different from Podmajersky, who rents out these spaces and if you're a first floor artist, it's because he picked you! You don’t want a realtor, a developer, curating our art! You know, fuck that! It's totally offensive. The hand-picked nature of the initiative prompts us to ask – how do they go about “deciding who’s in and who’s out?” As Dávila (2004) points out, “as pivotal as culture may be for urban economic development initiatives, not all types and manifestations of ‘culture’ are profitably or economically viable” (211). What is it about this particular form of culture, its particular aesthetic, and the cultural capital it beholds that makes it so desirable? And how is this art and culture – now embedded into the built environment for everyone to see – restructuring urban space? To attract economic investment, cities must be sold like any other consumer product, and the stakeholders of the gentrification process are at the core of the marketing and branding of cities (Fainstein and Judd 1999). The agency of places in this process is echoed by Logan and Molotch (1987) who explain: “[p]laces are not simply affected by the institutional maneuvers surrounding them. Places are those machinations” (43). Consequently, representations of place, place-making and place promotion are essential parts of the urban development process. A community must be perceived as “up and coming,” “exciting,” or “trendy” in order for investment to enter; in turn, the presence of gentrifying activity sets off a process of
  • 31. Sobin 30 representation that opens the door for further development (Betancur 2005: 19). As such, stakeholders in the gentrification process play a role in how a community is perceived in order to attract new kinds of consumption. This initiative can be seen as part of the culture and arts industry that is being developed to turn the city center into a landscape of consumption. Many scholars (Goode 2001; Dávila 2004, Zukin , Sassen 2001) point out that these kinds of cultural initiatives seek to attract the commerce of the overconsuming ‘haves’: suburbanites and urban gentry (Goode 2001: 375; Sassen 2001). As Goode points out, “for these diversity-seeking populations, such events fill the same desire for authenticity and exotica as does the proliferation of international travel, new restaurant cuisines, and shopping venues such as the retail chain Anthropologie. They allow the new professional and managerial class to become cosmopolitan participants in the new global world scene, liberated from the soulless modernity of bureaucratic work as well as from racism and fear of otherness” (Goode 2001:375). Not only does the conversion of graffiti and gang-ridden streets to beautiful street art symbolize a turn towards a safer, more tourist-friendly space, but the aesthetics of it also attracts a certain type of consumer. Zukin (2010) argues that, because authenticity begins as an aesthetic category, it appeals to cultural consumers, especially young people today. But it also has a lot to do with economics and power. To paint a certain aesthetic into the built landscape for the purpose of stimulating local economy suggests that the power-wielding group knows how to best curate a profitable visual representation of the neighborhood, as the art signifies the kind of neighborhood that one is entering (Mele 2000; Zukin 1995). “Their ability to represent the streets gives them a right to claim power over them,” Zukin (2010) argues (244). She continues, “A group that imposes its own tastes on urban space – on the look of a street, or the feeling of a
  • 32. Sobin 31 neighborhood – can make a claim to space that displaces longtime residents” (2010: 4). This particular power is cultural power. “New tastes displace those of longtime residents because they reinforce the image in politicians’ rhetoric of growth.” (2010:4). Thus, the development of AiPP is one example of the ways in which cities leverage symbolic culture to anchor places to profit. This has particular consequences for whoever has a right to this space. Zukin argues that we cannot consider power to control urban spaces without considering the cultural power of the media, which capitalizes upon and spreads the allure of newly hip neighborhoods (2010). The way AiPP is depicted in articles celebrates the initiative, the art, and the transformations occurring in the neighborhood. One article that features AiPP and an interview with Aimee, titled “The Pilsen Renaissance,” proclaims: “Thanks mainly to the foresight and ingenuity of Chicago Urban Art Society, Pawn Works, and Alderman Danny Solis, Pilsen has undergone some long overdue street art transformation. The art mindstate has been experiencing a real renaissance of late.” It continues, celebrating the “rebirth of sorts” and the cache the initiative instills in Pilsen and Chicago: “The streets are… making Chicago (and Pilsen in particular) a destination for appreciators of art and international artists alike. Chicago has now become a major player, and we’ve truly taken it to the next level. The time is now and our shine has been birthed for the world to enjoy” (Carlton 2012).23 Articles also help circulate the façade of community involvement, empowerment, and betterment that Aimee circulates, purporting that the “result [of AiPP] will be a colorful, vibrant wall along the neighborhood’s north border, enticing artists to contribute constructively to the community while also deterring negative gang graffiti” (Meyerson 2012). The result is the valorization of both the initiative and the local government, in addition to the exponential increase in awareness of AiPP, its contributing artists,                                                                                                                 23 This mirrors what others have written about the “New Harlem Renaissance” (see Zukin 2010; Schafer and Smith 1986).
  • 33. Sobin 32 and its aesthetics. The inclusion of “community” in the initiative’s name also projects an aura of authenticity, suggesting that AiPP’s roots are embedded in the neighborhood in which it is entrenched. Zukin claims that authenticity has two diverging definitions: on the one hand, being “primal, historically first, or true to a tradition vision,” and on the other, “being unique, historically new, innovative, and creative” (Zukin 2010: xi). AiPP straddles both definitions, by claiming the second definition of authenticity and leveraging the first to enhance its stance as a community initiative. Zukin claims that “authenticity is nearly always used as a lever of cultural power for a group to claim space and take it away from others without direct confrontation, with the help of the state and elected officials and the persuasion of the media and consumer culture” (2010: 246). Although the images and themes in the AiPP murals may be regarded as less “Mexican” or “Latino,” within the highly charged context of gentrification they are unequivocally seen and consumed as authentic by many locals and outsiders alike. Conclusion: The Future of Pilsen “I think that doing murals there and promoting this art district, culture… you know, it’s positive, but again I think its very much functional with this idea of the city becoming just like some kind of fake, shallow, pseudo-Mexican place. You know what I’m saying? I think that those things, nobody’s going to be against them. And I mean I think that those things are good and they’re happening, they’re not controversial and that’s great – we all agree with them. But I think that some of the same zeal or energy should be placed on policies that will create opportunities for people to stay and enjoy those things. I don’t care about a mural that I wont be able to admire because I’m going to have to go live somewhere else, some backwoods or something. You know what I’m saying? Am I too negative? How do these things become not like a double-edged sword? I think we all need to be concerned about what happens the day after. – Miguel As I have argued in this thesis, culture is intrinsic to the entire process of urban restructuring, specifically attracting new kinds of consumption at the expense of long time
  • 34. Sobin 33 community members. As my ethnography demonstrates, after closer inspection of the processes behind the paint, the universal romantic view of public art as a positive community force does not hold up in the case of AiPP. Behind the façade of inclusion and community that Aimee and Alderman Solis constructed, there is a growth machine at play trying to anchor Pilsen to profit. Gentrification in Pilsen is already underway, and the actors implementing the processes behind AiPP can be seen as embracing and expediting the neighborhood’s transformations. While the future is still unclear, one only needs to look at nearby Wicker Park and Humboldt Park to see what happens when processes such as these are not stymied. The favoring of and investing in particular cultural identities and consumers has implications in the community fabric as well. Both Casa Aztlan and Yollocalli Arts Reach are Pilsen landmarks and historical, important, and accessible community resource centers; however, they will be closed and relocated, respectively, by the end of 2013. At the same time, the cultural commodification team – Mayor Emanuel and DCASE – are ushering in and providing over $100,000 funding for a large-scale spectacle and public art group, Redmoon Theater. The move is touted as part of the Chicago Cultural Plan, and the growth coalition’s vision for Pilsen is evident in this article about the move in the Chicago Sun Times: Redmoon, the unique Chicago theater operation that specializes in grand-scale spectacles staged both outdoors and on standard stages, is on the move. It is leaving its longtime headquarters in the West Loop for a new 57,000-square-foot space at 2120 S. Jefferson in Pilsen, with backing from 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Mayor’s Office, all of whom want to make Pilsen more of a vibrant cultural district (Weiss 2013). Redmoon Theater will be involved in reshaping the riverfront area, Emanuel’s goal for 2014. In an interview promoted in a press release on the City of Chicago’s website, the co-artistic director at Redmoon said, “Together with the City of Chicago, we hope to create a unique event for Chicagoans that captures the world’s imagination,” said Jim Lasko, Co-Artistic Director at
  • 35. Sobin 34 Redmoon. “Chicago is distinguished by the determination to innovate, to reinvent, to rise from the ashes. From the earliest prairie fires off Wolf Point to the City’s rebirth following the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago’s history is marked by episodes of destruction and renewal” (Press Release b). Ironically enough, Redmoon’s emergence in Pilsen articulates this same process, as more profitable and “valuable” art venues are ushered in at the expense of historically- entrenched, community-based institutions. However, what makes AiPP a particularly stealthy project of gentrification is the way in which it manipulates a common, historically entrenched, and prevalent visual form in the neighborhood – the mural – to attract outside consumption. Pilsen residents are known for their ability to effectively mobilize against proposals and projects that possess the potential to harm their neighborhood, but in this case, they have not yet stirred. Amanda encapsulated this tension perfectly: “it’s complicated – people love public art, when they turn blight into something beautiful.” However, they may be embracing art that will ultimately displace them. As Miguel notes, “I don’t care about a mural that I wont be able to admire because I’m going to have to go live somewhere else, some backwoods or something.” The truth is that cultural initiatives such as AiPP are on the rise and are not about to fade, as long as they are profitable, politically marketable, and practical (Dávila 2004). The contemporary city thrives off the symbolic, particularly from culture and identity – often at the detriment of vulnerable and objectified residents. However, through proper analysis, the contradictions behind its visual and spatial veil can be displayed, allowing us to work towards more just, democratic, and equitable cultural initiatives that buffer marginalized groups from gentrification’s hardships.
  • 36. Sobin 35 Acknowledgements I know I owe thanks to many people who helped craft this project. Many thanks to Professor Ana Aparicio, my principal advisor, for her continued support, guidance, and inspiration. I would also like to thank Professor Jessica Winegar for her contributions to a smaller project that informed this thesis. I am also indebted to Jesse Mumm, whose passion, patience, and knowledge of Pilsen were an inspiration and fundamental to the development of this project. This project would not have been possible without the financial support and generosity of the Office of the Provost through their Academic Year Undergraduate Research Program.24                                                                                                                 24 However, the conclusions, opinions, and other statements in this thesis are the author’s and not necessarily those of the sponsoring institution.
  • 37. Sobin 36 Appendix A Mural painted by Brooklyn-based GAIA Appendix B Mural painted by Belgian-based street-artist, ROA
  • 38. Sobin 37 Appendix C Several examples of community-based murals in Pilsen; the first is of Mexican and Mexican American “heroines,” as one informant described, and the second memorializes a local youth who was killed in gang violence.
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