LOOPTOPIA: All-night culture festival ignites downtown

In 2005, Ty Tabing became Executive Director of the new Chicago Loop Alliance (CLA)–and Chicago may never be the same again. The CLA, formed from the merger of the Greater State Street Council and the Central Michigan Avenue Association, is a coalition of local companies involved in business recruitment, economic development, and tourism. This seemingly dry collection of interests will be cast in a whole new light this Friday night at Looptopia, the CLA’s dusk-to-dawn party celebrating the continuing transformation of the Loop from a depressed inner-city business district to the cultural center of a flourishing 21st-century metropolis.

Looptopia is modeled on the nuit blanche or “white night” celebrations that have spread throughout the capitals of Europe and as far as Canada since the first one was held in Paris in October of 2002. Tabing, who traveled to both Montreal and Paris in search of inspiration, points to several differences between those events and his own brainchild, the first “white night” in an American city. Taking their cue from Paris, other cities often schedule their celebrations at the end of summer as a sort of farewell to good weather. In contrast, Tabing hopes Looptopia’s timing in early May will provide Chicagoans and visitors with a warm opening event for a hot Chicago summer. More importantly, Tabing explains, “[The Europeans are] celebrating their entire cities, but ours is really confined to the Loop.” Specifically, he means the East Loop, a creation of the CLA bordered by Dearborn on the west, Wacker on the north, Lake Michigan on the east and Congress and Roosevelt on the south. As opposed to the western part of the Loop between Dearborn and the Chicago River, the East Loop has more than just office building after office building. Tabing enthusiastically describes it as more of a “mixed-use area,” a favorite phrase of the CLA.

The cultural avalanche that will cover the Loop on Friday night marks a milestone in the restoration of the city’s downtown, which like much of the Rust Belt experienced a flight of residents to the suburbs after its post-World War II heyday. After three decades this shift began to reverse itself as demographic trends changed. Empty-nesters and white-collar professionals, fed up with long commutes, returned to a downtown that was already beginning to shake off the attempted suburb-ification of the seventies and eighties. Bars and restaurants sprang up to accommodate the new evening crowd, and the completion of Millennium Park in 2004 brought “foot traffic on the weekends that has never before been seen in downtown Chicago,” according to Tabing. “Throw in the fact that theaters are more active than ever before … The Theater District used to take a lot of hits about how inactive and dark it was, but it’s changing.” Tabing cites other population trends such as the 55,000 college students in the Loop, the largest college town in Illinois according to an October 2006 article in the Chicago Tribune. New cultural institutions in recent years such as the Harris Theater and the Joffrey Ballet’s permanent home seem to justify Tabing’s optimism about the “vibrant and culturally rich” East Loop.

From Friday night through Saturday morning the East Loop will play host to more than 100 events, ranging from participatory art projects and indie rock shows to a drag ball and a B-movie marathon. Tabing uses the Gene Siskel Film Center’s series of Oscar-nominated short films as an example of how he wants the night to flow: a new film starts every twenty or thirty minutes, so “If you choose to go into a venue, that’s not a commitment.” Looptopia will focus on this kind of “short and sweet” programming, such as the Goodman Theatre’s production of seven short plays from Suzan-Lori Parks’s playwriting experiment “365 Plays/365 Days.” “Our hope is that people really traverse the footprint of the area,” says Tabing, who has left his own mark: Looptopia will provide the occasion for the premiere of Tabing’s latest project, a renovated alley-cum-“Streetscape” called Couch Place between State and Dearborn. During Looptopia, Couch Place will host a “Broadway cabaret” with performances from the Chicago productions of “Wicked,” “The Color Purple,” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

The night kicks off at 5pm with events starting simultaneously all over the East Loop. In Daley Plaza, award-winning Chicago band Funkadesi will play its unique combination of Afro-Caribbean and Indian music, while at nearby Macy’s, students from the Museum of Contemporary Art create live art in window displays and a few blocks north at the Hard Rock Hotel the Miss Looptopia Launch Party and Beauty Pageant crowns several lucky drag queens with titles such as “Miss Millennium Park” and the vaguely risqué “Miss Lower Wacker Drive.” The schedule grows increasingly packed as afternoon turns into evening. Break dancers, belly dancers, and dancing Judy Garland impersonators, a gospel choir and a punk rock choir, traditional Turkish wedding songs and ‘70s glam rock follow one another in rapid succession. More conceptual pieces include Anni Holm’s ongoing art project “Getting My Name Out There,” in which volunteers make themselves visible in public places by holding signs with her name on them, and “Truth in Passages,” an event at Harold Washington College in which participants in front of a camera record their favorite passage from a book that illustrates Looptopia’s theme, “Sleepless Nights/Waking Dreams.”

Although Tabing had no trouble persuading the majority of the participating institutions to go along with his idea, one early stumbling block was scheduling. “Everyone wanted their programming to go on at 9pm. [We had to tell them] that the Broadway and Chicago Theaters don’t even let out until 11, so you’re missing an opportunity to reach 10,000 people if you’re clamoring for a 9pm start time.” Events beginning after the theaters let out include midnight yoga, complete with candlelight and live music, and a Punch and Judy show, both at the Chicago Cultural Center, as well as a midnight architectural tour of downtown and performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a Latin American guitar ensemble, and a French cabaret singer.

“In other cities clearly there’s a reduction from around 2am until sunrise,” notes Tabing. “I actually made it until 5 in both cities [Paris and Montreal] and was prepared to keep going but kind of felt as if I’d ‘been there and done that’ at that point, which is why we’re trying to do more interesting and unique things [in the early morning hours].” There is a bit of a climax around midnight, when an agreement with the city mandates that all outdoor events end to accommodate residents of the area. The festival continues indoors, however, with a chess tournament and a flashlight tour at the Cultural Center, bedtime stories and lullabies at the First United Methodist Church, and screenings of a documentary, animated films and science fiction B-movies at Harold Washington College and the Cultural Center.

At 5am those still awake will head outside again to Millennium Park, where they will pass the time until sunrise playing games like “cornhole” and frisbee. A chorus of thirty-five singers will welcome the rising sun, followed by a closing ceremony with poems, a high intensity cardio class and, most importantly, free breakfast.

When asked for his personal recommendations, Tabing pauses before launching into a list almost as eclectic as the Looptopia lineup itself. “It’s not part of the programming, but one of the more fun things in the area is mini-golf on the green in Grant Park just east of Millennium Park, which is open until 11pm with sightlines of downtown Chicago.” Tabing also recommends standup comedian Monika Ekks, performing from 6:45 to 7:15 in front of Chase Tower, and the Ponys, a Chicago garage rock band playing from 8:45 to 9:30 in Daley Plaza. Other miscellaneous highlights include the Chemically Imbalanced comedy troupe, who will find the most negative theater review in the Chicago Reader and improvise a version of the play they imagine the critic would have preferred; Rope Warrior, the stage name of jump rope artist David Fisher; and Mucca Pazza (Italian for “mad cow disease”), an anarchic “circus punk marching band” with 25 members.

So what kind of audience does Tabing expect to attract with his nightlong everything-fest? “A wide range of people,” Tabing emphasizes. “From 18-year-olds up to people in their mid-60s. A conservative estimate is 100,000 people, but based on other events that take place in the city we think we can surpass that.” These other events scheduled coincidentally at the same time include Columbia College’s showcases for graduating seniors lasting into the early evening with an expected turnout of about 25,000 people. “We’ll work to engage them and bring them to Looptopia,” Tabing says confidently.

This year the CLA has taken a regional approach to marketing for Looptopia, focusing on Chicagoland and the Midwest, but it has even bigger plans for future years. “The next year we’ll go more national, [and] the next year [even] beyond that,” Tabing says. “We’ll take small steps, deliver to our sponsors, and show what the plan is for growing into a really spectacular event that changes each year.” The focal points may change each year, but Tabing expects to stay mostly within the East Loop, possibly expanding to the rest of the Loop if there’s need. In future years, Chicago may not be alone among American cities in throwing a “white night” celebration; contingents from other major American cities including San Antonio, Miami, Philadelphia and New York will be here this year to observe and record. In discussing future plans, Tabing focuses on his long-term goal: “We want to continually underscore that this area is becoming much more of a 24/7 destination.”