Art Outside the Frame: What is the value of public art?

“We are now the lepers in our own cities, scurrying across deserted plazas.”
-Richard Burton, “The Arguments for Public Art”

A postcard sold in Chicago in the 1910s depicts a great green boulevard ornamented with elaborate gardens. Ivy-covered grey stone buildings line the street and demure ladies with their dapper escorts pass through this idyllic scene in wooden carriages, drawn by white horses. The caption on the postcard reads “Drexel Boulevard.”

Drexel Boulevard has since become “Historical” Drexel Boulevard–”historical” being a label typically applied in an effort to squeeze some lemonade out of a lemon of a place. It has been many years since Drexel was deemed worthy to be featured on a postcard. Today, the demure ladies have all fled to the suburbs. Depending on where they went, some may have already white-flighted two or three times and could have gone as far as Will County if they were moving fast enough. Drexel’s great gardens are long gone. The remaining trees, benches, and fountains seem dingy and haphazardly scattered, and traffic, pedestrian and motor, has thinned. For a while, empty lots overlooked the barren boulevard.

Today there are many new housing developments on Drexel and great bullet-pointed signs lauding the benefits of moving in. But, alas, the demure ladies have yet to return. Why? Richard Burton writes in his essay “The Argument for Public Art” that the modern city suffers from “an alarming inhumanity…a feeling that ordinary people have no claim to the spaces of daily public living.” He adds that “everything has become internalized, all spaces become private, and what is outside is a margin for vagrancy, like the spaces outside the gates of medieval cities, where the lepers congregated.” Indeed, today’s Drexel seems to suffer from that inhumanity. Lacking the well-pruned foliage of yesteryear, the only bright color augmenting the dull colors of the grass and asphalt is blue–the ghastly blue light flashing on top of the many CPD cameras positioned every couple of blocks along Drexel’s expanse. To many, the message seems clear: “Stay away. This is not a place for people like you.” Walking outside, one may feel, as Burton says, like a “leper in [their] own city.”

Increasingly, blue lights flashing overhead also indicates membership in a pseudo-community that transcends the neighborhood: condo pioneers. For only a couple hundred thousand dollars one can buy an armored condo on the South Side, near Cabrini-Green, or anywhere else where there were plenty of lots to develop or old buildings to flip. They are like little fortresses complete with garages so as not to risk parking on the street. There one can hide out until, at last, the tidal wave of the bourgeoisie washes the neighborhood clean. They may even get a little interview in the real estate section of the newspaper–true urban pioneers. This lifestyle epitomizes the “internalized” urban life of which Burton writes. If people come home to hole up and hide out, why call it a neighborhood at all?

A block west, along Cottage Grove, the signs are more inviting. As Drexel is lined with flashing blue lights, Cottage Grove is lined with brightly colored banners. Instead of telling a passerby to stay away or stay inside, these banners lend coherence to the community. They read: “The Grove: A Place To Grow.” It’s a simple and direct message: here is where you are, here is what you are doing. Since these banners were created by local adolescents at nearby Little Black Pearl, they offer more than just a slogan for Cottage Grove: their very creation was an act of community gathering. These banners function like a community mural and depict the foundations on which the community is built as well as its goals for the future. One banner depicts a boy holding the streetscape in his hands high over his head, suggesting that the human foundation of a place may be more important than its concrete one. Another banner shows a bird soaring in front of a city scene, perhaps alluding to the neighborhood’s rapid pace of change and lofty aspirations.

The look of a place leads one upon arrival to jump to conclusions. Police cameras, abandoned buildings, and shady loiterers make you want to turn and leave. If people are jumping to negative conclusions, businesses will keep out of such areas and things will never get any better. Buildings take time to build and crime takes time to stop but there are some small steps that can be taken towards cleaning up that go a long way. Polishing off the surface of a place is one such step. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune compared the look of Cottage Grove to that of a “war zone.” While this is certainly a great exaggeration, it is understandable how one could be frightened away by Cottage’s handful of empty lots, an abandoned gas station, and Pappy’s Discount Liquors. The Cottage Grove banners give the strip a friendlier face. Thus, they are serving not just as a way to define the community and its members, but also to invite outsiders to the community. Other efforts in the area also mobilize aesthetics for the sake of development such as Cleanslate, a nonprofit corporation that handles litter cleanup, and plans for the eventual rehab of Drexel Boulevard.

Public works of art help remind one of the human foundation on which any neighborhood is built. This is not to say that the creation of public art is some kind of secret solution to the increasing anonymity of an individual in the big city. Perhaps it would go unappreciated. A search on Google Scholar for “Public Art” quickly reveals that, for some, banners and community murals are not enough and that public art ought to be as esoteric as possible. It ought to be the kind of thing that inspires dense and incomprehensible manifestos. Others simply may not care about it so long as they are safe in their fortress, with their steel appliances. However, for some people the minor impact that community art makes is enough to cure them of their leprosy and send them on their way to reclaim their rightful place.

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