Sunday, February 07, 2010

s(NO)w + Art (Free) + Rogers Park ≠ Hipsterville + Klein/Agbodji Rule NYC + Super Bowl Prediction

Chicago, I'm glad to say, did not suffer the Snowpocalypse. Or "Snowmageddon," I should say. It's cold, but it's always cold in the winter. The sidewalks are paved with ice, but people here frequently don't shovel or salt the walkways in front of their homes (as people in New Jersey do), perhaps in the belief that they will not be sued if someone took a violent spill on the glassy lake stretching the length of their easements (perhaps New Jerseyans are more litigious?). There's residual snow from earlier in the week, but there always appears to be residual snow, even when the sun finally appears and the temperatures rise above freezing. It's just the way things are. It also didn't snow in New York, which was supposed to be buried alive. Instead, I imagine, people went about their business, and laughed once again at the frenzied excitement of the local media. Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, and parts in between and south do appear to have received the snow gift, though. The photos of Washington in particular look really beautiful.

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Since it a snowless Saturday, and it's free admission all month to the Art Institute of Chicago, I hopped on the El (which is now $2.25) and traveled down there. I was very glad to see that many Chicagoans, including many brown and black ones, were also taking advantage of the free admission; it was packed. I hadn't seen the new Renzo Piano extension, which sits behind the famous Michigan Avenue Beaux Arts façade, but it really is impressive, airy, bursting with light, easy to navigate, and almost cinematographic in the dramatic views it offers of Daley Millennium Park. It also serves the art well, at least to my eye, an impression which the smaller crowds in the contemporary galleries only heightened.
Yves Tanguy's "Untitled"(screen), 1928

On this trip, I decided to drift forward through the museum to see what I might come across. My first stops were at the architectural artifacts from historic Chicago, which included various pediments, spandrels, caryatids, gratings, and so forth, from buildings by important Chicago architects like Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. I found myself repeatedly impressed by the workmanship and intricacy, the delicacy and beauty, of many of these pieces, especially those by Wright, who was, as I need not tell anyone, a visionary. From there, I kept walking forward, into what turned out to the 1800-1900 European art galleries, which included furniture and other material artifacts, as well as many of the Museum's best and widely known treasures. I must say, it's one thing to see reproductions of Gustave Caillebotte's iconic 1877 painting "Paris Street, Rainy Day," or Georges Seurat's giant masterwork, "A Sunday on la Grand Jatte - 1884" (1884-86), for example, or Monet's various later paintings, such as the ones in London, or the haystacks, or the water lilies at Giverny, but it's another thing altogether to be able to look closely and deeply at them, to engage them and truly take them in, at length. Time really does fall away, and some opens up in the encounter, the exchange.

I went forward into the 20th century, which is to say, via a passageway (featuring Georgia O'Keefe's immense, talismanic abstract 1965 painting "Sky Above the Clouds IV," to Piano's Modern Wing, which has similar, but distinct, spatial dynamics to the Museum of Modern Art's addition, and on to 20th century American artworks, which stamped a smile from one of my cheeks to the other; Martin Puryear's 1982 sculpture, "Sanctuary" (at right), comprising two long, thin, high branches, attached at the bottom to a wheel's axle, like a unicycle, and signifying movement, and at the top to a box, nailed to the wall and out of even a baller's reach, signifying permanence, winked at me as I entered one of the galleries. A Lawrence Weiner wall text, "TAKEN FROM HERE TO WHERE IT CAME FROM AND TAKEN TO A PLACE AND USED IN SUCH A MANNER THAT IT CAN ONLY REMAIN AS A REPRESENTAION OF WHAT IT WAS WHERE IT CAME FROM," spanned the white wall between this entryway and the chronologically earlier (and thus correct) one. I wandered back through the Modern Wing to the Asian Art galleries, and was beginning to settle in when the announcement came that the galleries were closing, and we all had to leave. Four hours flew by like that.

I'll have to go back as soon as I can, but I also thought once again, and I know it'll never happen, but what if the entire way in which the art was displayed were overturned? What if it were more poetic, lyrical, associative? What if sculptures from Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, sat side by side with paintings by Picasso, Sam Francis, Barnett Newman, Yves Klein (at left, "Blue Sponge Relief," 1959), the "folk" artists? What if all the hierarchies and barriers were eliminated? What if, alongside the permanent curators, artists like Fred Wilson or Marina Abramovic were regularly, as part of the museum's mission, curating exhibits? Of course I know it certainly wouldn't happen at such an august institution, because neither the curators nor the wealthy patrons would stand for it, but what would it mean to view art in such a radically different way, in the sort of way that Albert Barnes, for example, imagined it? Or that people--many people who aren't rich but make or collect art--display it in their homes, their work places, their everyday lives?

I also thought, given that it's Black History Month, and given that this museum sits right at the downtown heart of Chicago, wouldn't it be nice, especially with admission being free, to have an exhibit of black artists and artworks inspired by African, African-American and African Diasporic peoples and cultures, in some central spaces in the museum? Just some thoughts.

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New York Times, you need to quit. Or at least acknowledge that sometimes you present sheer bunkum in the pages of your paper. Rarely, however, is it so blatant and so close to home. Take Edward McClelland's recent article, "An Ethnic Mix Keeps in Funky in Chicago," on (East) Rogers Park (beach at right), the neighborhood where I live in Chicago, which is presented as a Third Coast Hipsterville--which it truly was threatening to turn into, oh, about 5 years ago--despite the fact that many of its main streets (Clark, Morse, Sheridan) now sport rows of shuttered, empty storefronts. The Times piece, however, picks out a few surviving gems (including three on Jarvis, which has an unfinished condo building, a perfect emblem of the insane prior decade, just down the street, though he doesn't mention the longstanding politically engaged standby, the Heartland Café, or even the less famous, vegetarian-friendly Lakeside Café) and attempts to make a narrative out of them. But it it isn't working.

The author could have written about how many businesses are struggling to stay in business. Or how, when as I learned when I returned in December to search for a new apartment, many of the near-vacant condo buildings that were thrown up (and the interiors of some really did look as though they'd been vomited up by some development monster) were desperate to find renters and were nearly matching the apartment buildings in rent prices, since buyers were about as scarce as loans. Or how there are political refugees from sub-Saharan Africa here, or that one of the major Iraqi-American foundations is in the neighborhood, or how faculty and students from the university and Loyola who find it more economical than living in Evanston (which does have far superior schools) or anything that hugs the lake heading south, or that there are quite a few people struggling to stay in homes and apartments they can no longer afford. Funky, all right.

On Morse Street, between Greenview and Sheridan, which used to be an open-air drug bazaar despite endless pleas to City Hall and the local alderman, and the cops who made sure the dealers didn't stroll one block north or south, a wonderful music club is now empty; several galleries have been cashiered; chunks of the El trestle tumble onto the sidewalk below; and the convenience store whose proprietor in 2008 gave me his last copy of a local rag that featured the then newly-elected President Obama, is now just a dusty interior behind a dusty pane.

I guess you could pick and choose from any neighborhood, but it might have been realistic to talk about how glum things are, as opposed to glam, and to note nevertheless that, despite the weak economy, you can still find very inexpensive and delicious food not only from across the Americas (Belize, Peru, Colombia, Mexico), let alone Thai, Chinese, West African, etc., but, on the 2-mile-or-so strip of Clark from Devon to Howard, delicacies from an incredible number of different Mexican regional/state cuisines (Nayarit, Tabasco, Jalisco, etc.) alone. That's less sexy, I guess, though, than proclaiming hipsterism and funkiness to fill newspaper space, when the real effect of doing so is to undermine even more the confidence of the people you might hope will still be reading your paper in the future. Or maybe McClelland wrote this article 5 years ago, and someone just thought it would be okay to publish it now.

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Rod 2.0 got here a while ago, but I have to say I'm sorry I wasn't in New York to see Calvin Klein's new and giant David Agbodji-fresh ads initally loom over Soho and now gleam from the windows of the Madison Avenue flagship store. As says, "we can only imagine that their current windows are causing some serious pearl-clutching over on Madison Avenue." Trust.
Klein's Agbodji Ads
Image via the Copyranter

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My Super Bowl prediction is Indianapolis will win, perhaps 27-13, but I'd love to see New Orleans take home the trophy, even if by a squeaker.


  1. I'm the author of the article you blogged here (and a Rogers Parker myself, for 13 years). I wanted to emphasize the cheap ethnic eats you mention, so I originally led off the article with Le Conakry, a West African restaurant on Howard Street. Unfortunately, it closed the weekend before my deadline. I guess that proves your point. I was afraid the omission of an ethnic restaurant would lead to this reaction. It wasn't intentional.

    Edward McClelland

  2. yeah, from the article, i thought roger's park had had some kind of miraculous revival. i lived there 8-5 years ago, and before that too (and had a girlfriend there way back in the early 90s). though always diverse, none of those times did it seem vibrant or hip. (in fact, john, if you think it was hipsterville then, you're in need of a trip to san francisco's mission, hipster hell.) things were constantly closing. fellow chicagoans would act like i lived in a french suburb (that is to say, far-flung and crime-ridden). but that impression wasn't unwelcome since it meant cheaper rent.

    living in the bay area now, it's especially painful to remember that i used to have a gorgeous vintage 1-bedroom a block from the lake for less than half of what i paid for a studio here.

    i hope parking is a little easier now that so many more buildings are shuttered, john.

  3. Hi Ted, thanks for writing and for your article. I love Rogers Park, and have many good things to say about it. But whether it's Rogers Park or Williamsburg or downtown Jersey City or anywhere else, I also just wish that newspapers like the NY Times and its journalists would deal with the reality of who lives in diverse working-class and middle-class neighborhoods like this, as opposed to singling out 1-2 things and proclaiming it a new place for slummers or hipsters seeking the next new colony to check out. That mentality nearly destroyed Rogers Park, and the reality is that now there are tons of empty condos, people were driven out in the push for gentrification, and who ends up suffering? Not the people who can go on to the next new thing. Also, *ALL* restaurants are ethnic, because all people are ethnic. All, or none. It doesn't just go one way.

  4. The thing is, John, Rogers Park is NEVER going to be a gentrified neighborhood, just because of geography, as I pointed out. It's a pain in the ass to get ANYWHERE from here. Most people who can afford a more convenient neighborhood consider it a bridge too far. That said, there are some places worth visiting here, and I wanted to point them out. I had to work within the format of the "Surfacing" feature, which is "up and coming neighborhood." Such is journalism.

    I know what you mean about the condos. When I lived on Winchester (in a condo I bought for $39,000), a developer tore down the house next door, put up a six flat, and tried to sell the units for $250K. He ended up renting them out.

  5. Tai, it was almost turning into a kind of hipsterville for a hot minute, and then the gentrification push really hit hard. It was crazy. Now people living here are picking up the pieces. You'd be amazed at how many of the little theaters, storefront galleries, etc, are gone, more so than in the past. Even longtime businesses are gone. And yet there are empty apartment buildings, empty condo conversion buildings, empty new throw-ups. I do know the Mission a tiny bit; a very good friend and my cousin both lived there back in the 1990s, just before it turned into the new hot neighborhood after the tech bubble. I remember both of them bemoaning the changes that were underway, the rising rents, the schemes landlords were using to get the poor people out, and so on. Did you see *Medicine for Melancholy,* which includes this brief scene where people are debating the housing situation and gentrification in SF? It reminded me of the sorts of things you'd see sometimes in 1960s and 1970s movies. Both, interestingly enough, are now in Los Angeles, which has its own multiple challenges.

  6. i didn't see that, but i'll put it in my frighteningly long netflix queue :)