A decade or so ago, executive and philanthropist John H. Bryan Jr., the former CEO of Sara Lee Corp., raised a broad swath of the roughly $475 million needed for Millennium Park, the biggest and most successful cultural project in Chicago since the Columbian Exposition. He did so by putting together a coalition of donors, many of whom lived and worked in the suburbs.
At the time, Bryan spoke powerfully of how one of Chicago's greatest assets — by contrast with New York or Washington, where the regions are split between states and separate hubs — was the lack of any gulf between city and suburbs. The entire region, he argued, was emotionally and practically invested in the heart of Chicago as a great place to live, work and visit. The entire region understood the benefits and saw why it should help pay.
On Monday night, seated in a small theater in Wicker Park watching a group of young actors flesh out the lives of Chicago's insufferably large collection of victims of recent gun violence, I started to wonder if Bryan's argument, and famous drive, could be applied to ending this scourge. Because there demonstrably was broad regional support for, and collective ownership of, the city's cultural jewels, would not logic dictate that the entire region should now pool resources to stop these killings?
One certainly could lay out that argument in cultural terms. The killings threaten all that Millennium Park has achieved, as surely as if someone had just driven a bulldozer right through the middle of the Pritzker Pavilion.
Sure, world-class architects and high-profile art is more attractive and easier to support, and far easier to get your head around, but they are for naught if people do not feel safe.
When it comes to gun violence, a certain tipping point has been reached in the creative community. Artistic responses to this issue are mushrooming. Gun violence is not so much being discussed as a problem but as a specifically Chicago problem, rooted in a part of the city's history and image that some of us have spent years trying to replace with parks, theaters, concerts, creativity.
One of the paradoxes at work here is that it is the very prominence of creative former Chicagoans, who feel a personal connection to this crisis and who now have national platforms, that is drawing such attention to the crisis. Many of those putting a spotlight on Chicago that some see as negative have a real love for the city. The stronger the love, the deeper the pain, the more authoritative the contribution.
Ira Glass, of "This American Life," certainly belongs in that category. Had Glass not lived and worked in Chicago, I doubt his show's recent two-part public radio series on Harper High School, where 29 students were shot during the last school year, would come with such palpable drive, detail and commitment. President Barack Obama also falls into that category. When you lived a mile from where a kid was killed, it hits home.
Many of the artists and journalists working on this issue have clearly become convinced that job one in this matter is somehow to put a face on those who have died. With so many killings in Chicago of young people who have yet to make their mark on the world, it is easy for the victims of this crisis to pass mostly unnoticed. At Collaboraction, they're looking at the lives and personalities of these kids brought down on Chicago ground, telling their short stories and digging similarly deep into the lives of those who put them there, in search of causes, solutions, prevention.
When The New York Times set about running profiles of all the victims caught in the World Trade Center in 2001, it put the human faces on an unfathomable collective statistic. Writers all across the city are beginning to paint pictures of young lives interrupted. No one can do this better than the city's professional storytellers.
But there's another common theme gaining steam this winter. Many of these artistic responses to violence are trying to impress upon people that geography does not inoculate a city — a region, a nation — from responsibility. Because the killings have, for the most part, been confined to certain neighborhoods, it has been possible for the rest of Chicago to live, work and go about its business mostly untouched. There is this crisis, a crisis of which Chicagoans increasingly are aware, yet still it often is not seen. Were this violence evenly spread throughout the city's ZIP codes, then there certainly would not be business as usual. Of that there can be no question.
So in works like "Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology," staged by Collaboraction on Milwaukee Avenue and full of compelling insights, the point is made that the killings have been taking place very close to the actual artistic venue. Indeed, in art exhibits and performance lobbies across Chicago, you can often see so many maps and charts, it feels like you are in a police incident room. It's not far from here, these pieces keep reminding us. You could ride a bike there in 20 minutes. If you're driving home, you're probably going farther. This is a crucial element of raising awareness.
Many of these works, such as "It Shoudda Been Me," created for the eta Creative Arts Foundation by the University of Chicago's Dr. Doriane Miller, one of the first in Chicago to understand that fictionalizing violent scenarios makes it easier for those who live them to talk about them, have been created to tour. Officials from the Chicago Park District were at Collaboraction on Monday, checking out the piece as possible programming for neighborhood parks. Clearly, there is a need for such programming in the neighborhoods where this level of violence is a daily reality. Especially this summer, when nerves will on edge all over Chicago, the amount of that programming will need to increase. It's one way to keep kids off the streets.
But I kept wondering about the places beyond the boundaries of the Chicago Park District, beyond the hipster neighborhoods like Wicker Park. What about Wheaton or Winnetka? Are the stories behind the violence in Chicago understood there in the way that the city's stunning cultural assets are understood?
Both the detailed storytelling of "This American Life" and the work of the many Chicago artists of all disciplines engaged in this issue are revealing that the things we think we know about gangs — powerful leaders, deep involvement in the drug trade, caps and flashed symbols — are dated notions. And without that understanding flowing out miles from the ground-zero neighborhoods, solutions and sufficient resources to put them to work will remain elusive.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already started looking for this cash. Another Bryan, with the same Rolodex, is sorely needed.
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