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Wall of Daydreaming

Layton Ehmke/MEDILL

“The Wall of Daydreaming and Man's Inhumanity to Man” detail

A Chicago mural tells a story of a recent past, but will the future accept it?

by Layton Ehmke and Justine Jablonska
Dec 09, 2009

Layton Ehmke and Justine Jablonska/MEDILL

Jon Pounds, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group, explains the origins of the historic Chicago mural at the corner of 47th and Calumet streets in Bronzeville.

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Images of Daydreaming

A student teacher discusses a Chicago mural

Megan Dolan took part in a student teacher program at the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture last year. One of her assignments was a project centered around a mural.

Dolan and a partner picked a mural on the corner of 47th Street and Calumet Avenue in Bronzeville: “The Wall of Daydreaming and Man's Inhumanity to Man,” painted in 1975. While her partner, an art student, appreciated the mural’s aesthetics, Dolan said she was drawn to the mural because of its political and social implications.

Dolan and her partner produced a short film about the mural. In their research, they were told by neighborhood residents that the mural was so well-respected that gang members would stand by it day and night so that no one would deface it.

In one interview, Dolan spoke with a family who used to live in the neighborhood. They told her that they noticed something new in the mural every time they walked by it.

She also interviewed two young men who were community residents.

One had a strong reaction to a part of the mural that depicts handcuffs and people falling below them.

“To him, it represented – in a sad sense – his future,” Dolan said. “He’s trapped, not literally in handcuffs but stuck in [his] situation and falling down.”

The family, who had moved out of the area, was better off, she said.

“The family has gotten out and can learn from [the mural],” she said. “But handcuffs are tighter on the wrists of those who live there.”

It’s a tough corner at 47th Street and King Drive in Chicago’s historic “Black Metropolis,” Bronzeville.

On that corner, right now, a scrawny guy is hoping someone will give him something for the jewelry he’s dangling from one of his cracked, dried hands.

Through the few teeth he has left, he asks two passing teenage girls if they’re interested in a thin gold bracelet. They shake their heads. He stuffs it back in a matchbook-sized plastic bag. He keeps walking.

He tells the next passer-by, “I’ll take anything. I’ll take anything you got for it.”

They step out of view and the second man comes back wearing the bracelet. He checks it over. Shows it to a friend. Scrawny disappears. Score.

It’s a scene that mirrors the mural one street over at the corner of 47th Street and Calumet Avenue. As one of the first urban public murals in Chicago, it helped start a movement of public art across the country that challenged communities to look at themselves and their demons, deep-rooted problems, hatreds, drug use, slavery, prostitution and greed.

Vibrant, colorful, provocative, this mural demanded that a community define where it stands in a world that kills its saviors and pimps out its children. It depicts the heft of a culture’s memory and bears its scars in plain view.

“The Wall of Daydreaming and Man's Inhumanity to Man” was painted in 1975. But the mural also reaches back in time, portraying images of Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan and African warriors alongside the likenesses of assassinated leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and a composite of Robert F. and John F. Kennedy.

Opposite the assassinated figures, shackles of slavery release a population of former slaves into a community that might not have been prepared to embrace them, said Jon Pounds of the Chicago Public Art Group. The group coordinated the painting of the mural in 1975 and had it restored in 2003. Pounds has been the executive director of the group for 20 years.

In its entire existence, the mural has never been tagged or defaced; Pounds said that fact is a testament to its power.

He said the mural is a reflection of and challenge to the community.

“It’s not a proclamation to the larger world about what the community is,” Pounds said. “It’s a reflection to the community that lived and walked right here about what these artists thought this community should be thinking about.”

The time of the mural’s creation was a particularly tumultuous one in the country, Pounds said.

“A great deal of things that had been formulating in the ’50s underground came to the consciousness of the community, especially of young people,” Pounds said. “And there was a great deal of interaction and activity around that. And so this [mural] really expresses that vitality.”

He said that aldermen have told him that the project must be a good one because they have not had any complaints about it.

“The formula of democracy is if someone has something they really choose to feel offended by, they will speak up,” Pounds said.

As executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group, Pounds has heard a complaint from exactly one person: a mother.

“She thought it was not a good mural because it scared her children when they were young,” he said. “Secondly, she said she thought there was no other mural in the city that was similarly self-critical of the community in which the mural was sited.”

Pounds responded that it was a good thing the images were powerful and could convince people of the importance of its images.

He said he also pointed out other examples of murals around the city that were “exactly self-critical of the outside and the inside perceptions of those communities.”

The mural was the result of collaboration among four artists, but William Walker was a major partner. Walker drew on aesthetics of the Harlem Renaissance, bringing everything out to the picture plane so that it was close to the viewer.

“It was your responsibility to figure out what was important and what something meant,” Pounds said. “He wasn’t going to tell you what was important and what it meant by its position within the picture.”

The poetry on the mural is John Pitman Weber’s from 1975 – specifically for the community to read as it thinks about itself. Santi Isrowuthakul also was a minor partner on the mural. Dayton Reed restored the wall back to its original vitality.

As the mural aged, the neighborhood around it continued to shift, as it had for decades before the mural was painted.

In the early 1940s, many southern blacks settled in Bronzeville, a post-sharecropper labor community. As more migrants moved to a city in which blacks were denied full access to housing, Bronzeville began to burst at the seams. As middle-class blacks began to move elsewhere, whites grew agitated.

Bronzeville became host to high-rise housing projects starting in the 1950s. Many have since been demolished and replaced with a housing voucher system that gives the bearer the right to rent anywhere in Chicago, provided a landlord accepts it.

More recently, Bronzeville was designated a Chicago Blues District and received several million dollars to open the Harold Washington Cultural Center at 47th Street and King Drive.

But up and down King Drive stand remnants of homes once belonging to Bronzeville’s black middle and upper classes. Many are boarded up and dilapidated, making them ripe for gentrification.

Theodoric Manley Jr., director of the Hoop Institute, studies the challenges Bronzeville has faced as a black community in a northern city.

Its new challenge, he said, is white gentrification.

The Hoop Institute, according to its Web site, is a not-for-profit research, service and educational organization committed to improving the lives of working people in disenfranchised communities of color and poor white ethnics.

Manley predicts that whites will account for 14 percent of Bronzeville’s population in the 2010 census, and that this number will escalate to 25 percent by 2015.

“The black middle class role is temporary at best in the larger scheme of the gentrification process occurring in Bronzeville,” Manley said.

As housing prices and property taxes increase there, Manley predicts a second wave of gentrification that will usher in a more stable white elite upper class – and displace lower-income blacks.

As the area changes, will its new inhabitants appreciate the challenges the mural depicts?

And as much as Bronzeville has shifted since the time of the mural’s creation, have the issues it depicts – racial tensions, corruption, greed, poverty – been solved?

Pounds said that they have not, although they have been addressed.

“I think that the work that you see today in other places around the city reflects that there has been an effort of goodwill to address the inequities and the injustices, even though it’s not yet complete,” Pounds said.

If the mural was the fulcrum of dialogue for the community, or merely a sign of a pulse in a community, it may be achieving its purpose.

“The larger lesson is that where there is art, there’s life,” said Lynn Basa, an author who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Basa said that public expression is the strongest manifestation of the need for making a statement.

If so, perhaps the mural was indeed meant to scare people into questioning themselves. Conversely, perhaps all it did was reinforce contempt for the injustices it illustrates.

Or perhaps the dialogue it was meant to foster is just now beginning.