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Carrie Eidson/ MEDILL

A mural by Canadian artist Labrona was installed on Pilsen's 16th Street as part of the Art in Public Places Initiative, which features work by local and international artists.

More than a pretty face? Public art projects take aim at neighborhood ills

by Carrie Eidson
Feb 28, 2013

Carrie Eidson/MEDILL

Click through the thumbnails to take a digital tour of Pilsen's 16th street murals from the Art in Public Places Initiative.

Carrie Eidson/MEDILL

Excerpts from interview with Eduardo Montiel Jr., lead artist for Albany Park Neighborhood Council's MOSAIYC project.

Related Links

Eduardo Montiel: Artist Website Pilsen Bike ToursSarah Morton ComicsSEE Potential Kickstarter and DocumentaryKusanya Cafe

Breaking down the issues: Using art to keep residents informed

Ask any local blogger, and they’ll tell you: one form of community improvement is giving residents a better knowledge and understanding of the issues and events surrounding their neighborhood. And Meryl Williams and Sarah Morton of 60625 News have found that one of the best ways to inform residents is through art.

Williams began 60625 News, a blog that covers the Lincoln Square area, in that fall of 2012. Shortly thereafter, Morton, an urban planner and friend of Williams, introduced the idea of using comics to convey some of the issues affecting the neighborhood. The comics, which appear monthly, became one of the site’s most popular features.

"There’s always really high traffic for the comic posts," Williams said. "She’s talking about issues that people are interested in and I do like how she takes really complex issues and breaks it down into a really easy-to-digest format. The art really brings it to life in a way."

Morton, who has published a small collection of comics in addition to those on the news site, has worked as an urban planner in Chicago since 2007. Morton says it was the inaccessibility of the principals and jargon of urban planning that inspired her to create the comic series for 60625 News.

"We all just sort of talk in this language to each other and anyone listening in would have no idea what we’re talking about," Morton said. “But it affects everybody. Everyone has to find a home, find a job and make their way around the city.  And people weren't talking about this in a way that makes sense to people, so that’s why I wanted to do a comic with Meryl."

Morton’s comics for 60625 News have covered issues of gentrification, transportation and architectural preservation. Future comic plans include hidden spaces in Lincoln Square, public meeting spaces and neighborhood design.

From gang violence to economic decline, the problems of cities can seem like invincible goliaths. Three neighborhood projects, each launched within the last year, are striving to attack the ills of their community through public art.

Found in three different neighborhoods in the North, Lower West and South Sides, each project aims to address and improve a specific problem found in its community. The bulk of the money for each project came from residents or organizations within the area, making all three neighborhood endeavors, and though the programs are less than a year old, residents say the effects can already be seen.


One of the most publicized projects in Chicago can be found in Pilsen, a neighborhood long known for its high density of murals. This last summer, public art in Pilsen gained new attention as community leaders responded to graffiti by turning a railroad overpass into a canvas for some of the world’s most renowned street artists, driving out the graffiti but also propelling an art-based tourism boom.

Last summer, Ald. Danny Solis launched his Art in Public Places Initiative, financed with $15,000 from his campaign fund, to have national, international and local artists create murals throughout Pilsen, especially on the raised railroad tracks along 16th Street.

The roots of the initiative began in 2011 when the Resurrection Project and the Mexican History Museum partnered to increase murals in Pilsen, said Ulises Zatarain, communication director for the Resurrection Project. The group completed two murals in 2011 and wanted to continue its efforts along the 16th street tracks.

The viaduct, seen by many as an entry to Pilsen, was in desperate need of beautification, Zatarain said. The wall had older murals, some in need of restoration, and was being repeatedly tagged by gang graffiti, which was being patched over with brown paint. Legal complications prevented the project from proceeding until Solis joined the effort in late 2011.

By the next summer, new murals were appearing on the viaduct as Solis worked with the Chicago Urban Art Society and Pawn Works, a gallery in Wicker Park, to bring in internationally known street artists such as ROA, Labrona and OverUnder, as well as local artists and youth from Yollocalli Arts Reach, to create a diverse collection of works, ranging from intensely hued images depicting Latino culture to abstract neon shapes to a giant owl and a multidimensional eviscerated rodent.

Since the murals starting going up, graffiti on the wall has decreased sharply and only two incidents of small vandalism to the murals have occurred, according to Lauren Pacheco, executive director of the Chicago Urban Art Society and special assistant to Solis.

"Those who live and work around the murals are excited to see something other than brown paint," Pacheco said in an email.

"It is our hope that this site will become a community treasure and tourist opportunity when it comes to featuring some of Chicago’s best contemporary art in the public sphere," Pacheco said.

Pilsen business owners say they are already seeing residents from other Chicago neighborhoods as well as tourists from other countries visiting the neighborhood because of the murals.

"I notice there’s a lot of people visiting Pilsen," said Zorayda Ortiz, owner of Pilsen Bike Tours. "Being on my bike all the time, I see a lot of people from out of the neighborhood visiting the area."

Ortiz started her business, guiding tours of the murals via group biking excursions or rickshaw, last summer. She says the endeavor remained popular throughout the warm season, with a few groups even asking for cold weather tours.

"I’ve had a really diverse group of people," Ortiz said. "I’ve given tours to Pilsen residents but I’ve also given tours to international people. I just gave a tour not too long ago to a woman from Australia. For some reason there’s a lot of Australians who like to visit Pilsen."

Mark Sussman, owner of Chicago Fine Tailoring and chairman of Greater Pilsen Economic Development, said it may take years to measure the mural's economic impact quantitatively, but business owners are reporting an increase in customers as people drop into shops and restaurants after visiting the murals.

"It’s a pretty new initiative, but I know all the businesses are excited about it," Sussman said. "It makes us a different kind of neighborhood, shows our culture and makes us a destination spot. And it’s nice because people can walk up and down 16th Street, from the east to the west, and then stop at all the shops and the restaurants on 18th Street."


Not all public art projects have the glamour of an international team of street artists. But a community program called MOSAIYC, organized by the Albany Park Neighborhood Council’s Youth Development program, aims to beautify the Albany Park community and combat gang violence through murals designed and painted by youth ages 14 to 19.

"Albany Park has a huge problem with graffiti and especially gang graffiti," says Eduardo Montiel Jr., 24, the lead artist for the project. "So we were looking for walls that had been tagged up by gangs claiming their territory."

Montiel, who grew up in Albany Park and has worked with the Chicago Public Art Group and the After School Matters program at Roosevelt High School, says the level of community involvement in MOSAIYC makes the project unique.

"This is the first program I know of that involves the community in the process of creating the murals," Montiel said.

The project’s first mural went up on Belle Plaine Avenue, an area in which homes and garages were being tagged en masse and two gang-related homicides had occurred in alleys. Montiel says he and others from the Youth Development Project knocked on doors until they found a homeowner willing to donate a garage door space for a mural.

"When there's gang graffiti, people just know you really can’t pass by there because it's a hotspot. It’s active,” Montiel said. "So we just wanted to make it safe because there are three public schools around there."

This first mural was completed in April and three more followed. The program's third mural, found at the intersection of Lawrence and St. Louis avenues, was dedicated to a student who had been killed in a shooting.

"[That site] is being really respected by the community, even by the gangs," Montiel said. "They haven’t tagged it. They haven’t done anything to it. They’ve left that area and you see more people walking through now."

As lead artist, Montiel guides groups of neighborhood teenagers through the process of creating the murals. It begins with a meeting in which the teenagers brainstorm ideas or present sketches about what they want to see in the mural. Montiel then combines their ideas into a single sketch, which goes back to the youth to critique, sometimes through several drafts, before a final version is selected and the teens and Montiel paint the mural together.

"We want them to decide," Montiel said. "Because this is something personal to the teenagers. When they walk by they can say, 'I painted that' or 'I got my say in it.'"

Montiel says symbols in the murals often reflect the teenagers' interests in the history of Albany Park and its residents, as well as education and music. There are images of cityscapes and laborers, horns and guitars, Brown Line "L" trains and bicycles, and other more surprising choices.

"A lot of them [say] put healthy food, put vegetables, a lot of the stuff we don’t see here," Montiel said. "They want to see a small vegetation garden, they want to see pastures."

For Montiel, who plans to pursue his teaching degree at Northeastern this fall, the process of youth participation is the most important part of the program.

"Sometimes, they won’t have people listen to them, they get ignored," Montiel said. "And I think that’s a gateway to [thinking] 'This adult doesn't listen to me, this person doesn't listen to me, so I’m going to run around with people that do listen to me.' And they end up in the streets, in gangs."

When he was growing up in Albany Park, Montiel says the presence of gangs often limited activities for children and made adults feel unsafe.

"I remember there were times when I couldn’t walk to the end of the corner because there was gang territory," Montiel said. "You're just boxed in. You couldn’t go outside any time after 7 because of drive-bys. You couldn’t wear different colors. You really couldn’t walk down the street."

But Montiel says the neighborhood is improving, crediting community programs like Albany Park Neighborhood Council and the Albany Park Community Center, renovations to the community’s public schools and the presence of the murals, which he says rally the community around the idea of beautification.

"Murals on the walls make the community stand out as a community," Montiel said. "I think that's the purpose of a mural: to beautify and really say something positive about your community without having words said or a big speech. It's in the bold colors and shapes."


While public art projects may be able to stimulate community pride or economic growth, can they help with problems of economic atrophy, food deserts, poverty or crime in Chicago's most suffering areas? The founders of SEE Potential, a photography project on the South Side, think art can help neighborhoods such as Bronzeville and Englewood, recognized almost nationally as a symbol of gun violence and urban decay, by focusing attention on grassroots community improvement projects.

SEE Potential, launched late last year, places large-scale photography installations on abandoned and blighted buildings that are planned to be remodeled and used for community revitalization efforts. The installations are designed to attract potential investors as well as raise community awareness and support of the projects.

"The biggest factor for us was to help people already doing good work in the community," said Orrin Williams, who started the project along with Brooklyn-based photographer Emily Schiffer. "We want to ask people to think about they want to see in the community through this project."

The SEE Potential project is funded through a grant from the Magnum Foundation and a Kickstarter campaign, which Williams said quickly exceeded the funding sum the group had asked for.

The first installation went up last December in Englewood at the future site of Kusanya Café, a planned coffee house that aims to provide a safe space for community gathering, a venue for art and performance, and new job opportunities for community residents.

"What we're hoping to do is bring a social gathering space, which is sorely lacking here," said Phil Sipka, owner of the café, which is expected to open in June. "Social gathering spaces are vital to community revitalization. If you bring out the resources in the community, empowerment can occur."

Sipka said the visual impact of the installation has had a powerful effect.

"To see things physically change in a beautiful way isn't something that happens often in this community," Sipka said. "[The installation] generated credibility and enthusiasm for the project in a way our 'Coming Soon' sign really couldn't."

Photographs for the Kusanya installation and future SEE Potential sites were selected from a group of photographers who are working on documentary photography projects in the South Side.

Tonika Johnson is one of the participating photographers. Her portraits of two local musicians and her daughter appear in the Kusanya Café installation.
"I'm from the South Side and grew up in Englewood, so a lot of my pictures are of the community," she said,

"For me it's a nice way to get my photography out there, but the main thing is to beautify the community by tapping into the community's own resources and showing images that reflect it,” Johnson said. "I hope [the project] continues because it beautifies in a really artistic and different way."

Williams said the money from the Kickstarter campaign was enough to finance both the Kusanya site and the next installation. Future sites for the project include Bronzeville Cookin', a planned healthy-alternative restaurant and produce store; Forum Hall, a preservation project for a prominent site in Chicago’s jazz and blues history; and the Bronzeville Community Garden.


Though it may be too soon to quantify through statistics or the impact of these projects on the issues they seek to address, organizers are watching the reactions of residents and finding the response to be positive.

In Albany Park, Eduardo Montiel says the MOSAYIC project is receiving hundreds of requests from property owners wanting to donate a wall or garage door for a mural. In Pilsen, Lauren Pacheco says residents along the 16th street viaduct are eagerly awaiting the next piece. And Orrin Williams and Phil Sipka both report glowing feedback to the first SEE Potential installation in Englewood.

Can photography installations bring economic growth to the South Side? Will graffiti stay off of 16th Street? Even if gang activity declines in Albany Park, it may never be possible to quantitatively show what role the murals played in that drop.

But the outpouring of public interest and support for these projects proves that public art inspires residents to continue working for a nicer, safer and more beautiful place to live.


View Selected Public Art Projects & Locations in a larger map