Tuesday, July 14, 2009
A community grows by creating together
Communities grow in lots of ways. Growing things is part of it -- making community gardens, creating green spaces and sharing the enjoyment of them, swapping seeds and perennial divisions, learning from the neighborhood's great gardeners. But communities also grow by getting things done together and solving problems. And they grow when the people in them come together to learn about each other and from each other and create things they all have a part in.
The other day I watched that happening in the Foster Avenue underpass through which people from the Edgewater neighborhood reach the lakefront under Lake Shore Drive. Those underpasses are a problem for the whole city. We have this wonderful lakefront, a longer and more splendid public waterfront than any city in the world, and for most of its length a six-lane highway keeps us from it. Here and there are bridges; elsewhere there are dank, scary, graffiti-ridden, smelly underpasses.
Up in Edgewater, though, the underpasses are coming to life. Last summer I had a chance of an evening to admire the one at Bryn Mawr Avenue, covered with a mosaic of tile and mirrors that sparkled in car headlights and brightened the passage at night.
Now there is another being installed in the Foster Avenue underpass. Last Saturday I was swept over to see it by 48th Ward Ald. Mary Ann Smith (at left), whom I've known forever. She is immensely proud of the murals.
The mosaic is the work of many weeks by artists Tracy Van Duinen and Todd Osborne of the Chicago Public Art Group (that's Todd in the pony tail in the top picture) and summer interns from Alternatives Inc., a family services center in Uptown. But this was a day for people from the community to help. All along the tunnel people of all ages were breaking up tiles, buttering them with mortar and carefully installing them within the lines drawn by the artists. The littlest of kids were helping. Passersby on foot and on bicycles, with beach towels and strollers, bound to or from the lakefront, stopped to find out what was going on.
The theme of this mural comes from its site: According to Mary Ann, before settlement there was a Potawatomi village at about that site. (Of course Lake Shore Drive and everything east of it is landfill; the original lake shore, netted with ancient trails, was further inland.)
Today, Edgewater has a relatively high concentration of Native American residents; the American Indian Center is nearby on Wilson Avenue. So the artists worked with the Indian center to come up with a design that evokes their rich symbolic heritage (such as the thunderbird motif in the top photo), the accomplishments of Indians in the modern world (there's a Maria Tallchief patch and an ironworker patch), and the environment that the Potawatomi inhabited (such as these cattails; the natural lakefront was marshy, not beachy.)
The mosaic is made up of pieces of mirror and tile mortared to the concrete. Once it's done (August, they say) the pieces will be grouted. In some places there are small round tiles that were designed and made by people from the community. (I was partial to this salamander).
In other places, tiles have been made from historic and modern photos of Indian culture and Indians in American life.
There are inscriptions and details to stop and examine amid the color and glitter as you walk by; the larger motifs reveal themselves from across the street.
I love the mosaic and I love the fact that so many people from the neighborhood are helping to make it. So here's a proposition:
Now let's tunnel under Lake Shore Drive by Buckingham Fountain, where one of the greatest planning crimes of Chicago occurs: Six lanes of traffic are allowed to block Chicagoans and tourists from the glorious lake they can see just across the highway. They are expected to walk a block north or south to cross Lake Shore Drive. Of course many don't; they dart across traffic instead, inviting tragedy.
So we should make an underpass. And then we should have all Chicago help fill that tunnel with a mosaic of color and sparkle and history and life.
Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.
All contents of this post are copyright Beth Botts. Feel free to link or share a brief excerpt with a link, but please do not reproduce photos or any other part of this blog without my express permission.