Originally posted on ChicagoTribune.com
Story by Rick Kogan
It rained early Monday morning, and when it did there were no people to be seen on the 4000 block of Milwaukee Avenue on the Northwest Side. Many of the businesses there, the sort of establishments to be found in most any part of the city — currency exchange, clothing store, bakery, cellphone shop, salon/spa — were hours from opening. There were a couple of empty storefronts, also a common site in most neighborhoods, some more than others. But in one storefront a couple of men were busy painting the walls, a small but significant sign of new life.
A few minutes before 8 a.m. the rain stopped, and as sunlight peeked from dark clouds, three people arrived in cars. They parked and walked purposefully down the sidewalk. They were all smiling: John Arena, the alderman of the 45th Ward, of which this block is an important part; his wife, Jill, a graphic artist; and Cyd Smillie, a visual artist who is the ward’s arts liaison.
“This block is really ground zero for what we have been trying to do,” Smillie said.
What they are trying to do, as they explained Monday morning, is use arts and culture as a means to revitalize the ward, attract new businesses and offer a sense of pride of place for residents.
Shortly after Arena’s election in spring 2011 (he won in a runoff against a Republican candidate to replace Pat Levar, who had served for six terms, or more than two decades) he hired Smillie and got to work. Within months she had begun reaching out to area schools, businesses, chambers of commerce and residents.
Smillie and Jill Arena, who used to run a design firm with her husband and now works as an art director and manager for Loyola Press, began painting murals on vacant storefronts and other blank spaces.
“We have done more than 20 now, and it’s been so gratifying that within days of painting each one we would hear from business owners and residents that they felt safer and that the murals had livened up their streets,” Arena says. “They’re a lot more than just scenery.”
One of the first they created was the one they were standing in front of Monday morning. “Silent Movie Mural” covers a large space and pays homage in vivid imagery to the venerable Portage Theater across the street. Opened in 1920 as a 2,000-seat movie house, it was a solid entertainment anchor for decades. It closed for a time before being brought back to life by the Silent Film Society of Chicago, which refurbished and reopened it in 2006. There were some ups and one bad down (a new owner abruptly shuttered the place last year), but now the theater is home to a wide variety of performances (theportagetheater.com).
That’s but one of the quiet success stories in the ward. In the past three years, it has welcomed such new neighbors as the National Veterans Art Museum, 4041 Milwaukee Ave.; Chicago Ballet Center, 4024 N. Cicero Ave.; Filament Theater, 4041 Milwaukee Ave.; and the Ed Paschke Art Center, 5415 W. Higgins Ave.
There have been many other arts and cultural additions too: events, sculptures, collaborations and partnerships. More than 100 projects of all sorts have been launched (artsalive45.com) in Arena’s time.
“And there has been a tremendous ripple effect,” says the alderman. “I don’t think many people see arts and cultural as economic engines, but they are. As the ward has become more vibrant, that has not only energized the residents but attracted new businesses, homeowners.”
“I am not so much surprised by this. It was an overlooked opportunity,” Smillie says. “It was just a matter of creating a recipe to make it all work.”
The ward, bisected by Milwaukee Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway, is not densely populated, filled as it is with single-family homes. Even so it has long supported such attractions as the Patio movie theater, 6008 W. Irving Park Road; Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave.; Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.; and the 13-year-old Gift Theatre, 4802 Milwaukee Ave., currently producing “Othello.” The piece is praised by the Tribune’s Chris Jones, who wrote last week that “if you are a fan of Chicago-style Shakespeare, and these actors of the Northwest Side certainly qualify for that distinction, this is a very interesting and intimate affair of striking resonance.”
Next weekend might be a fine time to visit the ward. The Jefferson Park Arts & Music Festival takes place Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Jefferson Memorial Park, 4822 N. Long Ave. It is to feature two dozen musical acts, among them the Nicolas Tremulis Orchestra, along with food vendors and arts, crafts and children’s activities (jefffest.org).
If you are in the area, take advantage of some other things it has to offer: bars and restaurants, City Newsstand (which claims to have — and who’s arguing? — the greatest gathering of magazines in the Midwest, at 4018 N. Cicero Ave.) and Fantasy Costumes at 4065 Milwaukee Ave., arguably the best costume shop in the country.
George Karzas is the affable owner of the Gale Street Inn, a terrific restaurant that has been in business for more than 50 years at 4914 Milwaukee Ave. A longtime supporter of the Gift Theatre, he says: “I have always been a cheerleader for this ward, and this area was for such a long time stagnant, development-wise. I think what’s been happening with the alderman’s efforts are good. The murals, the increased arts-entertainment activity, it’s re-energizing the area.” He adds, laughing, “And nothing goes better with art or a play than a good slab of ribs.”
Arena’s ward headquarters is about a mile north of the “Silent Movie Mural” on Milwaukee. His job, the job of any alderman, is a series of little tasks, details. Yes, they are members of the City Council, the legislative body of Chicago, meeting at least once every month to debate and vote on all manner of things important to the way the city operates. But back in their wards they oversee, on a more intimate level, the needs, concerns and complaints of the 55,000 people, on average, who live there. They function as little mayors, the caretakers and architects of their wards.
“I would be sorry to see some of (the murals) go,” he says. “But the best-case scenario is that when new businesses move in — galleries, sandwich shops, anything that brings life here — the murals will come down, vanish forever.”
“After Hours With Rick Kogan” airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.