It is hardly surprising to see Juanita Irizarry and Friends of the Parks carrying the water for Chicago and opposing the Lucas Museum on the lakefront. What is surprising is that Father Michael Pfleger has pointedly asked who she is and what standing she and her group have to do this. I introduce my old friends Father Pfleger, Rev. Chris Griffin, and other leaders in the black community supporting the Northerly Island site to my old friend Juanita Irizarry. She also has advocacy roots, years in the trenches in the Latino community — just as the Griffin family, Pfleger, Apostolic Church, and others have done in the black community.
These leaders cannot always easily refuse requests for help. But they should question it, because it is part of the same kind of high-handed horse-trading with which these people and their populations have long been victimized in the other direction, passed up by the city powers, and it is the same kind of expected automatic response, and, not surprisingly, it is also what divides our ethnic communities. These leaders should wonder who their real allies are.
It is clear that someone, probably Mellody Hobson herself, explicitly asked black leaders to support the museum’s politically charged placement. In so doing, they deliberately turned the Lucas Museum into a race issue. This same tactic was used in 2008 when leaders used the Woodlawn Organization and Rev. Finney’s Apostolic Church as leverage to site the Children’s Museum in Grant Park. We are now in the golden age of using venerated civil-rights-era community power to help along downtown privatization efforts.
So, let it be a race issue. For a century, Chicago has directed where Black Chicago may exist. The black religious community should now be allowed to imagine for themselves where relevant points of interest like the Obama Library and the Lucas Museum should go.
Who says there must be a single, sprawling museum campus in Chicago? Who says that private museums must be sited on public land? Is this the limit of our city’s storied creativity? The new Green Line was once derisively called the “Watermelon Line” by hip-hop activist Bill “Upski” Wimsatt, in his sarcastic campaign against what he felt was its planned isolation from the rest of Chicago. The history of Black Chicago and Black America is not on the lakefront. It is true that the 1919 race riots were inaugurated in a dispute when a black youth was killed on 26th Street Beach for swimming into a whites-only beach — and yet that is perhaps the whole extent of Black Chicago’s historical affinity to the lakefront.
Black history comes to life, however, a mere few minutes’ walk from numerous Green Line stations. Lorraine Hansberry’s and Emmett Till’s homes, and Till’s resting place, are all a few minutes’ walk from 63rd and Cottage Grove. The site of Till’s open-casket funeral, and the heart of the Black Belt, is near 43rd Street station. The Du Sable Museum is five minutes from the 55th Street station, as is the fictitious site of the Kenwood mansion featured in Native Son. Rev. Griffin’s famous neighborhood has Ashland station near United Center, where Michael Jordan reigned supreme.
If Mellody Hobson truly understood Chicago, she might have recognized continuities linking these and other treasures and seen that the inner city itself is a living museum and starting point for narrative art for black and brown people.
Does she want revitalization, identity, real history? Why not rely on the Green Line as a backbone for a true rapid-transit-based museum campus. Put the Obama Library somewhere along Garfield Boulevard (but not in Washington Park). Let the Pink and Blue Lines anchor a similar Latino cultural network, with the Mexican Museum, Pilsen, and Little Village among the stops. Put the Lucas Museum where some of these lines meet, and make it the starting point for field trips to study and report on these and other historic places. Chicago is a transit town. The locations she wants would require special shuttles and parking lots.
Run special non-rush trains express to the most important stations, tied into the exhibit schedule at Lucas and the CTA Train Tracker, and link in topical multimedia audio and video — in the trains. Sell CTA day passes on this basis. See the revenue flow, see transit go, see the jobs and unexpected opportunities grow. It is actually easier to reach these West and South Side stations on rapid transit than to reach the Museum Campus. Urban transit links things together economically in astounding ways. Postmodern cities are only beginning to learn how best to exploit this fact.
The above is just one off-the-cuff example of many great ideas that would pour out of the heads of real Chicagoans who know and love the city — if only the planning process weren’t brokered exclusively by the arrogant and powerful.
Peter Zelchenko was co-organizer of Protect Our Parks and the Committee to Keep Lincoln Park Public (Latin School soccer field) and the Scammon Garden preservation campaign (Hyde Park, Gordon Parks Arts Hall)