Saturday Night, Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival
As a Blue Line train rattled overhead, Wayne Montana, of Chicago’s afro-funk band The Eternals, reached his arms upward as the band released another song into the night. The band had just started a powerful but curfew-shortened set, building and laying new grooves with each song. Impossible to fully describe, their thoroughly un-catholic and seamless blend of musical styles satisfied mind and body—an excellent place to start a walk through the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival.
Diversity is the problematical concept within every discussion about Logan Square, unsurprising for a neighborhood that historically has had a mixed bag of ethnic groups and economic conditions. The arts festival has been a focus of such concerns in recent years. I remember two years ago when Monument Square seemed the ethnic dividing line for galleries. The local group ARTillery, formed in an attempt to overcome such problems, but ended up splitting due to internal squabbles about the meaning of the diversity, the thing they were trying to promote. Above all these debates about ethnicity and economic conditions, daily life goes on and neighbors quietly go about their business. This lovely synthesis, beyond any official neighborhood organization, provides reason for hope and excitement.
As the band unplugged I left the stage at Belden Street and began to move up Milwaukee Avenue. Though late, the energy on the street was still palpable. Summer heat had driven me to postpone my visit until near shutdown time, and I feel many others also waited. Groups of friends moved up and down the sidewalks as ten o’clock passed. A pop-up restaurant at Logan Square Kitchen did brisk business. Revolution Brewing held a steady stream of patrons. Further up the street Café D’Noche hosted DJ’s. Brightly attired twenty-somethings walked their bikes. Hispanic families strolled with their children. Young and old meandered through art galleries. An exuberant, metropolitan spirit had taken hold.
The scope of this festival stands out. Instead of a contained two blocks of street closed to traffic and filled with vendors, this one stretches out over a mile. To experience it you must physically engage, becoming a part of the moving crowd, like Walter Benjamin’s flaneur strolling down the avenues and soaking in all life has to offer. What could easily be just a sham carnival, like so many other festivals in this city, becomes a true community experience open to exploration and interpretation as one walks with their fellow inhabitants through the locales they call home.
As a Logan Square resident the experience invites comparison to other night strolls I have made along Milwaukee Avenue. Pedestrians give the city its human touch, filling in the physical environment with their movements. In spite of the handful of popular bars and restaurants that have emerged in Logan Square and the kaleidoscope of long-established smaller stores, the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue covered by the festival between California and Kimball can often seem lonely, unpopulated, lacking dynamism. Not on this evening.
The main attraction of course was the art. Unused storefronts were converted into galleries that provided the backbone of the festival, adding color to normally empty spaces. More importantly they gave an intellectual depth and emotional personality to the Avenue, displacing symbols of alienation with voices that called out to each other. It would be too much to say that a portrait of the neighborhood emerged, which is impossible and irrelevant, because one simply can’t ever finalize such the idea of a neighborhood, but at least I had the sense of a dialogue. I did noticed there wasn’t as many pieces from Hispanic artists as there have been in the past. This may reflect the swift and partial nature of my experience, though I am troubled that some community members do feel excluded or have withdrawn themselves from a public discussion. Works in many mediums were exhibited, ranging from interactive social media projects to more traditional canvas painting and sculpture. Exhibitors’ displays were strong. Issues of identity, memory, and community were common.
For a neighborhood in flux these themes are crucial. A frank and ongoing conversation of all these themes is needed to ensure continuing diversity while maintaining communal bonds. This is something all organizations that purport to speak for the citizens must heed. Opening the street to a plurality of voices is a wonderful step in this process, allowing the conversation to remain dynamic. Are we willing to keep the conversation alive? To discuss the history and the future of the neighborhood? To respect all? To be a community in spite of difference? Art can affect us individually while bonding us in subtle, complex, and sure ways. It requires effort, engagement. The form and content of the Milwaukee Avenue Art Festival provide comfort to the willing.
written by Keith Whitten (posted by Jacob Singer)
Also appears in:
can submit immediately
editors and members can submit