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Public Art and Right-Wing Politics
in Logan Square

-David Meyers

 

A festive atmosphere greeted the people who assembled recently on a brisk Friday evening for a Halloween Procession at the Logan Square monument. Redmoon Theater's huge handmade puppets and fantastic fire-belching smokestacks loomed over the crowd; giant lantern heads perched high on rolling towers lined the street. Skeletons mounted on curious contraptions spun around on lawn chairs ten feet off the ground, as mythical beasts made of rice paper and bamboo coiled through the crowd.

The homespun percussion of the Jellyeye Drum Theater punctuated the air with the racket of steel drums, pounding sewer pipes, and chimes. Ghostly ghouls handed out skull-shaped maracas to the gathering crowd of several hundred.

Kids went crazy, and so did their Moms and Dads, as Redmoon and Jellyeye's fantastic display worked its magic in the 3rd Annual Halloween Lantern Procession and Spectacle in Logan Square.

But then I noticed other, more troubling things that had nothing to do with creative expression and the excitement of an outdoor festival, but had everything to do with repression.
The flashing blue lights of police cars set the tone of a state of emergency; police barricades lined the street around the monument.

A Redmoon Theater security worker told the group of people I was with to move to the other side of the police barricade; when we laughed and asked why, he said it's not a joke - just do it. The punchline came when another Redmoon volunteer arrived and told us to get back on the other side of the barricade, where we had been.

Just do what you're told, it's ART.

And then I saw what was really the most frightening part of this curious outdoor Halloween parade: 35th Ward Alderwoman Vilma Colom working the crowd, with men dressed in full army fatigues sporting Vilma Colom posters on their backs. A scary middle-school military band (wryly dubbed the Vilma Colom Death Squad Band by one onlooker) heightened the oddly repressive tone of the Community Art Event. As the parade stepped off, Colom's huge campaign banner at the very front of the procession dwarfed the Redmoon sign following her. A few people booed Colom as she passed.

In effect, I saw Redmoon and Jellyeye Theaters mount a spectacular parade that was unfortunately marred by the politicking of Vilma Colom - a notorious advocate for the whitening and gentrification of Logan Square who enjoys ties to the area's right-wing forces.

I think it's tragic to see artists associate with (and get used by) right-wing politicians, no matter how great the art. But that's what I saw this past Halloween on the streets of Logan Square.

Vilma Colom is to Logan Square what Jesse Granato is to Wicker Park/West Town: an effective tool in transforming a low-income mostly Latino neighborhood into a whitewashed haven for yuppies and their dogs.

In 1995, Colom, an ex-Republican (as if it matters), was elected amid a storm of allegations that she was involved in fraudulent absentee voting activities. The other nine candidates in the hotly-contested election held a press conference calling for an investigation of the over 1,000 absentee ballot applications submitted.

Obviously these allegations of wrongdoing did not prevent the well-connected Colom from taking office. Since then, Colom has: opposed scattered-site housing in her ward; opposed the proposed Living Wage Ordinance; opposes the very existence of a church that for 14 years has served as a homeless shelter on Mozart Street, due to pressure from yuppies; and opposed the erection of basketball hoops for kids to use at Unity Park on Kimball Street.

Colom has effectively opposed nearly every initiative benefiting low-income children and adults in Logan Square. One former resident of Logan Square, who worked as a speech pathologist at Darwin Elementary School, got the distinct impression that Colom is "anti-child" every time Colom spoke at the school. Local businessman and computer consultant Carl Davidson offers that Colom consistently aligns herself with "the most conservative and reactionary politics, with an agenda of 'divide and wreck.' She's like a mafia godfather."

Colom is clearly connected to people involved in questionable activities. In July of this year, the Chicago Tribune reported that both Colom and 33rd Ward Alderman Dick Mell offered to provide character references in support of Thomas Perez, the owner of a vending machine company convicted for failing to report $330,000 in income on his tax returns. Tellingly, Colom received a $1,000 campaign contribution from Perez; Mell has received over $5,000 from Perez in the last ten years.

Colom performs tasks in the Latino community for Dick Mell, because Mell's political machine put her in office in the newly-created Latino ward. Mell has exerted immense influence in the areas of Humboldt Park and Logan Square for years, aligning himself with right-wing Latino(a)s like Colom. Mell shares Colom's staunch opposition to all gains made by progressive and radical Latino(a)s.

Colom also enjoys the patronage of right-wing Puerto Rican real estate lawyer Gloria Chevere, who publishes a small and rabidly reactionary newspaper, El Pito. Chevere has dedicated El Pito to attacks on progressive/radical Puerto Ricans and organizations. An example of El Pito's dirty work was its attack on Jaime Delgado and the Humboldt Park Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative (HIMRI) early last year, a politically-motivated attack that helped fuel the closing of the large and effective health organization by the State.

Jaime Delgado, a prominent and respected Puerto Rican independentista and progressive, served as HIMRI's executive director at the time the agency was shut down. State Reps. Edgar Lopez and Miguel Santiago were instrumental in calling on Republican Gov. Jim Edgar to close HIMRI. Both Lopez and Santiago are affiliated with Chevere.

Now Puerto Ricans suffer the distinction of being the only ethnic group in the city with rising infant mortality rates. These rates rose in the wake of the state's closing of HIMRI's doors a year and a half ago.

Chevere has also opposed the grassroots organizing of Humboldt Park's Puerto Rican Cultural Center for years. The Center is the most staunch and effective voice in opposition to the displacement of low-income Puerto Ricans/Latinos in the area.

A man named Rafael Marrero edits Chevere's paper; recently Vilma Colom hired Marrero to work in her ward office. According to sources close to the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Marrero is an agent provocateur who infiltrated the Center and orchestrated this year's media attack on both it and on Clemente High School; FBI agents have admitted that Marrero is working for the agency.

Marrero also orchestrated and carried out a bombing in December of 1992, hoping to pin the blame on the Center and to draw a connection between the Center and clandestine activities-a connection that the Center flatly and thoroughly denies.

So why is Vilma Colom so interested in supporting community art events such as Redmoon's Halloween Lantern Procession and Spectacle in Logan Square?

Artists, writers, and other creative types, especially white ones, have played a key role in the right-wing's attack on low-income communities and people of color. One focus of that agenda in Logan Square is to displace low-income residents living in the neighborhood. Cultural expression often gets used as veneer for this agenda.

While no yuppie is going to buy and move into a home with a crack house down the street, many artists will, sort of a "walk on the wild side". Peachy white faces make the yuppie less apprehensive. Huge profits are reaped by Developers; Latinos, African-Americans, poor whites and others face ever-more crowded conditions as they get pushed farther into the margins of mainstream culture and consciousness, into the margins of the city, less and less visible as the city bleaches.

It is a vicious process of trampling, called gentrification and visible as displacement of all who do not fit the mold of middle class or white.

What I'm troubled by here is the way non-political artists link with this right-wing agenda, wittingly or unwittingly.

The dominant European art tradition lifts the arts and artists above locality and out of time; this is an idealistic tradition removed from such mundane concerns as local politics and topics such as displacement. Issues such as displacement evidently do not directly impact such artists in obvious ways-we can simply move on to the next hip area (Hermosa? Austin? Aurora?)

I think the price of this tradition is far too high - even for the artists involved. This tradition devolves too easily into an art without content, without context or commitment, an art that is allowed freedom of expression or is even promoted by the powers-that-be, as long as it doesn't say too much.

I think this tradition also involves a refusal of empathy and compassion, a denial of responsibility bordering on complicity, a misunderstanding of politics and history.

I also think it requires the luxury of never having to care about much at all.

It may be unlikely that Colom would open the streets of Logan Square to Redmoon Theater if their performance had a heavy dose of real social commentary. But then, if we are creative, there are other ways to open streets, which are intended to be, after all, public.

If no one pays attention - including artists - Logan Square will soon go the way of Lincoln Park and Wicker Park, areas where wealthy whites have pushed out Latinos over the past few decades. This process is not natural or inevitable, but one fostered by people in positions of power such as Vilma Colom, people who are willing to sell out their communities and constituencies - and use artists in the process.

In presenting an outdoor public event like the Halloween Procession, why did Redmoon Theater and Jellyeye associate themselves with Vilma Colom? There are plenty of progressive forces in the area as well. Will artists simply continue to allow themselves to be used by forces bent on destroying poor inner-city communities? I hope not.

At Logan Square on Halloween, in the midst of wildly creative and curiously fantastic puppets - but also in the midst of police lines and army fatigues and right-wing politicking - I saw what looked like the cynicism, indifference, and nihilism at the heart of Euro-culture, billowing out of immense fantastic smoke stacks belching fire. Amid skeletons and ghouls I perceived what felt like a spiritual death, a numbness that overcomes us when we are indifferent to and ignore the realities faced by those unlike ourselves - the reality of those who suffer most from the bleaching of the inner city, of those who suffer most intimately the social, economic, and racial reality of displacement.

What did you see?

-by David Meyers


 

Local Opposition: Progressive Logan Square

One group working for positive social change in Vilma Colom's fiefdom is Progressive Logan Square (PLS). In existence for one year, PLS is a neighborhood-based political organization that seeks to impact electoral politics, and has coordinated community forums on such issues as immigrants' rights and welfare reform.

Progressive Logan Square is currently organizing support for the Humboldt Park United Methodist Church at 2120 N. Mozart - a church that has opened its doors to homeless people for 14 years, offering shelter, warm meals, and GED classes. The church and its pastor are now coming under attack by newcomer yuppies in the area, who are working with Vilma Colom to try to shut the shelter down.

Progressive Logan Square shares the same principles of the national New Party - radical democracy and a fair economy - although it is not an official branch of that party.
Progressive Logan Square can be reached by calling 773.489.2726.


 

Redmoon Theater: Barriers and Bridges

Redmoon Theater founder Blair Thomas finds that making art in a community setting is a tricky thing. While acknowledging that all art takes place in a political context, he says the group decided not to engage in political discussions a few years back. What the artists of Redmoon have to offer are their skills as theatermakers, with a vision of "creating a language that can communicate across age, gender, and cultural differences," says Thomas.

Thomas also acknowledges that Redmoon's work "doesn't have a level of political offense," and swims more in the waters of contemporary mythology than in agitprop. This choice "makes us politically safe," he says. He adds that the group does have an interest in being provocative by disrupting the normal way things are, and sees the Halloween Procession as "a mardi-gras for our culture, where the world is turned upside down."

About Redmoon's decision to associate with the powers-that-be to mount the Halloween Procession in Logan Square, Thomas had this to say: "All Vilma Colom has done is put her name on our events. She gets the streets closed for us and gets the fire permits. She hasn't given us any dough."

According to Thomas, Redmoon's responsibility to the Logan Square community is "to create theater events that cherish and celebrate life." About the role of artists in displacing Latinos, he believes that action to transform that dynamic are unclear.

Skills-sharing seems to be what Redmoon does best in the community. In the group's eight years in Logan Square, its artists have conducted Kids' Free Art Classes, and is now working with foster children from all over the city to create the upcoming Redmoon Winter Pageant.

Redmoon's most successful outreach project, Dramagirls, links women artists with 20 junior high school girls at Salmon P. Chase Elementary School in a mentorship program. Dramagirls provides a safe space for girls to develop skills like singing, improvisation, and puppet-making as well as in reading and math.

You can reach Redmoon Theater at 773.388.9031.


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