Murals of Chicago Lawn

For most of my life I’ve taken CTA to get around the city, which means that I’ve spent plenty of time staring out of windows. And as a result I’ve spent plenty of time watching the streets of my neighborhood change. Every time I take the bus home, I look out of the window and keep a lookout for landmarks rather than street signs to know where I am at.

If I am coming from the north side, I know that I am almost home by the presence of a mural. Just past traffic lights, on the right side of the street, the painitng of a woman in an orange crop top reminds me that I need to pull the cord in the bus that signals the bus driver to stop. I get off on 61st and Kedzie and walk past the mural. Before the woman was there, paintings of a basketball player and the logo of the Bulls team was plastered on the wall.

If I am coming from the south side, I keep a lookout for a few different markers of the neighborhood. A large Citibank building on my left means that I am two stops away. I am one stop away when I see the mural of a faded red dragon on the side of the Arden, a chinese food establishment that’s been in the neighborhood longer than I have.

When I give people directions I tend to point out landmarks: the large Indian on 63rd and Pulaski, the Transformers mural on 63rd, the library on 61st and Kedzie, the Pete’s Market on 58th and Kedzie, etc. Landmarks are visual markers that are more memorable than street names and numbers. When I stroll through my neighborhood, Chicago Lawn, what stands out are the big pieces of art on building walls. As I’ve grown, and as traffic has increased in my neighborhood, and as businesses have closed and opened over and over I've noticed a marginal increase in the amount of murals in the neighborhood.

In this article, I explore the nature of the murals in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood and their ties to neighborhood centers and places of business as well as explore whether or not the murals reflect a community identity.


Chicago, Murals, and Culture

Chicago has a history of being known as a city of vibrant, diverse culture. The city has plenty of museums where people go to enjoy artwork that is sanctioned as representative of Chicago, but a walk through the streets of Chicago will reveal the celebration of a community in a perhaps more personal way than a stroll through gallery walls.

Plenty of murals can be found throughout the city. Neighborhoods like Pilsen, a mecca for young new artists, have a community identity that in part comes from the nature of the murals that decorate its streets. Murals are cultural objects through which the members of a community may feel their culture is represented. Mural making can itself be a process through which members of a community engage in creating a culture.

Sociologists like Wendy Griswold point out that according to a constructionist view, identity is seen as “as not so much given and fixed but malleable, fluid, and subject to interpretation.” On an collective level, identity must be enacted upon by members of that community in order to maintain the existence of the community.

In Hombres Y Mujeres Muralistas On a Mission: Painting Latino Identities in 1970s San Francisco, Cary Cordova writes “not only did murals pictorially define the interests, ethnicity, and politics of local residents, but also their quality as a work of art protected old neighborhood buildings that might otherwise topple to development interests outside the community, or fall victim to internalized destruction, such as graffiti. As a result, the process of creating a mural is often just as indicative of community ideologies and tensions as the iconography in the mural.” While Cary Cordova was writing specifically about murals in LA, the same point can be made about murals in Chicago and in Chicago Lawn. Several of the murals that I examine below portray ideological beliefs of those who were involved in the process of creating them.

Wendy Griswold also writes “Collective identity formation is a delicate process and requires continual investments.” I’m tracking collective identity formation through the changes in specific murals within in the neighborhood. Because murals are such visual objects, the state of a mural is indicative of the investment that a community puts in these objects. The state of a mural is also indiciative of whether a community values or continues to believe in the meaning behind a mural. Murals that are not seen as relevant to a community are oftentimes allowed to wither away. Another factor to consider is the current communitiy’s interest in public arts.

Wendy Griswold writes “A cultural object, as we have seen, is an interpretation, a set of meanings that fit a context of ideas and institutions, that translate random happenings into events, and that suggest attitudes and actions.” Many of the murals in this neighborhood are cultural objects who were created with a specific meaning in mind. As time has gone by, the meanings of these murals may be held by some members of the Chicago Lawn community but not necessarily by all.

I believe that the state of murals as time goes by is revealing of the state of the community that came together to create the mural. Through this article, I hope to explore whether this is a valid claim to make about the community identity of Chicago Lawn

A short crash course on Chicago Lawn

In the late 1800s, a Mr. Eberhart purchased a parcel of land. His friend, James Webb, purchased a neighboring parcel of land. From these two parcels, a town began to prosper. A railroad was built and with it, the community continued to grow. Lithuanian immigrants moved into the neighborhood after WWI. The neighborhood was one of middle class immgirants and continues to be. In the 70s, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans began to move into the neighborhood. Currently, the area is increasingly populated by Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Blacks, and Arabs.

Through a Google search I was able to come across this paper: https://www.illinois.gov/ihpa/Research/IllinoisHistory/Documents/Droel.pdf which is about the beginnings of the neighborhood. This short article mentions that the neighborhood had an influx of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants in the 1920s. Mexican immigrants settled into the area during the 1980s and have continued to migrate to the area from other parts of the city. According to the article, Blacks have also migrated into the neighborhood from other parts of the city. This short paper takes its information from a 2003 article published in the Chicago Tribune.

Another article, titled “PLACES WHERE OUR ETHNIC HERITAGE SHINES BRIGHTEST WEST TOWN,” was published in the Chicago Tribute during 1988 about 11 neighborhoods and the ethnic ties of those communities. This article provides information about Chicago Lawn as a neighborhood where Lithuanians moved as a sign of economic prosperity. The article mentions that the existence of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture at 6500 S. Pulaski Rd is a sign of the pride in the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood. This article is over twenty years old, and since then the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood has changed. The museum is still in existence today, but I have not noticed any other physical markers of the Lithuanian presence in the neighborhood.

Other articles that I’ve found in the Chicago Tribune reveal a pattern in which the demographic of the neighborhood has changed from mostly white immigrant neighborhood to a racially diverse neighborhood of whites, Mexicans, Muslims, Arabs, and blacks.

Murals with History

Roots and Wings

On a walk through the neighborhood, I came across this strange piece of art near 63rd and St. Louis. The mural looked relatively new but the concrete relief at the bottom of the wall was noticeably worn.

Modern work over what used to be “Roots and Wings”

The concrete relief is a series of images of families, agriculture, architecture, technology, and wildlife. At the end of the relief is a small dedication that can hardly be read because the words have been worn away after years of neglect. The most prominent words is “Roots.”

Close up of inscription

From what a friend and I were able to decipher, I believe that the inscription reads:
Roots
Chicago Lawn Centennial 1876–1976
Sponsors, — M-Auto Re-ilders
Southwest Community Con —
Chicago Lawn Historical Society
Southwest Development Corporation
Council of Lawn neighbors — — Service Corporation
Stanley & Son
Local Business and Residents
National Endowment for the Arts
AB — — Agency — — — Mural group program of the
Community Arts Foundation Artists

After reading the inscription I was still confused about what the piece was meant to be. The shape and the placement of images reminded me of a display of fossils. Yet there was nothing else on the wall that explained why the concrete piece was there. The inscription only listed organizations, businesses, and people, but did not explain why the art piece existed. The only hint was the mention of Chicago Lawn’s Centennial.

Research revealed that this concrete relief used to be part of a larger mural known as “Roots and Wings” that was created by artists Caryl Yasko and Lucyna Radycki in 1976.

“Roots and Wings” circa 1976. Image from the Chicago Public Art Group website.

This mural was created to represent the history of Chicago Lawn and the roots of the people who were part of the community. The addition of the concrete relief was innovative at the time the mural was made. The mural consisted of a painting of a large tree with roots that spanned the length of the building wall and what appears to be a large flower. The concrete relief is meant to be the fossils found below the tree. The “fossils” are individual images of plants, scenes of people together, images of telephones, boats, houses, technology, and much more. According to the Community Public Art Group, at one point the mural had an inscription that said: “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children — one is roots; the other, wings.” This inscription was probably painted on the wall because I did not see any other inscriptions on the concrete relief apart from what I’ve listed above.

Unfortunately, the picture above is the only photograph that I have been able to find of the original mural. The mural wore away through the years. Eventually, the mural was in such a bad state of disrepair that the the only thing visible were outlines. The mural was essentially unrecognizable.

The state of the mural circa 2007. Image taken from Google Maps.

Sometime after 2009, the wall was painted over. Since then, different murals have been painted on the wall but the concrete relief from “Roots and Wings” remains untouched, but also uncared for. I don’t know why and if I had more time I would have reached out to the business owner of the building to see what they knew or thought about the mural. It’s also worth noting that while the concrete relief has remained untouched, it has not been torn down or defiled in any shape. It has only worn away because of weather and age. I think that this is an indication of community members being either indifferent or unsure of what to do with it. The business owners of the building clearly have not removed it or altered it.

It is also worth noting that the latest murals to go over the wall are not large pieces that paint a scene like in “Roots and Wings.” Instead, the murals have mostly been composed of large pieces of what seem to be names or characters. I question whether these modern murals are graffitti or sanctioned murals pieces.

The presence of names as graffiti has usually been an indication of gangs in the neighborhood. However, through a sociological perspective, graffitti has as much value as a cultural object as community sanctioned murals such as “Roots and Wings.” Whereas “Roots and Wings” was sanctioned by a groups from the Chicago Lawn community in the 70s, the images and names on this wall remains untouched. This speaks to the recognition by others that the wall is of worth and value, something not to be sprayed over like other graffiti in the area.

When I’ve strolled through the neighborhood I’ve come across many buildings and garage doors that have been spray painted over with the names of taggers or with gang signs. The graffitti is usually not very detailed, it is usually a quick line of paint to spell out a name or to outline a gang sign. The graffitti is not very detailed. And if the graffitti is of gang signs, then it will usually get sprayed over with the signs of other gangs. The walls of graffitti are visible objects over which multiple communities, the gangs, interact. Graffiti is one cultural object that gangs, the creators, create in order to signify their presence in a neighborhood. The “Roots and Wings” mural worked the same way as a cultural object for the members of the Chicago Lawn community in the 1970s. Roots and Wings was a beautiful piece that was was created by two artists with the intent to capture the neighborhood’s 100 years of history. The current mural that is over the wall while, not capturing the history of Chicago Lawn, does create or indicate some meaning to the people of the community, or at the very least to the gang members of the community who have refrained themselves from spraying over the wall.

The latest mural. Taken March 2015.

Southwest Youth Collaborative

Another location that has undergone change is the Southwest Youth Collaborative building. While the organization is now defunct, the building is covered by beautiful murals all along its walls. The Southwest Youth Collaborative was a community serving site. The organization serviced the community for years by developing programs for youth. The always colorful building, too, has gone through many stages of artwork.

Present day mural on north side of building. The inscription at the bottom of the mural states “End the Israeli Occupation.”

On the north side of the building, the wall is covered with the image of a girl in a hijab waving a flag and in the background is what appears to be a neighborhood surrounded by smoke and flags. The image is unsettling. A tank in all black is at the bottom of the painting and inside the tank, the words “End the Israeli Occupation” are inscribed. The mural, sanctioned by the Southwest Youth Collaborative organization, creates meaning about the values that are held by members of the organization. It is a political mural, and the message is summed up in the inscription.

On the east side of the building, the wall is covered in images of faces, children playing, outlines of the Chicago skyline, and men and women of color working together in a field.

East side of the building as of 2015.

This side of the building, similarly to the Roots and Wings mural from the 70s, serves as a reflection of the members of the Southwest Youth Collaborative community. The people painted on the wall are diverse, and reflect the current demographic of the Chicago Lawn community. As a cultural object, this mural signifies a smorgasboard of meaning to any passerby on the street. From the images of the Chicago skyline to the children playing games, to the words written in graffitti style, this mural signifies the many values of the Southwest Youth Collaborative community. The skyline is indicative of an appreciation for Chicago. The letters in graffiti style are indicative of an apprecitation of the graffiti culture. The children playing are indicative of a community of diversity. The people working the field seems to be indicative of a shared work ethic between people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as a shared history of community.

Because the organization is now defunct, it will be interesting to see what will happen to the building and the murals. These murals have also remained untouched by gangs in the neighborhood.

63rd and Troy

On the side of a JJ’s Fish is a wall to wall mural. This piece is astonishing because of its size and because of its images. One of the most prominent images is of a woman breastfeeding while carrying what appears to be a rifle or some other sort of gun. There are images of Black Panthers, muslim women, a man who may be a Zapatista, protesters, taggers, children, civil rights leaders, and more.

Taken on March of 2015

Research led me to find out that this mural was created by members of the Southwest Youth Collaborative. The mural was part of an event to commemorate revolutionaries throughout history.

Murals and Businesses

Businesses in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood have also used murals as a way to attract customers and to draw attention to themselves. Much like the signs that are visible at the front of stores, these murals serve several functions, one of which is to advertise by creating visibility in the community.

Arden

This is the current mural that is on the corner of a Chinese food restaurant on 62nd and Kedzie. This mural was painted a few years ago and is now in disrepair.

The mural shows a dragon as well as letters in the style of graffiti. The dragon seems to indicate a tie to the ethnicity that the restaurant markets. While the restaurant is still open, the mural seems to be in a bad need of repair. I do not know why but had I more time, I would reach out to the business owners. I find it interesting that the wall has not been painter over because it is no longer aesthetically pleasing. I can only guess that the mural has been allowed to deteriorate because the owners are unsure of what to do. The mural is still provocative, but in bad disrepair. A paint job would leave the building more aestheically pleasing but would erase the mural. The state of disrepair may also be indicative of a struggling business that cannot afford to repair or remove the mural and so therefore it remains untouched.

Robots on the wall

This piece is fairly recent. I believe it was created after the murals of the Southwest Youth Collaborative. It is on the corner of a store called J&J Electronics that mainly sells automobile parts.

Tranformers mural by 63rd and Sacramento

The side of the wall is covered with images of the Transformers, a pop cultural phenomenon. Many of the images are of the Transformers fighting against antagonists. In pop culture lore, the Transformers are a group of robots that defend the earth from bad guys. The mural depicts them protecting humans and fighting alongside human armies.

The mural is attention grabbing. As a cultural object it signifies meaning to a younger generation that is familiar with the characters as well as to a generation that is tuned into American pop culture. Whereas the dragon of the Arden restaurant is tied to a Chinese culture, Transformers have saturated the American pop culture scene since the tv shows from the 80s and recently with the live action movies that have been released since 2007.

Whereas the murals on Southwest Youth Collaborative reflected community, this mural has no hint of explicit ethnic or racial community ties. At a first glance, that is. If Chicago Lawn is a neighborhood that has historically been a community of immigrants, then the prominence of mainstream pop culture in the neighborhood might be indicative of an acculturation.

Supermercado El Barrio

This is one of the latest and most recent murals to go up in the neighborhood. I believe that this mural was painted within the last two years. It is on the south wall of a local supermarket that is on 61st and Kedzie.

Just as the wall of J&J’s Electronics has pop culture characters, this mural too showcases Venom, a character from the Spider Man franchise. I find it extremely interesting that Venom is on this wall. In comics, Venom starts out as villain and later becomes an antihero. Venom is also an alien who must attach itself to a person in order to live. I don’t know what the mural artists thought about when painting this wall, but for me, this mural indicates acculturation, too, because this supermarket caters to a mexican-immigrant community, yet the mural reflects american pop culture. The store is called “El Barrio,” which means “the neighborhood” in spanish. The store also sells a lot of products that come from Mexico and the store workers all speak spanish and most of the workers were also born in Mexico. The store is very much reflective of a Mexican ethnicity, yet the wall reflects american pop culture. At the risk of reading too much into the character of Venom, I also wonder if the character’s transition from villan to hero status in the comic world is meant to resonate with the Mexican immigrant population of the neighborhoor. Venom, though, remains an outsider in the comic world, and I wonder if that outsider status is what the character signifies to Mexicans and the Mexican-Americans of the community.

Conclusion

Whether the neighborhood’s demographics have changed, the continued existence of murals seems to indicate the community’s need for visibility. However, the nature of why visibility is needed has changed. Murals like Roots and Wings, as well as the work created by the members of the Southwest Youth Collaborative spoke to a history of the Chicago Lawn area. Roots and Wings was meant to be an act of commemorating the history of the neighborhood. The murals worked on by the Soutwest Youth Collaborative seem to capture a shared history of community and struggle across space, place, and time. The goal of visibility of these older works seems to be commemoration of history. The recent work that has gone up on the side of businesses, however, seems to be tied less to history and ethnicity and seems to lean more towards the current, towards pop culture, possibly with the goal of visibility as advertisement and for increased business.

These conclusions about the goals of visibility are based purely on the research that I did about the nature of murals in places like LA and in Chicago during the late 70s. My conclusions on the newest crop of murals in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood are based on research about the changing demographics of the neighborhood and on my own observation of the neighborhood through the years. I write this to say that my observations are partially from my own status as an insider and that if I had more time I would reach out to some of these businesses and others of the community to verify whether my observations reflected the general consensus of other members of the community.


Bibliography

Connolly, Dermot. 2012. “SW Youth Collaborative Shuts Down.” Southwest City News — Herald 09 Nov. 2012

Cordova, Cary. 2006. “Hombres Y Mujeres Muralistas on a Mission: Painting Latino Identities in 1970s San Francisco.” Latino Studies 4(4):356–380 (http://ezproxy.roosevelt.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/222609151?accountid=28518). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.lst.8600223.

Flink, John. 2002. “Group Fights for Public Art.” Chicago Tribune 20 Feb 2002. Web.

Griswold, Wendy. 2012. Cultures and Societies in a Changing World (Sociology for a New Century Series). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition

Reardon, Patrick T. 2005. “Agents of Change ; Reinvent the Chicago Lawn Neighborhood? Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!” Chicago Tribune 22 Sept. 2005: 1–5.1. Chicago Tribune; ProQuest Newsstand. Web.

Sawyers, J. (1988, Jun 12). 11 PLACES WHERE OUR ETHNIC HERITAGE SHINES BRIGHTEST WEST TOWN. Chicago Tribune (Pre-1997 Fulltext) Retrieved from http://ezproxy.roosevelt.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/282403940?accountid=28518

Unknown. “Chicago Lawn.” LISC/Chicago’s New Communities Program website. http://www.newcommunities.org/communities/chicagolawn/about.asp

Unknown. “Roots and Wings.” Community Public Art Guide. http://www.cpag.net/guide/4/4_pages/4_4_22.htm

Unknown. 2007. “WILLIE PERDOMO: POSTCARDS OF EL BARRIO AND “GRAFFITI REVOLUTION” — TWO OCTOBER EVENTS” Illinois Humanities Council website. 2007. http://www.prairie.org/news/willie-perdomo-postcards-el-barrio-and-quot-graffiti-revolution-quot-two-october-events#sthash.JPgjZCtL.dpuf

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