Monday, February 15, 2010

Creating a Sense of Place

Guest Blogger:
Rey Colón, Alderman
City of Chicago, 35th Ward

My memory of appreciation for the arts began as an 8 year-old.  I was a member of the Logan Square Boys and Girls Club at 3228 West Palmer in the late 60's-early 70's.  The Club made it a priority for us to experience drawing, oil & water color painting, outdoor mural projects, sculptures, gardens, ceramics, photography, singing and dancing just to name a few activities.  I personally don’t profess to be good at any of them today, but at the time I thought I was good at them all (dancing excluded). I sold my first and last painting at age 11 for 20 bucks.  At the time, my art instructor said; "You are now a professional artist."  I was happy to be a professional anything at the moment, but didn’t make much of it.  While I have always maintained an appreciation for arts throughout the years, my craft became the delivery of a variety of programs that served the needs of neighborhood children and their families.  Since then, I have had the honor of serving in organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago, the Chicago Park District and the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago prior to being elected Alderman in 2003.   It doesn’t sound very artistic, but I have always ensured that arts and culture were fundamental program offerings.  

In my role as Alderman, I’ve determined that the combination of delivering needed city services, taking a stand on issues, balancing the diverse interests of constituents and involving all interested parties in developing the neighborhood’s future is my art form.  Fortunately for me, my studio is the 35th Ward and I am an active partner with many other groups and individuals interested in expanding arts, culture and designating areas for that common purpose.  One example is the 6-story Morris B. Sachs Building located at 2800 N. Milwaukee Avenue.  The city purchased this historic building and put out a request for proposals to have it renovated.  Construction will begin this spring and soon it will be known as the Hairpin Lofts.  Retail will remain on the ground floor level; a community art center will occupy the second and affordable live-work rental space on the next 4-floors above could be an attraction for artists. 

From 2003 to 2007, I worked with local artists and organizations to produce the Palmer Square Arts Festival.  The idea for this event was not unique. I simply continued the concept of other artists before me. The original Palmer Square Arts Festivals occurred for over 15-years sponsored by a group called; Chicago Neighborhood Artists CNACNA was headquartered in the Logan Square Boys and Girls Club under the leadership of then Club Director Jose Zayas and Program Director Theresa Pacione.  It was through their commitment to the arts that I was greatly enriched with such diverse opportunities.  Once elected Alderman, I decided to revive the Arts Festival and continue this local tradition.   

2008 was a transition year. Palmer Square underwent construction for a boulevard renovation project as part of the Logan Square Open Space Plan.  The Palmer Square site plan included a public art installation to function as a sculptured children’s play area.  Under the direction of the Chicago Public Art Group, neighborhood children and their parents attended workshops and were involved with the design.  Today this play area is themed after the Velveteen Rabbit and surrounded by a new running track.  

While the Palmer Square Arts Festival was deferred, a new bicycle event came to Chicago called; "Tour de Fat." This bicycle extravaganza sponsored by the New Belgium Brewing Company was introduced to Palmer Square during the 2008 renovation and continues to attract thousands of people throughout Chicago.  Tour de Fat will return for its 3rd year June 2010.  

The Palmer Square Arts Festival’s organizing committee consisted of local artists representing; "American Theater Company, Chicago Ballet, Elastic Arts Foundation, the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance and the Voice of the City.  In 2008, they encouraged me to take the next Palmer Square Art Festival to Milwaukee Avenue. That same year, this group of art organizations hosted the first Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival with limited time and resources, but the response was positive.  Last year, I reunited with this same group of local art organizations and expanded the planning group into a community-wide coalition of artists, businesses and community-based organizations to host the 2009 Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival.  I got involved by securing sponsors, organizing logistics for a 3.2-mile stretch of Milwaukee Avenue, identifying empty storefront owners for art space and all other unfulfilled duties.  The festival was a tremendous success, but more important was the process of involving so many leaders from different areas of interest and connecting them to a common mission.

Logan Square and its surrounding areas continue to show strong signs of vitality despite the weakened economy.  In 2009, we saw new business and restaurant openings, the Logan Farmer’s Market surpassed 1,000 people in attendance, other indigenous events surfaced like Open Streets, Summer Sessions on the Square and Art in the Park.  We also have new and existing businesses that continue to attract creative people from all walks of life.  Places like Lula’s Café, Café Con Leche, Longman and Eagle (a soon to be bed & breakfast), Revolution Brewing, Tumbao, New Wave Coffee, Real Tenochtitlan, the Whistler, Weegees’s Lounge, Logan’s Bar & Grill, Dunlay’s, Brand’s BBQ, and many more either here or on the way. As we continue to create a sense of place, people with high-morale are walking the streets.  Meanwhile the list for requested 2010 events keeps growing.  I recently commissioned the formation of a neighborhood council to provide comprehensive public relations for local activities and promoting the community in a positive light.  The “Independent Artists & Merchants of Logan Square” or “I AM Logan Square.” will advance economic development opportunities while maintaining a diverse coalition of artists, business leaders, chambers of commerce and community organizations. 

There are many exciting art projects taking place in my studio these days and I look forward to being part of many more in the future.  

Alderman Rey Colón is a lifelong resident of the 35th Ward serving the Avondale, Humboldt Park, Irving Park, and Logan Square communities on Chicago’s northwest-side. He attended Darwin Elementary School, Carl Schurz High School. He studied radio broadcasting at Columbia College and completed the Community Management Program in the Office of Public Administration at Roosevelt University.  Since the 1979 murder of his brother in a drive-by gang shooting, Alderman Colón has dedicated himself to giving children and families alternatives for improving their lives. Alderman Rey Colón has devoted his career to creating opportunities for residents in the 35th Ward. He has served the 35th Ward as:
  • Executive Director, McCormick Tribune YMCA, where he facilitated a $7.5 million fundraising effort and directed construction of the YMCA in Logan Square;
  • Executive Director, Logan Square Boys and Girls Club, where he launched a volunteer program to provide mentors for inner-city youth and received the National Honor Award for Program Excellence two years in a row for community outreach and a Satellite High School with a 90% graduation rate.
  • Area Manager of the Chicago Park District, where he directed the operations of 45 city parks and play-lots, beautified public green space, and piloted innovative programs throughout the Humboldt Park/West Town communities, which are now implemented city-wide.
  • Alderman Rey Colón was elected in February, 2003; he continues to serve his neighbors by improving the quality of life in the 35th Ward.
    For more information or to contact Rey Colón:  35th Ward Community Service Office  2710 N. Sawyer Ave. Chicago, IL 60647 Email:  Phone: 773-365-3535   Fax: 773-365-7391
Image Credit: All photos by Martha Ramos
Image Captions from top to bottom:
Alderman Rey Colón accepts an award
Boys and Girls Club booth
Palmer Square Boulevard Festival - Beverage Garden
Palmer Square Sculpture Playground
Tour de Fat
Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival - main stage
Milwaukee Avenue foot traffic

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