Culture in a City of Neighborhoods

The Fire Arts Center is a nonprofit school for sculpture, showing off at an event showcasing local arts centers. The event was hosted by Sixty Inches from Center, an archive of local visual arts. (Photo: Sophia Nahli; courtesy SIFC)

By Kelly KleimanChicago doesn’t have an arts district. The city’s creativity springs from, and reveals itself in, all of its many communities. Thus each neighborhood is, or aspires to be, an arts district of its own.

The authorKelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, In These Times, Dance Magazine, Huffington Post and on the BBC and Chicago Public Radio. She is also editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management.

Yes, there’s a cluster of big theaters on Randolph Street, but it’s telling that the city’s world-famous theater scene calls itself “Off-Loop,” while two of the best-known dance companies – Hubbard Street and River North – are known by their addresses far from downtown.  While the arts certainly maintain a presence in the Central Loop, nearly every art form has its locus of creation in the neighborhoods.


From a series of independent community efforts, Chicago theater has grown into an institution, boasting five Tony Awards for regional theater, far more than any other city. But what appears to be a single entity has many roots as well as many branches, reflecting the city’s racial and ethnic segregation.

The Chicago theater renaissance began in the 1970s among young actors, most of them white, including a number trained at Jane Addams Hull House. (That pioneering settlement house, with its long-running theater program, was also the source of the improvisational theater games which underpin the famous Second City comedy troupe.) Those young people worked wherever space was cheapest, turning one North Side neighborhood after another into arts-rich (and gentrified) environments.

(Image: shotgunshy CC by/nc)

At the same time, African-American, Latino and Asian artists were developing theaters of their own on the South, West and Northwest Sides. While some of those companies have since moved in or near downtown, most have stayed put, and newcomers continue to colonize new areas.Today there are also companies specific to gender, ability and sexual orientation, headquartered wherever their founders happened to plop them. Look to the corners of the city rather than its center for the wellspring of theatrical creativity.


The music community is similarly widespread. Classical music comes not only from the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera but from numerous niche companies. Few of these have performance spaces of their own: they go where the audience is.  The downtown Pritzker Pavilion is the site of free classical concerts all summer long.

Popular music is even more widely scattered and diverse, found in large and small clubs throughout the city, some dedicated to live music and some hosting local bands intermittently. Looking for klezmer, Celtic, zydeko, polka, or perhaps a good jug band?  It’s out there.

Drawing on the best of local and national talent, the city presents free summer festivals of blues, jazz, gospel, Latin, and world music in the downtown parks. Neighborhood festivals all summer long also showcase home-grown music.

Image: Michael Kappel (CC by/sa)

DanceDance too combines well-established companies performing downtown with newer troupes and ones which, whatever their age, keep out of the mainstream. Among the city’s top companies, Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago perform downtown, as do local and national companies brought in by Columbia College Chicago’s Dance Center.

At the same time, there are scores of dance companies of every sort, located in many neighborhoods; several are artists-in-residence in park fieldhouses. The dance community also reflects the city’s ethnic composition, with companies including Trinity Irish Dancers, Muntu Dance Theater (African), Luna Negra (Latin) and Natya (Indian), and many more like them. All this has made Chicago a vibrant center of American dance.

Prytechniq, Chicago-based fire dance troupe, performs on Foster Beach. (Image: Kevin Tao CC by/sa)

The Chicago Dancing Festival brings the nation’s top modern and ballet companies for free concerts in downtown venues including Millennium Park every summer, while its grassroots counterpart, Dance Chicago, presents a dizzying array of local companies and choreographers every autumn: a single show might include performances of ballet, modern, tap, folk, and hip-hop.The Museum of Contemporary Art curates a series of innovative theater, music and dance performances which complement its collection, and every summer the museum celebrates its anniversary with a 24-hour festival of performance.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the Chicago Symphony now offers a round-the-clock music festival each fall, inviting diverse  musicians to Symphony Center to perform free shows. Rush Hour Concerts coordinates Chicago Makes Music, a day-long, citywide musical marathon in July that’s part of the Paris-based international Fete de la Musique.

Chicago artist Martin Bernstein’s studio space elicits the seemingly universal reaction of ‘Whoa.’ To describe the space as paint splattered would be an understatement — it’s more like a deluge. (Photo: Andrew Roddewig, courtesy Sixty Inches from Center).

Visual artsWhile Chicago is famous for the MCA and the Impressionist collection at the Art Institute, local artistic communities have long existed in the city’s neighborhoods – Hyde Park’s artist colony in the early 20th century, bohemian Old Town in the ’60s – and now they can be found in neighborhood like Pilsen and Ravenswood.  Remnants of identifiable gallery districts in and near downtown remain, but many more are scattered in pockets around the city.

Many neighborhood summer festivals are organized around juried art shows, and most communities have a coffeehouse (or five) where artwork is exhibited and sold. Vacant storefronts serve as temporary galleries for painting, sculpture and photography. And most summers see some sort of public art project, though people still clamor for a repeat of 1999’s Cows On Parade. Tourists and residents alike walked the city stalking fiberglass animals decorated by artists in every style imaginable (a multi-planed piece covered with agonized abstractions was entitled “Guernsica”). We’re still looking for a follow-up to match.

Not even Chicago’s museums are centralized. Alongside those in the Loop and on the Museum Campus are the DuSable Museum of African American History on the South Side and the National Mexican Art Museum in Pilsen. Smaller ethnic institutions, ranging from the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Art on the Southwest Side to the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture and the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art on the Northwest, cater to the tastes of nearly every community.

Chicago writers Dave Landsberger (from left), Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner blur boundaries between literature, performance and hustling with Poems While You Wait, providing original poetry on demand. Proceeds support Chicago’s Rose Metal Press, a publisher of hybrid literature formats (Image: Rose Metal Press)

Literary artsThe city of Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright and Nelson Algren has its big names: Former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Strand teaches at the University of Chicago, as did distinguished predecessors including Richard Wilbur (Poet Laureate and two Pulitzer Prizes) and Saul Bellow (Pulitzer and Nobel prizes).

But the literary scene is better defined by less high-profile practitioners. The Guild Literary Complex introduces audiences to the work of emerging writers from marginalized communities, while the Neighborhood Writing Alliance sponsors writing groups at inner-city branch libraries and publishes emerging writers in the Journal of Ordinary Thought.

Poetry slams offer all poets the opportunity to perform their works and receive instant audience feedback in the form of cheers, boos and finger-snaps. While now a national phenomenon – taking place in any number of neighborhood taverns here (see for a listing) — the slam originated at the Green Mill in Uptown, where it continues every Sunday afternoon. (Historical footnote: now a jazz club, the Mill is one of the few remnants of gangster Chicago; Al Capone drank at its leather banquettes.)

Louder Than a Bomb, an annual youth poetry festival. The Poetry Slam was invented in Chicago. (Image: Richard Cahan CC by/nc)

On the Near North Side, the Poetry Foundation, publisher of the legendary Poetry Magazine, just built a stunning new building, with an extensive library and a state-of-the-art performance space.  Downtown, the Poetry Center, founded by beat-era poet Paul Carroll, operates a gallery and reading room and sells books from rooms off the pedway beneath the Cultural Center.

May 16 will be the 100th birthday of archetypal Chicago author Studs Terkel, best known for oral histories like “Division Street,” “Working,” and “The Good War,” for which he won a Pulitzer.  He also hosted a daily interview show here on  WFMT-FM for 43 years.

Events being organized by the Studs Terkel Centennial Committee include a film and video festival featuring episodes from “Studs’ Place,” the pioneering live TV show (1949-51) set in a Chicago greasy spoon diner, a reading at the Printers Row Lit Fest, and music at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  A May 16 birthday party is at the Newberry Library, blocks from the boarding house where Studs grew up, and opposite Bughouse Square (Washington Square Park) where he was schooled by soapbox orators.

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