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Ald. Solis: Turn two-mile wall along 16th St. into public art canvas

Brooks Golden painted an owl 16 Street wall beneath railroad tracks near Paulina. Chicago Alderman Danny Solis is stepping up

Brooks Golden, painted an owl on the 16 Street wall beneath the railroad tracks near Paulina. Chicago Alderman Danny Solis, is stepping up a campaign to use public art to combat crime and graffiti. Wednesday, August 22, 2012 | Scott Stewart~Sun Times

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Updated: September 24, 2012 7:46AM

A powerful Chicago alderman is stepping up his campaign to use public art to combat crime and graffiti — by turning a two-mile wall beneath the railroad tracks that bisect his ward into a giant canvas.

Earlier this month, aides to Ald. Danny Solis (25th) convinced a Belgian street artist known as ROA to paint a mural of an opossum near 16th and Ashland while the artist was in Chicago to attend Lollapalooza.

Now, Solis is recruiting other artists to fill the nearly two-mile-long wall along 16th Street between Western and Canal.

The wall separates University Village and the Illinois Medical Center District on the north and Pilsen on the south. The designs would be reviewed by a committee of artists and community activists.

“Some of the people who are graffiti artists are not necessarily gangbangers. They’re artists looking to express themselves. This way, they have a big canvas to express themselves in a legal and much more productive way,” Solis said Wednesday.

“We’ve done four or five murals already. But a lot of space is still available. I would hope we’d end with dozens. I want to put murals all along that wall to create a very attractive boulevard along 16th Street with green space, walking and biking paths.”

Brooks Golden, a 38-year-old studio artist from Pilsen, finished painting a mural of a giant owl head last week at 16th and Paulina at the request of the alderman’s staff.

“It felt great. It gives me the opportunity to share the work with the community, which is probably the most satisfying. I got pretty much nothing but positive feedback from all the neighbors,” Golden said Wednesday.

“There are movements all over Europe where whole sides of buildings have been given to artists. Here, I always felt the city had a problem with art on walls. It’s a stigma attached to graffiti. This is the first time I’ve seen artists approached to paint in communities like this large-scale murals of their choosing.”

If the mural movement can somehow spread citywide, Golden said it would “bring people from around the world to Chicago to take pictures ….It’s kind of hard to believe we haven’t done this already.”

And why the head of an owl?

“It’s my favorite iconic animal,” Golden said. “I love the way they look. I love the way they fly silently, their solitary nature. They make for a pretty intimidating animal.”

Until now, Solis has used a $9,000 donation from his political fund to pay for the paint, brushes and other materials used by public artists.

On Wednesday, he vowed to use his annual, $1.32 million allotment of “aldermanic menu” money and funds generated by a local tax-increment-financing (TIF) district to sweeten the pot, perhaps by giving local artists a stipend for their work.

Solis is even talking about using the clout he has as chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee to convert one of three vacant industrial buildings along the Chicago River into a “live-work creative arts district.” That would create a thriving artists’ community that could benefit the neighborhoods of Pilsen, Chinatown, Bridgeport, South Loop and University Village.

Last fall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled a $16 million plan to build four new boathouses along the Chicago River — complete with canoe, kayak and bicycle rentals — to make the river as pivotal to recreation as it has been for commerce. One of the new boathouses were designated for Chinatown’s Ping Tom Park.

On Wednesday, Solis portrayed public art as a key contributor to the mayor’s efforts to promote a recreational riverfront.

“The goal is to create an attractiveness for the neighborhood, promote people being outside doing positive activities and also to send messages. Some of the murals we’ve done have strong anti-violence or pro sports themes,” Solis said.

“When you have people out bike riding, going to restaurants and live theater, crime goes down. The bad guys — people involved in drugs and gangs — don’t want to see that. They like the shadows and darkness and people holed up in their homes. This is a positive way to combat violence.”

Solis also suggested extended service for water taxis that currently stop at Ping Tom Park.

“I want them to go all the way to Pilsen where the Midwest Generation plant is gonna be closing and we’re hoping to get green space as part of the new development,” he said.

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