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Emanuel’s fire fest could spark new tradition

Updated: May 4, 2013 6:19AM

All civic celebrations sound strange when stripped of their cliche descriptions and standard holiday trappings.

Do Chicagoans festoon themselves in green and prance in the street to greet the spring? Yes, and call it St. Patrick’s Day. Do we disguise our children in masks and send them out every autumn to beg for sweets from neighbors? Yes, we call it Halloween.

Yet propose some new festival, and strangeness is the first thing we see.

Thus the head-scratching that greeted Rahm Emanuel’s new “Great Chicago Fire Festival,” set to light up the river in 2014.

As if that didn’t sound odd enough — we’re celebrating the Great Chicago Fire? What’s next, Eastland Disasterpalooza? — the event will feature symbolic vices and obstacles, rendered as huge floating totems placed on barges and set ablaze in the middle of the river as some kind of ritual public purgation.

“That’s the idea, yes,” said Jim Lasko, co-artistic director at Redmoon, the former puppet theater now producing large-scale mechanical extravaganzas, which has been put in charge of creating the nascent festival

Initial public reaction can be anticipated.

“Why don’t they just get one big barge filled with the taxpayer cash allotted to this fiasco, light it on fire and float it down the Chicago River for everyone to see?” read one typical online remark.

“Who thinks up these things?” wrote a regular reader, retired Chicago Public Schools teacher Helen E. Baker. “I know that tourism needs to be encouraged, but having floats with the theme of things they want to get rid of, is quite something. Sounds like something somebody thought up after they had a few drinks.”

Actually, fire festivals are nothing new. Japan has held them for over 500 years.

“This is not a new innovation; there’s so many traditions I’m pulling from,” said Lasko. “These kind of public rituals, whether Las Fallas, or Mardis Gras. These kind of things have been happening for millennium. This is just Chicago’s version.”

And how will the city of the broad shoulders, hog butcher to the world, embrace something so, well, spiritual? “A ritual of rebirth” in Lasko’s words. Are we to be the Burning Man Festival/Midwest Edition?

“The audience will appreciate this and get it,” predicted Lasko. “When you look at the city’s reaction to Millennium Park, the way it’s endorsed a public art culture. We like our bars and our Cubs and our White Sox, but we like things that are original and honest.”

I sure do, and I like this idea. It’s easy to focus on the money, but that concern betrays a lack of understanding of the scale of our problems. There are 400,000 Chicago public school students, so the festival is costing the city 25 cents apiece. You don’t think like that in your own life — “I shouldn’t splurge on this can of soda, not with my big mortgage.”

No aspect of Chicago, no matter how beloved, wasn’t once a new, strange, expensive curiosity. I went through the “Picasso and Chicago” show at the Art Institute on Friday and noted the bleats of ridicule that greeted Picasso’s Daley Center sculpture in 1967 (I’ve given it a few Bronx cheers myself, but seeing how my fellow mandarins howled when it was unveiled was almost enough to make me like the thing, which, despite false controversy, is supposed to be the bust of a woman).

So yes, lining the banks of the Chicago River to watch our sins float down it ablaze seems a tad strange. But it also seems like something I would actually show up at 9 p.m. to watch , cheering as the big paper-mache bottle of Jack Daniel’s burns to the waterline, sending orange sparks into the black sky.

Traditions have to start somewhere. We must expect more river-oriented bread and circuses. I was in Rahm Emanuel’s office a few months back, having coffee — always awkward for me; I can never come up with much to say, and he seems to think he’s talking to any fungible Member of the Media. So I asked him: Daley obviously thought the 2016 Olympics would be his legacy, and that was a bust. It might be jumping the gun, but what do you want your legacy to be? Without a pause, Emanuel replied, “The riverfront.” I almost blurted out, “That’s it? Aiming kinda low, ain’t ya?” Because the riverfront seems fairly well-developed already, though vastly under used. Empty urban spaces interrupted by an officer worker or two having lunch. But perhaps that could change, with vision. I was also at Navy Pier on Friday, and it was such a mob scene (Good Friday, a holiday marked with public mock crucifixions, another practice we’d look askance at if new). The place was so crowded, I worried I’d get an eye poked out by a churro. I reminded myself, as I always do there, of when it was a crumbling, empty ruin and I had thought: “What idiot is putting a pleasure dome here?” Most popular attraction in the state. New ideas always sound strange, and people jostle to carp about them. I say, give it a try, see what happens. A fire festival? Maybe we’ll love it.

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