Cultivating Your Garden: Chicago’s Shift Toward Place

Lois Weisberg
Jan 1, 2009
Dec 14, 2017

From a speech given at Chicago's First Annual Greening Symposium, March 7, 2002. As Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Lois Weisberg serves as a member of the Mayor's cabinet and supervises a municipal department that is charged with making the arts accessible to all and promoting the city of Chicago to a worldwide audience through its many distinguished and diverse arts and cultural attractions. Weisberg was named "Public Official of the Year" by Governing Magazine in 2001.

The subject of urban greening was of great interest to me at one time when my city was in dire need of a gardener's touch - but now that we have flowering medians in our streets, flowing baskets on bridges, window boxes on public buildings and a rooftop garden on city hall, I have moved on to other aspects of city life that, like gardens, are always in need of attention and loving care.

One of the important things that demands constant attention in Chicago is the weather. Chicagoans and visitors alike realize how unnerving and challenging it is to be in a city that can face freezing, sub-zero temperatures one day (20 degrees colder than Alaska this very week) and welcome sunshine and blossoming trees a few days later. It is no wonder that visitors spend so much time shopping in Chicago. It is easier to buy clothes here on a daily basis to accommodate the weather than to fill your suitcases with clothing you may never need. Our weather is a topic of endless discussion and speculation. It is an excellent way to engage in conversation with strangers and make fair-weather friends. Weather is so important to how we live. It determines where people choose to reside, how they dress, what they eat, where they travel, how they build their houses, plant their gardens, and, most importantly, how we feel about ourselves and our surroundings.

In the same sense, "culture" is an all-encompassing and, so far, undefined subject of growing importance to our citizens and to local government. Our mayor, for example, has insatiable curiosity and enormous creativity. These two qualities drive him to provide the leadership that defines the culture of our city. People who may not think like the mayor are drawn in by his enthusiasm and find themselves eagerly participating as volunteers in many vital aspects of city life.

I hope that I am one of the people who has made a contribution to the quality of life in Chicago. As a public servant for almost 20 years, I have had more of an opportunity to do that than most people. When I first arrived in city hall in 1983 after being appointed director of the mayor's office of special events, I thought that if I could influence government from the inside (which at that time meant to me to get the government to listen to its citizens more respectfully and to be more accessible to them), wonderful things could then come to be in Chicago. I was, of course, focused on the arts and culture, and I wanted the arts to be recognized by the government as a vital city service, not unlike keeping our streets clean and well-lit, our garbage collected, and our citizens protected from crime and fire. I wanted our elected officials and government employees to think of free cultural programs in the same way they think of free public libraries.

Almost 20 years later, I believe that free arts and cultural programs have attained a high degree of recognition and budgetary support by our local government. The city of Chicago supports more free events and cultural opportunities than any other city, and I think this investment has been returned to the city through tourist dollars and, as importantly, recognition by Chicagoans.

I want to give you a few random thoughts about other cities, starting with Miami, Florida. I just spent a week there enjoying the beauty of a tropical city, but, other than the climate, Miami and Chicago share many similarities: tall buildings, international commerce, accessibility to recreational waterways, thousands of visitors and an emphasis on the arts and artists. But what intrigued me the most in Miami was the way people of so many diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds intermingle in the streets, the shops, coffeehouses, restaurants, and public areas - the way in which residents and visitors work, live and play in the same public areas. This jumble of people of all ages and colors demonstrates the rich cultural life a city can offer. But, not altogether. Here are two letters I came across last week in the Miami Herald:

After spending two weeks recently sailing through the Caribbean to cities in South America, Panama and the Pacific coast of Mexico, I returned to Fort Lauderdale by plane. Although i've lived in south Florida most of my life, this was the first instance that the nature of our area hit me so emphatically: this is a sterile place, totally without visual joy. We have allowed our builders and planners to cover every inch of land with concrete and steel. First, instead of allowing nature to deposit sand and dunes and seaweed along the water, we have been greedy and plunked down buildings everywhere, stopping nature in its course.

We made sure that the concrete doesn't allow for beauty along our streets - no flowers, shrubs or trees. We live in a tropical area but are so preoccupied with zoning laws that we have replaced nature with sterility. If you want to see and feel real beauty, visit the cities of South America, Panama and Pacific Mexico. There is still joy in walking along those streets. -- Doris Altier, Hallandale Beach

I find myself encroached by computers and robots. I try to reach someone on the phone, and a computerized voice says, "if you want so-and-so press..." I watch a football game and a human official's decision is challenged by a computer. I have to wait for the answer, while the official scans the robot-like machine for the truth. I go to my favorite bar and guess what? One musician is performing with a background of computerized music. If this trend continues, our children will go to school and will be taught by robot teachers. If they need medical help, they will be operated on by robot surgeons.

Meanwhile, I will go to the neighborhood pub and have a beer and perhaps engage in a conversation with a human being. -- Chuck Irvine, Sunrise

These two simple letters describe the environment people want and cry out for as urban life becomes more technically complex and often unattractive:

  1. Pleasant surroundings that are not totally betrayed by commerce and concrete
  2. Opportunities for human contact away from television and computers

If you really care about these amenities, then they are not too difficult to achieve. Recalcitrant government leaders often do care but need to be pushed by determined citizens. Other cities that have influenced my thinking are Barcelona, Spain; Curitiba, Brazil; and Beaufort, South Carolina.

In Barcelona, Mayor Pasquall Maragall spearheaded a massive urban development program in preparation for hosting the 1992 Olympics. He wondered what modern cities would have to become if they had any hope of survival in the next century. He perceived that only cities that educate their citizens over the course of their lives would survive, and this idea became known among European cities as an organization called "Educating Cities." The first Educating Cities conference was held in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1992. Chicago became the first American city to be a part of the Educating Cities organization. I mention this because I believe it is essential that we communicate with other cities worldwide.

Paulo Freire, a professor in Sao Paulo, Brazil, spoke at the first Educating Cities conference. He said, "the mutual respect people show each other in the streets, in the shops. The respect for the things, the zeal with which they treat the public objects, the walls of the houses, the discipline in regard to time. The way the city is treated by its citizens, by its authorities. The city is also us - our culture expressing itself in it. We are made and remade in the body of its traditions. We give the city its profile and we get our profile from it. The educational task of the cities is basically realized through the treatment of their memory - not only retaining but also reproducing it, extending it, communicating with new generations. Their museums and cultural and artistic centers are the living soul of the creating force, the outer signs of the adventure of the spirit."

In Curitiba, Brazil, the former mayor, Jaime Lerner, is a world-renowned architect and city planner. He is now governor of the state. His creative ideas and actions have brought worldwide attention to Curitiba. He revolutionized public transportation by providing special buses and bus lanes for riders. He took the old buses and made them into temporary child-care centers while parents shopped. He gave away bus tokens to people who brought their garbage into the city from outlying areas. When Mayor Lerner was asked by a reporter why his city was so environmentally successful, he said it was because of the people, many of whom had, unlike other cities in Brazil, emigrated from Poland and had brought with them a serious work ethic and sense of community. He said the success of his city was due to the diligence and hard work of its citizens.

Another city, this one in the United States, has a population of I believe less than 10,000. This small city, Beaufort, South Carolina, has the same dreams and hopes as any other city ten times its size. In 1999, we had a very remarkable and well-publicized event in Chicago called "Cows on Parade." Artists painted fiberglass, life-sized cows and they were strategically placed on the streets, plazas and other public spaces throughout our city. Thousands of visitors came to Chicago to see the cows and spent millions of dollars here. Later, a public auction of the cows raised over $3.5 million and the proceeds were donated to charity. Many other cities admired what happened in Chicago - especially the economic development part - and emulated our cow parade with buffaloes, horses, birds, pigs, frogs, and other animals ad finitum.

Beaufort wrote a letter to the city of Chicago inquiring if we could send them some of our cows for a winter vacation. They said our cows would help the citizens of Beaufort to understand how important it is to decorate the streets with art. So, we scraped up 30 or so cows from the people who had purchased them and sent them off to Beaufort. Everything that occurred after that is amazing and the Chicago/Beaufort cow adventure developed into a full-fledged relationship between our two cities. A letter I received from the executive director (and one of only two employees) of the Arts Council of Beaufort county will explain:

"I'm writing to follow up on a fun little project: an art-o-mat from Beaufort to Chicago. The art-o-mats are former cigarette vending machines, now outlawed and obsolete, that have been creatively transformed into coin-operating art dispensers by Clark Whittington of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We began working with him last fall, and recently decided to commission two art-o-mats for Beaufort. Over the next few months, we will be working with Low-Country and South Carolina artists to have them make small original works of art that can be sold through our machines. The Arts Council would like to present you, and your cultural center, with one of Beaufort's art-o-mat machines. We could arrange for workshops with Clark to teach Chicago artists, educators, and students how to make objects for the Windy City art-o-mat.

Clark has installed over 40 machines in places like the Whitney Museum, Andy Warhol Museum, hospitals, health food stores and annual festivals. Even though the participating artists only pocket $2.50 from every $5 sale, they do get great exposure. More importantly, the machines encourage the general public to learn about, buy, and collect original art. I've enclosed our art-o-mat information packet, so please let me know what you think. Beaufort's relationship with Chicago, and all the help, cooperation and inspiration that we've been given, have been the most extraordinary aspect of my time as executive director of the arts council. I hope you know that our unique partnership has allowed Beaufort to think in bold, exciting, creative and grand ways - about itself and the world. It's also allowed me to think in bold ways, and to reach for what others might consider impossible. I credit our emerging Lowcountry renaissance, a remarkable outpouring of creative ideas and fresh approach to community involvement, to you and our partnership.

I think a lot of folks are grateful for the relationship between our two cities - from Mayor Rauch and our town's business leaders to local teachers and artists to the shrimp boat captain whose daughter made him visit her favorite cow every day. I just wanted to make sure you knew that."

So, now Chicago will have an art-o-mat, which I'm sure we never would have discovered if we hadn't sent our cows to Beaufort. Chicago has sent and received gifts from many foreign countries over the years. We have acquired 23 sister cities worldwide that include Osaka, Warsaw, Toronto, Casablanca, Kiev, Paris, Prague, Accra, Durban and many other great cities of the world. On the eve of the new millennium, we reached out to every country of the world and invited two people from each country to come to Chicago to celebrate New Year's Eve. Over 160 countries sent representatives here.

I think that in this new century of globalization, it is necessary to forge relationships with cities in our own country (like Beaufort) as well as with cities around the world. You can cultivate your garden with new friends who, like flowers, will surprise you with their beauty and their bounty.

Looking back over what has influenced my thinking about the role of the arts in the development of our own city, I think it is my experience with big public events and festivals that motivates me and provides a direction for the department of cultural affairs today. I wanted to share some portions of a speech I delivered in 1987 to the National League of Cities in Washington. The subject was "Downtown Development: Capitalizing on Your Local Assets."

". . . In 1983, shortly after I became the director of the Mayor's Office of Special Events in Chicago, a friend of mine returned from a trip to Scandinavia. She told me she had traveled through a small town where she had been very impressed by the town square. In the middle of the square they had a "mayor's bench," and every day the mayor would come out and sit in the square and chat with the townspeople. "Did you see him?" I asked. "Did he really come and do that?" "I didn't actually see him," she said, "but I'm sure he did."

When I pressed her for more information, it turned out that she had been on a tour bus, and the guide had given out this information, and she imagined the mayor sitting in the square with all the townspeople. A very available mayor and the image of a very friendly town remained in her memory. I mention this because perception, even though it is sometimes a bit different from reality, is still an essential ingredient if we are to promote our cities to tourists and to ourselves.

I could not resist the charming concept of having a mayor's bench in our "town square," so we had one made and presented it to the mayor in the plaza on the city's 150th birthday. In reality, the mayor of Chicago will not be able to come out into the square and hobnob with our townspeople every day. But that does not mean that we cannot try to create the impression of a friendly town and promote it to the world.

I believe that a city should try to have a town square atmosphere or, more explicitly, that a downtown business section should be a friendly, charming environment that will attract and impress tourists. Tourists cannot survive in a city in isolation - our townspeople must be a part of that environment. Our own citizens must want to come to such a place. They have to be attracted to it first, because they must be observed by visitors as enjoying their own city before visitors will buy into it. This is the goal that we are trying to reach in Chicago. We want to create a city where anyone who comes by will be impressed by the enthusiasm of the citizens for the city they live in. If you can achieve that, then everything else will follow.

My son and husband were once hiking in the mountains of western Scotland on a holiday. Their boots got very muddy in the rain and they had to leave the path to take them off and clean them. They walked over a hill and found themselves looking down at the Edinburgh Festival. What they saw was so lively and intriguing that they went into the city. They were so caught up in the festivities that they canceled the rest of their trip and remained for several days in Edinburgh. The lure of a city celebrating itself, with such a profusion of events, and the opportunity to be a part of it all was irresistible.

It is something in between the "mayor's bench" in that Scandinavian town square and the elaborate scope of the Edinburgh Festival that I believe we all want to create in our American cities, large and small. If we can find a way to do this, we can upgrade our business districts, uplift the lives of our own citizens, and attract more tourists all at the same time.

What we are trying to do in Chicago is to create the image of an exciting city, especially including our neighborhoods (because Chicago is above all a city of neighborhoods), engaged in a continuous celebration of itself. It is a vigorous celebration that brings our citizenry into the streets, into the parks, and to our downtown in a variety of ways that showcase our very diverse communities. Many of these communities are ethnic in origin and have remained so. A few are very mixed. But whatever they are, they have a unique culture to share with the rest of the city and with visitors who come to Chicago from around the United States and the world.

We are a city that is still segregated, both ethnically and economically. In spite of this or because of it, we are finding ways to communicate with one another and share experiences through our festivals and events. People who tend to stay in their own communities most of the time come downtown for celebrations in great numbers.

In a city of three million, close to two million will congregate at a taste of Chicago this summer, downtown on the lakefront within a few blocks of our business district for 10 days. Over half a million will attend the blues, gospel and jazz festivals - half a million will attend Venetian Night, a parade of boats on the lakefront and an extravaganza of fireworks - and at least one million more will come to a variety of other free events we will produce, like SummerDance, the world music festival and the free Grant Park symphony orchestra concerts. At the same time that all this is happening in our central business area, another two million people will participate in over 88 festivals in our neighborhoods.

Providing this opportunity is so important to the health and vitality of a city, so important to urban life if it is to be a viable life style for all people, so important to the livability of a city, I believe citizens should be willing to see their government allocate tax dollars for this. Providing free recreational opportunities beyond parks and playgrounds can be as vital to city life as providing garbage pickup and police protection. Why is this so important? I think it is because our cities are filled with all kinds of people who often have no place to go - old people, young people, single people who live all alone and families who need family-oriented activities but find them too costly.

I have seen an overwhelming response to public events in our city. People come so happily and in such great numbers, people of all ages and all economic levels, that one does not have to do a study to know that an invitation to get away from the isolation of the television set, to be among other people, and to sing, dance and eat in the streets, if you will, is much to be desired and could be, and one day will be, recognized as a valuable city service. . . ."

We have expanded these concepts to programs like Gallery 37, which brings high school students downtown from throughout the city to work all summer in our "town square." This unique program has inspired everyone. It started out as a way to fill up an empty block in The Loop with something purposeful. Gallery 37 has in reality changed the way cities all over the United States are re-evaluating their meaningless jobs programs for youth - and initiating programs similar to Gallery 37 that can inspire and educate at the same time. Gallery 37 won the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Award for city livability and is now being replicated in 24 cities, among them Atlanta, Georgia; Jacksonville, Florida; Rochester, New York; Denver, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; and in London and Birmingham, England, and Adelaide, Australia.

In Chicago, one of the most impressive results of Gallery 37 being located in The Loop is the way in which people who work downtown now regard teenagers. They saw them working diligently - these "frightening" teenagers from our inner-city neighborhoods. Pretty soon they began to talk to the students, to admire their work, to recognize that they had talent. And then, they actually bought the students' art - they commissioned students to make more artwork. City agencies began to commission works of art for public buildings - the public adopted the Gallery 37 students, en masse. What happened next was even more surprising. We found that from the students' point of view, making art was great (and selling it to others did indeed raise their self-image), but most importantly, they met other students outside of their own neighborhoods, from other schools, from every ethnic and economic background, and they came downtown into the heart of the city and recognized that they were a part of the life of this great city.

Then the Gallery 37 program expanded to our neighborhoods and our parks, and is now a part of our public school system's after-school program. Gallery 37 provides high school students with jobs and money. It trains young people in the arts. It improves their self- image and this helps them to do better in school in subjects like math and science and history. It exposes them to the world around them. It has dramatically changed the image our citizens have of teenagers, and it has given much-needed jobs to hundreds of Chicago artists.

The Chicago Cultural Center is another example of how a city facility can and should be used as a downtown community center. Chicago now has the only free cultural center in the United States. We added a vitally needed tourist information center, where tourists and Chicagoans can view a film in eight languages about our downtown business, cultural and architectural district. Free El rides around The Loop on Saturdays with docents from the Chicago Architecture Foundation have become a very popular event. Our goal with this magnificent landmark building is to use it to permanently create a real sense of neighborhood in the loop.

We continue to vigorously promote our downtown, especially at the very important time of day when people head out of The Loop and leave it fairly deserted after five o' clock. This has been a tremendous challenge, and the answer was Downtown Tonight, a unique partnership that combines the resources of the arts, educational and cultural organizations, businesses, hotels, restaurants, real estate management and individuals who work and live in the area. There are now over 40,000 students in the loop every day - many of them actually live downtown and actively participate in this program. Downtown Tonight encourages Chicagoans and visitors to visit the loop in the evening hours or to stay overnight in a hotel.

Programs that bring cultural and educational programs together with community development have now become the wave of the future. The most popular phrase in every American city today is "cultural tourism." It is a recognition at last that cultural programs do play a vital role in bringing tourists and tourist dollars to our cities.

If you think of your city as a garden as we think of Chicago (at least for today's purposes), then you must recognize that many weeds will pop up and some of them will be stubborn and seem impossible to pull out. But, you cannot just keep working away at the flowers because the weeds will overtake them. These weeds appear in every urban environment - crime and drugs, disease and unemployment, to name only a few. These weeds are discouraging, but we have to keep pulling at them and planting new flowers among them.

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