In Pritzker Park downtown this Halloween, a team in hazmat suits patrolled a smoking crash site while a drone hovered over head. Caution tape marked the perimeter of the park and metal pieces jutted out from the grass. A UFO had crash-landed in the Loop.
Curious onlookers stopped to take pictures and workers did a double-take on their way to lunch. Even a Homeland Security vehicle slowed at the corner of Van Buren and State streets as officers surveyed the scene- a scene purposely created by artist Steve Conner in collaboration with the Chicago Loop Alliance.
The non-profit organization’s CEO, Michael Edwards, strode through the park as he took in the work through his thin wire glasses. He checked in with two maintenance workers as snow began to speckle his CLA jacket.
In the warmer Chicago months, the CLA’s ACTIVATE initiative transformed alleys into mini art festivals and the Gate Way project converted a median by the Chicago Theater into a patio. Conner’s crash site performance marked the end of a year filled with experiential art, but Edwards said there’s no winter hibernation for his team.
“We’re always looking for overdeveloped but underutilized public spaces,” CLA program manager and curator Tristan Hummel said. “We’re getting people to think differently about their environment.”
“And if its successful,” Edwards said, “then these property values go up, tenants have more business, someone now wants to go get a lunch because there’s a spacecraft that just crashed over there.”
Edwards said that when the Chicago Loop Alliance first began work as a business improvement district in 1996, State Street was an experimental pedestrian boulevard with two bus lanes. During the recession, the organization created pop up art initiatives in empty retail spaces. Now, as he hurries across the historic street, his mind is set on placemaking initiatives.
“Sometimes it works great. Sometimes it doesn’t.” Edwards, who began his work with CLA in 2012, said. “Placemaking is a grand experiment.”
Placemaking involves intentionally altering a space to engage and improve a community. Organizations like CLA use art and shared public experiences to create engaging spaces in overlooked areas. By facilitating temporary and permanent art downtown, the organization aims to increase business for its members by making the Loop a desirable place for Chicagoans to not only work, but also live and play.
“We’re trying to manage the experience out there so that it’s a good, positive urban experience,” Edwards said. “If you have one, you’re more apt to come back. If you don’t have a good experience, you’re not going to come back.”
It is Hummel’s job to organize art experiences that keep people coming back. At the beginning of the year, the Chicago Loop Alliance signed a contract with the Chicago Park District to manage Pritzker Park, the small park across from Harold Washington Library.
“One of the metrics that I have for the park is what kind of trash is being left,” Hummel said.
At the beginning of the year they found dime bags, broken crack pipes and dead pigeons scattered in the park. After adding outdoor seating and live music performances this year, they’ve seen less drug paraphernalia.
“So, that’s the power of place making,” he said. “Groups especially like CLA invest significantly less money in much more long-term solutions while creating an engaging public atmosphere.”
“We’re a business improvement district and so at the end of the day we have to show there is some benefit,” Hummel said. “Luckily (our stakeholders) all believe in the arts, so it becomes about, ‘how does this art make the world a better place?’”
For artist Steve Conner and his team of about 50 actors and associates on Halloween, the crash site artwork was a way to bring people together through a shared, unexpected experience.
“From a placemaking perspective, it’s kind of an exotic version,” Conner said. “(It’s) a creative work world that we can all build and play with together.”
Tamika Coleman, an employee at PNC bank across from the park, played along. Seemingly unaware of the unseasonably cold weather, she buzzed around the park in a short sleeve sweater.
“It’s just amazing! I’m so excited,” Coleman said after taking photos on her cellphone. “They were like, ‘Ma’am, step back from the scene. This is hazardous- just step back. I don’t need you to get hurt or anything.’ They are all in character.”
Other curious onlookers didn’t have to play along. They really believed the illusion.
“A couple of folks from Chicago showed up asking whether or not there were any water main breaks or if in fact this thing ruptured anything below the ground,” said Conner.
The crash site artwork was not publicized or explained, creating a mysterious moment in the park. Awareness of the artwork is primarily spread by word-of-mouth, similar to other CLA placemaking events like ACTIVATE.
ACTIVATE was a six part series from May through October in which ordinary alleys in the Loop were transformed into mini art festivals. Each event featured different artists and themes. Visual art, music and even light displays filled usually uninhabited space between historic buildings in the loop.
Photographer Marco Morelli, 33, attended three events with what he calls his “Instagram friends” in the Chicago art scene.
“It was really cool to see how they could transform an alley into an art party,” he said. “It definitely got me down to the Loop. I’m not usually there at that time.”
Both Morelli and Hummel described their fascination with one event that featured an interactive light show shone through falling water to create a hologram.
“What was great about it (was) that once people were in this environment, they didn’t know how to behave,” Hummel said. “When you have something like this that is engaging then people can kind of create their own fun and it keeps them longer.”
The goal is that these visitors would lingered a little longer – long enough to grab dinner at a local restaurant or do a little shopping. Some stopped for a drink at a local bar or local landmark.
The Chicago Loop Alliance estimates that each attendee spent an average of $35 in the loop as a result of the ACTIVATE alley event. Overall, the expected economic impact of just four ACTIVATE events was $217,000.
“People like me like to think it’s all our doing, but of course it’s not. We play on the margins but it’s really more of a demographic,” Edwards said.
That demographic is the over 4000 25-34 year-olds who made up half of the events’ attendees. Edwards references this group of young adults as a “generation growing up on ’Seinfeld and Friends,’” who are now embracing urban living.
This support has made events like ACTIVATE successful placemaking initiatives for the organization. Hummel said they plan to continue the ACTIVATE alley events next year. Also in the works is a start-up hub on Wabash Ave to attract new businesses to loop office spaces.
The organization is always looking for new and interesting ways to bring people to the Loop. They study the placemaking work being done in other cities around the world to encourage similar work in Chicago.
Hummel and Edwards say their ideas range from a downtown winter festival to new expansive mural projects. They’ve entertained placemaking ideas such as a new food truck row and pop-up bars in alleyway containers.
“In Asia, this new thing is these microbars,” said Edwards. “A lot of them are in containers- you open up a container and it’s a little bar with four seats. Then you put ten seats outside – it’s totally charming.”
Although Edwards follows international placemaking trends, he said the organization often collaborates rather than leads new initiatives.
“Sometimes we lead, sometimes we facilitate,” he said. ”A lot of times we follow and just try to aggregate.”
The Chicago Loop Alliance takes a multi-layered approach to neighborhood improvement with four programs that include outreach to the homeless, a cleaning team, and neighborhood development planning. The CLA also manages the seasonal banners and Lightscape installation on State Street.
Artists like Conner embrace placemaking as a way to support this team by making a positive, imaginative environment- even if it’s just momentary.
“The gift is to help lift people out of their daily grind- to help lift people, period” he said. “Even if just for that moment, if you can give them that gift, then you’ve done your job.”