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Cook County Jail wall could provide canvas for storytelling
Artists, activists gain support, look to gather feedback, raise money for massive outside mural

Thursday, December 27, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Matthew Wahlberg

For decades, the northern wall of the Cook County Jail has been a brooding counterpoint to the lively Little Village neighborhood a little farther west along 26th Street. The 25-foot-tall wall, topped with razor wire, stretches for 800 feet along 26th Street from the back of the Leighton Criminal Court Building to Sacramento Avenue, within view of the iconic arched gateway to "La Villita" and its bustling commercial district. There are no sidewalks or trees beneath the stucco-covered concrete wall, which instead looms gray and ominous over abandoned railroad tracks and dirt paths worn through the weeds and windblown trash. But if artists and community activists have their way, the wall could soon be transformed into a massive mural telling the story of the jail, the neighborhood and the complex relationship between the two. The project, still in its infancy, has garnered the support of the Sheriff's Department, and organizers have begun the task of raising the estimated $1.5 million they believe will be needed to create the mural and renovate the parkway at its base. But no one yet knows what the finished project might look like, which is fine with muralist Maria Gaspar, 32, who came up with the idea several years ago over beers with a friend. "What do walls represent? The sort of border we all live with, both physically and emotionally and psychologically. There's this emotional quality that feels very brutal," said Gaspar, who works with Chicago Public Art Group and grew up in Little Village. "So that's why, for us, it isn't about a design; it's not about a set of images. It's 'How can this project gather those kinds of stories?'" Gaspar and other supporters said they intend to spend much of next year raising money and talking with residents, inmates, the Sheriff's Department and others to gather as many points of view as possible about what the mural should say. If all goes well, they hope to complete the wall and the grounds beneath it by 2016. Last month, Special Service Area No. 25, which funds beautification efforts and other improvements in the Little Village area, granted $15,000 to the Chicago Public Art Group to pay for temporary exhibits near the wall designed to spark interest in the mural and help with fundraising. "It's the entryway into our business corridor," said Nilda Esparza, executive director of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the Special Service Area. "We're just glad that we're able to serve as a resource to the project because of the potential that it will bring to the corridor." Officials at the Sheriff's Department said they feel "positive about the project and excited about its potential," department spokeswoman Sophia Ansari said. "At that meeting several months ago, they brainstormed ideas about having the community present ideas and having the youth work with artists," Ansari said. "There was also discussion of having Cook County Jail detainees do some prep work on the wall through the inmate worker program." The jail has been a fixture in the neighborhood since 1871, when the city of Chicago moved its jail to the site. In 1928, Cook County began construction of its own jail there, and the two facilities operated independently until they were combined in 1969. Over the next several decades, the jail continued to expand in an effort to combat overcrowding, and now it sprawls across 96 acres on Little Village's southeast side. At about the same time, the neighborhood was transforming demographically, as longtime residents of German and Czech descent gave way to a huge influx of Mexican immigrants who built Little Village into one of the largest Mexican communities in the nation. Mike Rodriguez, 34, said his parents were part of that wave, and he remembers taking the 26th Street bus past the wall day after day on his way to school. "I remember thinking as a kid, 'Why did my parents choose to live in a community that has a jail as one of its most prominent pieces of architecture?'" Rodriguez said. "But as an adult, I figured out why. It (Little Village) is a hardworking community; it's a sign of the aspirations of immigrants. And I want to project that on the jail, rather than have the jail define my experience as a resident." Rodriguez serves as executive director of Enlace Chicago, a nonprofit community organization based in Little Village that is partnering with the Chicago Public Art Group — or CPAG — to try to move the mural from concept to a reality. CPAG has funded or promoted hundreds of murals and other public art installations throughout the city over the past three decades. Executive Director Jon Pounds said he believes the project would be the largest of its kind in the nation. The mural would not be the first to be painted at a correctional facility. Other jails across the U.S. have allowed inmates to paint mural art as a way to help rehabilitate them and provide inspirational messages.


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