Thursday, November 18, 2021

Flashback 2012: 'Who makes the public space public?'

     Rev. Phil Blackwell sent me an email from St. Louis, where he retired to be near his family. He was commenting on my infrastructure column, and recalled that I'd visited him at his residence atop the Chicago Temple downtown, doing research for my Chicago book. Alas, this description focuses more on the politics of the day, taken up with the pending NATO summit, and left out such details as the wood carving of Jesus regarding the Chicago skyline, circa 1955, in the "Chapel in the Sky."  Though I did snap a not-very-good photo. But he raises some interesting points, still current today.

     Serendipity led me to Rev. Phil Blackwell. I had heard that the Loop, which today is home to thousands, once had only one full-time resident: the minister of the First United Methodist Church, who lives in a three-story parsonage starting on the 22nd floor of the Chicago Temple, the quirky gothic structure south of Daley Plaza, with its "Chapel in the Sky" on the 25th floor.
     Interesting If True, as I like to say.
     I got in touch with Rev. Blackwell to see if he could shed some light, but he had something beyond Loop demographics on his mind, and invited me by his office, its leaded glass windows overlooking Daley Plaza.
     He handed me a typed message:
     "I have lived across the street from Daley Plaza for 10 years," it begins. "During that time I have seen and heard:
     "Tea Party protesters. War in Iraq objectors. Halloween clowns, Whirling Dervishes, Blackhawks celebrators, World Cup spectators, Christmas ornament purchasers, 21-gun salutes, children sliding down the Picasso, wedding couples being photographed at the fountain, movie casts playing their roles, people who are homeless sleeping on benches, farmers selling produce, gun violence opponents bowing in silence, hundreds of bicyclists ready to command the streets, blues, country, gospel, and jazz musicians, workers sunning at lunchtime, Sox fans rejoicing, sister-city promoters, creches, menorahs, and crescents and stars, and placard-carrying/bullhorn-proclaiming/marching stalwarts for most everything."

     Yet suddenly, he said, the city seems to be reconsidering if our rights will be respected.
     "Daley Plaza is the public square in Chicago," Rev. Blackwell said. "As the mayor and the City Council discuss circumscribing the people's use of the plaza during the summits coming in May and then extending the limitations indefinitely, the question is: Do they have any capacity for nuance? The first indication suggests that the answer is, 'No.'"
      The city insists that permits will be issued and rights respected. And while I want to believe them, we have seen an ominous shift in this country, from our president claiming the legal right to murder American citizens at his whim, to new laws that seem designed to help foreign potentates party in peace in Chicago. How ironic that, as other parts of the world protest toward new freedoms, we who are theoretically the most free try to limit protest and coin new punishments.
      "It's a major commitment for the city and the mayor to make, to host the G-8 and NATO summits," Rev. Blackwell said. "I understand how it would be advantageous for it to go well, to be picturesque, for the world to see Chicago as an international outlet and I hope that's the case. The gathering in Grant Park after Mr. Obama was elected, it was one of the most glorious portrayals of Chicago, and it erased, mainly, 1968 . . . But who makes the public space public? And who decides that? And when you say, you have to talk to the Realtors who oversee the use of the plaza, I say, 'Wait a minute. When does a real estate company determine public use?' What makes this square public? Free speech - is it free if you corral it and move it off at a distance where the speech is not heard by those to whom it was directed?"
     I thought of the Chinese, who made those wanting to protest the 2008 Olympics apply for permits, then arrested anyone who did.
     "All I'm saying is I think the issues raised by the summit are general issues," he said. "Is it possible for the city to orchestrate something where free space remains free, public space remains public, and the agenda of the groups meeting is accomplished and the city comes out like it knows what it's doing? I think everybody agrees with that. Can anybody actually think through this thing without it being a billy club moment?"
     The mayor's a smart guy, I said. Don't you think the city will be doing just that?
     "When it says the police chief can deputize people for service, I remember in the Vietnam War protests, construction workers on Wall street with wrenches wrapped in American flags, beating up protesters. Is that who you're going to deputize?"
     While waiting to see if the mayor would talk to me on this subject, I checked to see what he has said publicly so far.
     "Guys, it's not a big deal," Emanuel said, trying to deflect questions about his preparations. "This is a one-time event."
     That's scary, almost a challenge to fate. "A one-time event." That can be the title of the official inquiry report. So was the 1968 Democratic National Convention. A one-time event, mishandled, can last a very long time.
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, January 11, 2012


  1. I love that Rev. Blackwell used the phrase “people who are homeless” rather than homeless people. It’s too easy to dehumanize those who are suffering, thus not really care enough to help.

    I slid down Picasso as a kid, I’ve been part of the Critical Mass rides that meet up in the Plaza, once studied with Sufi teachers who taught us to chant and whirl to a quieter mental state.

    I’ve been to special events and services and meetings in the church building and have often gazed up to the top with a sense of awe and reverence.

    “When does a real estate company determine public use?” is a scary question, but as the haves gain equity and the have nots put tents up in increasing numbers under LSD its apparent who the winners are.

  2. I had a run-in with a cop's nightstick at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Daley Plaze in April 1968.

    1. A San Diego County sheriff pointed a gun at me in the summer of '68, but it was not the first time. That was in an alley, just off Daley Plaza, at that same peace march, on April 27, 1968. Just as a nearby teen-ager yelled "Shoot me!" at the cop, a white-shirted superior officer ran up and ordered the officer to holster his weapon. Had he arrived ten seconds later, the cop would have already fired, and someone would have been shot. Maybe me.

      That April police riot was but a dress rehearsal for the following August. I waitnessed the main event, too. I was threatened by plainclothes thugs, and shoved around by the Blue Meanies, but escaped unharmed. A friend of mine was not as fortunate.

  3. when they renovated the church on the ground floor , we removed all the pews to our shop along with the pulpit and communion table, refinished and reconfigured them and reinstalled all of it.
    quite a project.

    I went up to the sky chapel during this project as well. incredible


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