Westward, Hope: Garfield Park's glass show draws record crowds to the long-shunned West Side; what will be the lasting effect?

R.C. Longworth,
Chicago Tribune
24 January 2002

Something extraordinary is going on, something magical even, in one of Chicago's more unlikely neighborhoods.

Tens of thousands of people of all ages and races are trooping to Garfield Park, in the heart of the city's blighted West Side, to see an exhibition of glass sculpture nestled among the plants in the neighborhood's venerable Conservatory.

The show is called "Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass," and the artist, Dale Chihuly, a genius in glass, has created a mixture of art, color, whimsy, imagination and gaudy grace into a cocktail of sculpture and horticulture that is delighting Chicagoans who never knew they liked either glass or plants.

Three months ago, few of these people had ever been to Garfield Park and wouldn't have gone on a bet. Now, most of them are urging their friends to go, creating the kind of word-of-mouth buzz that can only be compared with the city's Cows on Parade extravaganza three years ago.

But the cows, for all their charm, were a public relations stunt, a gimmick to draw the tourists. Chihuly is a serious artist and the Conservatory is a serious educational installation. Both hoped their show would draw viewers but no one expected it to touch Chicagoans in the way it has.

"It's one of those rare occurrences when an exhibition is a knockout," said Michael Lash, the city's director of public art and the man most responsible for drawing Chihuly to the Garfield Park Conservatory. "You never know what's going to appeal to people. This touches a chord with every person there. But why? If you figure that one out, give me a call."

Chihuly himself says he doesn't know for sure, but thinks it may have something to do with the way he pulls his sculptures from his imagination, instead of trying to make them look like anything else. This leaves every viewer free to use his own imagination.

"Everyone looks at it differently," said Chihuly, a flamboyant character every bit as colorful as his glassworks. "Every person is going to be a different adventurer."

Perhaps the best explanation came from Lisa Roberts, the director of conservatories for the Chicago Park District, who noted that conservatories, in a pre-television age, brought a new and magical world to Northerners who had never seen a palm tree or a cactus. In an age where even restaurants deck themselves out as rain forests, this magic has gone.

"But Chihuly lets us see plants in an entirely new way," Roberts said. "His glass transforms the plants and the plants transform his glassworks too. He draws out the essence of the plants. He makes us look at our world in a different way."

Even before Chihuly arrived, attendance at the Conservatory had been rising. But since the show opened in late November, it has been drawing about 50,000 people a month, triple the normal attendance for this time of year. The Conservatory drew 159,000 people in all of last year, a figure that the Chihuly show should pass sometime next month.

"The exhibit is drawing crowds the likes of which that area has not seen for some time," said Jackie Heard, the mayor's press secretary and a native West Sider. "You go there and you see a mixed crowd—neighborhood people as well as suburbanites and out-of-towners."

The show is scheduled to run until May 19, although there is talk of extending it into the summer. It clearly has an impact on the people who see. More interesting, and more speculative, is its impact on the struggling neighborhood around it.

Not much good has happened in Garfield Park for several decades.

A world apart

Like a lot of other troubled neighborhoods, Garfield Park is close enough to see the towers of downtown Chicago, about 4 miles away, but light-years from the verve and vitality of the Loop and lakefront. Standing astride a network of grand boulevards, it is a mix of bungalows and gracious Victorian graystones. In the middle, dividing East and West Garfield Park, was the 184-acre park itself, one of Chicago's finest, with a magnificent domed fieldhouse and, especially, the Conservatory, the nation's largest and best.

Racial change in the 1960s hit Garfield Park as hard as any neighborhood. White families fled. So did stores and other businesses. In 1961, the area was 85 percent white, mostly Italian and Jewish. Today, it's nearly 99 percent black. The West Side riots in 1968 finished the job, leaving vacant lots where houses used to be and boarded shopping streets where stores once stood.

Garfield Park had about 120,000 residents in 1960: it has 43,000 now. Most of the neighborhood remains a patchwork of trash-littered lots and desperately well-maintained homes, boarded-up houses and tidy two-flats, served by a sad commerce of liquor stores and currency exchanges. Some new housing is going up but its only nibbling at the edge of a landscape of neglect.

The park and the Conservatory shared the woe.

The park dates to 1874 and the Conservatory to 1906 when landscape architect Jens Jensen, at that time superintendent of the West Park Commission, demolished a smaller and decrepit conservatory and built the new one, a five-building glassed marvel containing a palm forest, lagoons and landscapes of plants set in walled gardens and naturalistic surroundings, all revolutionary at the time.

An oasis of peace

The park and the Conservatory ranked among the gems of Chicago and thousands of Chicagoans came to escape the city in the acres of calm and greenery. When the neighborhood declined, the Conservatory survived, but just barely.

"It was a ghost town," Roberts recalls. "At the end of 1995 I wandered around here and saw just one person."

Most people were simply afraid to venture to Garfield Park. Those who did saw a crumbling Conservatory. Collections declined. Vandals broke glass windows. The place hit bottom during a January cold snap in 1995. So many windows were broken in the Aroid House, one of the five buildings, that the cold overwhelmed the heating, which failed, and 80 percent of the plants died.

"That was the wakeup call," Roberts says.

The Park District had two choices—tear down the place or do something. It did something—an $8 million renovation. At the same time, Roberts and her team formed the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, built around city and suburban community organizations, aimed at promoting programs and education at the Conservatory.

Festivals and holiday programs began to appear and, slowly, attendance improved—to 74,000 in 1998, 137,000 in 2000, 159,000 last year. But even this was barely one-fourth of the crowds that routinely tour the much smaller and sparser conservatory in Lincoln Park.

Enter Chihuly. The Tacoma-based glass artist has built an international reputation with installations in Venice, Jerusalem, London, Japan and Spoleto, plus a spectacular permanent outdoor chandelier—the Icicle Creek Festival—in Washington State and, most recently, a show to open the new art museum annex in Milwaukee.

In between, he designed a temporary chandelier for the Millennium Dinner that brought citizens of every country for a New Year's Eve feast in Chicago. Mayor Daley and Chihuly hit it off, and the artist said he'd like to do a bigger exhibit here.

The Art Institute was booked for years in advance. Other museums were mildly interested. An idea for a reflecting pond in front of the Shedd Aquarium collapsed (although it may yet materialize somewhere else in Chicago).

At that point, Lash says. "we dragged him out there"—to Garfield Park.

"It was an undiscovered gem and he was amazed," the city's public art director recalls. "This was a real chance for us to show it off, and Dale was interested in reaching people who don't always get reached by the arts, so the neighborhood was no deterrent."

"Actually, Garfield Park picked me," Chihuly says. "I have a love of greenhouses, always have, and wanted to do a show in a greenhouse. Amazingly, this is the first time there's ever been a glass show in a glass house."

Conglomerate built of glass

The Boeing Corp., just new in Chicago, donated half of Chihuly's $300,000 fee for the show. Chihuly, no starving artist in a garret, runs a glassworks conglomerate in Tacoma and Seattle with 150 full- time employees—"there are these big things I want to do and it takes a lot of people to do it."

Ten employees spent two weeks putting the show together. It includes 1,600 individual pieces, shown separately or in combination. There's a spectacular blue tower, tiny tree urchins, soaring red spires among the cactus, floating lily pads in a pond, dazzling balls in a lagoon, birds with gaping mouths thrusting into the leaves, tortured glass fronds woven into the trunk of a palm tree. Some of the glassworks look like plants, although Chihuly insists they weren't meant to be. Others look like nothing on Earth but, oddly, fit into the Conservatory's teeming forests.

Chihuly himself has come and gone to Chicago. He taught painting to neighborhood children and likes to stroll through the exhibition, where he is instantly recognized. At 59, he is short and round, with a great halo of brown curly hair, a purple sweater, chartreuse slacks, painted shoes and the black eyepatch he has worn since 1979, when a car crash in England cost him his left eye and changed his life forever.

The accident robbed him of his depth perception, which is crucial to a glassblower, and forced him to stop glassblowing. But it may have led to the fame of his giant installations, like the one in Garfield Park.

"I do miss glassblowing," he says. "But if I'd stayed with it, I'd never have this big team or get into such large-scale works. Being in there (the studio) all day blowing is a lot of work. You're very focused. By not having to be in there, I can be doing other things and thinking in a bigger way."

Instead, he concentrates now on drawing and designing of glassworks and on the giant coffee-table books that provide most of his profit. One such book will emerge from the Garfield Park show and may be ready by late March, when Chihuly returns here to appear at the flower show on Navy Pier.

The Garfield Park show's long-term effect on the neighborhood around the Conservatory will be anybody's guess.

"It's been terrific for the neighborhood to have something of this stature here," Roberts says. "It could have been anywhere downtown. The fact that Chihuly chose the West Side of Chicago is something to be proud of."

At the least, the show is showing thousands of Chicagoans that even no-go neighborhoods contain something of value that can be tasted with both safety and pleasure. A spectacular new elevated station overlooks the Conservatory. Motorists leaving the Eisenhower Expressway reach the Conservatory via handsome roads that give no hint of the grittier neighborhood nearby.

Working against stereotype

Ald. Walter Burnett, whose 27th Ward encompasses part of the Garfield Park neighborhood, believes the show "will lessen the stereotype of the West Side. A lot of people are just rediscovering the West Side. For a long time, no one thought about coming to the area. This is changing."

Another local alderman, Ed Smith of the 28th Ward, said the show is only the latest in "a series of things"—the restoration of the Conservatory, a new elevated station next door, new housing in the area—that is making the West Side "an integral part of Chicago" and may even lead to new business there.

"This Chihuly, he's one of the most sought-after artists," Smith says. "For him to come here—my goodness."

But the greatest impact will probably be on the hordes of neighborhood children who have been pouring into the show, treating the glasswork with such respect that there has been no vandalism at all.

Shletanya Owens brought six children from the nearby Foundations School for an art class with Chihuly and thinks that at least one 5-year-old will never forget it.

"He painted her socks and her feet," Owens says. "She was in get-dirty heaven. They were there four hours. She loved it. They all loved it. He played imagination games, let them interpret what they thought they were seeing—the birds, snakes, reeds, baskets. They always ask now, when can we go back again?"

©2002 Chicago Tribune