Chicago's Magna Carta for the arts gets resurrected 

Public hearings on the city's cultural plan take place tonight

So, you've read the Chicago Cultural Plan, right? You know, the one ordered up by Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s? Which made Chicago an enduring icon for arts advocates and city planners nationwide and beyond? Our very own Magna Carta of urban arts?

And which, under the directive of Chicago's new mayor, in a series of much-hyped public discussions starting this week, we are about to reconsider?

No? Never actually laid eyes on it?

Welcome to the club.

Last week, after trekking through the dismal abandoned coffee shop that's been greeting visitors on the Randolph Street side of the Cultural Center since the end of last year, I sat in on a "cultural mapping" presentation by professor Daniel Silver of the University of Toronto.

Silver said the Chicago Cultural Plan is "incredibly influential" in other cities, including Toronto, where they've produced a new cultural plan every decade since 1973.

But here in Chicago the plan's pretty much been in the closet for at least a couple of decades, a 1995 reassessment notwithstanding.

According to one urban legend, there was an effort by the Daley administration to round up any loose copies and destroy them, lest the public read up and see how many of its democratically dispersed goals for cultural enrichment had been ignored.

But while hard copies of the thing may be scarce, these days there's a PDF on the city's website. And a read-through of the ambitious wish list would be appropriate homework before the four town hall meetings the city's holding this week and next, ostensibly to get public input on the development of a new plan to be issued next fall.

As for the city's preparation: after floating the idea of three new neighborhood arts hubs (likely Pilsen, Bronzeville, and Uptown), they've hired a Toronto-based consulting firm, Lord Cultural Resources, to guide them through this process, which will include a total of 30 public meetings. Meanwhile, we have in our midst (and apparently untapped) the world's best expert on this particular subject: Michael Dorf, Chicago attorney, SAIC adjunct professor, and director of the original Chicago Cultural Plan.

Back in those days, people were just starting to think about using culture in broader ways, and developing plans to do it, Dorf says. "I had seen dozens of those plans," he recalls, and they all had the same problem. "There would be two press conferences: one to announce the plan, after which the experts would go off for a couple months to write it, and then a second press conference where they'd present it. After that, half of the plans would go on the shelf. What we wanted to do was to create a plan that was political in the sense of getting people involved, so that it would survive," he says.

And that, rather than specific content, is what made Chicago's plan distinctive. "For the first time in any major city, we used the tools of grassroots organizing to create it. And instead of taking three months to write it, we took 18 months. We went into every neighborhood, had over 300 public meetings, involved at least 10,000 people. And with a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, we hired a local documentary video company to follow us around."

With the infamous council wars raging, Dorf recalls, "half of the wards were against Mayor Washington completely. But we would go into a neighborhood—even in the Tenth Ward, where Vrdolyak, the mayor's most bitter enemy was—and we would invite the alderman to be part of the process.

"The aldermen would come to these meetings, they would see 200 of their constituents on a Tuesday night, in the rain, in a union hall or wherever, and they would have what I call immediate religious conversions. They would say, 'Well, I see all of you are interested in the arts.' And because we had this documentary film company, we had two-thirds of the City Council on videotape, endorsing the plan. And when we came out with it, it was 10,000 people believing that they had a part in this process, and they had a stake in this plan."

As for implementation: it wasn't all it would have been if Washington had lived. "But the big pieces—understanding the economic engine that the arts and culture are in the city, and strengthening the Department of Cultural Affairs as a player, as important as, say, Streets and San—those have survived," Dorf says.

"What we tried to do before was raise expectations—telling people you are part of this plan, we want to know your ideas. Those people, if they don't get a response from the city, are going to be pounding on the doors of their aldermen, saying 'I went to these meetings, I gave the city what I thought should happen, and now where is it?'"

Well, maybe. Folks who watched resources pour into the tourist-friendly downtown while neighborhood projects struggled are likely to be skeptical. But if Dorf is right, the mayor should be careful about making it look like he wants public input. Times have changed. If he raises expectations now, he might have to deliver. 

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