Monday, November 28, 2011

The Fine Art of Making Due

In the Age of Austerity, many of us are being forced to contemplate some hard decisions.  These include whether to pay for food or medicine, the rent or utility bills.  They also include accepting second best career paths and putting off plans to buy a home or start a family.  American Dreams are being downsized almost as fast as our wallets these days and there is no apparent end in sight.  But "making do" is not simply about survival.  About the hard choices of day to day living in a bad economy.  It is also a symbol of how ordinary people can take back their authority over themselves and their environment. 

This was one of the subjects addressed in a teach-in that I facilitated for Occupy Chicago on reclaiming public space.  Examining four well-known public spaces in Chicago (Grant Park, Federal Plaza, Daley Plaza, and the sidewalks near LaSalle and Jackson street), I argued to the audience that there are no truly public spaces in the city of Chicago.  Under Mayor Daley, most of these spaces were turned into tourist attractions or otherwise shaped to allow for the easy flow of commerce.  Ordinary people are treated like cargo in the city's scheme of design and it is only when they "misuse" a space that they can liberate themselves from the tyranny of the grid. 

That misuse can take any number of forms.  Simply stopping on a busy sidewalk to take a photograph and enjoy the view could easily be viewed as a misuse of space.  So could ballroom dancing in the Daley Plaza or singning showtoons off key.  As trivial as these acts of disobedience may seem, they add up over time.  Not only do they encourage an overall change in attitude among those around you but they also (sometimes) pressure those in power to change certain aspects of our city's design. 

A good case in point is the crosswalk from Buckingham Fountain to Queen's Landing.  When I first moved to Chicago in 2000, a pedestrian could walk down the stairs on the Lake Michigan side of the Buckingham Fountain and cross Lakeshore Drive to the the waterfront using a crosswalk.  In 2005, that crosswalk and the red lights associated with it were removed to supposedly improve the flow of traffic.  Cement bollards and metal chains were used to keep pedestrians from jaywalking but it was not uncommon to see people running across this busy highway (crosswalk or not) to reach the lake.  Two young men were seriously injured just this summer while running across Lakeshore Drive at this location with a dozen other fans from Lollapalooza, which has been located in Grant Park for seven years.  Just a few days ago, thanks in large measure to these jaywalkers, the crosswalk was restored. 

Not all examples of making do are as dangerous as those listed above.  Another short cut that led to change occurred on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.  When new walkways were created on campus, no path was created between the main campus offices in University Hall and the Daley Library.  Instead of taking a roundabout path to the library, pedestrians frequently cut across the grass.  Eventually this led to a permanent bare spot and later on a deep mud rut that led in a straight line from University Hall to the library.  Soon after this rut developed, a sidewalk was laid. 

These small design changes matter as space shapes us by influencing our attitudes towards ourselves and also towards each other.  When we misuse space, we change our attitude and we create a potential for change.  It is the small opening needed for larger changes to occur in our society.  Bearing this in mind, I have a suggestion for my readers.  Go down to the Christmas Market in Daley Plaza and play nerf football with some friends while singing "Don't Eat the Daisies."  If nothing else, tourists will snap a photo of you.  You'll become an urban legend. 

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