We’re safer staying outside. But in Chicago, where summer is short, time rapidly is running out for the arts to take advantage of the warm, fresh air. What a missed opportunity.
This week, the Chicago Latino Theatre Alliance announced plans to take advantage of the giant outdoor screen that has been erected in the parking lot of Chitown Futbol in Pilsen (now also known as the ChiTown Movies) and, for one night only on Sept. 17, produce an epic, multi-format and multi-disciplinary event designed to celebrate this city’s Latino theater, film, music and art.
If you want to attend Destinos al Aire, all you have to do is pay $30 and show up with your car and (if you wish) lawn chairs to sit outside your vehicle. For that, you get up to six guests for an experience replete with live music, theatrical performances both virtual and in-person from stellar local groups like Aguijón Theater and Teatro Vista, along with dance, comedy, film and even food. (ChiTown Movies specializes in popcorn, tacos, wings and frozen mangos, served right to your car.)
What a fabulous use of this innovative venue at 2343 S. Throop St. I’ll wager it won’t take long to sell out the space for 140 cars, especially since Myrna Salazar, the executive director of CLATA, says the bywords here are “fun” and “celebratory.” I’ve seen how much space is available there and I don’t doubt for a second that the event will be safe and socially distanced.
With care, creativity, goodwill and advance planning, these things are very doable.
Elsewhere in the world, in fact, these outdoor stagings are not only proving to be very successful but they are being hailed as a positive force in the maintenance of collective mental and physical health. Instead of standing in their way like naysayers, city and national governments generally have been working with arts groups to help them follow regulations, maintain social distancing and mask use and ensure safety.
The general spirit in cities like London has been one of cooperation revolving around a mutual understanding that the arts are essential and that, in their absence, citizens are forced to fill that gap in ways that might be less constructive to a city’s health and safety in this difficult time.
But in Chicago, frankly, that attitude has been sadly lacking and thus these events have been thin on the ground. The fall arts calendar is woefully light, unless you count events designed to be consumed on a laptop, which is where we all have been living since March, and now need a break for the sake of our shared humanity.
Throughout this crisis, the major outdoor venue at Millennium Park has remained mostly shuttered. So has the Petrillo Music Shell to the south. The festival grounds used in normal years have been barely touched. Arts programing has vanished from the city’s parks. Hibernation has been the official watchword.
Navy Pier, we found out this week, is to close entirely on Sept. 8 to save money. That torpedoes any chance even for an autumnal stroll out into our beautiful lake, just when Chicagoans might need it the most. Surely there is a way to maintain that wide corridor for us locals, even if the indoor spaces have to remain closed. That would be worth some investment.
Alas, the city’s beaches on both North and South Sides have largely been seen as a source of potential trouble, rather than an opportunity for people to come together in a safe way. This has been a mistake. Instead of just sending people away, it would be smarter to change they way they are using that space and make social distanced events attractive.
Granted, Destinos al Aire is not the only innovative outdoor experience. In Evanston, the music venue known as SPACE has been producing very successful outdoor August concerts, all socially distanced with “non-negotiable” audience requirements. The Green Mill in Uptown has had musicians on the sidewalk. In Skokie, the North Shore Center for the Arts has started producing concerts (dubbed “Out Back Summer Sessions”) in the parking lot of that arts venue, essentially selling the ability to sit in one of the parking stalls and watch a performer work from a temporary stage. That all has been going well, too. And all of the talent has been Chicago-based.
As Michael Pauken, who runs the North Shore Center, said to me this week: “It is a ton of work but better than doing nothing.”
There are other such endeavors elsewhere in Chicagoland. But when you look at the whole picture, it’s really not a big list.
Why? Regulations are daunting. And erecting temporary facilities with attention to social-distancing protocols can be expensive. But it’s a very good use of public money, which often is more effective when it offers direct aid to small businesses and potential patrons.
And, of course, there is some risk.
Life, though, is a continuous series of personal risk assessments, virus or no virus, and one of the common errors made when weighing these “is-it-worth-it?” issues is the assumption that not doing something eradicates the entire problem. In fact, people who are not offered somewhere safe might well make a choice to do something far less safe instead.
We’ve seen that time and time again in Chicago in recent weeks. It is especially risky when it comes to young people, many of whom are sick of staying at home and who need to be able to gather. Safely.
All good reasons, then, to get more good stuff going outdoors while there still is time before the snow flies.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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