Is another community space to be lost?

Jeff Huebner

Upper level interior of Wicker Park Cultural Center

The Wicker Park Cultural Center (WPCC) is one of only a few spaces (formerly St. Paul's Church) like it left in Wicker Park/West Town-indeed, in the city. As the neighborhood has undergone arts-led gentrification over the years, there has been a steady decline, through demolitions and redevelopment, of community-based, artist-run, multi-purpose arts and cultural centers that offer a wide range of programs, performances, exhibits, meetings, etc.

Like other arts-identified or former "bohemian" neighborhoods, this decimation reflects Wicker Park's two-decade shift from a place where culture was generally produced to one where it is largely consumed, with its attendant drain of artists, designers, and other creative types. Centers like


Documentary producers Greg Jacobs (l) and Jon Siskel (r) with Young Chicago Authors' "Louder than a Bomb" cast in lower level of WPCC

WPCC became boutiques, clubs, chains, eateries-places of fashionable commerce rather than centers that fostered a sense of community and engagement. There's a loss of cultural infrastructure that's vital to any arts neighborhood, and while it's debatable whether we can even call Wicker Park that anymore, WPCC has been a hub-and a hotbed-of activity, hoping to lead a resurgence...or insurgency.

Dexter Bullard is an award-winning Chicago theater director and artist who's worked at Second City, Steppenwolf, and the Goodman. His company, Plasticene Theater, created From a Fading Light at the WPCC in May 2010. In a letter of support to Ald. Joe Moreno (and which he forwarded to me), Bullard cites how the old firehouse that once housed the vibrant, keystone Chicago Latino Theater became a franchised Potbelly Sandwich Shop, symptomatic of Wicker Park's recent


A scene in Plasticene's "From a Fading Light"

change "away from the arts energy and towards a commercial and corporate energy." He doesn't want to see a similar fate befall the WPCC.

"The Around the Coyote Festival that brought 10,000 people to the neighborhood annually has now folded," writes Bullard, a Bucktown resident. "Rent, real estate, and lax community control are threatening to squash the vibrancy of the arts and replace them with characterless street-length retail shopping malls."

Eric Kerl, a local organizer with the International Socialist Organization, has helped convene "dozens" of teach-ins, study groups, and social events at WPCC over the last couple years. "Nowhere else in the city," he contends, "have we found a friendlier, more vibrant space that can host a large number of people at an affordable price."


Home schooled childrens group wrote and performed "Dracula"

Kerl goes on that Near NorthWest Arts Council (NNWAC) and the center "have played a vital role in offering the space for community activists, artists, and even socialists to preserve the rich heritage of the other Chicago...the Chicago of Studs Terkel, Fred Hampton, the Haymarket Martyrs, the birthplace of the Industrial Workers of the World and May Day." He adds, "Public space for community use has been under such a prolonged attack in this city that it is practically nonexistent...We can't let [WPCC] be swallowed up by the Urban Outfitters of the world."

Scott Althoff, president of the Chicago Food Co-op, agrees. The food buying club is made up of people who collectively buy groceries directly from distributors and pass the savings on to members. It has bounced around several places on the Northwest Side since 1995 (including the former Acme Art Works at 1741 N. Western for seven years), before landing at WPCC over two years ago.

"This community needs more public spaces where people can come and actually interact with each other," comments Althoff, adding that at WPCC its members "love to interact and learn about the other organizations that also are hosted there."


Musicians included the historic organ in their performance "End of Times"

Chicago poet/performer Charlie Newman says he was "lucky" to find WPCC after his previous First Friday Poetry Series space, DvA Gallery, closed suddenly in mid-2008. "I was relieved at how easily the show fit in the new venue," reports Newman, who has published a number of books and chapbooks and done reading gigs from London to New York, Nashville to California. "Truth is, [the center] actually helped the reading grow. Wicker Park is incredibly fortunate to have a true community resource like WPCC."

The potential loss of such spaces is also symptomatic of what's happening in our city-and our culture--at large. In a post-industrial economy, beleaguered metropolitan areas increasingly depend on cultural tourism, art spectacle, themed attractions, "sanitized razzmatazz," and other Big Events in a bid to boost revenue, destination, and global profile (cf. Millennium Park). Such projects draw public and private funding at the expense of the local arts community, and the increased revenue is not reinvested in it.


Ethnic groups celebrated the beginning of the new year in 2010

Urban sociologist Sharon Zukin defined the problem in her book The Cultures of Cities (Blackwell, 1995): "Public officials and developers are more at ease discussing the image of the city as a culture capital than attending to demands for support by artists, musicians, theater owners, and museum workers...In general, the synergy between art, finance, and politics benefits high culture institutions and the tourist industry while creating only sporadic gains for independent cultural producers."

This is a bind that Chicago and Wicker Park find themselves in, and why places like WPCC can help fight a way out of it.

See Letter to the Editor


Save St Paul's

Our musical group has benefited from the generosity of the NNWAC directors. They gave us an open invitation to hold our jams in St Paul's whenever we were unable to find another venue. We have accepted their offer several times and appreciate the largess of this good community-based organization. I'm sorry to hear, but not at all surprised, that the church elders have decided money comes before community service.

Save the WPCC

This is a valuable, valuable resource. Please don't let it be lost.

The same community that carried you on its shoulders...

Dear Church elders, Board, Please help me understand, as my sense of ethics is terribly confused at the news... You have refused to talk to and selling off the only suitable venue available in the neighborhood for great classical guitar, independent film, theatrical performances, visual art displays, children potential mobilization, minority participation in the creative process...The acoustics are matchless! This place is designed as an Art venue, and anyone with a bit of artistic sensitivity would understand it. Now, you have functioned in this neighborhood for years, as a tax free organization. This same community, which now you slap in the face for $$ has carried you through, paying your tax share to maintain sanitation, protect you from fire and feel safe when you give thanks to God. My confusion has to do with your lack of thanks to that same community that embraced you all those years. I always thought that the Church gets its special status based on a moral backbone. What happened? Dr. Ayala Leyser, Confused.

Save the Cultural Center!

I'm so disappointed to hear that this treasure is in danger of being lost. As an artist and board member of the Chicago Artists' Coalition, I'm very familiar with the programs of the Wicker Park Cultural Center and its plans for preserving the church. It is a perfect and much-needed venue for the disparate art and community organizations -- what's left of them, anyway -- in Wicker Park and vicinity. Small organizations cannot afford, nor do they need, permanent bricks-and-mortar spaces with their attendant mortgages and infrastructure repairs. I thought it was very charitable and visionary of the religious organization who sold St. Paul's to WPCC. I guess I was too hasty in that assumption.

The Arts Builds Communities

I've worked in the arts for over 30 years and have made it my study to research the ways the arts saves lives and builds communities. Art spaces such as the St. Paul's space serve the community in a number of ways. You don't have to be an artist, a patron of the arts or even someone who goes to an event at St. Paul's to benefit from this space. (1) Community security & solidarity - In community after community, it has been found that arts spaces bring people together and increase street traffic - which increases everyone's security. Art spaces are also places where people of different backgrounds can meet, mix and celebrate. This kind of interaction builds social bonds and creates new collaborations. In addition, such spaces are training grounds for community leaders as new projects are hatched and deployed. (2) Economic development - Having an arts space such as St. Paul's in your hood is just plain good business. Multiple-use spaces act as mini-incubators and they spin off all sorts of micro-economic development projects and outputs. (3) Kids and seniors - Did you know that people at both end of the age spectrum are at risk and that arts centers which offer after-school programs and culture-related projects to seniors can actually save lives and improve mental health - and for a very low cost! For these reasons and more that I could list - I hope people will get on board and help NNWAC save and re-energize St. Paul's.

NNWAC’ Wicker Park Arts

NNWAC’ Wicker Park Arts Center that has attracted a composite audience of 40,000 people for its events over the last two years and brought that kind of business to the surrounding restaurants and stores. The St Paul's space has been a community space for 121 years. There are strict regulatory laws about a non-for profit (which Patrina Patti’s organization is, (or was): Since non-for profits have enjoyed tax free status for the duration of their existence, when a non for profit disbands, it must turn all its assets over to another non for profit organization for charitable purpose of similar nature. Patrina Petti's contract to rent the space to NNWAC (also a non for profit), was based on the use the building for charitable purpose for the benefit of the community. …..which she now has no interest in. On good faith and the written agreement with Patrina Petti, NNWAC invested $120,000 and more than two years of grueling work to create this center….all in good faith that Patrina Petti would keep her word, and believing in Patrina Petti’s concern for the community. Repeated requests for Patrina to keep her part of the agreement were not answered. She simply wants to cash out the community interests for assets she/their former church is not legally entitled to keep.


When I came to Chicago in 2009 for the Nelson Algren Committee's celebration of Algren's centenary, one of the best stories I took home to the UK was the Wicker Park Cultural Centre. That such a vibrant and vital community resource should be so close to being sold off by church trustees is deplorable.


nnwac has done a great job in rebuilding the st. paul's church space as a community asset. hats off to laura weathered and her organization, and boo's to the church owners who are now at work eliminating a community asset. where's rahm now that we need him? as a member of the nelson algren committee, we've had nnwac's support for a decade, and used their space for our algren birthday party.... anybody got clout at city hall? let rahm et. al. know whats going on... they need to step in as does the community. warren leming vice chairman the nelson algren committee (march 26th at st. pauls, 2215 w. north ave... the 22nd annual algren birthday party, see the website for info.. or call 773 235 4267

Save St Pauls

I love the St Paul's space and have attended several events, 2 years of CIMM fest for example. I am half Norwegian descent, my last name Moe is a town in Norway. I call all Arts lovers, Norwegians, and interested Chicagoans to ask the church elders to reconsider their decision. St Paul's is such a beautiful building, it's destruction is a destruction of Norwegian history.

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