City Beautiful? Why Some Chicago Neighborhoods Have Viaduct Art and Others Don’t

Viadcts Thumb
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Viadcts Thumb
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

City Beautiful? Why Some Chicago Neighborhoods Have Viaduct Art and Others Don’t

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Three words come to mind when Gaylon Alcaraz walks through the viaduct underpass at 95th and Jeffery, near her home on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

“Despair. Damaging. Unsafe.”

Inside the tunnel, garbage and leaves collect on the ground. There’s a mysterious wet spot that Gaylon has to jump over. Cement, or perhaps old paint, peels off the walls.

“It just looks like it hasn’t been washed or anything, power washed, in forever,” Gaylon says, grimacing at the cobwebs on a sickly yellow light fixture. “It just looks like nobody cares about the community.”

Gaylon used to live on the North Side, in Lincoln Park, and she says the viaducts she’s seen there don’t look like this. Many of them have art on the walls — art that she thinks makes people feel safe and cared for. So she came to Curious City with a question: “Why can’t viaducts on the South Side have beautiful murals like the North Side?”

While she frames it as a question, Gaylon is confident that she already knows what’s going on.

“Systemic racism and injustice go into this big pot, and communities of color have to eat from this pot,” she says. “You combine that with an alderman that is really not engaged in a community in this deep, impactful way, and then you get these things.”

In particular, Gaylon suspects that her own alderman, Michelle Harris, is failing her constituents somehow, although she’s not sure of the details. So we looked into how these viaduct murals come to exist, and how they get funded.

Are viaduct mural disparities the result of systematic discrimination, or merely of differing priorities across neighborhoods? We’ve found evidence for both explanations, so we’ll let Gaylon — and you — make the final call.

But here’s one thing we did learn: There’s disagreement across the city as to whether viaduct art is a worthy use of public resources, and who gets to make that decision.

The trouble with city money

Gaylon’s question rests on the premise that there are fewer viaduct murals on the South Side compared with other parts of the city. This, it turns out, is difficult to measure. There’s no ready list of viaducts spread across the city, let alone a list of viaducts with murals. But among people who know public art, there’s a clear consensus.

“Yeah, I think there’s huge voids of public art of any kind in a lot of neighborhoods,” says Cyd Smillie, an artist and the president of the non-profit group Arts Alive. “It’s always about the money, I’m afraid.”

To show the range of viaducts in Chicago, we asked you to send us photos of ones you’ve passed under. Click the image below to check out the spread, from the pretty to the ugly!

Smillie is one of several experts who agree with Gaylon’s observation that there’s serious public art inequality across the city. However, it’s not always a clean-cut North Side versus South Side disparity.

In fact, Smillie has recently finished painting a viaduct tunnel on the South Side, under the Metra tracks at 35th Street. It’s a baseball-themed mural right next to Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox play. The mural was donated by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the quasi-private government agency that owns the stadium.

“There’s eight to ten thousand dollars’ worth of paint and materials just on this,” Smillie says of her mural, which spans the entirety of the 400 foot-long viaduct on both sides.

Smillie, whose organization relies entirely on private donations, knew from experience that her best chance to get the mural funded was to turn directly to a private sponsor, like the ballpark owners. While she has worked with aldermen time and again to get city dollars for murals, it’s never happened because there were simply too many hoops to jump through.

“The biggest one was that you had to sign an agreement to insure the city for a million dollars on the content of the mural,” she says. “I could not find an insurance company that would assume that kind of responsibility for a painted product.”

This kind of hurdle to city funding could account for the disparity Gaylon notices. Unless your neighborhood has private donors — like, say, a major league ballpark, or wealthy arts boosters — viaducts will more likely go unpainted.

But it is possible to fund murals with city money. It just comes down to how you do it.

Horror story, success story

Every year, each Chicago ward receives $1.3 million in discretionary money to spend on infrastructure projects. It’s called “menu money,” because there’s a ‘menu’ of projects aldermen can spend it on, like street resurfacing or sidewalk repairs.

In theory, an alderman can spend some of this money on viaduct art. After all, many believe that murals, as public goods, serve an important function. They are also well-received.

“We found that our murals are hardly ever tagged [with graffiti],” says Steve Weaver, executive director of Chicago Public Art Group, which implements public art around the city. “If the process involves the community and the mural represents that community, then the community is going to respect it.”

But here’s a horror story: In 2013, Alderman Danny Solís of the 25th Ward, which includes Pilsen and Chinatown, tried to use some of his discretionary money on murals. He hired artists and sent their invoices to City Hall — but the city’s budgeting office was concerned that murals were too ephemeral to count as infrastructure. (Solís had also failed to obtain the necessary insurance.)

The city withheld the money, and Solís wasn’t able to pay his artists for over a year. It was a minor scandal that other aldermen might have taken as a warning from the city: Best stick to straightforward infrastructure, like roads and sidewalks.

Except, not all aldermen have had such a hard time.

The 49th Ward — the city’s northeast-most ward, which includes Rogers Park — is one of those mural-rich parts of the North Side that Gaylon refers to. Twenty-three of its 31 viaducts have some type of art. (For comparison, Gaylon’s ward has 27 viaducts and zero murals.)

“It was a pleasant diversion from dirty walls and the pigeon droppings that occupy the viaducts,” says Joe Moore, alderman of the 49th Ward.

Virtually all of these murals were paid for with discretionary menu money — the same money that the city held up in Solís’s ward. So what’s Joe Moore’s secret?

He’s one of a handful of aldermen who lets his constituents vote on how to spend this money, in a process called participatory budgeting.

Moore began implementing participatory budgeting in 2010. He was the first alderman in the city to do so. And when his constituents voted on how to spend this money, viaduct murals beat out new street lights and speed bumps.

Since then, every time a mural has been on the ballot, it’s been selected for funding. Moore says the city has worked with his ward to quickly resolve bureaucratic issues like obtaining insurance — and he thinks that may be partially due to participatory budgeting.

“I think that gives city officials the added assurances that this is a public good,” says Moore. “Because it’s the public that’s deeming it a public good.”

Take a virtual tour of Rogers Parks’ viaducts and learn more about how they’re funded through participatory budgeting:

Across the city, Gaylon’s alderman, Michelle Harris, doesn’t do participatory budgeting. City records reveal that Harris spends most of her discretionary funds on road improvements and streetlights. So Moore thinks there’s an obvious way that Gaylon could get her neighborhood some murals.

“I’d encourage your question-asker to reach out to her alderman, and encourage her alderman to consider adopting participatory budgeting,” he says.

‘We can have so much more’

We tell Gaylon what we learned about private funding, and share Joe Moore’s recommendation that she talk to her alderman about participatory budgeting. But she’s not encouraged.

Gaylon says that she and her neighbors find it difficult to reach their alderman, even to discuss urgent problems like sewage back-ups. “So going to talk to our alderman about a mural?” she asks incredulously. “It never works like that. It never ever works like that.” (Gaylon’s alderman, Michelle Harris, did not respond to several requests for an interview.)

However, the 10th Ward, just south of Gaylon, recently started participatory budgeting. And even though viaduct murals were on the ballot there, constituents selected other projects. So maybe the disparity that Gaylon points out is a reflection of the fact that not all Chicagoans care about viaduct murals — or at least not equally so.

There’s also not conclusive evidence that the presence of viaduct murals correlates closely to racial composition, as Gaylon suspects. The majority of constituents in the mural-filled 49th Ward, for example, are Black, Latino or Asian.

Still, Gaylon sees the mural disparity as a matter of inequality. She says South Side infrastructure has been neglected relative to other parts of the city (and there’s some evidence to support that claim). Consequently, even if a South Side alderman does ask her constituents how to spend menu money, they’re going to choose to spend it on urgently needed repairs.

Some arts advocates believe this problem could be solved by creating a separate public trust devoted strictly to funding public arts. Until then, Gaylon believes it’s a question of need versus want — and she suspects her neighbors have come to see amenities like murals as out of reach.

“A lot of times most people, if they’re safe and they’re OK and they have their basic needs met, that’s enough. That’s enough for people,” she says.

“I think that we can have so much more.”

More about our questioner

Courtesy of Gaylon Alcaraz

Gaylon Alcaraz is a nonprofit consultant and community activist in Chicago. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in community psychology at National Louis University. Gaylon got to know the viaducts of Chicago all too well while running through the city, training for marathons.

Jake Smith writes and produces radio stories in Chicago. Follow him at @JakeJeromeSmith.