Reviving a Chicago Memorial

This is Part 2 in our series on Gehl Institute’s Open Call: Proposals for Public Life. Throughout Summer 2017, we provided technical assistance to three community design organizations working in public space.

Chicago is famous for its monumental public spaces, which are enjoyed by residents and tourists alike and receive a great deal of city and private funding. But Chicago is also home to a vast network of small, underused, and underfunded public plazas that could better serve their neighborhoods. As part of the Activate! Chicago initiative, Latent Design and Archeworks tested low-cost methods to enhance a memorial plaza in the Little Village neighborhood, and used public life tools to better understand local context and evaluate their impact. Maria Bergh of Archeworks writes about her experience below. – Gehl Institute

Perez Plaza is the only public space in Little Village’s 26th Street business district: the second-highest grossing shopping destination in Chicago trailing only the Magnificent Mile. Little Village is an intergenerational blue-collar Latinx community, home to many young families. While official commercial activity fills the brick-and-mortar shops that line 26th street between Kedzie and Kostner, we counted up to 82 informal vendors flocking to this 1.5-mile strip to capitalize on crowds attending summer festivals. Think about that: 82 pushcarts, stalls, back-of-truck-vendors, sidewalk sales, or promotional performances in the narrow five- to ten-foot strip of sidewalk that is all the public realm offered to this community. It is no surprise that traffic grinds to a halt in the midst of heavy pedestrian traffic, adjacent road closures, and rubbernecking.

And yet none of this vibrancy is evident at Perez Plaza, which hosts the same ten or so residents day in and day out, regardless of nearby activity. The plaza itself functions like a living room in the summer: it has a green canopy and brick walls on three sides covered in murals honoring veterans — including the plaza’s namesake Manuel Perez. Even the street frontage is buffered by a steady row of parked cars, provided by the constant clientele of a popular adjacent bakery. A raised central plinth features an obelisk and fountain, memorializing veterans while unintentionally providing drinking and washing water to people and birds alike. All this makes the plaza an attractive home, and its constant use by the otherwise homeless furthers the impression that this space, crossed each day by hundreds of neighbors on their way to and from errands, is private.

Perez Plaza memorializes veterans, most notably Manual Perez, whose name appears on this fountain. Credit: Maria Bergh.

In communication, formal unchanging speech patterns are called frozen; formulaic words like “how do you do?” or “I do” convey ceremonial rather than literal meaning. Perez Plaza, built entirely for formal occasions and easily dominated by the use of a handful of men, is a frozen space — unable to adapt to the changing needs of the community. All communities deserve beautiful, usable space. The congestion in Little Village made us wonder if there were light touches that could bring this memorial to life, and if such touches could change the narrative and use of Perez Plaza and other, similar spaces.

Our work in Perez Plaza is part of a partnership between the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Latent Design called Activate! that seeks to bring life and culture to public space, defined as the land that is, was, or could become a part of the right of way. Unlike parks, these spaces have tiny budgets for upkeep and maintenance, and accommodate many competing interests while carrying traffic, which leads to frozen spaces, like Perez Plaza, that do not encourage pedestrians to linger.

To help give Perez Plaza back to the neighborhood as an amenity we knew we’d need to make some strategic alterations. That would require convincing the Chamber of Commerce, CDOT, and a local veteran’s group to support alterations socially as well as financially. Gehl Institute’s public life tools were a perfect fit for our need to quantify how the plaza is used now, in order to influence how it will be used in the future, while gaining insight on how different interventions would influence the life of public space. Our team in this research was comprised of Katherine Darnstadt, principal of Latent Design, who has a body of work in Little Village, Maria Bergh of Archeworks, whose background is in participatory design research, and Stephanie Celis, whose cultural competency and Spanish fluency made the depth of this research possible.

People brought their own seating, demonstrating a lack of formal places to sit. Credit: Maria Bergh.

Gehl Institute’s tools guided us through collecting data about who was crossing the space versus remaining within the plaza, which led us to notice that women and children constantly move around and through the plaza but never sit down or linger. We heard from the residents that the annual Sunday night Mariachi series provided by the Little Village Chamber of Commerce and the Chicago Mariachi Project was one time when people did linger, so we chose to test an intervention during this “high point” in the annual life of the space.

The Mariachi works a magical transformation; in anticipation, the “regulars” move to the boundaries of the plaza, the back row of seats or backstage areas. Music emanates down the block, announcing the presence of a public space and building excitement to discover its source. The plaza overflows with people: parents, friends, and relatives of the teenage performers from all across town, passersby and neighbors out on their porches and lawns. And yet, even as activity fills the plaza, passersby generally linger only for a song or two, apparently because they are unable to find seating. Despite the magic and joy of these events, they break up just moments after an intermission or the end of the performance, leaving the Plaza mostly empty once more.

What if there was more seating, we wondered? What if the seating could move? Would people reorganize, form social groups, find commonality, remain? Could portable, foldable cardboard seating make a difference? Could it create a conversation about how to redesign the space?

The additional seats began filling up almost immediately. Credit: Katherine Darnstadt.

On August 27th, the last day in the Mariachi series, we showed up early to watch the crowd grow and prepare our intervention. One of the people we had come to recognize over our time in the Plaza assisted us in unpacking the seats and setting them up, which was a breeze. As the musicians assembled, it took mere minutes for the seats to be fully occupied. To our surprise they remained fully occupied and stationary; despite being light enough to blow away in a stiff Chicago wind, they never moved. While there was still no additional seating available to passersby, the crowd swelled. Whereas just two weeks prior the crowd topped out around 80 before intermission and never climbed back to that attendance, this week we counted over 110 people gathered before intermission, and about 250 spending some time in the plaza after intermission.

Another interesting discover involved gender. We had visited the site periodically between June and September and, without an event happening, only one woman took a seat on Perez Plaza, while about 25 women would pass through in the average hour. During the Mariachi program, on the other hand, fifty percent of event participants were women, with over a hundred women present in the plaza at the end of the last performance.

The seats invited many more people, in this instance nearly all female, to join the event. Credit: Maria Bergh.

Whether it was the additional seating, the increased size of the crowd, or the last of four weeks of performances, more people felt comfortable gathering and remaining, standing, sitting on curbs, steps, bollards, bikes, or benches. Many members of the crowd were immigrants and readily talked with Stephanie about how they largely felt comfortable in the space, though they’d rather see it cleaner, with an enhanced sense of security, and without alcohol — all gestures to the people who made this place their home. So perhaps it is not surprising that while the seating attracted a larger crowd and drew in far more people, it could not keep people lingering afterwards. Within ten minutes, the audience and performers had packed up and gone home.

Attendees of the Sunday night Mariachi programming. Credit: Katherine Darnstadt.

So, what does that tell us about how to bring a memorial back into the public life of its neighborhood?

Local places are for local people. Relying on a once-a-year paid city-wide program on Veterans Day reinforces the plaza’s identity as an empty stage, largely vacant 364 days a year.

A sense of safety is essential for public life. Many visitors mentioned the consumption of alcohol and proximity of homeless residents to kids. Insecurity colors even the most positive memory. However…

Everyone can benefit from public life. We initially worried the special event would create conflict. Not in the least: people who “owned” the plaza most days made space for guests, and eagerly anticipated being a part of something larger. When the day came they danced with event goers who, for a moment at least, could set aside differences to share the celebration. Public space is not a zero sum game, everyone who contributes benefits.

Vendors follow people, not the other way around. During the events, when the plaza was filled, kids and then adults offered treats for sale.

There is a desire to continue to invite new life into Perez Plaza, as a part of the Activate! partnership between the  Department of Transportation and Latent Design, working alongside the Little Village Chamber of Commerce. To do this, Latent Design will engage passersby, business owners, homeless residents, the local veterans group, funders, as well as the aforementioned stakeholder institutions to diagnose how to resurrect Perez Plaza, while honoring the local culture, history, and the community’s unique needs.

The crowd to watch the Mariachi Project spills onto the sidewalk, attracting casual conversation from neighbors passing by. Credit: Maria Bergh.