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City's Cultural Plan Strikes Sour Note with Some

By Ted Cox | December 5, 2012 7:19am
 The Uptown area had a concentration of music venues even before being designated an entertainment district.
Uptown music district
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CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel sparked enthusiasm in the city's music community with talk of an Uptown Entertainment District — even mentioning it a year ago while playing host to a birthday party for President Barack Obama at the Aragon Ballroom.

Yet that enthusiasm has waned for some in recent months as they examined Chicago's Cultural Plan 2012 and found little detail about the Uptown Music District, nor a specific plan to boost music in other neighborhoods in the city.

Paula Barrington, executive director of Business Partners, the Chamber for Uptown, said her first response to the plan was, "Are you kidding me?"

"The cultural plan doesn't really address all the neighborhoods and the culture that they bring to the table," Barrington said.

 Flanked by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and city Cultural Affairs Commissioner Michelle Boone, Mayor Rahm Emanuel releases the City of Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 in October.
Flanked by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and city Cultural Affairs Commissioner Michelle Boone, Mayor Rahm Emanuel releases the City of Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 in October.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Though it references "a focus on neighborhoods" and boasts 10 "priorities," including attracting and retaining artists and fostering cultural innovation, little reference is made to specific neighborhoods.

When Emanuel released the cultural plan, he spoke of how it addressed dance, theater, neighborhood arts groups, and especially arts education, but he made little reference to music. He pointed to how the city's previous comprehensive cultural plan, released in 1986 during Mayor Harold Washington's administration, laid the foundation for the city's now thriving theater district downtown.

"So we thought certainly the cultural plan would include a reference to Uptown," Barrington said.

The plan never mentions Uptown — neither the proposed entertainment district, nor the Uptown Theater, a 1920s-era, midsize venue in need of renovation. In fact, in 48 pages, it mentions "music" just eight times.

Paul Natkin, a longtime concert photographer and executive director of the Chicago Music Commission, said the plan's grand ambitions and the city's governmental policies are intrinsically linked. He looked back at the 1986 cultural plan and said only about a half-dozen of its more than 50 aims had been achieved.

"If I were an artist, I would want to move anywhere else than Chicago," he said, explaining that he knew struggling artists who were fined for not having a business license under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. That sort of bureaucracy, he added, hurts the music industry as well.

"Chicago's kind of known worldwide as one of the hardest places to get a license to open a business," Natkin said. "It's a daunting task to open a venue or open up a record store — or any kind of business in Chicago."

Julie Burros, director of cultural planning at the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and project manager for the cultural plan, said the city has been trying to create live/work space for artists, noting the efforts of Ald. Rey Colon (35th) to zone such dwellings along Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. And Cultural Affairs will create a new agency to address artists' needs next year, she said.

"The new Creative Industries Unit wants to particularly focus on music and how we can either cut out the red tape or work to remove some of the barriers," she said. "What's the biggest barrier the city can remove to help you flourish?"

If Cultural Affairs works to build on "organic" business as it's already growing, it has much to work with in the music industry.

"Chicago: Music City," a five-year-old study written by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, working from a grant supplied in part by the Chicago Music Commission, found a vital music scene here. Some 2,000 people are actively employed in the music business, ranking the city fifth nationally behind only New York City, Los Angeles, Nashville and San Francisco.

When including music-related sub-industries, such as clubs, bars and music schools, Chicago had 53,000 music-related employees generating $1 billion in business, behind only New York and Los Angeles. Chicago's 4,500 music establishments ranked third in the nation.
Natkin said Emanuel and the city need to follow up in economic policies on ambitions in the cultural plan to nurture the arts.

"We have to make it easier for people to open up businesses, easier for them to be regulated so they don't get put out of business, and let's make money for everybody," he said.

While Natkin said he would wait to see what the new cultural plan inspired before passing judgment, others, such as the new owner of the Uptown Theater, think the real work to create a music district Uptown has already started.

Jerry Mickelson is the president and co-founder of Chicago-based Jam Productions, the concert promotion company that in 2008 bought the Uptown Theater for $3.2 million.

"It's a long process. It's not easy to create a district," Mickelson said. "The city wants to see the entertainment district. They want to see the Uptown renovated. It's more of a process of dealing with the government."

Getting the tax breaks and other incentives to fund the Uptown renovation — estimated at $30 million or more — is entirely separate from the cultural plan, he said.

"It's been a work in progress for a number of years, and that's ongoing," said Mary May, spokeswoman for Cultural Affairs. "So just because it isn't mentioned in the cultural plan doesn't mean it's not on our radar."

Burros said the plan was designed to deal in "generalities" and to inspire ideas rather than settle issues.

"There's actually a tremendous amount of things already happening" in Uptown, she said, from a rehab of the Lawrence Red Line CTA stop, to a Chicago Department of Transportation study on auto and pedestrian traffic in the area.

The Uptown Theater, she warned, is a major project requiring tens of millions of dollars. Even if the funding and all permits were ready and streamlined, it would probably take 18 months to put the venue in shape to reopen.

And in a government with limited resources, she said, the city is more inclined to support "organic" business growth than try to generate it on its own.

She pointed to the Avalon Theatre, the former New Regal Theater at 1645 E. 79th St., a "completely renovated, gorgeous" 1927 movie house reopening for concerts, comedy shows and community productions next month, with a show set for New Year's Eve.

"I would not have predicted that would happen," Burros said. "It's probably going to be the anchor of what will emerge as a little entertainment district. It's impossible to make that happen in a top-down way."

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