Theater of Pain

In September 2000, 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore called a neighborhood meeting about a proposal to level a group of buildings in the 1500 block of Howard Street that included the former Wisdom Bridge Theatre. A developer, Urban Investment Trust, wanted the site for a minimall and a Dollar Junction store. “A number of us stood up to object,” says area resident Eva McCann. “We didn’t think we needed another dollar store on a street that already had four of them, and we thought the Wisdom Bridge building should be preserved.”

When the meeting was over, McCann and a few other residents lingered to talk about what they could do to save the 75-year-old building. Besides McCann, an arts administrator, the group included nonprofit developer Dan Alexander, teacher Kevin Richards, and accountant Tom Rosenfeld. Faster than you can say urban blight, they morphed into a board of directors for the nonprofit group now known as the Wisdom Bridge Arts Project. A mere two months after the original meeting, they presented the alderman with a plan for a performance and instruction space that might be a linchpin for change in the dicey community, which was already undergoing redevelopment. Moore said he liked their idea, the demolition plan was halted, and the grassroots group came up with a source for financing that would allow it to purchase the building. Two years later, they’re still trying to pry the vacant, deteriorating neighborhood landmark from Urban Investment’s grasp. Says Rosenfeld: “We’re stalled.”

According to Alexander, Urban Investment was in the process of selling the Wisdom Bridge building along with two adjacent properties to Dubin Residential, another developer. Dubin, in turn, had agreed to sell the Wisdom Bridge building to the nonprofit for $300,000. But problems arose in the deal between the two developers, and, David Dubin says, “The fate of the property is uncertain.” Alexander says he was told late last week by Urban official John Terzakis that the agreement Wisdom Bridge Arts Project had with Dubin might not be honored. Meanwhile, Rosenfeld says, “The alderman has been staying on the sidelines. We’re hoping he’ll step into the center and side with the community, not the developers.” Neither Terzakis nor Moore could be reached for comment.

In the 1930s and ’40s, when Howard Street was a lively entertainment district, the first floor of the Wisdom Bridge building housed retail shops and the second floor was home to the Limehouse, a popular restaurant and music club. The Limehouse folded in the ’50s, and in the ’70s Wisdom Bridge turned the club into a theater where the company did some legendary productions (In the Belly of the Beast with William Petersen, Hamlet with Aidan Quinn). Wisdom Bridge left the building in ’94, and the theater space has been empty ever since. WBAP members entered the now totally vacant structure a couple of weeks ago to videotape its state of neglect. Cathy Gerlach, a recent law graduate who joined the group this year, says besides broken windows, piles of beer cans, and pieces of sky peeking through holes in the roof, they found damage that probably occurred when a water main broke this summer. “The first floor is now thick with mold. The stage is rotting: if you step on it, it’s spongy. We’re afraid that if something isn’t done soon, it’ll have to be torn down. We’re wondering if this isn’t de facto demolition.”

WBAP has begun working without digs–adding an arts component to Howard Street’s monthly farmers’ market this summer and developing programs it wants to take into local public schools. But the group’s sights are set on what it can do when it gets the building–partnering with other organizations to offer classes in dance, fine arts, music, and theater for neighborhood kids and adults and providing a venue for small theater companies. “Rogers Park is lacking in cultural opportunities,” says McCann. “We do have Lifeline [Theatre, which offers classes], but some of our residents have to cross gang lines to get there.” They’re talking to fund-raiser Jeffrey Ortmann about conducting a campaign for the $3 million they’ll need to do a “full gut rehab” and set up an operating fund. Ortmann, now based on the east coast, was Wisdom Bridge’s producing director when the company left the building, complaining that the deteriorating neighborhood made it hard to attract audiences.

Straight From the Mouths of Mouthtomouth

Kristen Brooke Schleifer: We hit on this together–just blurted it out. I’ve always thought about starting my own magazine, since I was a kid. And Julie had done a zine.

Julie Farstad: Superexciting Proletariat Girl.

Schleifer: I was a big reader of Interview in the early 80s. We wanted to eliminate the editorial middleman. Have artists interviewing artists. That’s why we called it Mouthtomouth.

Farstad: As an artist, sometimes the best you can hope for is a chance to get reviewed by someone you don’t get a chance to talk to.

Schleifer: We’re coeditors and publishers. We brought contributing editor Jeff Abell on because he’s been here two decades and he’s connected to media we don’t have a strong background in.

Farstad: It’s about artists, gallerists, people who come to shows, people who hang them.

Schleifer: The language is conversational, not academic. A nondigital virtual cafe society.

Farstad: When you work in a studio, it can be very isolating. Once you’re out of school, you’re listening to the crickets.

Schleifer: Black-and-white, eight and a half by eleven, staple bound, 48 pages. Free, quarterly. A thousand copies. We’re asking other artists to pitch interviews for future issues.

Farstad: I was prepared to put it on a credit card. When it turned out to be more than $500, we said let’s see who’ll support it.

Schleifer: So we made up a rate card and started with people who had artists represented in the book. We sold out our ad space in two weeks. Three pages. We made it clear that our editorial content is independent.

Farstad: It’ll be in galleries September 13.

Schleifer: We’ll launch a Web site the same day––with a list of other locations. We did it in 12 weeks, idea to publication.

Farstad: I gave up a job.

Schleifer: I lost ten pounds.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.