An artist's rendering of the Great Chicago Fire Festival, slated for October 4
An artist's rendering of the Great Chicago Fire Festival, slated for October 4 Credit: Lin Ye

Twice last winter, I heard cultural affairs commissioner Michelle Boone’s pocket speech on the city’s new cultural plan. Both times she brought along a chart studded with dozens of red check marks indicating progress on some of the plan’s hundreds of goals.

They ranged from the notable (reestablishing arts education in the Chicago Public Schools) to the perfunctory (mayoral endorsement of culture as a public good). But the check mark that jumped out at me was the one in front of this: “Large-scale major cultural festival that attracts global attention and highlights our city’s cultural assets and heritage.”

If that was happening, it was under wraps. Nothing had been announced, and the last I’d heard on the subject had been at a cultural plan town hall meeting in July, where it was met with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. When the out-of-town consultant brought it up during a breakout session, the only comment from the group was that Chicago’s bounteous arts scene is already a year-round cultural festival and what we need is better marketing of what we’ve got.

Still, there it was on the plan, and already checked off, though DCASE was mum on the details. Then, on March 29, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city will partner with its foremost spectacle troupe, Redmoon, to inaugurate the Great Chicago Fire Festival, intended to take place annually on the main branch of the Chicago River, starting in October 2014.

Redmoon is getting $100,000 from the city for planning the event, which could cost about $1 million to produce and will be supported by both public and private funds.

“The Great Chicago Fire Festival will be truly unique, an event worthy of our world class city,” Emanuel said, in a statement released by the city. Emanuel has let it be known that he intends the riverfront to be his mayoral legacy and wants the festival to showcase the city’s assets. Exactly how that’ll work is unclear, since the current plan for the festival, culminating in “ritual burnings” of neighborhood ills, sounds like a great way to showcase the city’s problems.

The mayor’s endorsement of the festival came just one day after another major announcement about the river: Emanuel and U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood had revealed that the feds are ready to loan the city $100 million to build six more blocks along the south bank of the Riverwalk, from State Street to Lake Street. When it’s done, we’ll be able to stroll without interruption from the west end of the river’s main branch to the lakefront. The plan, posted on the city’s website, calls for each of the new blocks to have its own theme: the Marina, the Cove, the River Theater, the Swimming Hole (no, not in the river), the Jetty, and the Boardwalk. The 35-year loan will supposedly be repaid with fees from tour boats, space rentals to restaurants and other businesses, and advertising.

Gregg Pupecki, sales and marketing director at Wendella Sightseeing Company, one of the boat operators paying increased fees to support the Riverwalk project, says Wendella is OK with that. “We’re excited to be working with the city as partners in this development,” Pupecki says. “It’s going to generate an increase in pedestrian traffic, which will mean more customers.”

All of this, along with previously announced water cleanup grants from the EPA and four boathouses (think Jeanne Gang) under construction on the further reaches, has diverted attention from the biggest change coming to that part of the river—the construction of River Point and Wolf Point. These two private developments, which will look out on the new stretch of Riverwalk (and benefit from the manicured view), will plant four skyscrapers on some of Chicago’s most historic land, the famous groin where the north and south branches of the river join and turn to meet Lake Michigan, linking the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River.

The feds are ready to loan the city $100 million to build six more blocks along the south bank of the Riverwalk.
The feds are ready to loan the city $100 million to build six more blocks along the south bank of the Riverwalk.Credit: Courtesy City of Chicago

Both projects have been controversial: River Point, a 45-story office building under construction on the west bank, is getting a very expensive little 1.5-acre park built with $29 million in city TIF funds. Wolf Point, to be developed by the Kennedy family, which owns the property, and Texas-based Hines Interests (also the developer for River Point), will cram three taller buildings—one soaring to 950 feet—onto a 3.8-acre peninsula that’s now a parking lot in front of 350 N. Orleans (which happens to be the home of the Sun-Times and the Reader). In recent months, in spite of protests about density and limited access (and rumors of a casino), Wolf Point won City Council approval for the trio of towers and up to 450 hotel rooms.

Friends of Wolf Point president Ellen Barry says developers haven’t addressed traffic congestion that’ll be exacerbated by the Wolf Point project. “It’s way too big—it’s like putting Willis Tower there,” Barry says. “And there’s only one way in and one way out. There’s been tremendous growth in the area in the last five years and this is taking it way over the edge.”

So Redmoon, with its plan for a fire festival literally on the water, is sailing into complicated territory.

The announcement of the festival was illustrated with a magical scene—a nighttime image of the main branch of the Chicago River bedecked with two dozen or so giant, glowing, floating fiberglass flowers.

But when Redmoon founder and co-artistic director Jim Lasko described the festival to reporters covering the announcement, he said something surprising: the plan is to have city residents build large effigies of whatever their neighborhood most wants to get rid of, and to have a parade of those effigies on the river that’ll culminate in their ritual burning.

Who could hear this without seeing in their mind’s eye a huge, smoking gun sailing down the river in tandem with representations of homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, bad schools, segregation, and poverty?

When the effigies burn away, Lasko said, they’ll reveal a treasure inside—a symbol of the neighborhood’s hope for its future. That’s where something like those glowing flowers will come in.

If that sounds less like a tourism moment and more like communal catharsis, the man behind it says he’s hitting his primary mark.

Lasko is finishing up a year as a Loeb fellow at Harvard, where he’s been exploring ways to “create events that make cities more just, vital, and sustainable,” he said in a phone interview. He’s been thinking about something like the Fire Festival since a 2008 seminar, also at Harvard, where MIT professor and urban planner Mark Schuster talked about the “signature ephemeral event”—something that “so captures the unique character of a city that it becomes a beacon for that city.”

Jim Lasko, Redmoon founder and coartistic director, says that the Chicago Fire Festival's effigies will "reveal within them the image of hope for the community."
Jim Lasko, Redmoon founder and coartistic director, says that the Chicago Fire Festival’s effigies will “reveal within them the image of hope for the community.”Credit: Courtesy of Redmoon

In 2009, when Chicago was bidding for the Olympics and needed to showcase itself, Lasko proposed the festival to cultural affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg, who created a one-year artist-in-residence job for him that was to include planning for the Cultural Olympiad. Midway through that year, the Olympic bid crashed, and then there was “a change of the guard,” Lasko says, and the festival idea “disappeared for a period.”

But early on he’d described the idea to Michelle Boone, then the cultural programming officer at the Joyce Foundation, who was “very interested,” Lasko says. “So when the cultural plan was being written and researched, she wondered if this project would fit into it. We had a few different conversations . . . and I began to work on it again.”

The plan is still evolving, Lasko says, but it currently has three parts: the effigy development in the neighborhoods (with artists working in partnership with community residents); the river parade, launched from two of the new boathouses and ending just east of the Michigan Avenue bridge; and the 30-minute spectacle, with mechanical devices and contraptions, acrobatic performances, and music, that’ll “create a kind of ritual burning.” As the fire destroys them, the effigies will “reveal within them the image of hope for the community,” in the form of sculptures that Lasko hopes will be made of glass. Afterwards, he says, the sculptures could “go on display somewhere.”

As for showcasing chronic neighborhood problems, “Don’t we all live in knowledge of the things that impede us, both as a culture and as individuals?” Lasko says. “Isn’t understanding them part of self-improvement? I don’t buy for a second that celebrations need to be sanctified, sterile events that pretend like we live in a rose-colored world.”

The model is something like Mardi Gras, he says, where “each crew builds its own float and the entire city takes a certain amount of pride in the event.” Or another famous festival, Las Fallas, in the Spanish city of Valencia, where satirical wood and papier-mache sculptures making pointed comments on social and political issues are torched at midnight every March 19.

It’s not hard to imagine huge effigies of parking meters and crooked pols, drug lords and shameless oligarchs, floating down the river toward a fiery fate as the crowd cheers them on. Blago would be represented, and so would former mayor Richard Daley, along with Rahm and the City Council.

Which is why it’ll probably never happen. What we’ll get is something tamer and more generic. Lasko suggests “greed” as an example, and “media oversaturation,” as in “violent video games.”

Our interview took place just after the Boston bombing. I wondered how that event will affect his plans. “Logistically, I can’t say,” Lasko replied. “Frank Maugeri, my co-artistic director at Redmoon, texted me soon after it happened, with something to the effect of, ‘More fear has entered the world.’ And my response to him was, ‘Making our work more important than ever.’ It also probably makes our work more difficult. But it definitely makes it more important. Which is to say that our ability to gather, and commune, and celebrate is one of the most humanizing and important things we do with one another. And that’s what I’m trying to do with this event.”