That’s No Way to Treat a Lady

When it was dedicated in 1996, Jane Addams Memorial Park, part of Navy Pier Park near Ohio Street Beach, featured the only permanent monument to a woman on Chicago Park District property. Helping Hands, a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, wasn’t your typical cast-bronze heroic figure on a pedestal. It consisted of six life-size hands carved out of black granite bases; according to Art Institute documents, the piece “celebrates the thousands and thousands of people Jane Addams served, rather than glorifying a single, humble individual.” “Humble” describes the statue’s placement, too: while the park’s right off a busy stretch of the lakefront path, the four-foot-high installation was set in the middle of a sunken “secret garden” and often obscured by prairie grasses.

Now the Park District and the Art Institute–which together administrated the $1 million for the park, $700,000 of it from taxpayers–have decided they chose the wrong place and the wrong work to commemorate the woman who founded Hull-House. The sculpture had been vandalized at least twice since 2002 and was finally removed last spring, leaving behind two tarnished bronze signs and an iron railing that guards a bowl-shaped patch of scrub.

Two of the sculpted hands had been damaged; one had had all its digits chopped off. Some pieces were picked up by a sharp-eyed pedestrian and brought to the Art Institute early last year, but conservator Barbara Hall says that the sculpture was beyond the point where she could do anything. “It looked like someone kept taking a sledgehammer to it,” says Park District historian Julia Bachrach, who’s shepherding the reinstallation. Now it sits in a Park District warehouse while Bourgeois, who’s 93, carves two new hands in her New York studio.

Activists weren’t really surprised by the memorial’s demise. “We were happy to have a park named after a woman–there were so few of them–especially a prominent woman who did so much for so many people in the city,” says Erma Tranter, executive director of the watchdog group Friends of the Parks. “But it didn’t work out. The sculpture never had the prominence one would expect of Jane Addams.” Adds Rosalie Harris, president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, “From the get-go, SOAR was very disappointed with the installation. Some people called [that area] the Pit.”

A sculpture park was first proposed in 1989 by the Jane Addams Memorial Committee, made up of city and community representatives. Art Institute trustees overseeing the B.F. Ferguson Monument Fund, which over the past century has commissioned some two dozen public sculptures, selected Maya Lin from an initial list of five artists to design a memorial in Grant Park. But she took a pass. Project curator Mary Jane Jacob then turned to Bourgeois, though she wasn’t one of the original candidates. According to documents, she initially planned to create an “abstracted portrait” of Addams surrounded by steplike seating, but after the site was changed to Navy Pier Park, Bourgeois came up with the hands idea. It was said to be based on an account in Addams’s book Twenty Years at Hull-House of seeing the poor in London begging for food with outstretched hands. It also just so happened that Bourgeois was working on a series of sculptures involving disembodied hands at the time.

Why was the memorial placed in Navy Pier Park rather than on the near west side, where Addams lived and worked? Jacob referred questions to the city. But when interviewed for a 1997 Reader story, she said that the lakefront is “where we strut our stuff” as a city, and that the Ferguson Fund and memorial committees thought a feminist-oriented “antimonument” to someone of Addams’s stature had just as much right to be there as “all those guys who claim our communal spaces.”

Since last summer a group has been meeting to decide where the sculpture should be reinstalled. One strong possibility, members say, is the courtyard of the Hull-House Museum, at 800 S. Halsted. The outdoor space separates two of the original Hull-House buildings, all that remain of the 13-structure complex where Addams and Ellen Gates Starr forged a national reform movement. Regular campus patrols and a security system would discourage vandalism, says director Margaret Strobel. “It would be meaningful to move the sculpture [here]–I think it’ll get more attention and be more safely displayed.”

If that happens, the 555-park system would once again lack any monuments to women. But the Park District has been trying to make up for it in other ways. Last March, Julia Bachrach launched an initiative to rename small neighborhood parks after historically significant Chicago women, and as of this month the board of commissioners has voted to rename 17 of them, bringing the total to 44.

Neither Bachrach nor Hall could say how much it will cost to restore the Jane Addams monument, which Bourgeois is expected to finish by this summer. It’s not even clear yet who’ll pay for it, though the Ferguson Fund does have an annual maintenance budget. Reinstallation could be another matter. Strobel says that if the piece were to end up at the Hull-House Museum, “money would have to be found” to redesign the courtyard. –Jeff Huebner

DIY Success–With a Little Help From a Corporate Giant

Last Saturday NPR’s Weekend Edition ran a short piece on the remarkable success of Joe Meno’s latest novel, Hairstyles of the Damned, the debut title from Punk Planet’s new publishing imprint with New York-based Akashic Books. The book, reported Scott Simon, had sold 20,000 copies to date. But that, says Punk Planet publisher Dan Sinker, is a little off. The segment was taped in November, and at this point sales have hit 30,000.

The marketing plan for Hairstyles–worked out by Sinker and Meno in an afternoon at the Wilson Avenue skate park–was pretty minimal, and relied heavily on word of mouth and DIY ingenuity. They ran off 2,000 copies of the first eight chapters as a black-and-white newsprint zine and gave away about half at last summer’s BookExpo America. The rest Meno packed into his Ford Focus and took with him on a six-week, 36-city tour, leaving them in record stores, cafes, and anywhere else there might be readers who’d respond to a story about punk-rock kids growing up on Chicago’s south side.

The book’s big break, however, can be attributed to two people with no ties to Punk Planet: the Barnes & Noble fiction buyer who ordered 4,700 copies–more than the entire first printing–before Meno’s tour had even started, and the manager of the chain’s “Discover Great New Writers” series, who singled it out for the program’s holiday promotion.

“When you do things at this grassroots underground level, it’s a slow burn,” says Sinker, pointing out that his 2000 collaboration with Akashic, We Owe You Nothing: The Punk Planet Interviews–until recently one of the press’s top sellers–has sold 12,000 copies over the last four years. “There was no doubt in my mind we were going to sell 10,000 copies of Joe’s book,” he says. “But I thought it was going to take a year, and it took two months.” –Martha Bayne

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Art Institute of Chicago.