The space in the list is meant to represent those who didn't know what freedom was.
The space in the list is meant to represent those who didn't know what freedom was. Credit: Andrea Bauer

The best way to see Adam Brooks’s most enduring piece of artwork—a list of 69 names that includes Martin Luther King Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Rush Limbaugh—is briefly and frequently, through the windows of an el train. “You ascertain that there’s some kind of connection,” Brooks says of the banner mounted on the side of 325 W. Huron. “There’s no title on the work, so you have to make the association of names.”

Once you learn the title of the piece, Freedom Wall, the connection becomes clear. During the run-up to the 1992 election, Brooks found himself buried in rhetoric about freedom. But what did “freedom” actually mean in the land of the free? Brooks, who is from England, decided to ask people who they thought best represented the idea of “freedom.”

Most of his friends and colleagues, however, had very similar, leftist views. He wanted a more diverse pool. So he took to the then-nascent America Online, where he found political conservatives and also civics teachers who agreed to poll their students. In the end, he got names from 800 people. He chose the 69 most frequently mentioned—and left one space to represent the people who, as one respondent put it, didn’t know what freedom was, or if it even existed. “But in hindsight,” Brooks says, “the space allows people to insert their own figure onto the list.”

Freedom Wall went up in August 1994. The names were all hand-lettered in enamel paint onto a vinyl backdrop by Bob Morales, a sign painter in Hammond, Indiana. The banner has survived weather, pollution, and real estate transactions. The only way it would disappear is if a building went up in the parking lot next door, making it invisible from the el. If that happens, Brooks thinks he’d do the project again, just to see how the names might change.

“It’s a fundamental question,” he says, “how we perceive ourselves living this so-called free life and what that means. There are so many ways freedom can be interpreted. It’s an issue that will not go away really.”

Have an unusual observation or favorite oddity about a neighborhood?