Dear Chicago, from Mess Hall

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #1 in August 2005]

Dear Chicago,

I love you. Unabashedly, with devotion, and always. You have millions of faces and voices. You are daring but Midwestern. Homegrown, yet futuristic. Surprising and comfortable, with streets that curve, but always with your eye on the lake.

My darling Chicago, you are the city of my dreams, but, as both you and I know, you have a lot of room for improvement. I mean, I do, too – I’m not one of those spaces that’s going to sit here in judgment of you and insult you over dinner. But so many people have used and abused you.

The things you’ve given away for free: your public spaces, your generous moments, your research labs and archives, your libraries and moments of rest – all are fading, few and far between. Chicago, I love these gifts, and I want to see more of you through them!

Why do you give these special moments to commerce? Why must I wade through tired missives from snake oil peddlers, when I’m only craving to hear you huskily whisper “Urbs in Horto, Sweetheart,” in my ear?

Chicago, I remember some of your past suitors. I was in love with them, too – the nomadic Culture in Action series which sprung that ghost neighbor to me, Flood (from those people in Haha); the risky and exciting space that excised its pigeons and became Axe Street Arena; the intimidating force that was Randolph Street Gallery. The ever-changing histories of the Experimental Station and the Resource Center keep my gait strong and my head high, too.

I’m running in place trying to catch up with all your memories of the other love letters that have soaked that space in your heart where places like me clamor for attention. There were many before me and hopefully many will come after. Chicago, I hope you feel like I do – that love and culture are not bound to economies of starvation but always push forward abundance.

I try to appeal to many sides of you-the loud music enthusiast, the budding amateur teenage chef, the workshop junkie, those who crave quiet moments, those who crave social conflux. I try to mirror the place in your heart that you’ve allowed me to stay in: the RP, as I call it.

Rogers Park has been a great place for me – four blocks west of your vast ocean of a lake, right next door to a blistering highway of your public transport, down the street from many other spaces and places that love you like I do.

This is what I offer you: unlimited moments of social experimentation. Free sharing of skills and resources. Exhibitions of projects, research, and work. Listening. Eating. Discussing.

I know there’s no way I can give you everything you want every moment of the day. But please: hang out with me every once in a while. Check out my date book. It’s full of events that have nothing to do with each other and have everything in common all at once. It’s full of moments that mean something to me and my keyholders-moments that I hope are meaningful and wonderful for you, too.

I remain your

Mess Hall

P.S. I’m a storefront space in the Rogers Park neighborhood just southwest of the Morse stop on the Red Line. My keyholders have included Ava Bromberg , Brett Bloom , Dan S. Wang, Marc Fischer, Mike Wolf, Jane Palmer, Marianne Fairbanks, Sam Baldwin Gould, and Salem Collo-Julin – of which the latter transcribed this note from my wheezy dictation. I’ve hosted events ranging from two-hour investigations of personal record collections, trading and barter days, and potluck brunches, to overviews of projects in the worlds of mapping, walking, food technology, and sound. Alan Goldberg, my landlord, accepts a tiny rent fee from my keyholders in exchange for having something like me in his building. My keyholders offer every event free of charge to the public, in the spirit of Alan’s arrangement. You can meet me at 6932 North Glenwood Avenue, in the city of my dreams, or at

P.P.S. Here’s some places to find out more information about some of those fellow suitors (former and current) I mentioned:

The Randolph Street Gallery was an experimental artist-run space in Chicago for over twenty years.

Culture in Action: A Public Art Program of Sculpture Chicago , with essays by Mary Jane Jacobs, Michael Brenson and Eva M. Olson (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), will tell you more about the multi-faceted public art project that gave rise to the project “Flood.”

“Flood” was a storefront greenhouse that provided hydroponically grown organic vegetables to people with AIDS. The space also became a meeting place for discussions, and hosted a resource library for its visitors. “Flood” was initiated by the group Haha (Richard House, Wendy Jacob, Laurie Palmer, and John Ploof), and lived in Chicago not far from Mess Hall’s storefront.

The Axe Street Arena was a gallery and social space that ran from 82 through 89 in the Logan Square neighborhood. They hosted, amongst many other great events, “Graffiti ’86,” one of the first Chicago exhibitions devoted to this art. Someone please make a publication or website about Axe Street! Among Axe Street’s founders were the artists Laura and Michael Piazza, Bertha Husband, and Elizam Escobar.

The Experimental Station, located at 6100 South Blackstone in the Hyde Park neighborhood, is home to Chicago’s first-ever recycling program, a bicycle cooperative that trains neighborhood kids to make bikes, a wood shop, a baking oven, artists’ studios, a literary journal, and more. After a devastating fire threatened the Station in 2001, a rebuilding process led to the creation of the Experimental Station: a re-charged, re-energized neighborhood center and global resource that will host some of the old projects, along with many new ones.

The Resource Center is a non-profit environmental educational organization. It started as Chicago’s first-ever recycling program (sound familiar?), and still provides recycling resources for hundreds of homes, schools, and workplaces throughout the city. The Resource Center also organizes and executes the City Farm project: several working farms within the boundaries of the city of Chicago that create and sell organic produce to food makers and the public.

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