Little Puerto Rico

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How much do you really know about Puerto Rico ? The island is part of the United States, but few people really understand the culture or the territory that comes with it. There are many similarities between Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries like Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but there is one underlying difference : the Northeast Corridor. To discount this incredible region of biodiversity would be to miss the defining characteristic of this geographic location.

I live in Humboldt Park, which is little Puerto Rico of Chicago. It’s all about street culture: street art, street food, and street music. Cumbia and tango blast from the neighborhood joints on the weekends, and it’s not uncommon to hear music coming from jukeboxes as families picnic in the fields of the park.

You should not be afraid of Humboldt Park. It’s a convenient location to get close to nature, play a pickup game of soccer, or go swimming in the playa (much cleaner than Lake Michigan). The historic boathouse is the symbol of Puerto Rican culture. See the kids go in one day and emerge as adults 12 years later; the Puerto Rican community is strong and nurturing, propping up all the children to be proud of their Borinquen culture. Plus, Humboldt Park is just a hop, skip, and jump away from the loop, with an awesome view of the skyline as you hike through the greenery, the weeping willows framing your view.

Try some plaintain in the park, say “hello” to the old grandpas playing cards on the corner of California and Division, and frequent some of the local haunts, like Hunter and Tail and Bullhead Cantina. This is a place to celebrate diversity and let go of your apprehension about people who don’t act and look and think like you do. Just embrace the difference and see what’ll become of the time you spend here.

The Rat Race

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Some of you may be wondering what happened to the regular posts on this blog. Just another blip on the radar, just another grain of rice growing in the fields of China, just another pixel in a wide-screen television broadcasting the latest sporting event. To be honest, the rat race had me wrapped up tightly in a chokehold. I was–and am–a slave to the system, whether I like it or not. 

Creative flourishing led into a period of intense creative stagnation, which covered me like sludge from the sidewalk as I stood dripping like a pole in the alleyway. It was an all-encompassing dirt, the kind that never quite washes out. Several thundershowers later, the pepper is flowing through my blood again, albeit without direction.

Inspired by My Ishmael, Daniel Quinn’s sequel to Ishmael, I’ve been considering the way we define success. Many people work part-time, some people work full-time. Most people work enough to get by, while others work enough to support their consumption habits. In a world with hundreds of thousands of different cultures and paths, who’s to say that you should work more if you have enough food? People think we should look to the gods, psychics, or gurus for answers to how to live, but the knowledge is in us. We just think of human nature as fundamentally flawed, but it’s not. It’s the system that’s flawed, and we conform to it because we aren’t presented with other options. 

Taking the GRE last week left me with an overwhelming desire for regression. To renounce all my possessions and work on a farm, living off the land and permanently muting the monotonous city soundtrack. To call this a regression is to apply our cultural norms to an alternative lifestyle–I’ve been brainwashed. Such a drastic decision would take a rebirth and a strong resolve to revolutionise my lifestyle. But why instigate change when things are comfortable ?

They say never to get too comfortable in any relationship or job. Ambition is healthy for the spirit. It is. To strive is to struggle, then thrive, in less-than-perfect surroundings. The question is, how long can we remain complacent living in a world where we have to trade our time for bags of food that are kept under lock and key in storage houses ?

That food used to be free. 

Trade in one situation’s problems for another situation and its set of problems. Or, find solutions. Community gardens, co-ops, and vertical agriculture all seek to eliminate urban food deserts. This topic is near and dear to my heart because I live in a food desert. The West side of Chicago has a beautiful park, but no grocery stores in sight. What comes next ? Indoor trellises with veggies and fruit snaking their way through the gaps ? Petitions ? Start-ups ? 

Living in an up-and-coming neighborhood has its perks. There are no obnoxious drunk people lining the street, the park is incredibly lush and well-preserved, and the culture is purely Puerto Rican. People have each others’ backs, and the bus drivers cut you a break when you need it. But after Riot Fest, we all realized that there would be less of the neighborhood spirit to go around once events started to happen more often. Give it five years, and Humboldt Park will be booming like Williamsburg. It’s a matter of time, evolution, and the rise and fall of civilizations. Maybe this place will find a sustainable way to live in this city, some method forgotten centuries ago. The machines are quieter here, so all you have to do is listen.

Festival Fanaticism in Chicago

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Festival season is upon us. Now that the sun has come out and the snow and rain have stopped falling, we Northerners have left our homes to bask in the light of day. While some will shed their extra pounds jogging along the lake, others shed their skins and join the crowds at one of Chicago’s many festivals this summer.

From the Taste of Randolph, to the Blues Festival, to Midsommar Fest, the list never ends. The one I can’t wait to attend is the 2nd annual Wavefront Music Festival. From July 5-7, Montrose Beach will blow off the tops of not only Chicago house heads, but people from all across the map. Chicago’s music scene sells itself, but stores like Gramaphone Records and others have been selling tickets like hotcakes to eager gophers ready to get their groove on at Lake Michigan.

This is a massive shindig with the hottest, most talented electronic musicians planet Earth has to offer. Mainstream mavericks like Nicolas Jaar and Cedric Gervais will be spinning alongside newcomers like Nadia Ali and Fehrplay during the July 4th holiday weekend. Rain or shine, the sand will be shaking beneath your feet for 3 days straight.

Music lovers across the world now have something else to talk about that doesn’t involve where to get neon headbands and slated sunglasses. Some of Chicago’s finest will be performing alongside international talent, including Derrick Carter, Michael Serafini, Frankie Knuckles, Ralphi Rosario, Mark Farina, Jamie Principle, and Gene Farris.

For more information about this year’s lineup, visit the official Wavefront page.

Irvine Welsh at Lit Fest

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When I met Irvine Welsh at Lit Fest in Chicago, the stadium was not packed. I can’t imagine why, considering the man has written some of the best fiction I’ve ever read, including Crime, Acid House, and Trainspotting. We watched Jennifer Day ask the standard questions and corrected them in our heads, thinking we could’ve done the interview better, banter and all.

Welsh told us he moved to Chicago to escape the monotony of London life. Dealing with high-end publishers is so New York, and he and his wife wanted a change of pace. Chicago, Welshit seemed, offered a reprieve from the non-stop hustle of places like London and New York City without the confetti and cake of Los Angeles. With all the Irish influence in the city, he felt right at home.
After spending hours in pubs making his liver beg for sweet mercy, Welsh realized he had to get down to business. He said that some writers have the great task of reconciling their socialite tendencies with their creative sensibility, which requires them to isolate themselves for days on end with people who don’t exist. These fictional characters become a part of them–he even creates a soundtrack for each character to inspire him to write from a particular perspective.
Welsh’s next novel will focus on the serendipitous encounter of an overweight artist and a personal trainer in Miami. The trainer will sequester the artist in order to monitor her caloric intake, and the two will learn loads from each other about life, love, and all the rest. Sounds satirical, no ?
Welsh quipped about frequenting pubs for “character building”, but his most accurate remark was about the quality of life in America, establishing him as a social critic and a classic Chicagoan. Progressive taxation, he argued, is a must for a society that wants to have healthier workers and higher productivity. Take that, Tea Party.
In his book Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt argues that progressive taxation leads to a more trusting society that is egalitarian. The crux is that when benefits like health care, unemployment, and time off are similar across the board, people trust each other not to screw each other over for a raise at work or a better deal on car insurance.
A slice of the proverbial pie is available to any and all.
This opportunity makes social reform easier to propose on a grander scale. So the higher our taxes, the more likely we are to lead harmonious lives. Associating higher taxes with happiness is unheard of in modern American culture. Maybe what Welsh means is that it all makes for a fitter, healthier, and harder-working community and that should be Big Brother’s number one priority.
Regardless of whether or not we agree with what Welsh said, it’s important for us to have people with diverging opinions in our country, especially when these people are literary boons and social critics. It’s been years since an author spoke out about anything for fear of jeopardizing their sales.
Irvine Welsh waxed poetic on the formation of the world’s most egotistical, innovative, and productive nation, pointing out weakness to a public with a keen literary sensibility. He also told me that his favourite brand of whiskey is the Scottish Highlander. For his courage, his insight, and his sense of humor, he deserves to stay in America.

The Finder Things Pattern Conference: Diagram, Ornament, and the Construction of Joy

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The chilly brick warehouse invited any and all into its creativity-inducing spaces for a potluck pattern conference on a beautiful sunny day in East Garfield Park.

Peppered with eclectic vintage sculptures, roaming cats, and DIY instruction books, Catington Station feels more like a friend’s house than a warehouse. The Finder Things, a DIY-inspired collective of Chicago-based artists and entrepreneurs, hosted a conference at Catington Station on Sunday, May 5, 2013. The Pattern Conference was held in conjunction with the monthly Kedzie Stop Market at 3144 W. Carroll. The Kedzie Stop Market is a great way for artists to get their work out to the public. More exposure is a good thing when it comes to crafters, artists, and entrepreneurs. Windy City Mindy had a table full of cheese boards set up for sale, which puts her in direct competition with well-known artisanal shops like Pastoral and Foodstuffs.

Morgan Martinson and her husband Dave started a string of studios in an attempt to make affordable living more accessible for Chicago’s creative crowd. And it worked. Catington Station is now home to Astrolab Studios, Adela Red, and other notable parts of the network.

Designers, artists, business-owners, and musicians all came together to share their views on lifestyle, art, leisure, work, craftsmanship, and more. The “lonely adventure” from a nascent career to a mature livelihood is a long path, and people like Adela Red, Jessica Calek, and Jackie Lerash discussed some of the obstacles freelancers are faced with on a daily basis. They also gave suggestions for successful interdisciplinary collaboration and how to be truly inspired by the work you do.

The presentations ranged from knit artistry to architectural design to a drumming demonstration by author and professional skateboarder Amos Soma Fuller. Explaining linear and cyclical rhythms in beat-keeping, he gave examples of each, showing that patterns are auditory and kinetic as well.

With such a strong community of artists, it is no wonder Chicago is home to the tightest DIY culture in America. The more events Catington Station hosts, the more in-tune we’ll all be with the youthful sentiment of this global shift in cultural consciousness. Capital can be hand-made.

Strange Fruit : Racing for Real

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Yesterday morning, I ran a 5k. More specifically, it was the Ravenswood Run in Chicago’s newest yuppie neighborhood. With doggie yoga shops and puppet shows for canines abound, this several block stretch of cobblestone is a winning lukewarm combination of inauthentic Thai restaurants (read: Polygon Cafe) and upscale dive bars (@mosphere).

The race was sold out this year. 3,499 runners and I were feverishly doing our last-minute stretches at the starting line. Earbuds were in, scaredy-cats were out. As we began our slow progression through the shut down streets, it struck me how bizarre it was to be doing the exact same movements as so many other humans with the aim of finishing first, with no other true motivation than personal glory and accomplishment. ravenswood run starting line

Yes, the race benefits the local food pantry and Episcopal church, but people participate for their own reasons. Community, health, goal-setting, companionship, boredom. I like the competitive aspect of it all. This particular event spurred me to set a personal record despite the fact that I drank too many liquids beforehand. I pushed that thought out of my mind as I kept pace with a lady wearing a neon orange sports bra, her skin a wrinkly reminiscence of tanning salons and leisurely pregnancies.

As we fidgeted impatiently before the 8 AM foghorn, the announcer asked us to give a prayer before we ran. It was unclear whether it was to honor the Boston Marathon victims or because the run was affiliated with the Church. Either way, I looked around and wondered what it would be like to live in a truly secular society.

Crossing the finish line, I saw crates upon crates of ripened bananas, big boxes of bottled water, paper cups overflowing with Gatorade, and gooey complimentary cinnamon buns further down the street. Why not have water taps ? Don’t they know that you don’t need electrolytes after running a 5k ? What did they do with the extras ? You would think the food pantry got them, but it’s hard to tell.

After I got my gear and changed, I opted to make breakfast at a friend’s house instead of paying $10 for mass-produced pancakes soaked in syrup. They could have been tasty, but I’m skeptical. Have you noticed ? Although it felt good to finish the run and know I did something to help the community, I think next time I’ll try and do something a little less high-impact for the sake of my joints. That, and eat less salt.

What is the Cultural Significance of DIY Collectives ?

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The process of creation is as mysterious as the process of destruction. Say ‘Yes’ to the exploration of both.

My last job had everything to do with me cranking out articles about how to make easy DIY crafting projects. Ever since I left the corporate world, I’ve been bombarded with situations in which I say to myself, “You could totally DIY that.”

I was covering a First Friday event at the MCA in Chicago and saw Jason Lazarus’s Phase 1/Live Archive exhibit right at the entrance. It had a bunch of picket signs that didn’t seem like they were of the beaux arts type. Like so many contemporary works of art I encounter, it was screaming “DIY” to me.

Jason Lazarus exhibit

It’s been said that the best ideas are the ones you wish you’d thought of yourself. This got me thinking: how is DIY culture connected to the anti-corporate mentality ?

The internet defines DIY culture as being part of the punk, anti-consumerist movement. Let’s be real though. Anti-consumerism gets more widespread the less money people have. Makers are mavericks in the years of the “Great Recession”.

2013 DIY collectives : 1600s Crafting guilds ?

My series on the one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement explores the new developments in modern protest culture. More and more people and organizations are using crowd-sourcing platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to make their goals financially possible. Nowadays, DIY culture is everywhere. The microsites at the company I worked at had over 6 million subscribers. Whether it’s cooking food, sewing clothes, or making decorations, all of us DIY something everyday. This fad is beyond anarchists and hippies, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Individuals that are well-off tend to not ask others for favors and often live more isolated lives because of it. Be proactive, collaborate with your community, friends, pets–even your alter-ego.

Say ‘Yes’ to the satisfaction that comes from making something. You will find countless doors opening to let you inside.