Thursday, March 23, 2017

I had been waiting...

...for the clocks to change to take the guys over to see the Hubbard Street Mural Project on, yes, Hubbard Street, between Des Plaines and Ogden Avenue. Originally begun in the 1970s, the Project consists of a series of murals painted on the concrete railroad track embankment.

I first discovered the murals on a serendipitous weekend stroll shortly after moving back to the city in 2014. You don't hear much about them but they're really cool; I've been dying to show them to someone ever since.

So the five of us -- Alan, Jack, John, Michael and I -- set off from 1212 W. Flournoy at five o'clock sharp, as always, and zigzagged our way through the West Loop to Cemitas Puebla in the Fulton Market District. I figured since we would be looking at murals a Mexican-themed restaurant would be appropriate.

Cemitas Puebla, like so much else in that area, appears to be brand-spanking new, but turns out it's actually been open since 2014. As we were walking up to the door my son recalled that he and I had been to the original location, now closed, on North Avenue in Humboldt Park years ago after seeing it on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. As my wife would say, typical Tracy: total food recall.

A cemitas, in case you don't know (and why would you?), is a sandwich popular in Puebla, Mexico, served on a sesame seed roll with avocado, chipotle adobo and your choice of meat. (I ordered mine with breaded pork loin -- outstanding!)

After dinner we continued on up Halsted to Hubbard Street, turned left (west) and walked into the sunset toward Ogden Avenue. The paintings are on the south side of Hubbard, or the north side of the train embankment, so the light, which never shines on them directly anyway, was less than optimal in the last hour before sunset. The good news, though, was that the bare trees at this time of year afforded a more or less unobscured view of the paintings.

Hubbard Street, incidentally, was named for Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, an early Chicago settler. (And, yes, I have that first name spelled correctly.)

Born in Vermont in 1802, Hubbard came to Chicago in 1818 as a voyageur. He eventually became the city's first insurance underwriter and was almost bankrupted by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Hubbard recovered from his losses, however, and died in 1886. He's buried in Graceland Cemetery, just north of Wrigley Field, with a number of other Chicago luminaries such as John Kinzie, Alexander McClurg and Charles Wacker. (I wonder what it takes to get a street named after you in this town.)

As you walk west on Hubbard you first encounter some of the original murals that were the brainchild of Ricardo Alonzo, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago. Beginning in 1971, Alonzo and volunteers from the West Town Community Art Center painted a number of murals on a one-mile stretch of embankment until their funding ran out in 1979. Faded by time and the weather, you can still make out the original themes: wildlife, endangered species, ethnicity and Chicago history.

Crossing Racine, we noticed the murals were newer and brighter than the first set. In 2000, the Union Pacific Railroad began some rehab and repair work on this segment of the embankment, destroying much of the original art work in the process.

Conscious of the importance of the murals, what later became known as the Hubbard Street Mural Project was established to restore some of the panels and bring new artwork to the refurbished embankment. Again, wildlife images dominate, but there are some new Chicago-related themes, such as the blues, Pullman porters and the Imagists art movement.

At Ogden we turned left again and headed back for home. I looked over my shoulder and took one last picture of the murals. The Hubbard Street Mural Project is one of those hidden Chicago gems that's really worth a visit.

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