Last Monday, it was reported here that an art installation resembling a stack of newspapers had mysteriously appeared on the sidewalk of West Division Street near the corner of Damen Avenue just a few feet away from The Fifty/50 and Small Bar. The installation remains, for the most part, untouched; though, the topmost slab portraying a burnt image of a Chicago Tribune feature from June 14, 1966 reading, “7 Shot in new Disorder; 37 in Defiant Crowd seized in N.W. Side” disappeared late last week.
According to employees of the previously mentioned establishments, the installation’s origin remains unknown and its existence is, for lack of a better word, baffling.
One employee of The Fifty/50 speculated that a homeless man carrying a wheelbarrow filled with large, concrete objects could have been the anonymous artist. However, this claim lacks verification.
Aesthetically, the installation is not much to look at: gray, concrete slabs stacked one on top of the other with images of Tribune features cryptically visible on the top of each. Using back catalogs at the Chicago Public Library, I was able to trace every article portrayed on the slabs date back to 1966—particularly in June of 1966 regarding the aftermath of the Division Street Riots.
The riots took place in Paseo Boricua, “Puerto Rican Promenade,” along Division Street between Western Avenue and California Avenue. The riots began on a Sunday night, June 12, 1966 and lasted two full days resulting in Chicago Police Department enforced peace.
The supposed “cause” of the riots involved the shooting of a Puerto Rican youth, Aracelis Cruz, by a Chicago Police Officer. However, it is widely believed that trouble had been brewing in areas such as Humboldt Park, known as Little Puerto Rico, for years prior to the events of the riot.The bottom-most slab of the installation, containing a Tribune article dating back to May 12, 1966, pre-Division Street Riots, discusses city-sanctioned urban renewal projects that effectively displaced the Puerto Rican community areas of North Chicago such as Lincoln Park, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, et cetera. Within these cultural enclaves, a lack of proper communication and, oftentimes, blatant racism instigated hostile relations between the Puerto Rican Community and Chicago Police Officers.
Many considered Cruz’s shooting to be unnecessary police brutality. As such, riots persisted on Division Street from June 12th to the 14th of 1966. Stores were looted. Homemade firebombs were thrown. Civilians were injured while others were arrested. And finally, a police presence was required to restore some semblance of tranquility in the community.
It is interesting to note that Cruz was shot on the corner of Damen Avenue and West Division Street, the same location as last week’s mysterious art installation. Since its establishment, Paseo Baricua has expressed a strong sense of Puerto Rican solidarity. On either side of this community one can walk through the gateways of Paseo Baricua—Puerto Rican flags constructed using steel and standing over fifty feet tall. It is not shocking or unwarranted, then, that an anonymous citizen may wish to pay homage to the “unlawful” shooting of a Puerto Rican youth. Furthermore, the events of the Division Street Riots resulted in the greatest socio-political gains experienced by Hispanic communities in Chicago up until that point. An homage seems to these events seems completely necessary; the timing of the installation just seems a little off.
The question arises: Why erect an installation piece as a remembrance of an event that happened in June 1966 now? Unable to directly approach the installation’s creator face-to-face, this question is indeed baffling. On February 10th of this year, the Tribune ran a feature titled, “Many Complaints, Little Discipline: Excessive-Force Cases for North Chicago Police Handled Without Much Fallout For Cops,” that discusses the death of Chicagoan Darrin Hanna in November as a result of a beating at the hands of Chicago Police Officers. But this incident did not occur near West Division Street. Nor did this event result in riots amongst the Puerto Rican community.
Along a similar line of reasoning, housing costs have risen throughout Chicago forcing many households to abandon the communal solidarity of their neighborhood in search of more affordable living arrangements. However, city-sanctioned urban renewal projects of the type factoring into the underlying cause of the Division Street Riots, to the best of my knowledge and admittedly lacking at that, do not directly contribute to feelings of social upheaval.
Maybe I have read too many detective fiction stories in my life, but I scorn the notion of attributing pure coincidence to seemingly random occurrences. As such, I believe that this installation was created with some sort of socially practical message in mind: an homage to Aracelis Cruz, a remembrance of the Division Street Riots or possibly a commentary on the current state of citizen and police relations?
With the creator of the installation still a mystery, no definite answer exists. If for nothing else, the installation made myself and you, the reader, think about the events that shaped a very specific and proud neighborhood of Chicago. The Division Street Riots occurred nearly two full years before what most people would consider the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, information on these events is lacking—cryptic, burnt images of newspaper articles on top of concrete slabs included.
If you have any information or comments regarding the origin of this installation, please contact us at the Chicago Pipeline, or send me an email at dpopper212(AT SIGN)gmail.com
Davis Popper is a resident of Ravenswood and a recent transplant to Chicago, originally from Macon, Georgia. He majored in philosophy at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.