Come to rest

As long as I’ve had a relationship with Chicago, the city has been throwing up variants on the CowParade. The first such “parade” wasn’t actually in Chicago, but it was almost certainly the first place that you saw it. If you’ve somehow escaped exposure, the phenomenon centers on a series of fiberglass cow sculptures that are decorated by local artists, celebrities, companies, nonprofits, etc.

The cow concept has been replicated in a few dozen cities worldwide since Richie Daley brought it to America in 1999. Meanwhile, the city keeps finding new variations on the theme. When I lived there, downtown was decorated with variations on Mickey Mouse for a season. I wryly noted at the time that while Disney was eager to keep Mickey out of the public domain, they were happy to make him into public art.

Even more controversial was the 2001 iteration, “Suite Home Chicago.” While I never saw the installations personally, apparently they consisted of pieces of furniture painted in various Windy City themes. Not long after they went up, an activist group “repurposed” the furniture by building shacks on top of the pieces and inviting the homeless to take shelter in them. Signs painted on the sides of the buildings mockingly labeled them “Daley Village,” alerted citizens to the burgeoning crisis in housing, and (later) protested the war in Afghanistan. The incident surely ought to form a sidebar in the Bush Era chapter of some future scholar’s history of public art in America.

Yet controversy did not slake the city’s appetite for CowParade sequels. Nor did changes in administration, presidential or mayoral. So this summer, Michigan Avenue is lined with replicas of seats from Wrigley Field. Artists and community groups have been invited to illustrate them with moments from the stadium’s past 100 years. Walking north on a recent visit, I wondered what exactly Chicago’s citizens made of the public tributes to the installation of the center field scoreboard, Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game, or the brief life of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

It was my southbound walk that yielded the answer. Chicagoans were appreciating the Wrigley seats in a way they had never appreciated public art before.

They were sitting on it.

My eyes were first drawn to a lanky brunette in an oversized hat who had planted herself legs crossed, arms folded in one of the seats. She looked out at the city like she owned it — maybe one day she will. Other sitters were less monumental. I saw an old woman take a breather while her husband struggled with a map. She glared at him through it, her eyes asking him why he had brought her to such a place. A couple whose veins indicated a shared history of heroin use were asking for money to feed their kids. I gave them a dollar like the Good Lord suggests.

Up and down the street, the people were just sitting. Not taking ironic selfies or studying their favorite moment of Cubs history or even contemplating a form of avant grade protest. Just sitting, seeing, being.

I thought of the Spanish Steps, or Trafalgar Square, or the hills of Kigali, or any number of places I’d seen in other nations where I had seen people sitting thus and then wondered, “Where is this in my country?” It’s hard to find a truer answer than Starbucks — it’s where I sit half the time. Yet despite any number of green mermaid embassies available on the Magnificent Mile, people chose to sit in the bleachers instead.

Perhaps chairs on a street are like highways. Perhaps they have that strange quality where, simply by existing, they are filled with users, and the demand they satisfy remains a mysterious, inexhaustible denominator. A kind of spontaneous generation of 21st-century urbanism.

But it seems just as likely that the butts in chairs throughout downtown signify a pent-up need for seats among the tourists and locals alike. A place to rest.

It made me wonder if when I pondered similar places abroad, I gave too much credit to design. Sitting was never the Spanish Steps’ first intent, and no one can take credit for the restful hills of Rwanda except God and the people presently upon them. Maybe public places to stop and sit cannot truly be created by a willful urbanism. Maybe they only really work when the city comes to rest.

As is the fate of all things in the “City on the Make,” the Wrigley seats will eventually go up for auction (proceeds to charity, of course). But what if the people didn’t let them? What if they kept insistently sitting, demanding the city give them a place to rest as passively and as determinedly as God demanded the world give Him the Sabbath? What if they let their sweat eventually wipe away the painted memories and remake the seats as slightly awkward and malformed furniture for slightly awkward and malformed Midwesterners (myself proudly numbered among them)?

As a form of protest, it wouldn’t be as clever as “Daley Village.” It wouldn’t be as vocal as Occupy or as urgent as letting immigrants seek shelter in a church. It’s no ’68, I grant you, but in its own way, perhaps rest could be just as radical.

Photo stolen from the Trib