Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Star Wars Wars

Shame on me for having so long avoided the subject of the construction of the George Lucas vanity museum known officially as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Frankly it's a subject that hasn't exactly piqued my interest. Unlike the Obama Library which I think would be a tremendous asset to the city and the people of Chicago, I'm lukewarm about the Lucas venture. And unlike the plan to build the presidential library in an existing historically significant park, a move I strongly oppose, plopping down the Lucas museum in the Soldier Field parking lot, or on the current site of the old McCormick Place building, doesn't irk me much at all.

Plop away I say.

The real problem as I see it, is that the controversy surrounding the construction of the museum has become yet another symbol of the dysfunction that has come to define the way this city has been run for the past several years.

In an article written in Friday's issue of Crain's Chicago Business, Greg Hinz asks the question: "Who gets the blame for the Lucas Museum fiasco?"

According to Hinz, just about everybody involved is to blame and for the record, I couldn't agree more.

Hinz's list begins with Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his failure to make a convincing case to build a privately owned venture on Chicago's most valuable public land. He also scores very low in Hinz's book either for not anticipating the inevitable dispute over that land, or his sheer arrogance in believing that by the power vested in him, he could just steam roll over a century's worth of opposition to building on the lakefront.

According to Hinz, Lucas and his wife, Chicago investment banker Mellody Hobson are to blame because they also failed to properly sell the museum to the public, acting as if their "philanthropy" alone were just cause to grant them their every wish, including the location and choice of the design of the building. That design, to my eyes resembles a headless Jabba the Hut, clad in gleaming white Storm Trooper garb. Oh I forgot, this is not supposed to be a Star Wars museum so any resemblance must be purely coincidental.

Rahm-bashers come next on the blame list; you know them as the folks who according to Hinz, believe that anything the mayor supports, "has to suck."

Last but far from least in Hinz's opinion is Juanita Irizarry, the director of Friends of the Parks, the organization who has filed a lawsuit against the city to stop construction of the museum on the grounds that it violates the public trust doctrine, which grants title to all land created out of formerly submerged portions of the lake. to the state whose responsibility is to preserve that land for public use. In this case, one would be hard pressed to view the proposed site, currently the parking lot between Soldier Field and McCormick Place, as public space. In addition to the building housing the museum, the new project would add public green space to the site where there currently is none.

According to Hinz, the intransigence of Irizarry and Friends of the Parks, whom he claims, bear the biggest responsibility for the impasse, is due to their arrogance and myopia. They are according to Hinz,  "so utterly stuck on their own view of the universe that they ignore any other reality or need." The Rev. Michael Pfleger goes even further. He claims they are racist.

Excuse me?

Pfleger might just be parroting the views of Ms.Hobson, who along with her husband, Lucas Skywalker, has given a substantial amount of support to Pfleger and his church over the years. Hobson claims that the real losers, if her museum is not built, will be the "young black and brown children of Chicago." On the Friends of the Parks' actions regarding the Lucas Museum, Pfleger, not known for subtlety, says:
...it is unacceptable that a group of un-elected, unaccountable elites have the temerity to stand up and say they speak on behalf of our city's "public trust." 
Let me be clear—the Friends of the Parks have proven that they are no friends of Chicago. They have shown that they speak not for my community, not for the people who are dying every day in our city's streets; rather, they speak for a small group of elites obsessed with preserving the past and imperiling our collective future.
Now I buy into the idea that building the museum will provide job opportunities, directly through the museum and indirectly through the added tourists who will come to the city to visit. It will no doubt engage in outreach programs for disadvantaged children, a handful of whom will be inspired by the experience to do great things with their lives, just as kids today who come to similar programs in all the other major institutions in the city. But I'm not clear how the museum would address the needs of the people who are dying every day in our city's streets. Perhaps the Lucas's hired gun Father Han Solo Pfleger believes potential victims will learn self-defense techniques from the museum's proposed Jedi in training program.

As for Princess Leia Hobson, if she were truly concerned about the "young black and brown children of Chicago", one would think it would be of little significance to her on which side of Lake Shore Drive her museum was built. I'm not suggesting as many have to build the museum in disadvantaged neighborhoods on the far south or west sides (as if that would ever happen), which would really have had an impact on the communities that Father Pfleger describes. Rather I believe a good compromise would be to build it just a few hundred yards to the south and west of the currently proposed site, say on the recently cleared site of the former Michael Reese Hospital, a patch of land ripe for development. There the Lucas Museum would be a tremendous anchor to a burgeoning new community. 

Some claim that since it's the Lucas's money, they should get to choose where their museum goes and what it should look like. Well perhaps, but then please don't call the "gift" of the museum an act of philanthropy, call it an act of self-aggrandizement. 

On the other hand, while deep down I respect the Friends of the Parks and their mission, I do believe that in this case, they are going overboard with their assertion that the museum violates the public trust doctrine in any practical way. Since 1960 with the construction of the original McCormick Place (an egregious violation of the public trust doctrine), the ten block stretch of lakefront between the Field Museum and the south point of McCormick Place has blocked the view of Lake Michigan if not access to it. There are many who believe this unfortunate situation can and should be rectified by the demolition of the underused second McCormick Place building, built after the first was destroyed by a massive fire in 1967. The problem with that plan is the cost of tearing down the enormous structure, which would be borne by the taxpayers, would run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps more. That would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially during lean times for the city and state coffers. If the Friends of the Parks win their lawsuit and prevent the construction of the Lucas Museum, it's more than likely that the site in question will remain in all its lackluster glory, barely distinguishable from the desert planet of Tatooine, for the foreseeable future.

Personally I believe the Lucas Museum would be a welcome if not particularly essential addition to the cultural landscape of Chicago. Judging from its PR conduit, its slick website, the Lucas people are bending over backwards to distance the museum from the Star Wars franchise. No, it is to be a museum featuring the vast art holdings of the Lucases, displayed with the intent of using them within the context of telling stories. The web site is vague in explaining how they intend to pull it all off, the only clue is the catch phrase: "this is to be a 21st century museum designed to change the way we think about museums."

All this talk about the cultural value of the joint is sure to sway some of the "elite" folks  derided by Father Pfleger. However I'm not so sure keeping Star Wars at an arm's length is such a good idea. If stimulating job growth and opportunity in this city by drawing as many visitors as possible to the place is the city's main concern, perhaps a Star Wars theme park would do a better job than a museum of narrative history. After all, George Lucas's place in history is as the creator of one of the most successful entertainment empires of all time, not as a museum curator. I'm sure name recognition alone will draw people to the place at the outset, but once word gets out that once there you can't participate in a mock light saber battle, enter a sound booth where you can change your voice into Chewbacca's, or experience hyperdrive behind the wheel of a virtual Millennium Falcon, people might lose interest.

If that were the case, it wouldn't be the end of the world if the museum doesn't get built in Cbicago. But as always, nothing is ever so easy. The failure of Mayor Obi Wan Emmanuel and the city of Chicago to secure the development of what should have been a no-brainer of an asset that would benefit many and harm no one, would send out to the world the unequivocal message that this city is an impossible place to do business. 

If that happens, rest assured the Friends of the Parks will bear the blame and their chairman, the dark lord Darth Juanita, will be placed in the unenviable position of being known throughout town as the person who crushed the hopes and dreams of the "young black and brown children of Chicago." Furthermore, the entire conservation/preservation community of Chicago will be held guilty by association for being impractical, unyielding, and an unwelcome obstacle to this city's development and progress. Rest assured that whatever credibility there exists between most of the people of Chicago and these groups will be lost.

For the Friends of the Parks, this is a battle of principle. To them, every inch of the lakefront must forever remain inviolate, regardless of the current status of the area in question. If the Lucas museum is built as planned, nothing of value will be lost, no dangerous precedent will be set, and if anything, the lakefront would gain public green space. If Friends of the Parks succeed in preventing the construction of the museum, the open lakefront movement would gain little if anything, other than bragging rights. I have nothing against fighting battles purely out of principle, but there are times when those battles are simply not worth winning.

In a short while. a federal appeals court will decide whether or not to proceed with the Friends of the Parks lawsuit to halt construction of the Lucas Museum. For the sake of the entire conservation/preservation community of Chicago, all the landmark parks, buildings and institutions in desperate need of our help saving, and especially for the sake of Friends of the Parks, I hope they lose this battle.

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