The Conquest of Thalia

“Built as a hall for meetings and for musical and theatrical productions, this building was named for Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy and pastoral poetry. Typical of such halls, this design incorporated retail and residential facilities, which helped to support the theater financially. Unique among buildings of this type is its interior theater, which was modeled after that of the Old Opera House in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where many of the residents of the surrounding Pilsen neighborhood had emigrated”.

 

—Chicago Commission on Landmarks’ description of the Thalia Hall building located at 18th and Allport.

Construction had begun on several lofts on the second floor of Thalia Hall, and three retail spaces on the first floor, where owner Giuseppe Burlando placed several mural-size posters along the sidewalk windows. The posters display some of most significant of BouguereauABs representations of the female body; depicting stylized movements and imaginary scenes. The paintings expose the female nude as an object of beauty, accompanied by a pretentious statement announcing the venture:

The opening of Thalia Caffe will be the prelude to the full revival of Thalia Hall as a unique entity. Where the free man’s artistic creativity will be represented by all means of expression C9 Therefore Thalia caffe will function not only as a restaurant and lounge but mainly as a cultural naissance where art and beauty will be promoted.

In other windows, the images are accompanied by vague descriptions:

Shades of mysteries and curvatures of veiled secrets undertone over shapes and forms of a woman’s body.

The website of the real estate development firm responsible for Thalia Hall reads:

The Market Awaits 18th street, under re-development as the Pilsen Historic District: destination for strolling, shopping, dining, and entertainment …

This is yet another example of the appropriation of culture to sell real estate, and ensuing controversy over the content of the window advertisements revealed conflicting viewpoints from neighborhood residents about public space. The San Procopio parish, located across the street, circulated a petition to remove the posters, suggesting that the naked bodies were morally offensive and shameful.

Lucia Dominguez, the mother of three children who attend San Procopio’s school, had her reaction recorded in Hoy, the Tribune’s Spanish-language newspaper:

“There are drunks that touch and kiss the windows, and say nasty things in front of the kids. I’m worried that these art works will open men’s low instincts, and they could abuse one of our children”

In the Hoy article, a local artist interpreted the reactions as ignorant:
“Maybe our people are not ready. I’m not judging them, because they come from little towns and ranches, where they never learn the history of art, but we are in the twenty-first century and it is time to initiate our children openly into culture, not to be afraid of the naked body”
Guiseppe Burlando responds that he is simply “bringing culture to the Pilsen neighborhood, and opening a space where all kinds of art could be manifest”

Vital community art projects have been happening in Pilsen for decades. Organizations such as the Pros Arts Studio, Caza Aztlan, APO, Polvo Gallery, El Valor, and Meztly as well as countless exhibits, festivals and independent gallery shows make the neighborhood a hub for the intersections of several artistic communities and scenes. The area simply has an overwhelming amount of culture already, and certainly does not need New Heritage Realty to bring it in unsolicited.

The development project is affiliated with a real estate network, Pilsen Neighborhoods, which connects developers such as Roosevelt Square, Landmark Lofts, University Village, University Station, University Commons, University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and Pilsen Arts District. These new residences principally target students and professionals with higher income than the original community, incrementally increasing land value (pleasing developers with financial investments in the area) along with property taxes (a factor that pleases a fiscally-strangled city and state government).

Thalia Hall blatantly disregards the historical culture of the community living in proximity to their building. Thalia Hall is business hidden under an altruistic intention of bohemian art space restoration, and it doesn’t consider the Mexican immigrants who are living in Pilsen to be their future customers.

Addressing the moral confrontation, the invasion of public space, and the appropriation of high art for egregious advertisements, our group designed several large stickers to directly intervene on the walls of Thalia Hall. Two sentences in Spanish and English were placed in “thought bubbles” over the images on the posters . We posted them early on Sunday to catch San Procopio’s parishioners crowding out of morning masses.
One of the stickers, which appeared in Spanish and English, read:

My image doesn’t just affect your morals, it represents gentrification in Pilsen

Our objective was to emphasize the problem of displacement beyond sexual morality. The media coverage created a distraction from the real conflict by using opinions over art as an excuse to open a controversy between neighbors, making a division with superficial arguments.
An expanding university campus, the bohemian attraction of art marketing, and the disappearance of public housing are aspects of the gentrification narrative that are most obvious. Gentrification manifests in many neighborhoods throughout Chicago, like many other cities throughout the world, serving as a local reminder of larger economic transformations that unevenly reorganize space and the distribution of wealth. There are many consequences of this reorganization, yet the most significant is the further marginalization of the lowest income population.

Postscript

In January 2006, Thalia Hall’s window posters were taken down. The nudes were replaced by paintings of clothed models.