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UPTOWN CHICAGO COMMISSION

Uptown in the News  

December 7, 2005
News-Star
Controversial Uplift mural divides Uptown community
"Social Justice" replaces images of activists
By Angela Caputo


In some ways the walk down Wilson Avenue just east of Sheridan Road hasnít changed a bit in recent years despite a major economic revival in the Uptown area.

Itís not uncommon to see someone down and out waiting on the corner for the bus or a friend. The flagship Friendly Towers building marks the long-standing home of the Jesus People USA. And although under a new name this year, a gate to the Arai campus, now home to the Renaissance 2010 school Uplift, remains open and welcoming to the community.

But a clash of opinion earlier this fall over a mural painted in the schoolyard hints at a tension over changes in the Uptown community that might not be quite so obvious on a stroll down the 900 block of West Wilson Avenue.

When images of revolutionary figures Che Guevara and Angela Davis were painted along a brick wall facing the main entrance to Uplift more than a month into the new school year, it caused a stir among neighbors. Along with the real estate booming, and ultimately more affluent residents moving in, some are calling for a new and different image for Uptown.

Some mural opponents see Davis, a former-radical activist and Black Panther once on the FBIís "Most Wanted" list who later turned author and professor; and Guevara, who helped stage a violent campaign to overthrow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, as dangerous role models.

In a show of outrage, more than 1,700 hits were recorded on a message board of the community association Buena Park Neighbors. And 55 messages, mostly from people upset by the mural, were posted including charges that the two figures are anti-Caucasian and "well-known anarchists" with "violent histories." Others noted that the muralís graffiti style could encourage gangbanging and other tagging.

James Cappleman, the board president of the civic group the Uptown Chicago Commission, said he saw the mural as inflammatory at the least. "They were highlighting two role models who used violence for their cause," he said. "And they used graffiti-style writing," which he cautions could promote gang activity.

Cappleman, who lives just around the corner from the school, decided to take action by launching a petition aimed at capturing the attention of schoolsí CEO Arne Duncan whom he hoped would help to have it removed. He collected signatures through his Web site uptown-neighbors.org and isnít sure exactly how many signed on.

It appears that the plea came too late though.

Uplift officials had already agreed to wipe out the figures and replace them with an urban skyline and additional words of inspiration.

Apparently there was some initial confusion when a member of Jesus People USA Ė without the proper authority Ė gave the muralists the OK to put Davis and Guevara on the wall, which is actually owned by the congregation, said Chor Ng, a former Arai teacher who went on to help found Uplift and is now a key administrator.

When another official from the religious community saw the images, he asked that they be removed, Ng said. "It was a lot less controversial than people thought. Out of respect (for the Jesus People) we said "Fine, weíll take it down."

So the local muralists James Sprugeon, an Uptown native who is working with students on other projects inside Uplift, painted over the images that he and a team of artists had created on the wall.

Even though the images are gone from the schoolyard, outrage over the images of Davis and Guevara along with the graffiti-style script of words including "social justice" struck a nerve among some teachers particularly because Uplift has adopted the theme of social justice, which it is incorporating into its entire curriculum. The idea, Ng said, is to empower students by teaching them about civic leaders who have made a difference in their communities.

In light of the example the schoolís founders are trying to set, Ng said, "Itís almost hypocritical taking (parts of the mural) down without a fight." Perhaps the images will be recreated within the school building, he added. But for the time being, "it had to take a back seat to getting the school on track."












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