Chicago Cultural Center: Free concerts and events and solitude

Libraries represent perhaps the best crossroads of our public and private selves available in the civic landscape. They are where we quietly seek out other peoples' stories while surrounded by fellow citizens on their own quests for literary treasure and human knowledge.

Though it outgrew its role as Chicago's main library decades ago, the Chicago Cultural Center remains one of the best places in the city for natives and out-of-town visitors alike to enjoy solitude and solidarity simultaneously through the programming of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

Here is where the footsore and winter-weary can find shelter in "the people's palace," surrounded by luxurious Beaux Arts architecture (including, famously, the largest Tiffany stained-glass dome in the world in Preston Bradley Hall) and contemporary art, some by local artists. Here is where an ever-changing lineup of music can be heard — from the dance-DJs-electronica "Wired Fridays" program (noon to 1 p.m. the first and third Fridays of the month), to the classical Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts (12:15 p.m. every Wednesday) to the "Loops and Variations" occasional Sunday matinees of new music from artists such as Third Coast Percussion and Fifth House Ensemble.

Oh, and it's all free.

The Cultural Center's current exhibit in the fourth-floor Sidney R. Yates Gallery, "Mecca Flat Blues" (through May 25), based on the long-demolished but historically significant Mecca apartment building in Bronzeville, serves as its own fitting metaphor for the struggle between private and public, past and present.

On a recent "Gallery Talks" tour, Chicago Cultural Center historian Tim Samuelson noted that the 96-unit Mecca, constructed in 1891, "seemed to inspire unusual behavior from the start." Despite the fact that all of the units looked out over two central atriums, thus presumably making it less than ideal for those with something to hide, "the strangest place in Chicago," as a 1950 Harper's Magazine article once called it, contained a wealth of volatility and creativity.

Social-realist artist Ben Shahn illustrated the Harper's piece, and the documentary photographs he took for reference are on public display for the first time in this exhibit.

Samuelson took his visitors through the oversized blowups of photographs and news clippings from the Mecca over the years that explored everything from a woman killing her lover to arson to a young girl asking, through the pages of the Chicago Defender, for access to a piano in order to practice her music. In the background, "Mecca Flat Blues" played on a continuous loop of 10 versions, from the 1924 original by Jimmy Blythe and Alexander Robinson, sung by Priscilla Stewart, to a 1968 take by Spanky and Our Gang.

The building also served as the inspiration for Gwendolyn Brooks' "In the Mecca," a long narrative 1968 poem about the disappearance of a little girl in the building, published after the Mecca was demolished in 1952 to make way for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's masterpiece Crown Hall on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus.

(The struggle between the Mecca tenants and IIT, and the Mecca's larger role as a symbol of urban decay versus urban renewal, comes into focus in Thomas Dyja's 2013 book "The Third Coast." Dyja will give a talk on the Mecca in the Yates Gallery on April 8.)

On March 14-15, the Cultural Center hosts the 11th annual Creative Chicago Expo, featuring workshops, exhibits and keynote addresses from installation and "social practice" artist Theaster Gates, fashion designer Maria Pinto, chef Carrie Nahabedian of NAHA fame and film producer Robert Teitel (the "Barbershop" series). You can text your questions to the speakers at 312-533-4101.

Meantime, Czech/Israeli artist Jan Tichy's "aroundcenter" installations, on display through April 27, combine photography, sculpture and video projection to explore the connections between the building and the city.

The city's crime statistics come into stark focus in Tichy's "War Memorial," which projects the names and time and date of deaths for many Chicago homicide victims over the past seven years on the stairwell closest to the second-floor Grand Army of the Republic Hall, itself designed as a memorial for Civil War Union soldiers. In the second-floor Chicago Rooms gallery, Tichy creates an exhibit-within-an-exhibit with "Changing Chicago 2014," with images from the 1986-87 "Changing Chicago" documentary project of 33 photographers combined with contemporary video by Tichy and Chicago high school students.

On one wall in the gallery hangs a blowup of Bosnian-born, Chicago-based novelist Aleksandar Hemon's "Reasons I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago." Reason No. 6 — "The tall ice ranges along the shore when the winter is exceptionally cold and the lake frozen for a while, so ice pushes ice against the land" — resonates particularly well after this brutal winter.

Visitors to the Cultural Center whose eyes move from Hemon's laundry-list love letter to the pyramid of images of landmark buildings — some gone, some extant — anchoring one wall in the gallery, and then out the huge windows to the bustling street life of Michigan Avenue and the open space of Millennium Park, may well devise their own private stories in this public place about what Chicago means to them, season after season.

Chicago Cultural Center

When: Mon.-Thu. 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed holidays.

Where: 78 E. Washington St.

Tickets: Free; 312-744-3316 or

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