The Poetry Center of Chicago moves into a new space

Underneath the Chicago Cultural Center, tucked in a corner of the subterranean pedway system, lies the new home of the Poetry Center of Chicago.

At the center's grand opening on Saturday, board president Arica Hilton seemed giddy about the new space.

"We are so grateful," she said. "I don't think I have ever cried as much as I did this week because I am just so happy to see the space come together."

But recent months haven't been as joyous, she said. The recession meant funding cuts that forced the center to scale back or drop some of its programs.

And in June, after 15 years of being housed at the School of the Art Institute, the center was forced to leave when the college needed that space for other uses.

The center was homeless, and staff members worked where they could. "We were almost dead," Hilton said.

Then Lois Weisberg, former commissioner of Chicago's department of cultural affairs, offered a space under the cultural center - for $1 a year.

The center's new home acts as a gallery, reading room, retail space and gathering spot for the poetic type. The entrance leads into an open room with cozy chairs that are perfect for reading or relaxing. To the left are staff offices and to the right is a workshop space. The walls are decorated with broadsides from poets such as Haki Madhubuti, Christian Wiman and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The reading room is marked by an entertainment center that takes up most of the back wall. It houses reading material and retail items, including CDs of poetry readings, a collection of broadsides and anthologies collected through the "Hands on Stanzas" program, which puts poets into schools to teach creative writing and poetry. On the top shelf is a photo of the group that founded the Poetry Center of Chicago in the early 1970s (bell-bottoms and large mustaches abound).

Johnpaul Higgins, the center's managing director, is excited for the public to take advantage of the new locale.

"During rush hours a lot of people walk by this space," he said. "The reading corner is very inviting. I hope that people make this a refuge from the daily grind."

For Hilton, finding the center a new home is just the beginning of building up its programs and membership.

"Having a home gives us a sanctuary to build our organization," Hilton said. "It gives us solidarity and a good face, but we're not done. Now we're ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work."

The poetry center will be open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

cocrowder@tribune.com