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‘Worker Cottage Parklet’ art installation honors Chicago’s working class history

Artist Lynn Basa is photographed in her studio on Milwaukee Avenue. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Chicago’s past is right under our feet. Just below the trendy bars of Milwaukee Avenue, markers of the street’s former life as a working-immigrant thoroughfare — hand-hewn granite cobblestones and streetcar ties — lie in their final resting place buried underneath the street’s modern pavement.

Some of those granite cobblestones will be allowed to see the light of day again as part of Chicago artist Lynn Basa’s newest public art installation, “Worker Cottage Parklet,” which will be installed July 18 on the corner of Milwaukee and Wood. Commissioned by Wicker Park Bucktown Special Service Area #33 for $80,000, this is the largest public art commission in the history of the Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods.

A rendering of Lynn Basa’s “Worker Cottage Parklet” art installation and a historical photo of a cottage in Wicker Park during the late 1800s. | Courtesy of the artist
A rendering of Lynn Basa’s “Worker Cottage Parklet” art installation and a historical photo of a cottage in Wicker Park during the late 1800s. | Courtesy of the artist

The sculpture will incorporate the form of a Chicago “worker cottage” — a historical staple of the Bucktown and Wicker Park neighborhoods. Beginning in the late 19th century, these bungalow-style houses (generally around 1,100 square feet) became the first standardized affordable housing in the city. For the first time,working-class people could have luxuries like a parlor and separate rooms for the adults and children, which previously were only accessible to the rich folk, Basa said.

Unfortunately, these cottages are increasingly being torn down to build more lucrative real estate options in the tony neighborhoods. Basa saw this kind of development and gentrification when she was pursuing her graduate degree in Seattle, saying “it got to be like anywhere USA.”

Basa said she’s started to see the same thing happening in Bucktown and Wicker Park, and hopes her sculpture will be a reminder of the area’s roots. While Basa herself admits that sculpture is not her strong suit as an artist, she felt it was imperative for her to throw her hat in the ring to win the commission.

“I was just determined when they had this competition that I was going to win it, because I [did] not want to have to go through this neighborhood and see some piece of crap on that corner that doesn’t honor this neighborhood,” she said.

David Ginople, chair of the committee that commissioned the piece, said while the committee saw many other commissions, Basa’s was “absolutely the best submission” as it was the only one to incorporate the history of the area.

Basa said it was imperative that the sculpture be as true to the worker cottage as possible. The sculpture itself will be simple: the frame of a house constructed of glass bricks held together by a steel casing. The frame will be the exact dimensions of a worker cottage, and the glass bricks the same dimensions as the clay bricks used to construct the houses. Underneath the frame of the house, granite cobblestones excavated from Milwaukee Avenue will create a pathway for pedestrians, with two limestone benches carved with designs commonly found on cottage lintels flanking either side.

Lynn Basa’s “Worker Cottage Parklet” installation will feature the frame of a house constructed of glass bricks held together by a steel casing. The frame will be the exact dimensions of a worker cottage, and the glass bricks the same dimensions as the cl
Lynn Basa’s “Worker Cottage Parklet” installation will feature the frame of a house constructed of glass bricks held together by a steel casing. The frame will be the exact dimensions of a worker cottage, and the glass bricks the same dimensions as the clay bricks used to construct the original houses. | Courtesy of the artist

While Basa usually does extensive research for any of her works, this sculpture is personal for her. The grandchild of Croatian immigrants who “clawed their way up” to create a better life where she could be an artist, her history is part of the history of Chicago’s working class. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Bloomington, she’s not a native of Chicago, but said she feels incredibly at home in the city’s “built environment.”

“It just feeds me,” she said. “Sometimes my partner, Doug, [and I], we just go on dates with Chicago, and we’ll just walk and let Chicago provide.”

These dates are often along Milwaukee Avenue, an avenue where immigrant workers would come after their shifts to eat at the restaurants and drink at the bars, Basa said.

“Sound familiar?” she said. “Milwaukee Avenue is still sustaining the worker. Maybe the worker is working at Google, or in a law firm downtown, but there’s a continuity there of history that I’m hoping this sculpture, this memorial to the worker cottage can remind people of.”

To invoke the feeling of a memorial in the sculpture, Basa will have light shining through the glass bricks to create a “ghostly” aura. Her project manager, David Douglas, said it was challenging to create a glass material that would create the effect she wanted, but they eventually were able to find a way to make it look like the bricks themselves were glowing.

Basa knows that all these lights and shiny elements will make the sculpture a “selfie magnet,” and she couldn’t be happier about it. She wants this sculpture to become a living landmark of the community, somewhere where people sit and play their guitars, where people can direct their Uber drivers to meet them. Basa said this ability for interaction was a crucial aspect of the project.

“[This sculpture isn’t] just a ghost,” she said. “It’s a hopeful symbol of how the worker cottage and Wicker Park can go into the future, hopefully by embracing the future and honoring the past.”