From June 28-30, the Logan Square Arts Festival (LSAF) will take over the square once again with its menagerie of vendors, music, food, drinks, and performance.
But it wasn’t always so—in many ways, the evolution of LSAF has mirrored the growth of the neighborhood itself.
Rewind to ten years ago: It’s 2009, and the strip of Milwaukee Avenue south of Diversey is less active, more ghost town. Empty shops with barred windows, taped glass and storefront signs gone dark. The shuttered Logan Theater has been under renovation for eons. Café Con Leche and the Chase on the corner are there, but their neighbors are the now-defunct supermercado and a line of abandoned storefronts that look like knocked out teeth. Intelligentsia, Longman & Eagle, Saba, Reno, Shop 1021, The Harding Tavern… none of these exist yet.
We’re in the midst of the 2008/2009 financial crisis. People are losing homes and losing jobs. Logan Square is stalled in its transition into a hip, happening place. Nevertheless, a new swath of starving artists, musicians, and creative types have moved westward down the Blue Line after being displaced by rising rents in Wicker Park.
What to do? Here, businesses are unwilling or unable to open their doors in this economic climate. The neighborhood does, however, boast an abundance of empty stores and artsy residents.
Enter the Logan Square Arts Festival
At the time, it wasn’t yet a festival. It was conceived as a series of pop-up art galleries, a way to utilize the empty storefronts that resulted from the economic crisis in a thrifty way. It was also meant to create a welcoming space for the new art community moving into the neighborhood.
Alderman Rey Colón’s office spearheaded the LSAF, and the area it covered was vast. They cobbled together deals with stores dotted sporadically along California and Milwaukee, extending past Central Park. Within these transient “galleries,” canvases hung from temporary metal grids. Flyers and brochures were piled on wobbly folding tables. Art prints were sometimes taped onto bare cement walls.
Yet it was this do-it-yourself, low-fi, garage quality that drew the festival its first crowds. People responded to local artists who wanted to brighten the darkened stores of their neighborhood, to make something beautiful out of ugly foreclosure.
Starting at the bottom in the midst of economic disaster meant that as the years went on, the festival had nowhere to go but up. It grew too big and unwieldy for the Alderman’s office, so a nonprofit was created to organize the festival, I AM Logan Square.
“No one currently in I AM Logan Square is a real estate developer,” said Geary Yonker, LSAF organizer who’s worked with the fest since its inception. “[We’re] trying to harness that spirit of creativity that was in the neighborhood and is still alive today.”
According to Yonker, LSAF wasn’t feasible long-term as a collection of pop-up galleries because they were too spread out. Festival-goers stayed in one area and weren’t able to see everything. The format wasn’t sustainable.
“That first year, the festival lost tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Because of this, in 2010 the festival was consolidated and fenced on the square with a request for donations at the gate.
“Understandably, a lot of people had strong feelings about that,” Yonker admitted. “But we looked at 2009, and we were like, ‘There’s no way we can do that again.”
Over the next few years, I AM Logan Square experimented with different iterations of the festival: on the square, on Milwaukee Avenue, on Belden across from Revolution Brewery, etc. After years of trial and error, I AM Logan Square realized that the festival needed to stay on the square.
It serves as “a space where artists, merchants and community organizers can have a meaningful connection with the neighborhood,” Yonker said. “This year, we have been focused on including a wider base of artistic disciplines in our programming and featuring projects that encourage a communal engagement.”
This includes commissioning an interactive installation, “YOU BE YOU” by Andrea Jablonski, a multidisciplinary artist whose work is displayed in the WNDR Museum. Additionally, LSAF’s western fence will be transformed into a community canvas, and a new performance space at the base of Centennial Monument will host poets, comics and dancers. The festival will also continue its “Creative Columns” feature, with five street artists painting throughout the fest, as well as bookmaking, poetry, painting, and dance in the Interactive Arts Tent.
This may seem like overkill, but if LSAF wants to remain relevant, it has to go that extra mile. Summer in Chicago is a street festival deathmatch. Different neighborhoods compete for patronage every weekend, sometimes within blocks of each other. Already (in June alone), Chicago has hosted Do Division, Lincoln Park Greek, Taste of Mexico in Little Italy, Gold Coast Arts, the Pilsen Food Truck Social, Wells Street Art and Randolph Street Fest, among others. The fests threaten to blur together: the same 10×10 white tents, the same food trucks, the same beer venues, the same craft vendors.
“God, there’s so many of these festivals,” Yonker said. “ A lot of them are run by the same companies. They just sort of plop down in the neighborhood, and everything is just a traveling show.”
What Sets Logan’s Art Fest Apart From the Masses
Neighborhood hosts like I AM Logan Square are quick to set themselves apart and advertise what makes their festival different from everyone else’s on a very crowded playing field.
“[I AM Logan Square is] a collection of people that all live in this neighborhood, that create this one thing,” he said. “We put a lot of thought into the festival. We care about it. We spend six months out of our lives thinking about it constantly. We care to make it inclusive and representative of the neighborhood.”
Yonker said LSAF is most comparable to Do Division and Wicker Park Fest. That’s a high bar to meet. Wicker Park Fest is one of the largest street festivals in the city; last year, it boasted an attendance of 90,000 festival goers.
There are indeed some parallels between Logan Square and Wicker Park—Wicker Park is, ironically, the same neighborhood those burgeoning Logan Square artists had fled back in 2009. Both festivals have a stellar and diverse music lineup, with local acts mixed with national tours. LSAF did away with its pop-up art galleries in 2014, focusing instead on temporary installations to represent the artistic community of the neighborhood, and Wicker Park Fest does the same. Both festivals have a performance stage that focuses on local dance and literary groups—in Logan Square it’s called the Performance Plaza; in Wicker Park it’s the Community Culture Stage. Both neighborhoods’ organizers recently expanded their arts committees to include a stronger arts presence in their respective festivals as well.
But whereas the Wicker Park Fest is run by a closed committee that doesn’t report profits, I AM Logan Square is open about how much money LSAF rakes in. This is because 20 percent of the profits go to Logan Square Preservation.
“We’re a donation-based festival,” Yonker said. “We’ve raised $40,000 for them over the last four years.”
The Logan Square Arts Festival began as a grungy, DIY gallery pop-up in the midst of the 2009 financial crisis. It was just a group of artists and the Alderman’s office trying to make something good out of a bad situation. From there, much like the neighborhood itself, the festival grew and grew. As new residents moved in and the artists either found success or floundered and moved to cheaper neighborhoods, the art galleries and arts-focus of the fest was replaced with more conventional vendor, restaurant, and beer tents.
Now, the festival is circling back to its roots, adding a stronger arts presence and a lineup that reflects the decades-long history of the neighborhood, with music from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Honduras. For a complete list of the acts and schedule, check out the LSAF website.
A host of businesses are represented—many of which didn’t yet exist at the festival’s gestation in 2009. Revolution Brewery serves the beer. The Whistler folks mix cocktails. Lula Cafe pours sangria and wine. Café Con Leche, Donor Med, and Black Dog Gillato provide food. After parties are hosted at the Owl, the East Room and Sleeping Village.
With a huge abundance of restaurants, breweries, and businesses to choose from, it’s hard to believe the Logan Square Arts Festival was founded on the backs of abandoned storefronts that nobody wanted. Now, the choices are endless. So much so that the neighborhood worries it will lose its identity to too much money and too many businesses trying to crowd in.
What a difference ten years can make.