The horrific killing of 7-year old Heaven Sutton dominated the June 27 Chicago news, an inauspicious backdrop for my visit that day to a museum exhibit about the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL)—a West Side Chicago gang that went ‘legitimate’ in the 1960s. Today’s crime statistics demand that only shootings involving extraordinary circumstances warrant significant attention from the mainstream media. In the Heaven Sutton case, these heart-wrenching details include the victim’s young age and that she was a victim of cross-fire while selling candy with her family—just after having her hair styled in anticipation of an upcoming trip to Disney World. There have been over 200 Chicago homicides thus far this year. During the 2011-2012 school year, 24 Chicago Public School children were killed, and an additional 319 were wounded by gunfire. Whether media coverage of shootings consists of short blurbs in the metro section or a Pulitzer-worthy serial expose, one theme remains: the vast majority of shootings are flatly depicted as “gang-related.” This persistent motif trains us to understand loose associations of urban youth (“gangs”) as the inevitable cause of violence and disruption, a convenient—even if unthinking—way to avoid many of the structural social and economic foundations of inner-city violence.
Continual “gang violence” also makes it difficult to remember a time when some street gangs shifted from illicit activities and violence to community service and legitimate political activity. History shows that gangs often embodied complex notions of resistance, consciousness-building, empowerment, and community. At times, dominant political and economic forces have even enlisted gangs in collaborative social welfare efforts. Certainly the actions of Heaven Sutton’s killers fall far from such aspects of gangs. And it could be argued that the positive potential of street gangs happened in a historical moment, long since occluded by the national cocaine and heroin epidemic and the precipitous decline of Federal and municipal funding for urban social programs. Regardless, “Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords,” an offsite exhibit curated by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, looks back to the 1960s when the urban crisis called for innovative partnerships between legitimate institutions and some of the gangs once assumed to be among the root causes of that very crisis. This timely exhibit questions the absolute ties between street gangs and destructive violence, suggesting that groups of frustrated young people are not destined to wreak the community havoc so prevalent on the evening news.
Wait. I Don’t Think This Is the Hull House My Middle School History Teacher Made Me Read About
The first notable feature of the exhibit is its location, miles away from the actual Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, which is a fantastic venue that combines a historic building with exhibits related to and inspired by Addams’ legacy. But Hull-House’s advantages can also be limiting. Most of the exhibit spaces there are small, and although the museum often curates exhibits on contemporary matters, a brash display about the community service of a late-1960s West Side gang may have caused for many a cognitive dissonance from the goals of both this particular exhibit and those of the museum’s permanent late-19th and early-20th-century material. Instead, Hull-House curators installed the primary exhibit at Art in These Times, a small gallery/studio/publishing/activist space in the Logan Square neighborhood. This setting—off the beaten path, thoroughly enmeshed in its urban environment, home to initiatives some might deem ‘radical’ or at least outside the mainstream—accentuates the exhibit’s revisionist mood. Even a visitor comfortable with encountering unfamiliar spaces in the city will feel slightly disoriented and maybe uncertain upon arrival at the address.
Upon entrance, a well-worn foyer greets visitors. A few images and some text are tacked upon one wall, and a sign indicates that the exhibit continues upstairs. This unconventional location and layout effectively destabilizes preconceptions about curated exhibits, in a similar way that the content of the exhibit seeks to destabilize our understandings of gangs and the urban crisis.
To advance this perspective, the entry space hosts an introductory exhibit that literally tells us to question our notions of “gangs.” Images of self-proclaimed gangs throughout American history aim to revise assumptions about their supposedly inherently destructive character. Why do the gangs of white ethnic ‘boys’ of a century ago seem so quaint when compared to the black gangs of the postwar era? What about the Hollywood-ready gangsters of the Prohibition Era? And—look here—the high school portrait of Richard J. Daley: future mayor, eventual enemy of urban gangs…and onetime member of an Irish-American youth gang. Moving closer to the stairs, the exhibit introduces the first of its interactive, community-focused features. Two poster boards, flanked by sticky-notes and pen, ask visitors “What Does the Word ‘Gang’ Mean to You” and “What Other Groups Would You Include in a List of Gangs?” (Answers: “The Chicago Police!” “The KKK”).
A Cook’s Tour of War on Poverty-Era Community Service Innovation
Once buzzed-in to the main space upstairs you are free to roam around the exhibit, which consists of wall installations, a central display case, and photocopies of documents down a short hallway. Such a layout encourages you to approach the exhibit however you see fit. I was personally drawn first to the fantastic street photography of CVL member Bobby Gore. These images are a wonderful visual representation of the optimism and determination expressed by the CVL and their allies during the late-1960s.
Even though the material highlight of the exhibit may be the framed CVL-branded dashiki, the CVL aimed to represent much more than late-60s urban cool. Leaders fashioned the gang in the mold the community service elements of the Black Panther Party—but with less Maoist rhetoric. Health clinics, after-school programs, small business support, and welfare rights were among the major initiatives, as were those of similar street gangs-gone-legit like the Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization in Lincoln Park or the southern white migrant Young Patriots in Uptown. The CVL, Young Lords, Young Patriots, and even the Black Panthers rushed to apply for Federal funds made available by the War on Poverty for community-run social programs.
By 1968 private foundations were matching some Federal disbursements. To the curator’s credit, this less-than-sexy but crucial element of CVL activism receives substantial attention in the exhibit. Photocopies of archival documents graciously provided by the Rockefeller Foundation reveal the financial and institutional commitment to the innovative partnership with politically-conscious gangs. For anyone actually researching or writing about this topic, you may find yourself spending a great deal of time down this hallway, leafing through the aesthetically spartan yet content rich documents.
Art as Urban Uplift, and the Public Relations of Politically Conscious Gangs
The exhibit also highlights two other key elements of CVL community activism. The first section informs us about Art and Soul, an arts space operated by CVL in conjunction with Chicago’s upstart Museum of Contemporary Art through the early 1970s. At Art and Soul, established members of the Black Arts movement worked with neighborhood residents on murals, studio painting, and sculpture. This initiative—deserving of a museum exhibit wholly its own— hoped to foster community-driven pride and uplift. Such arts-based social work remains an aspiration to this day, as seen in the just released Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 Draft (pdf) and its promotion of the arts as agents in social policy while simultaneously embracing “the role of residents in cultural planning.”
CVL’s legitimizing program resulted in an annual report published for their benefactors and their community. Titled “A Report the Public,” the 1969 booklet resembles the image conscious annual report of an established non-profit. Quality photographs frame text that describes CVL’s current and future plans. The exhibit gives the attention befitting the document from which it derives its name, with each page of the report enjoying its own display. This installation invites you to leisurely absorb CVL’s most public face. Soon you will find yourself donning nearby headphones attached to iPod nanos, listening to actual voices of CVL alumni describe various aspects of the exhibit.
“A Museum of the Streets”: Community-centric Public History in the Mold of CVL Activism
“Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords” is much more than the items displayed at Art in These Times. The exhibit grew out of an ongoing oral history initiative by Hull-House Museum that will certainly serve as a valuable historical resource along the lines of DePaul University’s Young Lords collection (.pdf) and various Black Panther Party memory materials scattered about the country. But the greatest potential of the exhibit rests in Hull-House’s additional remote exhibits—a “Museum of the Streets”—occurring for the remainder of 2012 in the actual neighborhood that was home to the CVL. For example, an exhibit panel is currently at Pine Valley Family Restaurant on S. Pulaski, and the panel “African Lion and the Conservative Vice Ladies” now resides at a 16th Street salon. These migrating ‘pop-up’ exhibits do more than simply disperse Hull-House’s valiant work to memorialize the CVL story. The off-offsite materials are designed to engage CVL’s North Lawndale native grounds. Ideally, such engagement will lead to an increase in oral histories and artifact donations. The true test of the exhibit’s evolving value will not only be the amount of new material generated by such efforts, but also the manner in which it will be displayed. The current web presence of the exhibit is well done but minimal. A repository of streaming oral histories and browseable images—with added social media functions for capturing even more memories—would be an extremely valuable asset reminiscent of the visionary community work of CVL.
The innovative Federal and philanthropic funding of legitimizing street gangs was a revolution unrealized. Shortly after the long hot summers of 1968 and 1969 many politicians lost the will to cooperate with the likes of CVL, regardless of their conversion to social consciousness. Mayor Daley eventually declared war on all gangs, ably assisted by US Attorney Edward Hanrahan—the very same smiling white man depicted next to CVL members on the exhibit postcard. The Nixon administration gutted War on Poverty and Model Cities programs, which in Chicago had largely been co-opted by the Democratic Party Machine anyways.
“Report the Public” asks many more tough questions than it answers. That is no fault of the curators. As the current rash of urban violence confirms, there have been no clear answers to date. Clearly, at least in Chicago, institutions are yet again nearing a point of radical innovation in dealing with the tragic matrix from which Heaven Sutton’s killers emerged. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel recently directed the Chicago Police Department to partner with CeaseFire, a group of community-based violence mediators consisting largely of ex-gang members featured in Steve James’ gut-punching documentary The Interrupters. And, just this week, dozens of black men in crisp suits and bow ties fanned out across a troubled South Side neighborhood, under direction of the oft-demonized Louis Farrakhan. Aldermen, the Police Chief, and Police union members welcomed the help. I have serious doubts that any current devout members of today’s street gangs could make a positive difference approaching that of the brief lifespan of the CVL community initiative. But the exhibit commemorating that history reminds us that hope can grow out of the foundations of a crisis.
“Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords,” curated by Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
Art in These Times gallery
2040 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL
June 22-December 31
M-F 10 am-5 pm
Sat 11 am-3 pm
Various locations in North Lawndale
June 22-December 31