“Activate Couch Place” Turns a Humble Passage into a Vibrant “People Alley”

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A juggler entertains at Activate Couch Place. Photo: Lisa Phillips

Chicago’s 1,900-mile alley system is one of our most important transportation networks and not something to take for granted. In New York City, for example, alleys are scarce. In Chicago neighborhoods, these passageways provide access for shortcuts, garbage collection and the odd pickup basketball game or garage sale. Downtown, they’re useful for garbage, deliveries and savvy bike messengers.

Last Thursday evening, in conjunction with the Chicago Loop Alliance’s Pop-Up Art Loop gallery walk, Couch Place, located between State and Dearborn, just north of Randolph, was put to a new, productive use. As part of the city’s Make Way for People public space initiative, the passage was transformed into Chicago’s first “People Alley” public space. The lane, once thought to be inhabited by ghosts of the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire, was instead haunted by revelers during a free event called Activate Couch Place, featuring visual and performance arts, fashion, food and libations.

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The entranceway to Activate Couch Place. Photo: Lisa Phillips

The entrance to Couch Place off State Street was made welcoming with a hanging archway made of LED-backlit, hot-pink bricks. Not-so-welcoming were the security checkpoint and red velvet rope, which made it feel more like we were entering a private nightclub than a public space. Visitors were IDed, even if they just wanted to quickly walk through the alley, because complimentary alcohol was served. Perhaps next time IDs could be checked at the bar instead? This, perhaps intentionally, made the event feel exclusive, and there were notably few older folks or kids present. While waiting in line, I even overheard some passersby say, “What’s this? Oh, it must be a private party,” and continue down State Street.

Once I got inside, I saw the walls featured paintings from a few of the city’s more recognizable graffiti artists, along with more traditional framed works, and a handful of large, interactive exhibits. My favorite was the wall-size, Lite Brite-style installation which people could use to make designs with the colorful illuminated pegs. A large balloon-like sculpture, shaped vaguely like Jabba the Hutt, was the backdrop for the Smilebooth, where people were taking selfies and immediately posting them online using a nearby stand-mounted tablet.

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Using the giant Lite-Brite at Activate Couch Place. Photo: Lisa Phillips

While the mostly young-professional crowd was elbow-to-elbow by 5 p.m., a riser in the center of the alley featured lots of movement with various jugglers, fire spinners and models wearing creations from Chicago’s own House of Frog. Near the Dearborn end of the alley, a DJ was spinning dance music. Waiters circulated with hors d’oeuvres platter that were empty every time I tried to snag a snack, and Steampunks in elaborate Victorian and/or futuristic costumes, some wielding knives and, in one case, serious B.O., wandered through the crowd.

Just past the DJ booth there seemed to be the “backstage” area, where artists could retreat and change outfits. Past this were several trucks and cars blocking access from Dearborn. Given the size of the crowd, having only one entrance and exit point between two tall buildings felt a little dangerous. Also, ironically for a place called Couch Place, there was no where to sit. A few sofas, chairs or cafe tables to allow attendees to take load off would have been a nice touch.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. As a creative conversion of a humble alley to create a venue for artistic expression, as well as a fun place to meet up after work for free wine before starting a gallery crawl, Activate Couch Place was a roaring success.