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Latest “Activate” Placemaking Event Celebrated Filipino Culture

Cha-cha dancing to the Manila Sound in Sullivan Alley. Photo: John Greenfield

The Chicago Loop Alliance’s ambitious program of 2014 placemaking projects is drawing to a close. Last Thursday, the group hosted a vibrant arts event in a Loop alley, inspired by the sights and sounds of a Manila marketplace. This was scheduled to be the last of the monthly "Activate" series, which transforms downtown passageways into buzzing art parties. However, due to the popularity of the program, the CLA is throwing one more Halloween-themed shindig, on Thursday, October 30, from 5:30 to 10 p.m. in the Auditorium Theater’s alley, 412 South Michigan.

Recently, the alliance has been using placemaking -- the activation of underused public spaces through programming and installations -- as a strategy to boost downtown commerce. This year, they budgeted $135,000 for placemaking initiatives, bankrolled by special service area money and corporate sponsorships.

Temporary seating at Pritzker Park, State and Van Buren. Photo: John Greenfield

In addition to Activate, other projects included the addition of café seating and performances at Pritzker Park, as well as the return of The Gateway, a “People Plaza” in the median of State near Wacker. The #CitySeats pop-up seating program also brought temporary lunchtime seating to different, unannounced spots in the Loop’s northeast quadrant – downtown workers were encouraged to request locations via Twitter.

The Activate events, which have brought libations, art installations, DJs, fashion and live performers to various alleys, may have been the most successful of these placemaking initiatives. Thursday’s celebration of Filipino culture was definitely a hit, with more than 1,300 people packing Sullivan Alley, located between State and Wabash, north of Monroe.

Markets under Quiapo Bridge, Quiapo, Metro Manila, Philippines
Vendors beneath Quiapo Bridge, Manila. Photo: My Soul Insurance via Flickr

Curated by Connection Art Project, a group that traveled to the Philippines to document local music, dance and artwork, the alley event was a collaboration with other artists and members of Chicago’s Filipino-American community. “CAP thought that the Manila street culture was fascinating, and they wanted do events here that connected their street culture with ours,” alliance project manager Tristan Hummel told me. He noted that architect Daniel Burnham created a master plan for the archipelago nation’s capital as well as for Chicago, so there are some interesting parallels between the two cities.

CAP took inspiration from a marketplace that exists beneath a bridge in Manila’s Quiapo district. “There are vendors selling wares and a lot of different spices, crafts, and clothing,” said Yvonne Hortillo, a columnist for the Chicago’s Filipino American Community Builder newspaper. “Quiapo has a very famous church, so the market grew from the church.”

Yvonne Hortillo. Photo: John Greenfield

Hortillo was posing as a sampaguita girl, a vendor who sells garlands of jasmine flowers outside churches and at intersections. The dollar price for her wreaths, as well as other donations from the evening, went towards Watts of Love, a nonprofit that brings solar-powered lighting to parts of the Philippines that don't have electricity.

Given the damp Thursday evening, it was definitely a boon that the Activate event took place in a covered alley. The ceiling was festooned with cheerful Christmas lights, strings of Filipino straw fans, and clotheslines full of colorful laundry. The loading dock served as a gallery, as did the cargo holds of three U-Haul vans parked at the back of the space. Rustic wooden road signs pointed the way to different Manila neighborhoods.

While one artist painted colorful circles on a parked vehicle from sponsor Zipcar car-sharing, another made a vivid chalk drawing of a Philippine beach. Within a pyramid of lit Catholic votive candles, a television played a documentary about CAP’s trip to Manila. Attendees helped themselves to peanuts from a burlap bag, alongside other sacks of produce that replicated the Quiapo markets. They were also invited to tie strips of cloth to a wire framework with the exhortation, “Make a wish, say a prayer.”

The evening heated up when the local band SamaSama Project took the stage, performing a hybrid of Filipino folk, rock, ska, and Latin music, inspired by a 1970s musical movement called Manila Sound. “The Philippines were occupied by Spain for a long time, so cha-cha is in our blood,” explained the female singer. “Filipinos come out!” A few folks then emerged from the crowd to cut a rug.

If you want to catch some of the alley action before the season ends, be sure to drop by the October 30 event. The spooky party will feature artwork inspired by “The Seven Deadly Faces of Sin,” plus giant interactive board games. RSVP in advance on the Activate website to get a free drink ticket, and wear a costume if you like.

See more photos of the Manila-themed Activate event here.

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