Chicagoans use tactical urbanism to cheer each other up during the pandemic
If you’re like many folks in the Chicago area, during non-pandemic times, you probably spend much of your commute focused on getting from one place to another in the quickest way possible – often while looking at your phone (if you take the CTA, Metra or Pace) or listening to a podcast (if you spend a lot of time behind the wheel). But if you’re sticking closer to home these days due to COVID-19 — even if you’re still traveling to get to work — the city offers lots to see (and hear) when you venture outside.
Many sidewalks offer uplifting messages during these challenging times. Take the chalk drawing outside a home in North Center, which encourages readers with the words “Let’s be all well” surrounded by clouds and a rainbow. Sidewalk art near Horner Park says, “Have an amazing day!” and “You’ve got this!”
Windows can offer entertainment, too. In response to a meme shared on social media, some folks put shamrocks in their windows on March 17 so kids and their families could do a scavenger hunt of sorts. Someone even came up with a schedule of things people could put in their windows every few days: silly faces, flowers —even jokes for April Fool’s Day.
Other social media posts are encouraging people to put bears in their windows in honor of the book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Residents in neighborhoods like South Shore have placed teddy bears, dragons, and other stuffed animals in their windows.
Some Chicagoans have found other novel ways to entertain themselves and spark joy.
Last weekend Hugo Balta, news director for WTTW-TV, spotted Mr. Potato Head strolling down the sidewalk in Lincoln Square. Balta’s tweet about the sighting elicited comments like “That his PPE?” and “Wonder if he’s headed for … the Brown Line.”
2 hours left before Chicago’s Stay-At-Home order…I’m pretty sure #MrPotatoHead 🥔 walking down the street in #LincolnSquare is a sure sign of the apocalypse 💀
— Hugo Balta 🤠 (@HugoBalta) March 21, 2020
In Logan Square, a circus performer found himself with an audience of families when he decided to practice on Logan Boulevard. With his usual job teaching circus arts on hiatus, Joe Lobeck did handstands and juggled items like balls and pins.
Taking a cue from Italy, where people have been opening their windows to belt out the Italian national anthem, two women in Rogers Park suggested a neighborhood singalong. Rebecca Kell and Jenni Spinner chose Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” reasoning that everyone would know the hit from the ’80s, and encouraged people to open up their windows on the evening of March 21. They posted the event on Facebook, and somehow Jon Bon Jovi himself even got wind of it and posted an encouraging message on Instagram. Kell and Spinner are inviting people to sing “ABC” by the Jackson Five this Saturday, March 28.
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A Facebook group called Hello South Loop has also been organizing singalongs, but with an added twist: a light show. Last weekend the group urged people to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” with visual accompaniment such as flashlights, phone lights, or lighters. The nightly singalongs also have included “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers and “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. The group has also encouraged people to clap and cheer for first responders as part of the singalongs, echoing the efforts of people in Spain who clap for healthcare workers every night at 8 p.m.
Tonight the group is asking Chicagoans to sing Queen’s “We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You,” and classic rock station 97.1 The Drive plans to play the song on the radio at 8 p.m., preceded by “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Word on the street is that the Willis Tower, Navy Pier, and Prudential Building will be sporting red, white, and blue lights.
Another Facebook event urged people out onto their streets and sidewalks to dance along to the wedding/bar mitzvah favorite “Cha Cha Slide” on Sunday, March 22. (During the pandemic, it’s important to maintain “social distance,” at least 6′ feet of separation, from other people, perhaps more if you’re dancing.) Dancers who participated posted videos from as far away as Plainfield and Joliet.
People passing through the Bucktown neighborhood on March 18 even had the opportunity to stumble upon an outdoor wedding. Jeff Solin, who usually teaches computer science at Lane Tech College Prep High School, officiated the ceremony from just outside his home; the bride and groom stood several feet away on the sidewalk.
With the scaled-back human and vehicle traffic, many people have also reported catching glimpses of wildlife they might not see (or notice) otherwise. Neighbors saw a coyote roaming through the schoolyard at Bell Elementary School on the North Side. Beavers are popping up along the North Branch of the Chicago River. Raccoons near Montrose Beach have greeted visitors — especially those with food (although the raccoons will have to wait for human visitors until Mayor Lightfoot reopens the lakefront path).
And though the first day of spring went by with more than 400 people in Illinois testing positive for COVID-19, Mother Nature offered hope in the form of trees budding and green shoots peeking up out of the ground. What’s more, with less motorized traffic and a rush hour that’s virtually nonexistent, the air is clearer and there’s less noise pollution for those who go for a stroll, a skating excursion, or a bike or scooter ride, although sadly the popular Lakefront Trail and 606 greenways have been closed due to crowding concerns.
So if COVID-19 has disrupted your usual routine, slow down, look around, and take a moment to soak up the sights and sounds of Chicago. You never know what you might find to brighten your day: a juggler, a dance party, or maybe a person in a potato suit heading down Leland Avenue.
Kirsten Lambert is a Chicago-based writer. Find her on Twitter at @KirstenSLambert.