This week’s contributing blogger, Nancy Plax, is a community activist and co-founder of her residential neighborhood association and also of a larger community organization, Connecting 4 Communities, where she is the director of community outreach.  She is an avid supporter of public art.


VoCA contemporary murals on morgan

Full view of the Mural on Morgan. Photo by Robert Gigliotti Photography.

The MURAL ON MORGAN project was started in the fall of 2012 as a way to highlight the historical significance of our neighborhood. While the area has undergone much residential development the majority of the residents have no idea of the rich history of this area. This area, part of the Near West Side, was known as the Maxwell Street Neighborhood and is one of Chicago’s oldest residential communities.  The area is about one square mile.  Much has happened and many great success stories have been born here. In the late 1880’s, Chicago became a city of immigrants, offering the opportunity to live and prosper in freedom for those that migrated from primarily Europe, but also from Asia and the Americas. Our Near West Side and the Maxwell Street area became a microcosm of America.

Amid considerable heated controversy, the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) was relocated to the Near West Side and opened in 1965.  Over 14,000 residents, mostly Italian and Mexican were displaced along with 800 businesses.  In 2002, most of the old buildings of the famous Maxwell Street market had been torn down to make way for a new neighborhood, University Village, just south of UIC on the Near West Side. University Village has become the home to many people who do not know of the importance of the history of the neighborhood.

VoCA murals on morgan

Artist Nick Goettling applying the first coat of paint to the top section. Photo courtesy of Steve Schwartzman.

We worked with artist Nick Goettling to highlight the importance of the railroads, the arrival of the immigrants, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr establishing the Hull House, which was a settlement house for the immigrant families, the South Water Market and the historic renovation into the residential community of University Commons, the Maxwell Street Market along with the birth of the Chicago electrified blues on Maxwell Street and the relocation of the University of Illinois-Chicago. All these themes are represented on the mural.

In 2012, 8 University Village residents formed a committee to commission a mural about the history of the community. Working together with Alderman Danny Solis’s Art in Public Places, the Committee was granted approval for use of the large retaining wall on Morgan Street. The 82 x 12 foot high wall can be directly viewed by many residents or observed by passing pedestrians and drivers.The committee collected $12,000 in donations from generous residents, nearby businesses, along with their condo and townhouse association management companies and vendors who supply services to their communities. We had a GOFUNDME page that primarily captured the donations of residents, but all the management companies and vendors were personally contacted, primarily by myself with the help of another committee member.  There was neither city nor aldermanic funding on this project.

Here, the word maintain takes on a double meeting. First, it refers to preserving the mural itself, and second, it suggests keeping the history alive for what it represents.

Sadly, our mural is experiencing a type of surface failure, known as spalling or scaling. The problem is caused first by moisture behind the wall oozing into it and then by hairline cracks that form largely by expansion and contraction, allowing more moisture and “lime” (white powder) to ooze out. It is more common in colder climates where freeze-thaw cycles and deicing chemicals are prevalent: Freezing causes the water in the capillaries of the concrete to expand, creating pressure. We had the mural silicone sealed for the fear of graffiti and now we have learned that it truly needs to breathe. Last fall we cleaned the wall of the dirt and grim and it certainly brightened it up.  We did our best to remove the spalling but a year later there are some harden areas that seem really difficult to remove. This summer we will get the top of the ledge sealed that will hopefully help with the moisture. We will continue to work on cleaning and trying to remove as much of the scaling as we can.

VoCA contemporary art murals on morgan

Artist Nick Goettling adding the finishing touches to an image. Photo courtesy of Steve Schwartzman.

We knew that we would need to build a monetary fund to be able to continue the upkeep, but additionally we felt that there was so much history on the mural and we wanted it to be written down for people to understand. Three years after the mural was completed we introduced a 28 page historical narrative/coloring book, MURAL ON MORGAN-A NEAR WEST SIDE STORY. The line drawings and images of the mural are in the book along with an explanation of the history that they represent. We are selling the books locally and online, and the proceeds will go towards the upkeep of the mural. Just recently, the Jane Addams Hull House Museum Gift Shop began selling the book. This fall our local elementary school will be bringing students over to view the mural and learn the history of their community. We are adding some signage in each of the 4 sections so that someone passing by will be able to get a quick overview as to what is up there. Any interest on the book please contact


VoCA is pleased to present this blog post in conjunction with “Approaches to the Conservation of Contemporary Murals”, a two-day workshop that was held during the 2017 AIC Conference in Chicago. The program focused on visits to outdoor community murals in Chicago from the past half-century, in various states of preservation. Presentations and discussions by artists, community members, and conservators regarding various approaches to conservation, treatment, repainting, or renewal of these public murals were a key component. For more information, click HERE.

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