Every morning on my way to work, I pass a series of large, faded paintings on the Metra train embankment that runs along Hubbard Street. One panel proclaims it “The Chicago Gallery 1973.” The paintings are mostly of animals, and so weathered and vine-covered that they seem more like the ruins of a lost civilization that something that’s only been around since I was six years old.
The original murals were a project of Ricardo Alonzo, an Art Institute of Chicago graduate. Over an eight-year period, Alonzo and volunteers from the West Town Community Art Center painted murals along a mile-long stretch of Hubbard Street, from Des Plaines to Ogden, until their funding ran out in 1979.
In 2000, the Union Pacific Railroad did some rehab and repair work on a segment of the embankment, so a new group of volunteers came together (with support from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, among others) to create new murals on Hubbard between Carpenter and Ogden. Again, wildlife images dominate, but there are also some panels that reference Chicago-related themes, like the blues, Pullman porters, and the Imagists art movement.
It’s such a shame that these beautiful paintings exist in a place where hardly anyone will ever see them. There’s very little foot traffic in the area. Unless you have a specfic reason for going over there (dinner at Mart Anthony’s, a beer at Aberdeen Tap, or if you happen to live in one of the newly-built townhouses), you’re never going to just run across them by accident. And there’s no sidewalk on the side of the road where the murals are, so you either have to view them from the sidewalk across the street, or pick your way through the trees and shrubs in front of the murals to get a closer look.
But they’re worth a walk out of your way, in my opinion. The new ones for the bright color and sense of whimsy that many of them have, and the old ones for their sad, faded beauty.