Public art and public transit collide in Chicago’s Loop

Placemaking Globally
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Artist rendering of The Wabash Lights, running under the L in downtown Chicago. (The Wabash Lights)

Chicago’s elevated train system, the L, is an integral part of the city’s infrastructure and identity. When you enter into “the Loop” (the central business and entertainment district enclosed by the circling tracks of six of its eight elevated train lines), you pass under century old tracks, periodically host to the rumble of passing trains.

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Under Chicago’s “L”. (John Picken, distributed under CC-BY 2.0 license)

For dozens upon dozens of blocks of downtown Chicago, life at street level is darkened by the looming presence of the network of elevated tracks, their rust-stained steel arches and beams a throwback to the Industrial Age and the engineering innovations that allowed the city to rebuild after the Great Fire of 1871 into the city that it is today.

However, two Chicago-based artists are looking to beautify one stretch of tracks within the Loop, using the looming structure of the L to create what they call the largest public art installation in Chicago.  Artists Jack Newell and Seth Unger used the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to raise money to create a beta-test for their project “The Wabash Lights” an interactive light installation intended to celebrate the elevated transit system used by millions of Chicagoans and visitors alike.

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The test-section of The Wabash Lights, funded by Newell and Unger’s 2015 Kickstarter campaign. (The Wabash Lights)

This past January the two artists used the funds raised via their successful Kickstarter campaign to install a 12-foot test section of four LED light tubes with a preprogrammed lighting sequence, allowing them to test the lights’ resistance to weather and the vibration of passing trains. After several months of a successful test run, a $25,000 donation by Comcast, and the blessing of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Transit Authority, the artists embarked upon a second Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for phase one, 20,000 total feet of lights mounted above a two block stretch from Madison Street to Adams Street.

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The long-term goal of The Wabash Lights is to span the six-block run of the eastern section of the L’s Loop. (Google Maps)

Over the next five years, the pair of artists hope to raise $5 million from private, corporate, and foundation donors to install and maintain the interactive light tubes from Randolph Street to Van Buren Street under the tracks of  L’s eastern run. Additionally, they are in the process of developing a smart phone app that will give people the ability to interact with the lights, allowing people to program sequences of colors and patterns throughout the project.

The Wabash Lights – Light Up Wabash from Jack C. Newell on Vimeo.

And while few other American towns and cities share the kind of elevated transit system that will make The Wabash Lights possible, one wonders that if Newell and Unger’s public art project is a success, if it couldn’t be emulated under any one of the nations thousands of highway underpasses, creating a network of darkened, utilitarian spaces turned bright, cheerful, and interactive.

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