Saturday, August 1, 2009

The 53rd Street Plastic Red Man

posted by chicago pop

53rd Street seems to be at a low-point.

Nothing symbolizes this more than the ridiculous plastic-poly-composite-faux "Red Indian" that has been planted at the intersection of 53rd and Harper, across from the empty hulk of the old Herald Building and Harper Court.

Here we have yet another Hyde Park smoke shop with a genius for advertising, a flare for self-promotion, and, topping its more modest cousin in the basement space at Hyde Park Boulevard and 55th Street, a commitment to out-and-out buffoonery.

We'll note that since we first posted on the obnoxious ad blitz launched by "Cigarettes for Less" earlier this summer at 5503 1/2 S. Hyde Park Boulevard, most of what we then found to be obnoxious has been removed: the free-standing placard chained to a public light pole, which we are told was removed at the request of 5th Ward Alderman Hairston, and an unsightly wooden sign randomly bolted to the side of an otherwise handsome and historic Hyde Park apartment building.

Both are now gone, and for the better, much diminishing our initial objections.

Yet no sooner did the cheesy advertising on one prominent street corner abate, than by some unholy Archimedian principle of cheese dynamics, the same volume of cheesiness was displaced to yet another and even more prominent location. The same location that all the players in Hyde Park are working to make a "destination" for the region.

Destination: Red Man

This particular improvement, such as it is, has not so far been highlighted on the University of Chicago blog devoted to 53rd Street redevelopment, 53rdstreetblog. We can't imagine why not.

At least one Hyde Park resident dislikes the plastic-composite-poly-faux Red Man, one Ms. Marie Jackson, whose letter to the editor of the July 29 Hyde Park Herald takes issue with what she feels is the racist nature of the statue.

But even were the statue in question a plastic knock-off of a sculpture by Phidias or Praxiteles, or an inflatable Ben Franklin or Homer Simpson, it would still be an unwarranted imposition of junky advertising on the public way, an intrusion on the commons.

And just a wee bit out-of-date.

As long ago as 1871, the New York Times felt that the use of "Red Indian" statues in front of "tobacconist" shops had become déclassé. Granted, Chicago tends to lag the styles and trends of New York by a few years, but a lag of roughly a century-and-a-half should be more than enough time for even our less attentive merchants to catch on.

Wrote the Times in 1871, in the idiom of the period:

The fumacious or ruminant consumer of the nicotene weed is frequently confronted at the entrance of the store where these things are sold with a graven image to which he might, if idolatrously inclined, bow down and offer up his those monstrous creations of some former epoch...

The ill-proportioned savage in front of the corner cigar store, with whom our youthful eyes were once unpleasantly familiar, has descended from his pedestal to make room for a robust maiden of the Minnehaha persuasion...

Of course, we can argue with the author that neither a Minnehaha statue, nor any other kind of self-authorized decoration of the public way, is really an improvement, nor terribly tasteful. We'd prefer sidewalks to be clear for use by pedestrians and, where appropriate, restaurant seating. Not cheesy plastic statues.

Alderman Hairston asked that the much less objectionable free-standing sign in the photograph above be removed from the corner of 55th and HPB.

Surely 4th Ward Alderman Preckwinkle can get a tacky, plastic statue removed from a prominent corner of what both Preckwinkle and the University of Chicago hope to be the commercial heart of Hyde Park?


nate said...

I live about 50 feet from Chief Tawonka's new digs, so I get to check on him every time I head out my front door. I've started to enjoy looking forward to the next bit of paint that will decorate his trousers, or perhaps moccasins? Has the underpass muralist been making midnight pitstops to enhance the Chief's war paint?

chicago pop said...

Oh no, Nate -- don't start talking about Chief Tawonka as public art -- if that catches on we'll never get rid of it.

David Farley said...

Perhaps you'd like one for yourself. According to this ad, there are only 72.

chicago pop said...

And he's also "made of fiberglass originally produced for Cigarette Cheaper stores by Safari Ltd. and made in China ... [and] He has wheels in back on base to allow him to rolled in and out of store for display."

So technically, it's a Chinese-made, fiberglass Red Man on wheels. It doesn't get better than that.

I don't know, but when it comes to things like this, I'm inclined to say, "Buy American."

David Farley said...

I have trouble getting worked up about this because when I was a kid my hometown was host to one of the famous Muffler Men done up to look a bit like Chief Tawonka. Kind of makes me nostalgic, although it would be better if he was about 20' tall.

chicago pop said...

Yes, if our Chief Tawonka were about 20 feet tall, then I could pretend we were in the Wisconsin Dells, and would start a campaign to get a water-park to replace Harper Court!


Although it does more or less fit in with that section of 53rd St., in its own Chinese-fiberglass-rendition-of-a-plantation-marketing-strategy kind of way.

I predict that at some point Chief Tawonka will be abducted, if not by aliens in a fiberglass saucer, then by a few undergrads from Fiji House, perhaps driven by the annual scavenger hunt, who will decapitate him and place his head over their fireplace.

Anonymous said...

A 20 foot tall Chief Tawonka never would have made it past Jack Spicer. A redesign of the statue, preventing it from blocking the views of surrounding homes, would have kept it locked up in negotiations for 10 years. It would also have to be made watertight so it could be used as a flotation device at the thoroughly-saved Point.

I'm sort of surprised nobody has said anything about the statue until now. You'd figure that if a smoke shop wanted to advertise with obsolete, racist stereotypes they'd at least get a nice wooden one like they have at that place up in Old Town. The plastic one looks like something you get for free if you're the 1000th person through the gates at Sox Park.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Hey, last time I passed by there was a new advertising placard chained to a street sign (or tree) on 55th and HP Blvd. This time it was for the business in the basement just around the corner (on the 55th Street side; a hair weave salon? I can't remember). No doubt the owner thought it was a great idea when he or she saw the smoke shop had one.

chicago pop said...

Time for a 5th Warder to call Hairston again...

@ Greg: ROTFL about Spicer and Tawonka!

David Farley said...

I just took another look at the title of this post. C-Pop - is that a shout-out to The Fall?

"I'm eternally grateful
To my past influences
But they will not free me
I am not diseased
All the people ask me
How I wrote '53rd Street Plastic Red Man'?"

chicago pop said...

Ah, David Farley, I wish I could claim to be that adept in veiled pop culture references. I do what I can, but any apparent shout out to The Fall was only coincidental.

But it does suggest that I might really be a comic book superhero.

kris said...

As unpopular as I suspect this comment will be...

I actually have somewhat of an appreciation for the "red man". One of the reasons I love Hyde Park is for the diversity and eccentricity it offers while still having the community vibe. I only wish it wasn't plastic.

chicago pop said...

I suppose we could make it an even more diverse neighborhood with plastic statues of various ethnic representatives on every corner. At least, in front of every discount cigarette store.

And except for Saul Bellow.