Dmitry Samarov: The Day I was a Chicago Tour Guide

In September, Chicago-based artist and writer Dmitry Samarov took the residency team on a tour of the city’s lesser known sites. The drive was guided in part by suggestions from the MCA’s online audience.

When Abraham Ritchie emailed from the MCA to ask if I’d be interested in giving their artist-in-residence a tour of Chicago, I wondered whether someone was playing a prank. I’ve spent years talking trash about the MCA and having little appreciation for much of what goes on within its walls. For their part, the MCA (and the rest of the local art world, for that matter) has had little curiosity about my work and even less curiosity about my opinion about them. It seemed like a reasonable arrangement. A sort of mutually-agreed-upon and reciprocated indifference.

So what did they want me for all of a sudden?

Ritchie explained that Goshka Macuga (the artist-in-residence) wanted to see the Chicago beyond the Magnificent Mile, the real Chicago. They thought of me because I’d been a cabdriver in town for years. In fact, I think they thought I still drove a cab. Maybe they thought a tour of the city in a cab would appeal to Macuga? Fit in with her work somehow? In any case, this was too odd a proposal for me to refuse. I agreed but told Michelle Puetz (who was now my contact at the museum) that I no longer drove a cab. She offered up her own car, so we were on.

As the date of the tour approached, I tried to get some clue as to what was really wanted of me. I Googled Macuga to get some idea of what her work was like without getting any definite impression. She seemed to do all sorts of things and there was a lot of heavy-duty language attached to a lot of it. I did learn that she was from Poland and currently lived in England. Perhaps immigration could be a point of connection for us. I kept asking Michelle at the museum what she might want but got no definitive answers. The route was up to me.

The week before the tour, in early September, Michelle told me she wouldn’t be able to come and thus her car wouldn’t be available. We decided to rent a car instead. On the appointed day I took the train downtown and drove out of a rent-a-car place on Wabash in a Chevy sedan. It’s strange to be renting a car in your own city. It made me feel a bit like a tourist, a visitor, which, maybe was appropriate for the occasion.

I picked up Goshka Macuga, Dieter Roelstraete (a curator at the museum), and Abraham Ritchie, at the side of the hulking edifice on the corner of Chicago Ave and Mies Van Der Rohe Way. I blasted the A/C on the unseasonably hot afternoon. They were all relieved as they climbed in. After introductions, I asked Goshka where she wanted to go and she said it was up to me, so I headed west toward Humboldt Park.


humboldt_MCA

My plan—such as it was—was to show them a bit of the Emerald Necklace, the system of parks and boulevards planned in the late 1800s. It’s one of the first urban green space plans and covers a lot of the Chicago that I knew from driving ordinary people around all those years in the cab. We passed below the Puerto Rican gates on Division and on to Humboldt Park. I took the boulevard north to show off the lagoon and fieldhouse. By the statue of Humboldt himself, they decided to park and walk around a bit. Goshka wanted to know why there was a statue of Humboldt here but I couldn’t recall the history. He never set foot in Chicago but because the area used to have a large German population a local booster installed it as a symbol of ethnic pride. They took a bunch of pictures below the statue. I might’ve even made it into one or two of them.

Dieter and Goshka discussed various upcoming exhibitions and projects. It was evident they’d been working together for some time. The thing about the art world—or much of any kind of world, for that matter—is that it really is about who you know. I’ve been making art fairly seriously for almost thirty years, yet what they were talking about may as well have been quantum mechanics or sharecropping for how little it related to what I did. This is not a critical judgment, only an observation of fact; I hadn’t the faintest clue what they were talking about. For all I knew it was all wondrous and amazing. I tried to find out how they’d be using our little trip for their work but never really found out.


sears_MCA

We drove south through Garfield Park and past its gorgeous Spanish Revival fieldhouse, on into the Lawndale neighborhood. I wanted to show them the Sears Tower. Not the one now called Willis, but the original one on Homan, near Roosevelt Road. This was once the center of Sears & Roebuck’s vast empire, the place from which thousands and thousands of catalogs were dispersed all over the country to fill the minds of the populace with aspirational dreams. Now the grounds were quiet, occupied partially by city and county agencies of various types and the tower itself stands alone, traces of once-attached structures visible on its southern wall. We walked right up to it and peered into the dimly-lit lobby. There was a security desk within, but little other sign of life. It was somewhere around here that Dieter mentioned Detroit.

At this point the word “Detroit” is enough to summon a flood of images and ideas, most of them negative. For a certain segment of artists, there’s an attraction or romance to ruin and decay. Elevating the falling-apart and failure is a kind of fetish with these types. I don’t know whether this was the case with Dieter and Goshka but it wasn’t my intent to lead them on any sort of misery safari. What’s always attracted me about Chicago is the endless variety of ways that people live and survive here. The places they live form the setting and often the subject of much of my artwork. I don’t go looking for ugliness or despair, though I’m certainly aware that a lot of it exists here.


ccj_MCA

To underscore that point, our next stop was the massive complex of criminal courts and jail facilities around 26th and California. I told them that “Going to California” on Chicago had nothing to do with catching some sun. We made a loop south on California Ave, then west on 31st Street, north on Kedzie, and east on 26th Street. This is the main drag of Little Village, the largest Mexican neighborhood in the city and as lively as the area around the jail—a couple blocks away—and it is ominous. These jarring contrasts are a huge part of this city and I hoped the visitors would get some sense of it. There was some talk about the evils of America as we left the area and headed toward Hyde Park. We were looking for a place to stop for a snack and Dieter suggested a coffee shop at 63rd and Woodlawn, downstairs from his apartment.

A couple hours in I still had no firm feeling about the purpose our trip. There was some talk of making a comedy set in the Chicago art world; maybe they were auditioning me for a part? Who knew? After we finished our coffee I had to choose whether to show off Beverly, where I now live, or to go to Pullman. I decided on Pullman for its importance in the history of the city and the country. George Pullman built his strange quasi-utopian worker’s village here and provided many African-Americans a chance out of poverty and second-class citizenship.


pullman_MCA

What’s left here is a mixture of dilapidated ruin and neat, cared-for row housing. It’s a place where Chicago’s past, present, and future intersect. There have been plans to revive the area for years and there are indications in the neighborhood that maybe it’ll finally happen. Goshka and Dieter remarked upon was how nice and calm it was here. My whole intent with this tour was to show them that, no matter what they’d seen in the news or heard from people they knew, most of Chicago’s “bad” neighborhoods are filled with people just living their lives day to day. It’s not as sensational a picture as drug-war shoot outs, deep-dish pizza, or Al Capone, but it’s the city I’ve come to know and continue to learn from over my 20-plus years here.


cf_MCA

Our last stop was Calumet Fisheries on the southeastern tip of the city. I think of all the places I took them they liked this place best. They took dozens of pictures of the bridges and industrial edifices visible in every direction. They ate breaded shrimp on the picnic table outside the fish shack and thanked me for taking them around.

We took South Chicago north, then Jeffrey, and on to Lake Shore Drive back downtown. As we pulled up to the side entrance of the MCA entrance, Dieter asked if and how often I visited the museum and he was surprised to hear I hadn’t been inside in years. What I make art for, and what art is made for there, are fairly different species. Perhaps this little tour was an attempt to bridge that gap a bit. I still don’t know what, if anything, Goshka and Dieter got out of it. I just hope I was of some help in showing them my city.

* * *

Dmitry Samarov was born in Moscow, USSR in 1970. He immigrated to the US with his family in 1978. He got in trouble in 1st grade for doodling on his Lenin Red Star pin and hasn’t stopped doodling since. After a false start at Parsons School of Design in New York, he graduated with a BFA in painting and printmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993.

Upon graduation he promptly began driving a cab—first in Boston, then after a time, in Chicago—which eventually led to the publication of his illustrated work memoir Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab by University of Chicago Press in 2011.

He has exhibited his work in all manner of bars, coffee shops, libraries, and even the odd gallery (when he’s really hard up).

He paints and writes in Chicago. He no longer drives a cab.