There are plenty of puns to be made about the rather overconfidently named first annual Great Chicago Fire Festival. The festival was missing a spark; it failed to generate any heat; it was a very slow burn and ignited the disdain of nearly all who attended. This fire festival did not burn brightly.
On Saturday evening, more than 30,000 Chicago residents, commuters, and tourists flocked to the Chicago riverfront for a festival celebrating the dynamic spirit and resiliency of the city of Chicago as demonstrated during the Great Chicago Fire of the late 19th century. Despite being an event commemorating an event that killed more than 300 people and left more than 100,000 Chicagoans homeless, the excitement and engagement in the festivities during the day, at least, enlivened the riverfront with activity.
Festival attendees could listen to slam poetry, watch dance troupes perform, and peruse a street market highlighting 15 neighborhoods throughout the city. While Hyde Park was not included as one of the featured neighborhoods in the festival, Woodlawn, located just south of the Midway and home to Burton-Judson, South, and New Grad, had various local artists and shops featured among the art and food vendors lining the river. All of this led up to the Grand Spectacle where three houses styled after the buildings during the Chicago Fire were to be set ablaze in the river to reveal three different symbols of the city. With so much pomp and circumstance preceding the event, including a choir, specially made boats to light the houses, and an appearance by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, it was all the more tragic when the houses failed to catch flame that night.
The whole thing felt like a grand social experiment to determine how long a crowd of people would wait in 40-degree Fahrenheit weather to watch a house burn down. Apparently more than an hour, but truly only the most dedicated were willing to bundle up and stand packed in by the riverside for that long. By the time the houses had finally caught fire, a majority of the crowd had moved on, and most people were on their way home as the fireworks concluding the spectacle began.
Most unsatisfied festivalgoers, this reviewer included, will dwell upon the fact that the burning houses did not ignite according to plan, but the issues plaguing the Grand Spectacle began much earlier than that. As the “fire cauldrons” meant to light the houses were lowered into the river, a children’s choir from the many diverse neighborhoods sang a mash-up of a gospel hymn and the opening song from Frozen. While the choir was a stirring representation of the unique communities that make up Chicago, their audio setup was so poor that only those nearby the singers could actually hear them. For the rest of the crowd, there was only the low drone of the backing track playing seemingly endlessly.
In general there seemed to be a surprising lack of planning pervading the entire event. It was plain after nearly 30 minutes passed in silence that none of the organizers had a backup plan in case of a Grand Spectacle malfunction. When they finally did announce the plan to manually light them, those who had decided to stay had already lost interest, and were standing merely out of principle and flagging respect.
While many were hoping this would be a cultural festival meant to rival events such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York, the event lacked a clear direction of what it wanted to say or do. The expressed goals of the festival were to unite the communities of Chicago, but it was never stated what exactly people were uniting about. Even if the Grand Spectacle had gone perfectly according to plan, the themes of unity and resilience were unsatisfyingly represented in the festivities.
Only time will tell if there will be a second annual Great Fire Festival, but it is doubtful that it will elicit the same amount of anticipation and turnout if it does. Perhaps the organizers should take a page from Neil Young’s songbook when looking toward future events: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”