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Harold Washington Cultural Center: The Hat vs. The Mayor

By JoshMogerman in News on Sep 18, 2010 8:00PM

Harold Washington Cultural Center [reallyboring via Flicker]
Once viewed as the anchor of a surging Bronzeville neighborhood, the Harold Washington Cultural Center is again the center of controversy as the City considers taking over the building. Despite assertions to the contrary, the state-of-the art theater at 47th and King Drive has fallen under a foreclosure cloud with a $1.3 million dollar suit against former Alderman Dorothy Tillman’s Tobacco Road Productions. The Sun-Times reported that the Mayor has taken notice of the situation and has announced that he may use TIF money to finance a City Colleges takeover of the performing arts facility.

An ugly exchange between the former Alderman and soon-to-be-former Mayor followed the announcement, with Tillman calling the City’s actions “plantation politics” and a “conspiracy.” Daley responded that Tillman’s group had failed to live up to the operation agreement that had made nearly $8 million in City money available for construction of the Center, falling more than 200 events behind an agreed upon leveling of activity in the space. The Sun-Times notes that critics of the deal point to the City Colleges' own budget crunch and question if they will be able to effectively run the facility either.

The Center has courted controversy nearly from its inception---starting with the ugly rift and departure of Lou Rawls (who was the original namesake of the building) to claims of nepotism and cronyism surrounding its staffing (the building is managed by Tillman’s daughter and its board is peppered with family, former employees and campaign donors). But mostly it has been dogged by criticisms of poor management. A quick look at the facility’s Web site seems to support this view. Aside from the lame URL ( and cheesy online advertisement on the Home page, the events page declares “No bookings found” and features promotional materials for nearly 3 month old shows.

We don’t know about the finances or scheduling agreements, but have heard complaints from neighbors that they do not know what events are going on in the building due to poor promotion and that snow removal is a problem on the busy corner where the Center sits. Walking by, we have noticed stepper classes with a handful of people dancing in the atrium on a weekly basis, but little else aside from posters plastering 47th Street from the occasional concert in the space. Perhaps, most damningly, we’ve also noticed that they seem to have trouble keeping the time correct on the building’s giant marquee. It is often wrong for weeks at a time. If the management company can’t get that right, maybe it is time for the City to turn the facility into the community rallying point it was originally conceived to be, rather than the perk for a former Alderman it is perceived to be now.