How to dump accelerant on the Great Chicago Fire Festival
The reports say there were 30,000 people hugging the Chicago River between State and Columbus last night to witness the first ever Great Chicago Fire Festival. That’s a low count and it doesn’t capture at all the sense of anticipation and excitement that suffused the crowd — something I cannot ever remember witnessing in the Loop proper on a (chilly) Saturday night. People were ready and proud to be part of a great spectacle.
This did not happen. Most of the morning-after reviews cite technical glitches in actually getting the floating set pieces to ignite. Social media, of course, was less kind — and funnier — dubbing the event “The Great Chicago Smolder Festival”.
I was disappointed. It’s not easy to haul a family of five into the welter of downtown on a Saturday night. But like everyone else, we had high hopes.
And I still have high hopes. I’m not giving up on this festival — and I hope the City, Redmoon, and the funders behind the event don’t give up either. I want to be excited to take my family to the Loop. I want to celebrate our history with tens of thousands of fellow Chicagoans. I want to see the the river blaze.
Here are a few suggestions on how to make this happen.
- Make the spectacle move. Chicago is good at parades. Really good. Why not treat the spectacle on the river as a parade? Not just the floating choir (which was fantastic) and the kayaks, but all the showpieces. There’s no perfect vantage point on the river, especially with its bend at Wabash, but there’s no perfect vantage at a street parade. This is why it moves.
- Use the cityscape. The buildings, bridges and embankment along the river are ripe to be used as part of the show. Many more people can see them than can see the surface of the river. They are tableaux ready to be illuminated, projected onto, or used as screens showing the current action. (Sydney, Australia has this figured out perfectly in its Vivid Festival.) Let’s not let the garish Trump sign be the only thing we see when we look up from the waterway.
- Shut down Upper Wacker Drive. Obviously the City underestimated the turnout, but that’s a good problem to have. In the future, use Upper Wacker as a pedestrian zone. More room to move along the river, more food truck and vendor stall space, more of a street festival atmosphere. Traffic can be conveniently re-routed to Lower Wacker.
- Establish better viewing infrastructure. At Mardi Gras New Orleans lines Canal Street with bleachers. Some version of this is needed along the river for future fire fests. Very few people not in the first row at any given vantage could see anything except others’ glowing smartphone screens held up in the air. And with people scrambling and dangling all over the embankment infrastructure last night this is as much a safety issue as it is convenience. The new riverwalk will help with viewing, no doubt, but there still needs to be smart planning.
- Less pandering prologue. More spectacle. I get that you have to thank sponsors, but the narration at the show’s beginning delayed and defused much of the crowd’s excitement. And if you are going to make shout-outs, let’s not get carried away with the politicians and city staffers. The show is for regular Chicagoans. At the very least start the show with a bang and then chatter away for a bit.
- Remember that the larger the stage the less nuanced you can be in your storytelling. I love all the little nods to Chicago history embedded in last night’s event. It’s great to learn about this in promotional material. But the actual event — which is not intimate like a theater — is not the place to be subtle. Go big or we’ll go home.
- All the flaming things. Let’s be honest with ourselves here. It was not Chicago history or fireworks or the promise of food trucks that brought all these people downtown. It was fire. A great floating conflagration (with explosions!) was the real thrill we sought. I understand there were technical problems, but my sense is that even if the three buildings had burnt in unison they would not have blazed as mightily as people wanted. The river canyon is all about verticality. Next year we need flames several stories high.
So let’s treat this one as a dress rehearsal, come back next year, and really create an inferno.