The Great Chicago Fire Festival took place last night on an unseasonably cool night marked with the third earliest snowfall in Chicago history. This artistic homage to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 featured buildings on floating platforms and much anticipation for a flaming tour de force that fell flat in its execution.
Arriving to Wacker Ave. at 7pm, chaos reigned as onlookers gathered on the Lower Wacker Riverwalk and the various bridges. Security and police tried to clear spectators from the bridges due to safety concerns as fireworks were scheduled to begin later in the evening but the police changed their mind. This left me to fight my way down to Lower Wacker Drive where all of the prime viewing spots had already been taken. People lined up precariously on stairwells and some resorted to standing on muddy slanted hills to try to get their vantage points. A man with a lit up Home Run Inn Pizza placard walked around to pass out coupons to all passers and maneuvering through the endless sea of people soon became a fruitless endeavor.
Eventually we settled into a spot under Wabash Bridge only to notice that the bridges had not cleared with thousands of people still standing on them. Was this a legitimate safety threat? Had police and security lost all control of public safety? All of this reminded me of the much maligned Looptopia circa 2007-2008 that was subject to the same public mass disorganization.
Eventually the PA systems turned on to announce the schedule of events and explain the backdrop of the event. Students did help assemble these great looking floating platforms and there were various community leaders and political big wigs ready to help with the lighting of the everything. Trendy music popped in and the narration of the history of the Chicago Fire made us remember those fateful Chicagoans who had to deal with a mean southeast wind that would set their city ablaze.
The anticipation of the setting of the fires was met with bemusement and prolong confusion as no fires were lighting up the buildings. Music and the audio sounds of fires popping kept repeating on the loud speakers but it was clear that a certain element was missing: fire. Soon the crowd burst into chants of, “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE” which reminded me of Chicago Fire chants, but no capo to lead the cheering was to be found. Eventually an announcement was made to admit defeat and capitulation as the gatherers were informed of the electrical malfunction and that now we would be setting the fires via manual mode which inevitably meant more delays.
At this point, the crowd began to thin out as disappointed onlookers were not willing to remain braving the cold for a partial glimpse of buildings on fire. This gave me a much better vantage point to start shooting pictures, but there wasn’t much to shoot. From Lower Wacker, you could see Marina City Tower residents gathered on their balconies trying to catch a view of the impending flames below, but the waiting continued.
Eventually the buildings were set ablaze with much cheering and applause. The high winds did not help with the flames and we soon realized these buildings were fizzling out, much like the spirit of the event. At this point, a vast majority of the people started fleeing the scene in an effort to avoid the inevitable public transportation logjam that would ensue. An announcement soon proclaimed that the fireworks show was soon to begin!
At last, something to watch with awe and to think about. Fireworks boomed from all bridges (with people still on them) and the greatest boom came from Michigan Avenue bridge which was just a bit too far out of site. It was a fun fireworks show to watch and even more fun to take pictures of. Execution here was great, but the lackluster never was blaze served as a great disappointment on a personal level. Having been to a Red Moon event before, I was expecting flawless execution and an amazing show considering the $2M spent and considerable newspaper coverage.
The purpose of the event was to unite the city with its various communities being represented as well as to draw in people from all over the city to enjoy our seldom used Riverwalk. I commend everyone who worked hard on the event and feel terrible that the inclement weather of the last few days resulted in less than perfect execution. The idea was thought out and the considerable effort showed and I hope for more great city events in the future.