Inside an old auto body shop in Avondale, David Orozco has set up a makeshift art studio. He airbrushes a face onto a tall plywood panel; a black-and-white picture of his 12-year-old son is taped up as a reference. This is something of an Orozco trademark: He sneaks the likenesses of family members and other Easter eggs into his work. As he paints, reggae funk band Rebelution blasts from a nearby speaker.
Orozco, a mixed media artist who grew up in Logan Square and lives in Belmont Cragin, is adding the finishing touches to a mural that has been suspended in time. In February, he began work on the Blue Goose Mural, a tribute to the past, present, and future of Avondale. The mural makes bedfellows of eclectic mediums (Orozco used spray paint, colored pencil, and airbrushing) and styles, with nods to classical painting and contemporary graffiti. Now, after being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, the 52-by-8-foot artwork is about to be installed at 2901–2903 North Milwaukee Avenue, with an unveiling scheduled for June 24.
“I’m happy I’m done with it, ’cause this mural beat me up,” Orozco says with a laugh. “I was not expecting it to take this long.”
But all those months ago, Orozco couldn’t have guessed that the mural would carry such symbolic resonance. The project was initially inspired by a family photograph of the Blue Goose, a Polish market that occupied the same corner on Milwaukee a century ago. Taken circa 1920, it depicts a small team of grocers just after the 1918 flu pandemic and before the onset of the Great Depression, which would ultimately shutter the store.
The Blue Goose Market photo is recreated in the center of the mural, with other panels depicting notable Avondale figures past and present. Neighbors might recognize Jun Mei, Ivy Chen, and Lin Mei, employees at Friendship Chinese restaurant; Tomas Hernandez, the vendor of Jimmy's Tamales; and Sam Lewis, the founder of Elastic Arts. The former owner of the mural building even makes an appearance: Ben Chehade, who was born in Palestine and lived in Avondale from 1963 until his death in 2014. Chehade’s likeness is based on the last photo he and his daughter took together before he died.
“Where there is art, there is life. This mural is a sign that life goes on,” says Lynn Basa, board president of the Milwaukee Avenue Alliance, which commissioned Orozco.
An artist herself, Basa has been working to revitalize the Milwaukee strip from Kimball to Central Park after she bought the property at 2912 North Milwaukee Avenue in 2008. She first converted it into a studio, then into The Corner Project, a gallery space, in 2017. The Corner Project also works with business owners and other community organizations to revitalize boarded-up, vacant buildings on a block that used to house mom-and-pop shops.
“Avondale was an immigrant, working-class neighborhood,” Basa says. “It is now, and it will be in the future. Our hope is to honor, respect, and create opportunities for the same people who have always made Milwaukee Avenue thrive.”
The building at 2901–2903 North Milwaukee Avenue is currently vacant. Its new owner, Logan Square resident and property owner Mark Kappelman of Tri Homes Today, plans to rebab the struc and turn it into residential and commercial space. In its previous lives, the corner has been a botanica and an appliance shop.
Basa first revisited the building's history when she spotted the Blue Goose Market photo in a neighborhood newsletter a few years back. It had been submitted by Loire Zielinski-Klade, whose grandfather, Stanley Zielinski, and other Blue Goose employees are pictured standing outside the store.
Zielinski-Klade, who lives in Washington state, is from suburban Aurora but grew up in Avondale. The self-described family historian says her grandparents, who were first-generation Polish and German, were known in the neighborhood as hard-working and festive, often hosting block parties and trash cleanups to keep the street pristine. After her grandfather died in the late 1970s, Zielinski-Klade bought the building they lived in. She owned it until she moved away in the early 1990s.
She says Blue Goose Market went out of business in part because it gave out free food during the Great Depression. But Zielinski-Klade remembers another grocery store opened up in the 1980s at the same corner. She sees the mural as a nod to that rebirth and renewal.
“I am so glad to see that even though there are a lot of boarded-up buildings, somebody is putting beauty out there,” she says. “It proves that what we do 100 years from now will matter.”