Bidding on a piece of Chicago’s history

By John Lendman

Throughout the city of Chicago, vibrant street pole banners observing the year’s sports victories, museum exhibits and culture-infused art fairs and festivals line the streets, avenues and parkways.

These 77-by-31-inch vinyl snapshots of moments in Chicago’s history will be auctioned off as part of Chicago’s Sharing It Banner Auction held in the lobby of the Richard J. Daley Center, 50 W. Washington St., on Nov. 19 from noon to 1:30 p.m.

There’s something for every Windy City enthusiast this year, said Cindy Gatziolas, the public relations officer for the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. From banners highlighting the 2008 Chicago Marathon and Chicago Blues Festival to banners promoting the Cultural Center’s Marilyn Monroe exhibit to congratulatory banners celebrating the Chicago White Sox and Cubs division championships, there is a wide variety to choose from.

The low-pressure bidding on various banners can cost a buyer anywhere from $20 to a “couple thousand dollars,” depending on the uniqueness and popularity of the event commemorated, Gatziolas said.

Proceeds from the banner auction go toward Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Sharing It program, which raises funds and collects food for the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, according to the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, which organizes the live auction at the Daley Center and an online auction at

In addition, the Sharing It program also purchases toys to distribute within Chicago’s children’s hospitals during the winter holidays as well as to purchase food for Meals on Wheels allocating to Chicago’s underprivileged families throughout the holiday season, Gatziolas said.

Last year’s auction raised nearly $55,000 from live and online auction sales, Gatziolas said.

“How fantastic is it to get a piece of Chicago history and artwork for an inexpensive price while supporting a good cause?” said Peggy Wagner, who has been attending the banner auction for the past three years.

Wagner, a publisher for Living Without magazine, said the auction is a great opportunity to buy unique gifts for the holidays,

as well. The first banner she bought hung outside of her house in Lincoln Park in front of the Chicago History Museum. She said the history museum promotional banner of a couple dancing is her personal favorite.

“It’s like going to a fantastic resale shop and finding hidden treasures there,” Wagner said. “I go with a checklist of passions. This year, I would love to get something with the Bears or the Cubs on it.”

Large commemorative banners aren’t the only bidding items at the auction, however.

Improvisational comedy theater troupe The Second City and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company have donated tickets to be auctioned, Gatziolas said.

One of the promotional globes displayed on South State Street honoring the Broadway musical “Wicked,” as well as items from the Newberry Library and Blue Man Group’s Briar Street Theater, will also be offered for bidding.

“For the most part, people know this is a great spot to pick up some unique collector’s items,” Gatziolas said. “That’s why the banner auction has such a nice following.”

Mini-banners measuring 30-by-10 inches are also up for auction, made especially for “high-profile” events such as the annual Chicago Marathon and various Chicago sports victories, she said.

The banner auction started in 1983, a year when Harold Washington was elected as Chicago’s first black mayor and the city was seeing an “end to a long drought of sports victories,” Gatziolas said.

There must have been a high demand for commemorative banners, especially among history buffs and bar owners throughout the city, she said, because popularity for the auction has grown quite steadily.

The White Sox winning the World Series in 2oo5 was the most profitable year and a “phenomenal blip on the radar” for the banner auction, she said. The auction raised a total of $132,000, with nearly $70,000 of profits coming from White Sox-oriented bids, Gatziolas said.

April Brazell has been going to Chicago’s banner auction for more than 25 years. Her house is now covered with more than 35 banners, she said, many of which commemorate museums and organizations she and her husband are members or trustees of.

Brazell, a Chicago resident and fundraiser for Planned Parenthood Illinois, said she has banners in striking, bold colors from the Adler Planetarium, the Newberry Library, the Art Institute of Chicago and even a Taste of Chicago banner signed by musician Steve Winwood, who performed one year.

“I have them hanging in my house; they have kind of a tapestry effect,” she said. “They just completely blanket my stairways and hallways.”

But having the “fun, spirited bidding” isn’t the only appeal that brings Brazell to the Daley Center every year.

“The most important thing about all this is not that I have all these banners,” Brazell said. “It’s that all this money goes to charity during an important time of the year. It’s a great way to get a little piece of Chicago history and to help other people.”