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Arts & Culture

Dream Song Tower: 'A Beacon Of Hope' On South Side

The first thing you notice about Interstate 35 at South Zaramora is the incessant din of traffic. This is a place designed only for cars and trucks. No trees, no sidewalks, nothing on the human scale.

But now a twisted, vaguely tepee-shaped piece of art has added a very human touch.

“He came up to me and was like ‘Hey, I have this crazy idea’ and I'm like ‘that sounds cool, I like crazy ideas,’ " artist Cruz Ortiz said.

That "he" was City Councilman Rey Saldaña, who said he received a call from a District 4 resident who said, "You really need to do something about this corner. It's messy, it's dirty," Saldaña said.

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Credit Jack Morgan
Cruz Ortiz

That corner in no man's land has I-35 on one side, Zarzamora on another, and a railroad track on the third. Saldaña told the resident he'd find out who owned it and compel him to improve the property.

But the investigation revealed something unexpected.

"The people that owned it was us,” Saldaña said. “The city owned the property."

Saldaña was able to score two federal community development block grants, which was enough to clean up the corner and also to create something impressive: art.

"We found an artist, Cruz Ortiz, who is on the south side, does a lot of great work,” he said. “His work is displayed in fancy restaurants and art galleries that might be out of reach for the community in my neighborhood. And so I was delighted that he was interested."

Ortiz was quite interested.

"When he told me where it was like 'wow.' OK, this is like probably one of the busiest intersections on the south side," Ortiz said.

This location was both its biggest detriment, and its most compelling reason to do the job.

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Credit Jack Morgan
Cruz Ortiz's paintings at his studio.

"The south side to my knowledge doesn't have a major cultural institution," he said.

Saldaña agreed.

“You just don't see a lot of public art south of Highway 90,” he said. “So we thought that maybe this could be one of the first pieces that could lead to many more."

And so Ortiz was secured to create something that would humanize this place where only the combustion engine ruled. But what to create?

"We decided it's gotta be tall. This is an area no one walks through,” he said. “There's no walking. And I also wanted to use the metal that the neighborhood had seen before.

“So like oil rigs, trucks, the Air Force bases. You see these mega-huge C5s going in the air. I'm like, that's a huge chunk o'metal."

Those elements are all important, he said, but they're just structural.

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Credit Jack Morgan
Wood block printing by Cruz Ortiz.

"Then the other part, the component, was looking at the folklore, the myth, the beauty of families carrying on stories," he said.

One story, he said, is about the lechuza, a big owl.

“If you don't come inside, it's gonna cuss you out,” recounting a story his grandma told, “scratch you, so you need to get in."

So Ortiz cut out and hung big metal lechuzas on the 70-foot tower.

"And then also the sculpture has these like big claws that are on top of the pylons,” he said. “They're red chicken feet, which refer to the dancers in El Cameroncito, which is also on the southwest side."

As the story goes, an attractive man enters the nightclub El Cameroncito and dances with all the women, one-by-one.

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Credit Jack Morgan
The Dream Song Tower by Cruz Ortiz.

"The boyfriends are all like 'dude, what's going on?' " he said. "It hits midnight and he dips the last girl and she looks down and she notices he has chicken feet … and he disappears into the night."

The attractive man was the devil, he said. And the story is a parable, devised  for the same reasons stories are created the world over.

"It's really just grandma or abuelita telling me 'It's time to get home; you need to get your butt home,' " he said.

Back at the sculpture, its south side is dominated by text, in the quirky wood block print style Ortiz is known for.

"Siempre dreaming of you, which means I'm always dreaming of you. I think about the people who go to work every day,” he said. “They get up at 5 o'clock. And they work, probably on the north side, and they drive back tired and exhausted. And all of those people are doing it for what? They want to take care of their families."

And so this sculpture, called The Dream Song Tower, is largely a love letter to inspire people to fulfill their own dreams.

"That's what this project is about. The myth and folklore. The beauty of family,” he said. “The beauty of everyone coming together and appreciating each other."

Ortiz's sculpture will be completed in early February. The three-point nighttime lighting, he said, will hopefully make it a beacon for an area where hope has long been neglected.  

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org