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Old Town School History

The Circle in The Square 1997-2007

In late 1993, “out of the blue,” the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs offered the school the Hild Regional Branch of the Chicago Public Library in Lincoln Square—a 40,000-square-foot Art Deco edifice built in 1931. Since being replaced by the Sulzer Branch in 1985, it had been left empty and neglected, but the OTSFM staff immediately recognized that it was, in Jim Hirsch’s words, “dynamite.”

The building’s imposing presence had to be brought around to the Old Town School’s aesthetic. “People were concerned they wanted it to be warm, they wanted it to be cozy, they wanted it to be welcoming. And not seeming modern—even though it was going to be all new.”

The Hild was renovated to the Old Town School’s idea of “folk,” visually and spatially, decorated with a pastiche of musical artifacts, referencing roots in the past, while appearing professional and up-to-date enough to inspire confidence.

The original library’s circulation desk became the concert stage, and the semi-circular reading room was transformed into two-story, 425-seat concert hall, designed so that no one is further than 45 feet from the stage, even in the balcony—a design that encourages audience participation, whether in the nightly Second Half after classes, or during professional shows.

Moving to a new neighborhood was a source of collective anxiety, however. Students did not seem confident that Lincoln Square would be welcoming, or even safe. “They went, ‘Oh, that’s too far north. I don’t know if I could go to that neighborhood….it really did look kind of grungy….it was relatively tough-looking,” remembers guitar teacher Bill Brickey—who already lived comfortably in Lincoln Square at the time.

Historically a family-oriented, German neighborhood, Lincoln Square had diversified ethnically in recent decades, though it was still two-thirds white by 2000, with Hispanics and Asians accounting for the remaining third—an unusual demographic for Chicago. By the 1990s, the neighborhood had decayed significantly. The population was declining and crime was rising.

To figure out if the school could survive such a move, Jim Hirsch hired the organization’s first marketing specialist, Gail Tyler, who brought an MBA from New York University and experience in the corporate world. Gail’s first task was to survey the student body (an astonishing 85% of whom had started only since 1995). While nearly half were undeterred by the move, and only "old-timers" held serious concerns, in the end, only 2% did not follow the school to Lincoln Square.

By 1997, the neighborhood was picking up and property values rising; a Starbucks arrived at Wilson and Lincoln in 1999. As it turned out, the Old Town School’s arrival accelerated Lincoln Square’s gentrification.

A flurry of attention from local and national media attended the grand opening of the Old Town School in 1998, beginning with the first annual Folk and Roots Festival, held just down the street in Welles Park every July for the next 13 years.

Revenue nearly doubled between 1997 and 1999, from about $3 million to $6 million, as did total enrollment, to almost 24,000 (OTSFM 1997, 1999). Growth did not peak until 2002; by 2004, about 6,000 students were registered each week, or about 35,000 for the year.

Old Town School regulars worried that this massive expansion would alter the fundamental character of the place irrevocably. “When it was in the 909 [Armitage] building, that growth was pretty exciting," Michael Miles remembered. "I think the resistance came with the new space. New location, different demeanor to the place, much larger administration upstairs, nobody sees ‘em.”

Throughout the 1990s, along with anxiety over the school’s possible “corporatization,” came a recurring debate over the use of the “F” word: folk. The worry, Elaine Moore explained, was that “we were going to be thought of as this old place stuck in the Folk Scare of the fifties and sixties, you know?” Would the use of the word “folk” hinder efforts to expand and diversify what the school offered, and to whom? Would it specifically deter people of color?

Changing the School’s name was seriously considered, more than once, especially during the move to Lincoln Square. Gail pushed for the school to claim the word as its “brand identity.” The leadership ultimately agreed; in Michael’s words, “If anyone was going to set the record straight about what folk music would be, it should be us. And that we would define folk music by what it was that we presented.”

Among the leadership, the new growth in scale also fueled a debate on standardization and even packaging and redistribution of the curriculum. The school seemed to be at risk of turning into a corporate academic entity first, and a folk community second. In the end, the Board moved against franchising the Old Town School.

In this climate of uncertainty over the direction of the school, key administrators left, including Michael Miles and Elaine Moore, culminating in Jim Hirsch’s resignation in the spring of 2000.

That year, with Gail Tyler serving as Acting Executive Director, the Board of Directors launched its first national search for a leader, seeking a proven professional arts administrator, instead of hiring from within.

The position went to David Roche, who holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and was then Artistic Director for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Amazed to find a non-profit organization funded by its own revenue, Roche was deeply intrigued by the educational programs, which did not seem to fit neatly into familiar pedagogical models: “There was something else going on here, that’s to do with institutionalization of a folk process. It was like an urban socialization, urban front porch.”

David’s own background combined interests in the folk revival, non-Western music (particularly Asian traditions), and music education. Unlike most of the Chicago-rooted Old Town School community, David described himself as a “typical American nomad,” whose life journey had stretched from Westchester County, New York, to San Francisco, by way of India, where he did his doctoral research.

The professionalization of the management begun under Jim was furthered under David’s thoughtful leadership, who tried to mitigate hierarchical divisions. “It’s about an ambience that has to do not with superiority, but more of a shared experience," he said at the time. "That’s what creates community.”

To some extent, Old Town School “folk music” remained what it had always been. The guitar program remained the largest by far (and disproportionately white and male), with nearly 200 classes offered each week by 60 teachers—perhaps with a greater emphasis on commercial pop standards than in earlier years.

But with more studio space available now, dance became the second largest department. By 2005, 22 different dance traditions were taught in 57 sections—offering and attracting a greater range of cultural diversity than any other department.

Many Chicago parents associated the Old Town School as much or more with music education for kids, who rivaled the adults in enrollment numbers, mostly in the well-known Wiggleworms program. A variety of classes and private lessons were offered for older kids, too, and a teen rock ensemble took off.

Instruction in more instruments were offered as well—from mandolin to keyboard to a variety of percussion traditions—along with more choice in vocal courses. But students could now explore other musical skills, as well, and arts beyond music, by taking music theory, songwriting, recording arts, theater improv, yoga, pilates, or qi gong.

To other Chicagoans, and certainly among touring musicians, the Old Town School might have been better known as a concert venue than as a school. In the mid-2000s, the Old Town School was putting on 120 weekend concerts a year.

Most of the eclectic lineup was booked by Colleen Miller, Concert Manager from 1995 to 2012, described by Michael Miles as “the unsung most valuable player of the Old Town School of Folk Music…. I’ve never known anybody who knew as much about music as she does.”

Colleen Miller had an enormous influence on the musical tastes OTSFM represented and, therefore, on what Chicagoans understood to be “folk music.” She described her largely instinctive choices as “roots music from all over the globe,” balancing “different international acts with…a healthy dose of Americana and singer-songwriters,” and keeping old favorites in rotation among new acts.

Although growth could have diluted the sense community at OTSFM, instead, it created opportunities for more communities, coalescing around shared interests, to thrive and grow beyond the limits of the school itself. Harmonica teacher Skip Landt would tell his students that the school was “a portal into this folk community.” The school showed the way for music lovers to become music makers, and to find friends to play with, no matter what kind of music they loved.

Ensemble classes became one popular route to finding these musical friends. The variety of ensembles proliferated after the move to Lincoln Square, from Bluegrass to Mariachi, Jug Band to Reggae. Many were offered intermittently to an ever-changing enrollment. But a few built up large, long-term followings—most visibly the Beatles Ensemble, led by guitar teacher Steve Levitt, which grew to an unprecedented 80 informal members, so large that it was nearly a little world unto itself.

Reflecting on the new scale of the Old Town School, Steve Levitt reflected, "There’s no longer any pretense here of it being a storefront, homespun sort of thing. Although that…sensation that the school ought to be a little less corporate, a little less bureaucratic than the spaces around them, lingers and informs what everybody does…. ‘Cause people come to the Old Town School expecting a more personal, slightly slower time frame here. And a chance to breathe the air of something that’s important.”