IMAGE:  December 2002 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 2
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GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueEditor's Notes
The writing on the walks
Cheaper than a newspaper ad, more eco-friendly than flyers. No wonder students are chalking it up.

Milton Friedman thought here. So have thousands of laissez-faire theorists, free spirits, and colorful eccentrics of one stripe or another. That may be why, when it comes to chalking, Chicago students are a relatively free bunch.

"Chalking?" you may ask—but only if you've spent the past few months with your head in the clouds—or far from any college or university. Like crocheted ponchos, leather-fringed jackets, and other Sixties styles, chalked messages are again a big mode on campus.

IMAGE:  What's flat and gray and read all over?
What's flat and gray and read all over?

So big, in fact, that many institutions have developed rules governing their use. Some schools require groups to petition for permission to chalk; at one institution "unauthorized chalking" has been recorded on student transcripts. At least one school forbids "counter-chalking" within a certain distance of the original message, and many institutions limit chalking to specific areas of the campus.

At Chicago "The (Almost) Red Tape" section in the student organization resource guide contains a single "Chalking on Campus" paragraph. After announcing, "There is no need to get permission to chalk," it continues: "When chalking, please use water soluble chalk that can be washed away by rain. Groups may not chalk on buildings, stairwells, or steps, on the Quadrangle flag pole, or on anything other than sidewalks." That boldface sentence is followed by: "Your group may lose its chalking privileges if these guidelines are not followed."

So much for the medium, on to the messages, where the guidelines for postings also apply to chalkings: "The University of Chicago maintains a strong commitment to a spirited and open exchange of ideas. Accordingly postings will not be restricted on the grounds that their content is objectionable, unless the content is libelous, obscene, incites to riot or other unlawful action, or advertises the availability of alcoholic beverages."

So what gets said? Sometimes the brightly colored chalkings can look as childishly drawn as a ladder of hopscotch squares, and the tone can be equally playful. This week, for example, a series of Burma Shave-like messages began outside 57th Street Books and ended at the Reynolds Club: u of c lounge club. A block farther west was scrawled: like the hot chocolate club...except cool. Half a block later the sidewalk writer inquired: like sitting? The coda came at the corner of 57th and University, right where the campus busses stop: u of c lounge club. look 4 it.

More often, though, the pavements cover the stuff of life and death. terrorism. corporate responsibility for global aids. do you regret being here? poetry, song, peace. remembering yitzhak rabin. Many days my instinctive reaction seems left over from another childhood game, "Step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back," and I change gaits to avoid stepping on the words that spell out other people's suffering.

Which is proof that chalkings hit their mark: they entertain, they inform, they incite, they educate. Unlike posters they don't have to be taken down; old messages fade away. It's good to know new ones will appear.

— Mary Ruth Yoe



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