“Daley is not a dumb mayor,” proclaimed Ron Gibson as he edged the hairline of a customer sitting in his Austin barbershop.
“He’s shown that he is very cunning, very strategic and things he doesn’t know, he [surrounds] himself around people who do know,” the 39-year-old Gibson said, putting his two cents in the debate on whether the Chicago Children’s Museum should move to Grant Park from its Navy Pier location.
The banter at Ron’s Barbershop, 6058 W. North Ave., at times became heated. Quick responses came from the mix of 20 young and old men-and a few women brave enough to offer their opinions.
The scene was reminiscent of the 2002 hit movie “Barbershop.” In it, the character Eddie, played by actor Cedric the Entertainer, stirs up lively debate on historical, social and cultural issues set off by his strong opinions.
“If they were trying to do something [for children] they should build the Children’s Museum in K-Town or build one in Englewood,” Anthony Newsome, a 30-year-old Austin resident said.
“Because it is not accessible to tourist dollars-that is what his [Mayor Daley’s] primary reason for locating it there,” replied Rod Rutherford, 46, also of Austin, whose response shifted the debate to whether Blacks will get construction jobs to build the new museum.
While barbershops have historically been places where men can let their hair down, so to speak, the discussions at Ron’s are part of the Illinois Humanities Council’s (IHC) Café Society.
Begun in 2002, the Café Society is designed to have weekly coffee shop-style conversations on current issues in society. Most discussions are held in local pubs, but Ron’s Barbershop is somewhat a departure for the council.
IHC wanted to find more diverse locations to hold these conversations, said Alice Kim, director of the Public Square, an umbrella program of IHC. Public Square oversees the Café Society program.
A barbershop seemed a natural fit since it is already a gathering space for people, Kim said. The hope, she added, is to give people who ordinary wouldn’t converse with each other an opportunity to do so, as well as provide them a space for those conversations to take place.
The society hosts seven café chats throughout the city including Hyde Park, downtown, several North Side locations and one in Carbondale.
“We really think dialoguing and conversing is vital to creating a more participatory democracy,” Kim said.
Gibson, a barber for 19 years, agreed.
“As a community, if we don’t come together to voice our opinion on different issues, whether it’s do our children wear their pants too big to affordable healthcare for our seniors, then we will allow others to give us an opinion, he said. “When that happens we cease being a community.”
Gibson began hosting the Café Society six years ago when one of the group’s members came in for a cut and heard customers saying women “didn’t have a place in politics,” he recalled.
Initially, Gibson turned down the invitation to join. He said the barbershop is the “Black’s man country club” and thought outside influences would prevent customers from speaking candidly. But their conversations have ranged from such topics as O.J. Simpson innocence or guilt to how men can have a better relationship with God.
“We turn off the radio. We turn off the music and we invite souls to speak,” Gibson said, noting that until the movie, barbershops were not considered a hub for intellectual conversation among Black men.
But, as Gibson said, “It has always been that way.”