My friend Abby Pucker comes from a family with an extraordinary legacy of impact- from the hospitality industry, film and television worlds, political and civic leadership, and beyond, the Pritzker family of Chicago is synonymous with excellence in business and civic activism. Abby Pucker follows in this extraordinary legacy with her own distinctive brand of leadership and creativity, while remaining a driving force for “good” and change. I am impressed by her talent and fortitude- and appreciated the opportunity to “lift up the hood” on her life and business choices to be a force of good in the city of Chicago through her latest venture, Gertie.
AJR: What inspired you to found Gertie?
AP: My experience of going from a Jewish day school to a selective enrollment Chicago Public School for high school. I went to Anshe Emet in Lakeview for grade school. I loved my experience there and made some of the most incredible friends who are, to this day, my best friends. Simultaneously, I was very lucky that my parents believed that travel was the best teacher. My mom was really involved in the Tibetan Resettlement efforts here in Chicago and had many friends in Tibet and Nepal. It was on multiple trips to Nepal, Tibet and other developing nations throughout Southeast Asia that I really began to understand that the world looked and felt very different than my small sample size of a community at Anshe Emet would have led me to believe. As a result of that dissonance, when I was accepted to Walter Payton College Prep for high school, I chose to go in large part because I felt like it more accurately reflected my surroundings in Chicago than the experience I had had before.
When I got there, I realized very quickly that while Anshe Emet taught me incredible values, provided a great environment to try, succeed, fail and try again safely and introduced me to some of my best friends (forever!), my experience was incredibly unique and incredibly small in many ways. I learned that there were “number streets” (aka the South Side of Chicago), a West Side of Chicago and that not everyone who lived in an apartment had a doorman (i genuinely thought that…). I also learned that neighborhoods that I had been told were “dangerous” and had been warned against visiting, were neighborhoods where some of my new closest friends lived. And just as quickly, I learned that the segregation in the city was mirrored in the lunchroom and in the social circles that developed over my four years at Payton.
Senior year, my best friend and I were sick of going to the same parties with the same group of relatively homogenous friends. So we started a spirit club. We were the Grizzlies at Payton (named for legendary Bears player and all-around incredible human — Walter Payton) so we called our spirit club GRRR (quite original). We didn’t really intend to do anything as deep or important as uniting our class. We really just wanted more people to go to sports games and to find some new friends so that we didn’t have to spend EVERY weekend drinking with the same people in the same basements. Through programming and events like capture the flag, gingerbread house decorating, epic city-wide scavenger hunts and scheduled snowball fights, we were actually able to break down racial, class, academic and other identity based barriers and actually bring our grade together.
I came out of high school with a deep appreciation for the city and a desire to one day share that version of my city with others. After spending 12 years away in NY and LA, upon my return I was obsessed with recreating GRRR but on a city-wide scale… that’s really where Gertie was born.
AJR: What type of social change do you hope and expect to usher in with Gertie?
AP: I have been thinking a lot recently about the private sector’s responsibility in large cities. I think that big cities in the US are in crisis as a concept. More than ever before, there is huge social and class stratification and the gap between those in the 1% and the 99% continues to grow. In Chicago, young and successful folks have been moving to the suburbs. Even before I moved back to Chicago, I had the pleasure of having a meeting with Alberto Ibarguen, the then CEO of the Knight Foundation, in Miami. We were talking about this crisis of cities and what it takes to really build a city of young, energetic, civically engaged workforce who wants to stay in the city. He was the first to point out that one of Chicago’s biggest challenges is the suburbs. We have GREAT suburbs here.
With Gertie, I am hoping to take our “challenges” as a city and help those who have a desire to invest in the city (both in the private and public sectors and across many industries) to see them as opportunities. I am hoping to introduce folks in the city who have incredible projects, businesses, building movements and have incredible social currency and trust in their communities to those who possess financial resources and networks. Instead of siloing the world into suburbs vs. city or haves vs. have-nots, how do we create experiences (like what we’re doing with Chicago Exhibition Weekend) that give everyone the opportunity to participate in a city-wide activation that is completely free, curated and meant to bring people from different circumstances together around tables or in spaces together? Once we start seeing each other as humans instead of as our circumstances, we realize that there is a lot more that brings us together than sets us apart. When that realization starts to take hold, that’s where change can happen. That’s the stage we’re at right now. Just introducing people to each other and building relationships.
Next phase is to start identifying common threads amongst the people we’re working with to start convening around solutions to sector-wide and city-wide problems and forming actual working groups with diverse perspectives but the same goal — to invest in and ensure more equitable economic development for the city of Chicago. Often the way these conversations begin for us is through opportunities to invest in the creative economy, but that is just a starting point.
AJR: Why do you think the “next generation” of leaders need a different type of civic engagement?
AP: In my grandparents’ age and generation, there was a real sense of civic duty that I think subsequent generations have lost. From somewhere around the late 70s/early 80s to the recession in 2008, I think there was a sort of Golden Age of cities where people felt that most cities were too big to fail. “War on Drugs” and “Tough on Crime” never really took into account the plight of those who looked or had different life experiences than those civic leaders who were jumping in to support their cities. Now a lot of the systemic inequity that was built into those types of band aid solutions to the ails of cities are coming back to bite everyone in the ass.
Now we have a totally different challenge — the veil has been lifted and social media (like it or not) has given voice and a megaphone to many who previously didn’t even have a shitty microphone (again… double-edged sword for sure). We can no longer take a top-down approach to civic engagement. We need to think both top-down and bottom-up simultaneously. Grassroots and grasstops as some organizers might say. We must have a variety of people at the table in order to solve a lot of the issues that the well-meaning civic leaders of the past unintentionally set in place — the arts industry is a great example. It has relied on a patron and philanthropic support complex for too long. Now, we must come together — both funders and artists — to find solutions together.
AJR: If you have one dream for our great city and our country 5 years from now, what would they be?
AP: To be on the path to making Chicago the best place to be a middle-class person in America. This will take people from all classes, creeds, and backgrounds. And to be very clear — this does not mean that I don’t believe in capitalism because I do. I just would love Chicago to be a model or a case study where we can have enough restraint, empathy, and care for fellow human beings to practice capitalism, not hypercapitalism.
To learn more about Gertie, and/or to participate in the inaugural Chicago Exhibition Weekend 9/2/23–10/1/23, go to: https://www.cxw23.co/.