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Chicago hackers pump exploration, creativity into neighborhood

Pumping Station: One is a gathering place for Chicago hackers

January 19, 2012|By Taylor Ervin, for RedEye

Beer cans, junk food wrappers and an empty pizza box litter a table glowing with the electric light of about a dozen laptops, as young men with scraggly beards fire penis jokes and video game puns at each other.

No, this is not a frat house. This is Pumping Station: One, a self-described hacker space in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood, where artists, engineers, programmers and nerds of every color come to learn from each other and collaborate on innovative projects.

It is a local part of a growing movement of motivated creative people around the world who have adopted a strictly DIY approach to solving problems, which they sum up on their website in three words: Make. Hack. Craft.

Jim Burke, 25, one of Pumping Station: One's founding members, said the group's mission is to increase the know-how of hacking and its information through the projects the group takes on.

"The community makes the space," Burke said. "[It] decides what happens at the space, what tools we are going to bring in. This has much more eclectic range than a single person in their garage."

For a small fee, members get 24-hour access to the 2,500 square-foot space, which includes metal and woodworking, electronics, textiles and art.

"There are some really inspiring people around here, and it kicks you into gear," Burke said.

When most people think of the word hacker, though, an image of Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible" dangling from the ceiling trying to crack into a CIA database might come to mind. But, the phrase hacker first came into popular use among MIT students during the 1960s where a creative or interesting solution to a problem was often called a hack.

These hacks were usually associated with some kind of hobby like computers or model trains, and anyone that became really good at building and manipulating these things was known as a hacker. The folks behind the hacker space movement definitely share more commonalities with the kids at MIT than they do with Tom Cruise, and they are slowly reclaiming hacker as their own.

"It's being defined right now, right here, " Burke said. "The term for hacking that is commonly accepted is actually known as cracking--like, safe cracking. But, for some reason it wasn't as romanticized when it was being written about. I think there is a growing change in the term and a lot of people just need to be more aware of it."

The hackers at Pumping Station: One may be pushing the envelope in terms of fueling intersections between art, technology, and culture, but there is one thing you won't see very much of at the group's weekly public meetings--women. The space serves mostly male-dominated disciplines, like woodworking and metalsmithing, but the organization is trying to steer more attention towards its arts and textile facilities, which it deems more female-friendly.

Lindsay Oliver, one of the group's few female members, heads the textiles department at Pumping Station: One, dubbed "unseemly row." She sees the development of her department as essential to attracting a more diverse crowd of makers into the space.

What started as just a single sewing machine on a small desk in the corner of the workshop, has blossomed into a full-blow textile operation with several large weaving looms, a collection of smaller hand looms, a bank of sewing machines along one of the space's main walls, and a leather tooling station.

"It's been a challenge to develop a curriculum for making spaces more open to the 'other' for lack of a better word...making the space open and friendly to women but also to the LGBT community," Oliver said. "By not having anyone else here other than men, it's not as welcoming to outsiders, but we are actively trying to attract a more diverse crowd."

Former Pumping Station: One president Sacha De'Angeli of Logan Square agrees with Oliver and believes that that organization is moving in the right direction. With over 100 members, "We've expanded beyond the point where I know everybody," De'Angeli said.

Although D'Angeli acknowledges the organizations downfalls, he remains optimistic about the future. "The fact that we are getting bigger is a good thing. How can I complain about that?"

For more information on Pumping Station: One, go to pumpingstationone.org.

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