Brainstorming and Buttons
Another week, another event for Uptown Stories -Small Conversations. This is Ilana and my current project at Mercy Housing, in which we are using the power of stories to create a community within Uptown’s different affordable housing buildings. As hopeful and productive as last week’s meeting was, this week’s was a struggle and a clear sign that we have to retool our strategy if we want to proceed.
We have had two events for this project so far, and have gathered a small handful of stories. This modest success is not horrible, but it has not helped us achieve our goals. The residents simply have not been coming and sharing (with us or with each other) and the whole process is not what we had envisioned. When three or four people (most of whom are already friends) scatter in throughout a four hour period, creating community is impossible.
I don’t know why I thought that strangers would throng to us, clamoring to tell their stories and befriending each other in the process. But that is the happy image the idealist within me created
The reality is that we spent most of Monday sitting and chatting and brainstorming heavily.
Brainstorming community storytelling and image gathering project to save affordable housing
On Monday, Ilana and I met with several Mercy housing residents at Mercy’s building the Malden Arms to plan the next stage of our work in Uptown. Aside from a short meeting a few months ago, most of our planning up until this point had been between us, and had not included feedback from the residents. It was energizing to see them and have the opportunity to integrate their opinions into the project we had envisioned. We want the residents to be at the forefront of our work; we are careful in this process to remove our hands as much as possible and allow the residents to generate the content and the method of collecting the content. We want it to be a community project that directly benefits participants, rather than an art project in which we orchestrate everything to achieve a desired result.
For the residents, this project presents the opportunity to socialize and strengthen bonds through talking and sharing stories. Chatting with their neighbors and meeting new people allows them to expand their lives and their minds outside the confines of their very small rooms. To reflect these interests, we are calling this project A Small Conversation.
Collecting stories to forge relationships
In my previous post, I mentioned the book project Ilana and I are exploring. While it is true that we would like to create a book out of our work, our main objective is to create a community-based art project.
In 2012, several Mercy residents organized a restaurant tour along Argyle Street in Uptown, which is near many of the Mercy buildings. Before the tour, many of these tenants had felt uncomfortable eating in the restaurants on the predominantly Vietnamese Argyle, where the food and culture was unfamiliar. The restaurant owners, they felt, were equally uncomfortable serving them. This mutual discomfort led to avoidance and anxiety; Mercy residents did not feel like they were wanted in their own neighborhood. The tour gave restaurant owners the opportunity to meet and talk with the residents of Mercy, who were happy to realize that they enjoy both this different cuisine and the people who prepare it.
Inspired by the positive relationships that formed out of the restaurant tour, the residents of Mercy began developing a new strategy for expanding their community consciousness.
A Documentary was made, an article was published, maps are being drawn, and more stories (of course) are being found
Since the last time I posted, before the Uptown Story Slam in September, much has happened.
This is the first post in many months. Mainly because I have created an encyclopedia of excuses for avoiding making time for this blog. They include running a marathon, recovering from a marathon, hosting my mom for Christmas, dealing with agonizingly cold weather, and planning the next stage of Uptown Stories.
Since the Uptown Story Slam in September (which was a wonderful success, and filled with multiple tearful moments, laughter, and a handful of impromptu speakers) Ilana and I have focused our energy on creating community driven art. We are especially concerned with the emerging trend of converting affordable buildings into condominiums and market-rate apartments. This practice displaces low-income residents without giving them the resources they need to transition into their next home. As a result, hundreds of people who may not have money, jobs, or networks of support are forced into the streets, shelters, and slum buildings in surrounding neighborhoods.
As Ilana and I research the disruption condo-conversions cause, we are becoming incensed. The first iteration of our plan to create art within Uptown, then, resulted in a short documentary, composed of interviews with people affected by displacement. The film distilled the stories surrounding the change in Uptown’s housing stock at FLATS’ most recent acquisition, the Lawrence House, whose current tenants are scrambling to find new housing before their leases expire; at a private building that accepts Section 8 vouchers, where one woman has finally found a home after years of living in transition; and at Mercy Housing Lakefront, a non-profit affordable housing management company, where one staff-member works tirelessly to give voice to her tenants. Taken as a whole, these interviews show the problems created when the government refuses to implement policies to protect disadvantaged people from the destructive effects of market forces.
We will be revisiting this film in coming months.
Additionally, we have collected data on current and former affordable buildings in Uptown, which we are compiling to create an interactive map. When completed, the map will act as a resource for low-income residents as they search for new housing. It will also provide a platform for interaction among current residents of affordable buildings. By connecting residents from buildings across Uptown, we will create a larger, and stronger, community. The process of collecting information for the map is a group effort between Ilana and me, and residents of Mercy Housing.
Ilana and I are also launching a project that will include photographs of residents paired with statements about how they view themselves and their community. This project is still in the very beginning stages, but will hopefully result in a book.
Which brings me to my last update: our thoughts on this planned book and our experiences in Uptown were recently the subject of an article on DNAinfo Chicago. We were flattered to have caught the attention of a reporter and honored to have the opportunity to speak publicly about our efforts.
As we continue to progress in our projects I hope to be less creative with excuses for not updating this blog (meaning, not waiting months between posts).
Uptown Stories Poetry Slam
Just a reminder, the Poetry Slam is Wednesday night! It promises to be a fantastic show with many different poetry styles and personalities. We had our final meeting today, and the residents are getting excited.
Here is our press release, which contains all the relevant information.
Affordable Housing Resident’s Share Perspectives Through Art:
An evening of poetry and photography by residents in three of Uptown, Chicago’s affordable buildings
Chicago, IL -September 3, 2013 –The Uptown Stories Poetry Slam will showcase the poetry and photography of residents living in three supportive housing buildings, managed by Mercy Housing Lakefront, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The work presented at the Slam, which will be held on September 18th from 6 -8pm at the Bezazian Library in Uptown, reflects the perspectives of residents within the affordable housing system as they move through their community.
The event is the culmination of a six-week class held during the summer, 2013 at Mercy Housing’s Harold Washington Building in Uptown. Residents learned learned how to translate their impressions of Uptown and their community into poetry and photography. “The Uptown Story Project has been a transformative, collaborative effort between Mercy Housing Lakefront and our community partners,” says Laura Eberly, tenant leadership organizer at Mercy Housing. “Tenant artists have found new outlets for their stories of life in this neighborhood, from the profound to the mundane, and dozens of community members have been able to share in that experience.”
The show is a perfect way for the community to see a vital version of Uptown and the city of Chicago that often escapes general notice.
All poetry included at the event, as well the residents’ photography, will be on display at the library through September, 30, 2013.
Doors will open at 5:30, and there is no cost for admission.
Limited street parking is available, and CTA options include the Argyle Red Line Stop and the #36, #81 and #92 buses.
Uptown Stories was created as a community driven storytelling project, based in Uptown, by writer Anya Ravitz and artist Ilana Cheyfitz. The project uses interviews, storytelling sessions, photography and film to document the tensions between affordable and market-rate housing within the Uptown community. The Slam marks one of Uptown Stories’ many ongoing projects throughout Uptown.
For inquiries about the event, or for additional information about the project, contact Anya Ravitz at 617-717-9865, or by email at email@example.com. More information about the Uptown Stories project can also be found athttp://www.tumblr.com/blog/uptownstories .
What: Uptown Stories Poetry Slam
Where: Chicago Public Library -Bezazian Branch, 1226 W. Ainslie
When: Wednesday, September 18, 6-8pm
How much: Free
Poetry from Debbie
Our summer class has ended (more on that in a later post) and the residents are beginning to compile the poetry they have written. Below are select poems by one of the residents, Debbie. Debbie was one of the class regulars and, although she did not always agree with the poems I brought in as examples, she did have a special affinity to some, especially Frank Bidart’s "California Plush". Even more rewarding to me than listening to Debbie’s excitement at reading certain poems was her admission that she was enjoying the emotional release she discovered in writing. I have always found writing therapeutic, myself, and it feels good to have been able to pass along my passion.
My relationship with Debbie has grown tremendously since the first day I met her during our initial interview in March, 2013. Then, she was talkative but circumspect, not allowing Ilana or me into her circle of trust.