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.
We are now in our third week of class, and the experience continues to astound me. We have now lost two students due to conflicts of interest and several others have chosen not to attend after the first meeting but those students who remain give me insights into poetry and myself that I have previously overlooked; the residents constantly force me to dig deeper into meanings and come to more accurate conclusions about words, phrases and poetic constructions than I usually take the time to discover. They hold me accountable for everything.
During the last class, the residents were particularly moved by the poem “To the Ocean” by S.J. Marks, a poem that, to me, speaks of the ineffable sadness of life and relationships. Beyond intense emotionality, however, I was unable to articulate the poem’s meaning even after multiple readings. I had very little idea, when going into the class, what the poem was actually about and so I hoped that my students would either be uninterested and, therefore, would not press me too far in explaining it or that they would take it upon themselves to decipher the words. As always when one is unprepared, they glossed over every other selection for the day (from Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” to Rita Dove’s “Demeter, Waiting” to Louise Gluck’s “The New Life” —all of which I had prepared notes on) and gravitated only to this neglected-from-the-lesson-plan poem. Luckily, they all, like me, had intense emotional reactions to the poem and, unlike me, they were able to articulate their interpretations.
Discovering poetry with the residents of Mercy Housing
Ilana and I are partway into the second week of our six-week poetry and photography workshop at Mercy Housing in Uptown and the residents have already, as always, exceeded our expectations. While we have a syllabus and are striving to adhere to it, the discussions and diversions that have resulted from our early exploration of identity through art are more rewarding than our careful planning could have created. I was nervous, going into the first class, that my decision to focus on poetry would be met with derision. Poetry is difficult and unknown to most people. Ilana -even as she supported my choice of poetry over prose -admitted that she has little understanding of poetry and would not be entirely comfortable discussing it herself. She feared that she would fail, that she was not a poet, not a writer, and, therefore, could not create a poem. I worried that the rest of the class would feel the same and would not share her openness to learning. I was worried they would all walk out in protest.
Instead, they listened and they asked questions and they propelled me into a new understanding of the purpose of poetry.
Uptown Stories and Mercy Housing, just to give you an idea of where we are coming from
When Ilana and I first came to Uptown in fall, 2012, it was to figure out why we, and so many others, were drawn to this neighborhood that had clearly seen better days. The streets were dirty and we had heard stories of drugs, violence and chronic homelessness. We knew about the historically diverse community and about its historically significant entertainment district. We could observe, in the buildings and storefronts, the class struggles. And yet, everyone we knew who had lived in Uptown spoke of it with surprised fondness: first came complaints of homelessness and negligent landlords and harassment and then, a smile and a story about a chance encounter with someone who had been outside their traditional social circle –whether a store owner or a neighbor or a random stranger. Fueled by an interest in our friends’ stories we determined to find the reason, the one rational explanation, for all of its contradictions.
Obviously there is no one reason people live in Uptown and there is no one reason why there are continued ethnic and class tensions. While quixotic, our initial goal did compel us to seek out and interview a cross-section of the Uptown community, and eventually led us to Laura Ebberly at Mercy Housing.1 With her help and with the immense generosity of the Mercy Housing residents, we were given access to an avenue of the Uptown community that we had never imagined would be available us but which has proven integral to our understanding of Uptown’s complexities.
A Call for Donated Cameras!
Katie’s interview was conducted at Dage’s apartment; Erin and Dage were interviewed during the same session. Katie and Erin grew up as close friends and chose to room together in Uptown after college. They lived in their apartment, the bottom unit of a two-flat at Kenmore and Lawrence, for a little over a year. Dage lived in the top unit. None lived in Uptown at the time of the interview.
Katie hesitates when asked where she feels most comfortable in Uptown but eventually decides on the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway, a corner that she admits “sounds kind of touristy because that’s where all the restaurants and bars are that people want to go to.” The Aragon, a ballroom turned concert venue, is down the street; the Riviera -another concert venue - the Green Mill -an historic jazz bar -and the Uptown Theater -a shuttered movie palace -are also nearby. Despite this area’s popularity with tourists, Katie feels comfortable here because the intersection is large and well-lit and is surrounded by buildings that are, in her estimation, “the prettiest.” This touristy area is a natural gathering place, even for Uptown residents, and Katie is drawn to it’s constant activity.
Choosing the place where she is least comfortable is similarly hard, mainly because there are so many options. Wilson, especially the blocks between the McDonald’s at Sheridan and the “El” stop at Broadway, eventually wins. Whenever Katie walks here, she is followed closely, talked at, and asked for money. If she drives her car instead, these same people bang on her windows. The McDonald’s parking lot is a magnet for fights. The sidewalks here are no less populated than at Lawrence and Broadway, but they are full only of “people that don’t want anything good.”
These disturbances, however, were not enough motive for Katie to move out of the neighborhood immediately. She and Erin chose to live in Uptown because they were able to live in a huge apartment with high ceilings in an old but beautiful building on an equally beautiful street. As an extra bonus, the landlord lived off premise so they were able to enjoy themselves freely.
Her parents were worried but not surprised when she told them she was moving to Uptown with Erin. Katie grew up on the south side of Chicago and, although she was raised to consider the northern neighborhoods in general to be part of the the fancier part of Chicago, her parents had always been wary of Uptown. In high school, she was cautioned against going to shows at the Aragon. Her Uptown apartment was around the corner from this music venue, part of the reason for her parents’ concern. They never had reason to worry, however, since Katie kept them sheltered from the less savory details of her daily life in the neighborhood. Still, they were relieved when she eventually moved someplace more secure.
Katie’s Uptown apartment was a bargain for the rent charged but the expense was eventually more than Katie and Erin wanted to pay for housing. Cheaper living was the first reason they decided to move. A secondary but equally important factor was the grating affect of Uptown’s laissez-faire attitude that makes public disturbance the norm. She became sick of people yelling on the street and wanted to live somewhere she could sleep without worrying.
There was also the frequent disturbance of shows at the Aragon, most of which are attended by people who travel from places outside Uptown. Crowds of white people for popular concerts and crowds of Mexicans for parties sponsored by a local radio station congregate on weekend nights. The crowd and the atmosphere that she had experienced on concert nights was, she discovered, a stark contrast to Uptown’s normal. Typical Uptown is less homogeneous Southeast Asians and Vietnamese and Africans (especially from eastern countries like Ethiopia) make for. what she calls a “totally different mix of people than anywhere else in Chicago.”
Her love of this diverse community and of Uptown’s beautiful buildings trumps Katie’s general annoyance with the noise and the panhandling and the constant confrontation. She would unequivocally move back to Uptown. Her one condition would be reduced rent to compensate for the prevalence of drugs and violence. She maintains a strong affinity for the neighborhood and the only difficult part of returning would be reestablishing that she is not someone to be messed with. There is no point in harassing her because she understands what goes on in Uptown, and she isn’t going to give anyone anything.
More than the harassment, though, Uptown to Katie means means the opportunity to meet amazing characters who she could have become acquainted with only in Uptown. Katie and her friends frequently sat on their porch and invited random people wandering down the sidewalk to come through their gate to hang out. One day, a man from their block simply hopped over the fence with the giant rubber band ball he carried around with him, and started chatting.
This except is from an essay based on Katie’s interview transcript. I will gradually add more to this essay, as well as excepts from other pieces as Ilana and I continue to gather the magnificent stories of Uptown.