Dialogs: 2020 CHF Event—Chicago Neighborhood Check-in: Arts and Neighborhood Development

Reported by C.E. Archer-Helke

In a Chicago Neighborhood Check-In as lively and vibrant as any in-person panel, Bernard Lloyd of Urban Juncture and Build Bronzeville; Billy Ocasio, “reformed” politician and current executive director of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Humboldt Park; Karin Abercrombie, executive director of the Swedish American Museum; Tonika Johnson of the Folded Map Project; and Paola Aguirre of Borderless Studio discussed the transformative power of arts and culture in lives and neighborhoods, moving from the pride a piece of art may bring to the powerful economic engines of the arts.  

The conversation, adroitly moderated by Johnson and Aguirre, tackled some heavy topics, from structural racism and gentrification to economic impacts of art (and COVID), but panelists and moderators alike kept it grounded in joy, a vibrant, hopeful exuberance colored in years of pragmatism and experience. Each of the panelists spoke about what they are doing now, and, by necessity, how this year of plague and uprisings have changed what they are doing. As Ocasio noted, everything had to move online fast—and so everyone learned how to internet, fast. Abercrombie, of course, pointed out that we can bring a lot to the virtual sphere, but we haven’t yet figured out how to bring the scent of the season. Yet, despite these limitations, Lloyd, Abercrombie, and Ocasio all describe vibrant cultural spaces, reaching out to the world at large even as they must transition programming and more to a virtual sphere.

Mural of tree branches, flowers and birds painted on the side of a red brick building in Chicago. In between the mural elements and surrounding it are windows and some faded painted advertisements. Image credit: Unsplash, courtesy of the Chicago Humanities Festival. 

Johnson spoke about her own defining moments, including the Folded Map Project and what led to its inception—it was closely tied to the 2016 presidential election, and the cheap and ugly rhetoric thrown at Chicago. Johnson’s experiences with the Folded Map Project and the Englewood Rising project in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, led into a discussion of the ways in which each of the panelists arrived at their various cultural organizations—and the ways in which they have worked with their communities to improve and better serve through cultural production.

Each panelist’s defining moment—or, in most cases, moments—served as reminders of the importance of connections to the communities in which they live and work. Lloyd, for example, described an experience that sounded perilously close to redlining when he tried to purchase a home in Bronzeville years ago; it was one of the catalysts that drove him to eventually create Build Bronzeville. Abercrombie, meanwhile, is a Swedish immigrant (in addition to her work at the Swedish American Museum, she is Sweden’s honorary consul in Chicago), and spoke of the ways that family draws both culture and community into focus. Ocasio, meanwhile, was among those who restored the building that today houses the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture. In each case, close ties to the community enabled panelists both to see opportunities and challenges—and to build grassroots support among their communities.

Both panelists and moderators brought joy and expertise to the discussion of the economic impacts of culture as well. As Aguierre noted, building connections can also generate jobs—and, indeed, Lloyd, Abercrombie, and Oscasio spelled out the ways in which arts, culture, and community organization can build up communities and turn sometimes neglected spaces into economic engines. Throughout, panelists highlighted the ability of arts and cultural production and producers—regardless of their medium—to offer pride, ownership, and economic vitality to their communities. Both Lloyd and Abercrombie spoke of the importance of architecture and of maintaining space. Ocasio, meanwhile, offered tips and pointers for those looking not only to preserve but to create mood and community through architecture and urban planning.

None of the panelists shied away from the more difficult sides of cultural economies, speaking not only about the ways in which cultural production can revitalize neighborhoods but also of the ways in which gentrification can follow such a revitalization. As such, their discussion was far more than a panel about the economic and cultural impacts of The Arts and Neighborhood Development. Rather, it was a discussion about how community and arts can work together, both to build and to maintain community spaces and shared identities.

Chicago Neighborhood Check-In: Arts and Neighborhood Development was a joyous discussion of the role of cultural production in communal economies and identities, a celebration of the ways in which, as Ocasio noted, the arts speak to all of us, and enable us to see beyond what we might otherwise notice. It was, as Lloyd observed, a master class in working both within and without local systems to strengthen neighborhoods and communities; a powerful, vibrant reminder of the intense cultural and economic power of the arts in our communities; and, as both Abercrombie and Ocasio pointed out, of the ways in which museums, artists, and cultural economies can reach out beyond the borders of one neighborhood or one community to draw us all together. Together, Johnson, Aguierre, Lloyd, Abercrombie, and Ocasio offered up a joyous tribute to the role of arts in our communities—and a master class in deploying culture and connections to make our neighborhoods stronger.

The panel can be viewed here.   Caitlin Archer-Helke is South-Side-born and raised, hailing from a now-vanished corner of Hyde Park. By day she’s an academic librarian; by night she’s an obsessive reader and researcher, exploring strange historical byways and digging into architectural scandals. She blogs about books, opera, and odd histories at https://essentiallyanerd.wordpress.com/, and tweets about Chicago, libraries, and books @ce_archerhelke.
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