The Arts and Neighborhood Transformation

The Arts and Neighborhood Transformation

This blog post was written by Bree Sieplinga, Associate Director Upstream Arts.  Upstream Arts is a primary partner organization helping drive the Arts on Chicago initiative. We feel strongly that her very personal account of recent events in our neighborhood speaks powerfully to the important role the arts and artists serve in promoting a neighborhood identity and sense of ownership.

Two weeks ago, I was reading on my couch when I heard gunshots close to my house. Then there were police sirens, yelling and more shots, as it became apparent that the police and someone else were exchanging gunfire.  I moved to the middle of my house until the gunfire stopped and then looked out the window to see that a man was down in our alley and the whole block was being roped off as a crime scene.  The police were searching my neighbor’s back yard for a weapon and shells, and I realized how close the shots had come to my 4 year old son’s bedroom window.

When my husband, son and I moved to Powderhorn, near the intersection of 38th and Chicago, we were aware that according to some people, the neighborhood had a bad reputation.  But when we walked the streets, talked with our neighbors, and stopped in corner stores, that narrative of an unsafe, blighted neighborhood did not ring true.  We felt drawn to the neighborhood. We felt at home.

But the shooting behind our house gave us pause.  I recently read an article about how scientists have discovered that the brain has a negativity bias .  It remembers, stores and reacts more strongly to negative experiences, while it more quickly forgets positive ones, even when the positive experiences far outweigh the negative. This one negative experience of a crime near to my house was threatening to override and obscure all the positive feelings I had about my neighborhood.  It was making me wonder if the old narrative of a violent, blighted neighborhood was actually true.

The Saturday after the shooting, Arts on Chicago had its launch party just across the street from where the shooting had occurred. Arts on Chicago is a collection of 20 different arts projects that will happen on and around Chicago Avenue over the next year and that will be carried out by artists that live and work in the neighborhood.  My husband and I had planned on going to the party, but our babysitter fell through and we were resigned to stay in for the evening.  But at around nine at night, after reflecting on the events of the week, we realized that we both needed to make peace with the neighborhood.  We called a neighbor and asked her to come over to babysit and at 9:15 were out the door and at the Arts on Chicago party.

At the event, we learned about all of the arts projects that were going to happen in our neighborhood in the coming year.  And crucially, the event gave us a space and time to connect with other people who live and work in this community.  I met Forrest, one of the artists involved, and realized that his daughter goes to preschool with my son down the street at Urban Arts Academy.  I met Jerry, someone I had seen around the neighborhood but never met. He had recently displayed his amazing sports memorabilia collection at Blue Ox Coffee shop, and we had a long talk with him about the heartbreak of being a Chicago Cubs fan.  I met Jenny, who lives around the corner from me and is involved in the Eye Site project; I agreed to have her and two other artists paint a glow in the dark mural on my garage.   And when Dylan, another artist, asked me to tell him a story about living in the neighborhood, I did not tell him the story of the shooting that should have been the most fresh in my mind. Instead I told him of how when we moved into our house, our neighbors– some of them who have lived on our block for over 30 years–stopped by to tell us stories about our house and the neighborhood.  They told us that 6 children had been raised in our small house, that once there was a neighborhood party in our backyard of over 100 people, and that there had been ups and downs in the neighborhood, but that they had never thought about leaving because this was their home.  The promise and potential of Arts on Chicago is not only that it will create new narratives about this neighborhood, but that it will bring to light the rich history of this neighborhood often obscured by negative stories.  An influx of artistic creativity will not solve all of the problems of this neighborhood, but it will bring us out of our houses on a Saturday night to talk to one another. And the next time we hear a story about another crime committed or about how unsafe the neighborhood is, the signs, murals, exhibitions and photos will remind us that no single story can capture or contain this place.

—Bree Sieplinga, Associate Director Upstream Arts