This four-part series chronicles the development of Chicago Dream House, a socially engaged art project about Chicago housing that will debut on May 31, 2014. The series aims to show the process behind a social engagement piece over time.
In October 2013, while attending the TCE Conference in Boston, artist, curator, and advocacy expert Kathy Bitetti had told me, “If you’re working in socially engaged art, be prepared for everything to change.”
Six weeks from now, Chicago Dream House will debut, and Bitetti’s words have proven true for our team. The May 31, 2014, artist-led event engages Chicago’s northwest Albany Park neighborhood around issues of housing, community connection, and social support. The day features skill-sharing, presentations, and art-making, all focused around the building of a symbolic “dream house” with area residents in order to create connection and stimulate conversation. I reflected where we were when we began—a team of artists who had never tackled a large social engagement piece—and where we are now.
As a Chicago theater maker and sound artist whose practice focuses on economic hierarchy in general, I began looking at ways to interpret the foreclosure crisis. One theme that consistently struck me was that of isolation—empty buildings and people economically and emotionally adrift without connection to the whole. Little did I realize that the theme of isolation/connection would become central to how Chicago Dream House itself moved forward.
I assembled a team of interested artists: Molly Mullen, an accomplished dramaturg (A dramaturg does artistic research, but more importantly advises on and analyzes the thematic and philosophical lines running through a project, making sure they and the project’s concrete elements create a consistent whole.); Mike Mroch, a scenic designer; then Lindsay Hopkins, an artist involved in social justice issues.
Initially the idea was to create a sound and scenic installation inside a foreclosed home itself—something that the public could walk through, hearing sonic montages via speakers or headphones of ghostly remnants of imaginary former inhabitants, a way to interpret how lives were upended during foreclosure. As people moved through the house, scenic elements would visually tell the story as well.
Upon leaving the house, visitors would encounter local residents on the grounds of the house leading various skill-sharing programs (bike repair, food growing, etc.). This way people could meet one another and create connection. The underlying investigation was and still is “Can people create community stability even in the face of economic instability?”
This was an ambitious project, in both artistic scope and physical planning. I don’t think any of us realized how ambitious until much later. Beyond that, it involved the community at a level that I had never worked at before. So much of the early months’ actions were just bumping around and trying different things, figuring out what to do next.
As ideas developed, I started meeting with people in May 2013, anyone connected to housing to help give us insight. A real estate agent friend introduced me to Katherine Bissell at Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, a nonprofit housing initiative in the West-Side predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park. Another friend connected me to Alexander Shermansong, formerly at the Civic Consulting Alliance and now with Civic Consulting USA in NYC, who was involved with civic and private sector collaborative initiatives. Both gave me valuable big-picture advice and direction. I also attended panels on housing with various local leaders.
Our team decided to set Chicago Dream House in northwest Albany Park, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the US. Predominantly Hispanic but with over 40 languages spoken in the public schools, Albany Park was hard-hit during the foreclosure crisis. The artistic team either lived in or near the area, so there was familiarity with the neighborhood, which we felt was critical.
Albany Park neighborhood location within Chicago
Next step was to gain traction. Getting the house itself was obviously important, but we couldn’t contact banks and negotiate that until we were closer to the spring 2014 opening, which was still nine months away. We had been working on the project without yet anchoring to a group or organization in Albany Park. We weren’t even sure what the anchor looked like. It all still felt nebulous to me. What was the next step here? We needed to connect with forces within the community to help move the project forward in meaningful ways, ways that none of us had any idea how to finesse.
One thing was clear: as Chicagoans we all knew that a project like this needed the backing of the ward. (Chicago is made up of fifty wards. Each ward is run by an alderman. The fifty aldermen form the City Council, over which Mayor Rahm Emanuel presides.) In July 2013, I scheduled a meeting with Ed Pugh, policy analyst for Alderman Dick Mell. Mell ran the 33rd Ward, of which Albany Park was a part. Dick Mell was also probably one of the city’s most influential politicians, having been in office for decades, a real boss.
The meeting went well. Pugh was intrigued by the project. Foreclosure was bad; this project was good. He, with Alderman Mell’s blessing, would help us however he could. Green lights all around. Chicago Dream House felt like it had just taken a giant leap forward. I left the meeting elated. Now this was progress!
Driving in my car three hours later, I listened disbelieving to the radio announcement: “Today Alderman Dick Mell, after 38 years in office, announced he would retire later this month.”
Though I knew it wasn’t true, it felt like Chicago Dream House had moved back to square one.
Next: When the doorbell rings, answer the door