This week, I found myself on the deep southwest side of Chicago, in Roseland, working with teen girls turned designers as they evolved community based research into the design and build of a whimsical prototype playground in an abandoned lot (more here).
We were on a rough street a stone’s throw from the highway. On just one block, there were two storefront churches, one liquor store, one dollar store, a back alley known for trafficking, a strangely busy corner, and a generous smattering of abandoned lots and boarded up homes and shops. When you added twelve young women in brightly colored t-shirts getting their hands dirty and wearing glittering smiles–– the scene was rather disarming. My colleague and I, two fair blondes ditching out of our corporate gigs for the afternoon, stuck out like sore thumbs. We had to make connections to deepen our experience.
As an outsider and design professional alike, the questions I found myself asking to generate conversation with new acquaintances naturally tended toward place. With a young woman, Naomi, our conversation started slowly. We counted community data points and chatted benignly about the scene around us. She was bubbly, but conversationally a bit shy. As soon as I mentioned I had just gotten back from a work trip the day prior, her eyes lit up. I knew I had my opportunity. After a bit of preamble, I asked:
“If you could have five plane tickets to anywhere this year, where would they be?”
Germany. Japan. New York City. Atlanta. France.
As she named places, the shy surface conversation turned into deeper discussion about her art, family, and academics. She loved anime and Japanese culture. She wanted to see what Tokyo was like–wanted to learn how to sketch in that style, try different food, figure out how to become an artist. For a young girl whose world was not much larger than her home, her high school, and the surrounding blocks– talking about the world revealed much about where she could imagine herself, what she wanted to learn, and who she wanted to become if she had access.
Later that afternoon, I found myself taking a moment to check my email on my phone in front of the liquor store. A middle-aged black man asked me what was going on in the strangely busy lot next to me (indeed, seeing a bunch of young women with power tools on a street more known for drug deals is a sight to behold). We dove in. I talked about empowered young ladies entering STEM professions. He talked about his machinist career–one he entered after a training program after some time in prison. A new start. And then I asked…
“How are you connected to the neighborhood?”
My new friend proudly pointed at a street sign in the distance. He lived here. Just bought a house in the same neighborhood he grew up in. It was a neighborhood with a thriving middle class in the mid-century that never recovered from gang violence and economic decline in the 1980s. Now it was more known for shootings than successes.
Those guys across the street? All homeless. He drank with them almost every night, he admitted with a slightly sheepish smile. But when they saw the girls working, they put down their forties for a bit to straighten up their own lot. He hoped they would do the training program he was in and get a good job, but didn’t want to abandon them even if they didn’t. He had rough spots in his life too, you know. The reason he was in the penitentiary? Murder. I drew a breath in, but didn’t change my exterior. Gang retaliation after he was shot and left for dead. He talked about how having the distinction of a murderer messes with your brain. He was an okay kid before then– a trouble-maker at nineteen, but didn’t want to hurt anybody. Those years after, he didn’t know what to think of himself. And then he started hitting the books. Making use of the time behind bars to rebuild himself.
Our conversation went on another twenty minutes. All because we began talking about how he was connected to this little world around us.
I left with such an interesting feeling of connection. Both conversations were questions of place–where we wanted to go and where we were from. And both revealed much about who my new acquaintances were as people. These conversations challenged my assumptions and comfort zones, but mostly–in one short afternoon–they made me feel connected.
– Agent M, Chicago