Courtesy South Side Home Movie Project

Sites for Leisure, Sites of Danger

Artists and activists discuss reclaiming parkland as a public space

When L. Anton Seals, Jr. was growing up in South Shore, he and his family would often spend weekend nights camped out in Chicago’s public parks. Back then, he said, his family and friends took the Chicago Park District’s 11pm closing time as a suggestion, not a rule: “[We were like], how the park gon’ close at 11 o’clock?… Who gives you the right to close the earth?”

Seals, a filmmaker and the lead steward of sustainability and food justice organization Grow Greater Englewood, doesn’t know when Chicagoans started to feel more hesitant about using the parks—let alone sleeping in them—only that it happened sometime after his teenage years in the 1990s. “You mention that to someone now,” Seals laughed, “and they’re like, ‘You must be out of your… mind! Why would I want to be sleeping outdoors?’”

Seals recounted this anecdote midway through a panel on race, photography, and parkland, held at the University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator in Washington Park as part of its current exhibit “Everyday Resistance: The Art of Living in Black Chicago.” He shared the stage with Meida Teresa McNeal, the Chicago Park District’s arts and culture manager, and moderators Nadia Sulayman and Isis Ferguson of the UofC’s Arts + Public Life initiative. The panel discussed efforts to make Chicago’s parkland feel safer and more welcoming to residents of color. As Ferguson pointed out, while public parks are sites of leisure for many, they are also “sites of danger and surveillance.”

Historically, McNeal said, Chicago’s parks and beaches have been sites of violence against the Black community—such as when, in the summer of 1919, a white man threw stones at a seventeen-year-old Black beachgoer named Eugene Williams, causing him to drown and triggering the Chicago Race Riots; or when, in 1966, where Martin Luther King Jr. was struck with a brick while marching for fair housing in Marquette Park.

Today, parks in Chicago have strictly enforced rules, accompanied by a heavy police presence. In 2014, Streetsblog Chicago reported that Chicago police officers were stopping bikers using the Lakefront Trail at night, even though the trail is supposed to stay open twenty-four hours (surrounding parkland closes at 11pm). Such heavy-handed (and often misinformed) enforcement often disproportionately impacts Black residents. On Memorial Day weekend, for example, police drove groups of Black teens out of parks and beaches and toward CTA stations after deeming their activity “borderline criminal,” the Tribune reported. The Chicago Park District has a $12 million agreement with the CPD, signed last year, that ensures a heavier police presence will be in parks and on the lakefront in coming years.

McNeal, a park district employee, acknowledged that parks can be sites of physical violence, but noted the perceived availability of resources as another factor in residents’ participation in public spaces. Most of the lakeside parks think they’ve got the resources,  [so] the [neighboring] communities feel like they’re entitled, empowered to ask for what they want,” she said. “I feel like we have to do a lot more work with South Side and West Side communities to get them to understand, … those are your parks!”

Both Seals and McNeal believe that art, storytelling, and ecological stewardship can be tools to chip away at this discomfort in parkland, restore disinvested parks and neglected wildlife areas, and create spaces where Black and brown Chicagoans feel a sense of personal stewardship. For McNeal, empowering communities to seek the programming that they want in their local parks is the first step in establishing a feeling of care for, and safety in, local parks. Part of McNeal’s work is to foster collaborations between artists and local residents by using parks and cultural centers as venues.

In Chatham’s Tuley Park, for example, McNeal is working with a group of older artists and volunteers who had started an artists incubator called Gallery Sous Terrain at the park in 2009. (One of the group’s cofounders was educator, artist, and activist Marian Hayes, who passed away in 2016.) McNeal said she hopes to revive the group—which had created “all kinds of wild art, sculpture, and painting” while stewarding the park—and to incorporate younger generations of artists and residents into its activities.

And on the south lakefront, Seals has worked with Black and brown communities in Bronzeville and Pilsen to create art installations that function as gathering spaces along the Burnham Wildlife Corridor. Once a “deadzone” next to Metra Electric line tracks, it is now a continuous wood chip pathway through public art installations—and soon, a monarch butterfly habitat—from 47th Street up to McCormick Place.

Seals and McNeal also spoke about the power of documenting gathering spaces and art in the parks as a way to diversify the narrative of the experience of the parks. The “Everyday Resistance” exhibit the panel was part of the programing for includes screenings of four short films from the South Side Home Movie Project (SSHMP), featuring families playing in parkland in Chicago and the greater Midwest from the 1940s through the 1970s. As SSHMP archivist Candace Ming pointed out, many of the project’s films from the period are representations of a certain demographic: middle-to-upper-class South Siders with enough disposable income to purchase a film camera. But the advent of the digital camera and the smartphone increased the number of documenters from the middle class to virtually everyone, and the implications for representing and capturing parkland are immense.

I don’t know what the future would hold and… [whether] there’s an actual narrative that can be documented easier. I think that would be really interesting seeing from several peoples’ eyes as opposed to just one,” Seals said. Whatever that might look like, apps like Instagram are beginning to approximate this by giving users the ability to browse a range of photos taken in one place. A user can scroll through a selection of photos of Rainbow Beach, Tuley Park, or Millenium Park taken by friends, neighbors, or total strangers—potentially enlarging their understanding of what a space means, what function it serves, and who belongs there.

Still, even photography underlines the contested nature of the parks, as one attendee pointed out. Eric Rogers, a manager of community outreach for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, commented that he’s noticed the park district cracking down on photo-taking in the park, particularly at South Shore Cultural Center, where a placard says that photography is not permitted on the grounds unless taken with a cell phone. (Throughout the park district, a permit for photography is required for most commercial, and some non-commercial, uses.) Meanwhile, police cameras, and cameras on city or park district property, are always permitted to record within the parks without permits. This combination of strict regulation and surveillance might offer still more reasons to feel unwelcome in the parks than in other public spaces.

In spite of the regulations, McNeal sees younger Chicagoans taking to cameras and other media with creativity and boldness, and claiming space for themselves in the process. “I’m really interested in the way that … young people are documenting themselves, their communities, and taking up this notion of curation, and all of these different ways of just blowing that concept up,” McNeal said. “And I love that we see a lot of it happening in the parks.”

Everyday Resistance: The Art of Living in Black Chicago.” The Arts Incubator at the University of Chicago, 301 E. Garfield Blvd. Open through July 6.

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Emeline Posner is the Weekly’s food & land editor and a freelance writer. She last wrote for the Weekly last month about Richard Lanyon’s new book West by Southwest to Stickney: Draining the Central Area of Chicago and Exorcising Clout.

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