Visualizing Change

“Wherever there is change, there are artists,” said Dianna Long, executive director of the Chicago Urban Art Retreat Center, at the beginning of a discussion last Saturday about a series of planned Peace Parks to be orchestrated by CUARC in North Lawndale.

CUARC is a North Lawndale based organization that combines both gallery and studio space for amateur artists with a residence for women in transition. They offer a variety of programming for Lawndale youth, and provide a place to discuss social justice issues. When CUARC first arrived in North Lawndale in the early eighties, they began by cutting the weeds on their property, which were over 5 feet tall. They planted flowers, cleaned up litter, started a garden, and petitioned for street lights. “You wouldn’t think that drug dealers would be scared of flowers and light,” said Dianna, but those who had once troubled in the intersection facing the building became scarce as a result of the improvements.

CUARC still takes the job of neighborhood improvement through aesthetic changes very seriously. They have affixed a series of portraits of African-American luminaries from Miles Davis to Barack Obama, painted by neighborhood kids, to their garden fence and have signs encouraging respect for the neighborhood which sport slogans like “even critters don’t litter.” Their latest idea is connected to the Thousand Ripples Project, a series of enormous, stark white Buddha heads made by Indira Johnson and distributed across ten neighborhoods around Chicago, including North Lawndale. CUARC has proposed that they build Peace Parks in vacant lots around these Buddha heads. Their dream for neighborhood improvement includes planting trees, flowers and shrubs in donated vacant lots, which would likely otherwise be litter-infested eyesores. In these lots, they would display not only the Buddha heads but also statues of African-American heroes, individuals they want North Lawndale youth to admire.

CUARC is at the beginning of the planning process for these Peace Parks. Though they have already received three donated lots, they still need seven more. On the November 3rd meeting, CUARC members asked participants if they knew of anyone who might donate lots or the recycled materials out of which they hoped to make the statues of the heroes. The planning and executing of this process will likely be a long and problematic one. But as Dianna notes, “art is all about problem solving.” It is CUARC’s hope that by giving Lawndale residents the chance to act as artists and creators in this process, they will be given the experience and the tools to participate in making change in their community. These projects of neighborhood improvement link inner transformation and external change. Sel Dunlap, a participant in the discussion, spoke about his plans for a“war on filth,” a project which encourages South and West Side residents to tackle both street litter and the spiritual problem of inner uncleanliness. He publicizes his “war on filth” through a series of geometric, brightly colored signs with common slogans repurposed for a cause; one says “Cleanliness is Godliness.” With CUARC’s Peace Parks project, North Lawndale residents will tackle not only urban blight, but also get an opportunity to see themselves as creators of neighborhood change.