FREE SPEECH ZONE | Arts, gunshots and building community

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.

Thanks to Mike Hoyt for sending us this essay. Mike wrote: I don’t know if this has much to do with the thorny issues of gentrification or not. I think it’s a nice follow up to your introduction to the Arts on Chicago launch on your blog. I 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.

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 is the Associate Director of Upstream Arts.

The Free Speech Zone offers a space for contributions from readers, without editing by the TC Daily Planet. This is an open forum for articles that otherwise might not find a place for publication, including news articles, opinion columns, announcements and even a few press releases. The opinions expressed in the Free Speech Zone and Neighborhood Notes, as well as the opinions of bloggers, are their own and not necessarily the opinion of the TC Daily Planet.

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  • Thank you for this story. Fortunately, my neighborhood, the Cedar Riverside Neighborhood -- and more precisely, the neighborhood near the Cedar- and Riverside Avenues instersection, has been able to impressively cut down the incidence of gang presence, prostitution, illicit drug use, and other crimes. The Cedar Riverside Youth Council, organized and founded by Mohamed "MJ" Jama, five years ago at the age of fourteen, has painted at least two beautiful murals on the sides of two stand-out buildings along Cedar Avenue, south of Fourth Street South. I hope the area around Chicago and 38th can develop the same relative sense of peace and safety that we now enjoy. The Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood Reviatalization Program's Safety Committee worked closely with former First Precinct Inspector, Kristine Arneson (now MPD Deputy Chief of Patrol), and our local beat cops, and City Council Member Cam Gordon, to come up with strategies and tactics for the reduction and obliteration of high crime in the area. I have lived in the neighborhood since June 3, 1993, and have enjoyed most of what I have seen and heard in this proximity. However, when I believe I hear gunshots, although my view of the neighborhood is blocked by tall buildings that make the sounds muffled, I dial 911, immediately, with no hesitation or sense that I am bothering, or inappropriately using, the 911 service. Now that Mayor Ryback is retiring, and a few feverish council members will likely be replaced after their failure to allow a referendum against using our tax money to pay for a new stadium to be used, primarily, by the Vikings Footbal Club -- before handing over the issue to the state legislature and governor...just perhaps we'll have an opportunity to get the Neighborhood Revitalization Program back. If this happens, and with the cooperation of local precinct inspectors, our neighborhoods may continue to see a fall in crime rate, overall. - by Barry N Peterson on Tue, 01/01/2013 - 11:33pm
  • CORRECTION: One of the murals that the Cedar Riverside Youth Council (CRYC) painted is on the building that houses The Red Sea Bar and Club, and The Red Sea Restaurant, on the west side of Cedar Avenue near Third Street South. Mohamed Jama, the organizer and former president of the CYRC, has interned with both the office of Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, and Minneapolis Mayor RT Ryback. He was flown to Washington, D.C. last winter to meet with thirteen other youth from around the nation, with U.S. President Barack Obama, to talk about their views and desires for the future of the United States of America. Jama is now studying economics on a part-time basis during the weekends at University of Chicago, and attending a local university, now that he has graduated from high school. MJ is the son of a Somali immigrant family, and has integrated well into both the Somali community and the mainstream American community. He has also served as a board member for the Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood Revitalization Program; and is currently the elected chairman of the DFL Senate District 60, Ward Six, Precinct Three caucus. - by Barry N Peterson on Tue, 01/01/2013 - 11:57pm
  • What a wonderful essay! I have lived within walking distance of 38th and Chicago for almost 27 years (hard for me to believe that I've been in one place for so long!) and can remember the ups and downs of those two streets that connect Powderhorn and Bancroft, Bryant and Central. I feel safe in my neighborhood (Bancroft) and always have, even knowing that violence does sometimes occur. The neighbors on my block are the best and the crux of the article--about the positive impact of art and artists--is absolutely true. I am really excited about all the great artistic and commercial activity around the intersection and have been supporting it as I'm able. - by Peggy Rader on Wed, 01/02/2013 - 2:15pm
  • Thanks for a great story! - by Atlantic Press, Inc. on Thu, 01/03/2013 - 9:42am

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