Touring Chicago

Today I began a community tour training program, part of the Burnham Centennial. We are working with six Chicago neighborhoods to develop tours about their plans for their communities. Rolf Achilles and Jean Guarino and I are the tour design consultants. Rolf and I did a similar docent training program a decade ago for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The training involves getting information about Chicago history and architecture but it also involves helping people become good tour guides.
I have been giving tours for over 25 years and people keep asking me to do it, so I guess I know something about it. At the same time, this program is wisely designed to let the community stakeholders make the key decisions about theme and sites to be visited. And the focus is future plans, so our expertise about history and architecture is more of an added bonus rather than the heart of the project, which is about the future. Of course, the future is what preservation is about too.
Today we worked on coming up with themes for each community tour, and we cam eup with some catchy ones: From Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond for Quad Communities (Douglas, Oakland, Grand Boulevard, North Kenwood), which encompasses most of the Black Metropolis. From Pollution to Solution was one of several that South Chicago came up with. Pilsen, the Indo-American museum on Devon, Albany Park, and Auburn Gresham also each came up with themes that link past and present to this collection of future plans. People got involved, which is the key.
It is also exciting to see how many of these communities have changed over the last 25 years. In my breakout session we had Albany Park and Quad Communities (Douglas, Oakland, Grand Boulevard, North Kenwood) which are two areas I have been familiar with for over two decades and I asked them both about perceptions that people have about the neighborhood.
This is interesting, because of course perceptions linger long after reality. I have led tours on the South Side since the 1980s and I have seen how much it has changed, but for many, their perception of the south side was formed in the 1970s or early 1980s and it hasn’t changed. And I think that for individuals who had that perception, it may never change. And if those individuals passed that perception on to others, it will take a full generation of revitalization and transformation to make a dent.
Which is all the more reason to do this project, because Chicago neighborhoods in 2009 are very different from 1989 or 1979. I know because I watched it and I am very pleased to be still watching it. I am looking forward to working in the various communities where transformation is planned and where transformation has taken place. Cities and their constituent neighborhoods are living things, always evolving. You have to see them over and over and over time and I hope our project will allow more people to do that.

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