By KYLER SUMTER
The Chicago Community Trust hosted one of its annual On The Table forums Tuesday night at the Silver Room event space and art gallery, 1506 E. 53rd St.
According to a Chicago Community Trust press release, On The Table was created “in an effort to elevate civic conversation, foster new relationships, and create a unifying experience across the region.”
Chicago residents of varying races, backgrounds, and ages gathered in small groups at meetings all over the city to share a meal and engage in discussions about issues central to the city. Anyone can sign up to host a mealtime conversation and they can take place anywhere.
Participants shared information about their activities and discussions on social media with the hashtag “#onthetable2017”. Participants posted photos and updates from meetings happening in Jackson Park, Little Italy, and more that focused on topics like diversity in the Chicago tech industry and how to inspire the lives of Chicago youth.
Last year, residents organized around 2,000 conversations with an estimated 25,000 participants.
The topic of the Hyde Park Silver Room gathering was “Art Culture and the Future of Our Communities.”
Chakka Reeves, a filmmaker and digital media educator, had the idea to host the event after embarking on making a documentary about The Silver Room Block Party, an annual summer celebration of art and culture. Reeves discovered that the neighborhood the Silver Room was originally located in, Wicker Park, was dangerous in the past but after the neighborhood started filling up with artists and creative people and the Silver Room opened in 1997, the neighborhood became more attractive to commercial businesses and rent costs started to go up.
“I started wondering what role does art culture have in ethically developing communities and also in spurring gentrification,” Reeves said. “I feel like artists make places worth living.”
Reeves also discussed the ways in which the artist’s role is undervalued.
“I’m an artist and I can give you work that will make you enjoy your neighborhood but I can’t afford to live here and that dynamic is what made me want to have this conversation,” Reeves said.
Approximately 10 residents gathered in the art gallery and discussed the gentrification they see happening in Hyde Park and neighboring communities like Kenwood, Bronzeville and Woodlawn.
Before moving to Chicago, Shiela Lewis had only positive perceptions of the city until she moved to Streeterville and Lincoln Square and discovered that the city was “intentionally segregated.”
“When I got here I was very aware of my blackness like I’ve never been in my entire life,” Lewis said. “I left the north side because I couldn’t find enough black people and then when I came south I was like ‘Gosh, can I get one white person?’”
While some gentrification can seem obvious, for other neighborhoods it can seem to be swept under the rug.
Several participants agreed that there was gentrification happening in Hyde Park but that it wasn’t overt.
“This doesn’t feel like gentrification because Hyde Park has always felt affluent. Here it feels like just beautification, not like things are getting pushed out for the new things,” Participant Samuel J. Martin III said. “Borders was here and yet they came in and didn’t push out the small bookstores, the small bookstores outlasted them.”
Participants also discussed how the subtle gentrification emerging in Hyde Park causes drastic gentrification in its surrounding communities.
“Growing up Woodlawn was not a place I would go,” said Sharon Samuels, who now lives in Woodlawn. “But now when we go to 63rd and Cottage Grove now we’re seeing the effects of Hyde Park spill over into these neighborhoods. It’s pressure from the [University of Chicago] and the city.”
On The Table participants also have the chance to win money for the ideas they come up with to better the community. The Chicago Community Trust gives out “Acting Up Awards” of up to $2,500 to select groups who apply by submitting a video proposal of their idea.
Participants brainstormed several ideas including presenting a more positive view of Chicago through promoting artistry, doing a collective art piece and sending it around the city, promoting less political action and more social action, and spending more time getting to know fellow residents and new neighbors.
Some participants, like Raven Smith, felt their communities were too isolated from the arts.
“I want to see more restaurants in South Shore, more colorful décor on the buildings. A Harper Theater in South Shore, that would be neat,” She said. “There aren’t a lot of entertainment places there.”
Participant Silvia Gonzalez echoed the need for not just artists but for entire communities to come together.
“I’ve seen how communities have brought together organizers and educators and artists that are trying to use the arts as a vehicle to change the things that don’t support the things that matter in those communities,” Gonzalez said. “From my experience it cannot fall on the artist and they can’t show up in a community and lift it up off the ground.”
Reeves and discussion moderator Mario Smith ended the meal and discussion with a call to action.
“If you were bold enough to come to the table then you’ve already begun making Chicago a better place to live by default,” Smith said. “This can’t be a once a year discussion.”