A story-gathering pop-up event from C.A.M.P., summer 2021 Credit: Courtesy C.A.M.P.

If you stumbled across beaming and boisterous Chicagoans smashing ceramics on the side of the road, would you label it as camp, thinking it could be a performance piece? As more and more arts and culture events pop up outdoors in this limbo of pandemic living, you wouldn’t be so far off. It’s camp! More specifically, this smash pop-up was a part of the Cultural Asset Mapping Project (C.A.M.P.), an initiative that partners with artists to support the documentation and sustainability of the arts on Chicago’s south and west sides. These ceramic bits and pieces became a mural that occupies a wall at 71st and Jeffery, thanks to artists Rashada Dawan and Margaret D. Morris and the Chicago Park District’s creative placemaking initiatives. 

From 2015 to 2020, before C.A.M.P., Re:Center existed as a “long-term visioning process for all 15 cultural centers in Chicago Park District’s network.” Over the course of five years, each cultural center entered a three-year process to provide an intentional home for public programming that supported civic engagement, encouraged learning, and platformed creative gatherings. Park staff, artists, and community members collaborated to envision and produce a future for the cultural arts that was equitably resourced and reflective of their neighborhoods. 

C.A.M.P. continues this model with artists at the helm, in partnership with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) and the League of Chicago Theatres. Since C.A.M.P. launched just as the pandemic made waves through the world, the first phase pivoted from the imagined in-person gatherings to that of virtual workshops and Internet-based tools. (Although as it became safer to host outside events, Dawan and Morris advocated for events like the smash pop-up.) Thirteen artists from across Chicago were welcomed as a grant-funded cohort and partnered in pairs to produce one of the most key elements of the C.A.M.P. initiative—an interactive, community-created digital map of arts and culture. This community storytelling and data visualization project has been documenting histories that combat the narrative that historic disinvestment means that vibrant artistic communities don’t exist on the south and west sides. 

C.A.M.P.’s digital hub features stories of people, places, and programs gathered both by their cohort artists and community residents themselves. Anyone can contribute to the public Cultural Asset Map by filling out a survey that collects data focusing on an individual’s memories through written or spoken stories. Participants can also upload images and videos to supplement their stories. By design, this interactive map lives on the C.A.M.P. website as a collaborative project with an ethnographic framework. 

Meida McNeal Credit: Anjali Pinto

Meida McNeal, arts and culture manager of the Chicago Park District, describes her practices as an artist, academic, and administrator as a “braided web” in which she explores “how the body and performance of cultural histories and legacies are important sources of knowledge.” Her background in ethnography also shines in her work as the artistic/managing director of Honey Pot Performance, which informs her work of approaching “macro issues at a community scale.” She describes C.A.M.P. as an evolution of Re:Center in that they are taking the “blueprints” of previous public programming and investing in the infrastructure that can “rally support and amplify the importance of cultural resources being as integral as sport and recreation.” Re:Center made space to investigate the needs of Chicago cultural centers and their communities. C.A.M.P. puts these blueprints into action as a community-engaged method of activating art and culture spaces that haven’t had the visibility and resources like their counterparts on the north side. 

Mosaic mural created through C.A.M.P. project with Rashada Dawan and Margaret D. Morris in South Shore. Courtesy Rashada Dawan, bfliproductions.org.

Additionally, C.A.M.P. staff designed their initiative to strengthen artist relationships across the neighborhoods. Actress and vocalist Dawan (founder of B.FLI Productions, Inc.) and movement and sound artist Morris were paired by C.A.M.P. to serve the South Shore Cultural Center. “We didn’t know each other at all before this project and through it, we realized our energies were way more similar than we really knew,” says Dawan. In pairing artists with different practices together, the project also lessened the silos between a range of mediums from dance, theater, visual arts, and beyond. 

When discussing the history of the South Shore Cultural Center, Dawan recalls her parents got married there (like the Obamas) and it “used to be a hub for all things community, whether it was jazz, concerts, rodeos, barbecues.” But in recent years, “it has kind of transformed into a sort of private club,” she adds. Now Dawan hosts healing circle workshops where community members show up to talk about the history of their communities and what they envision for the future. With C.A.M.P., Dawan was able to help revitalize a cultural institution that played a huge role in her youth as a budding vocalist and dancer. 

In Humboldt Park, theater artist Miranda González, artistic director of UrbanTheater Company, also shares the impact of archiving the stories of her own community in the face of rapid city change. “It always shocks me to know how much Humboldt Park has been gentrified, and how much displacement has actually taken place, and how it’s directly affected families that I grew up with,” she shares. 

In collecting stories for C.A.M.P., she can’t help feeling the “nostalgia of a neighborhood hotdog stand that everybody used to go to or the way that they used to play with their neighbors.” She shares a sentiment with Dawan, noting, “It’s not very often that you see children in the city playing on a block.” As Chicago continues to reopen amidst the pandemic, González is hopeful her company and future phases of C.A.M.P. will remain receptive to the needs of their neighborhoods through projects that name inequity and restore cultural wealth. 

At the end of this first phase of C.A.M.P., which focused on data collection and public programming, a final report was released breaking down the initiative’s findings and recommendations for how the city can continue to invest in historically disinvested artist communities and neighborhoods. Chief among the strategies is continuing programming that fosters “connections between artists and community members, and activate[s] public resources such as parks, schools, libraries, and neighborhood community gathering spaces.” 

In order to ensure these findings have a measurable impact on Chicago’s arts and culture landscape moving forward, Latham Zearfoss, a cultural liaison with C.A.M.P., facilitates a monthly C.A.M.P. in Conversations series along participating artist cohorts. The program is run in partnership with Nina Sánchez and Enrich Chicago. Sánchez contends that if “we are embarking on a project of anti-racism and equity,” it must have “at its core, voices, lived experiences, and leadership of people who have been impacted and marginalized by systemic racism and oppression.” Like the smashed ceramics, something beautiful can emerge from piecing together lost legacies and community history when paired with the opportunity to gather and invest in the neighborhoods they were created within.

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