You may have seen one of Jenny Lam’s blank, prestamped, self-addressed postcards affixed to a light pole or on a bookstore shelf somewhere in the city. The postcards always feature the same prompt: “Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die. Use this card as your canvas.”
Lam, a Chicago-based artist and independent curator, places a unique code on the bottom corner of each postcard, which she uses to record and track its location. “Gradually, I am able to piece together a map of the city of people’s dreams,” says Lam, when we spoke on the phone July 29. She’s left thousands of postcards—6,300 to be exact—in every Chicago neighborhood since the project’s Chicago debut in September 2012.
Lam developed a similar project from 2008 to 2009 in New York City, during which she received 100 postcards back. After graduating from Columbia University, she returned to Chicago and relaunched the project on a much larger scale, calling it Dreams of a City. To date, Lam has received more than 600 postcards detailing an astonishing spectrum of dreams and hopes.
“Chicago is the perfect city for a project like this because it’s so segregated,” says Lam, a Chicago-born, Chinese American daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong. “It is my hope that Dreams of a City helps bridge that segregation by showing our commonalities no matter where we live in the city. We have a lot more in common with each other than one might think.”
Lam temporarily curbed the project due to COVID-19, placing her last postcard in Chinatown at the beginning of March 2020. Once vaccinations started ramping up, she decided it was safe to start leaving the cards around town again, placing her first post-hiatus card earlier this year in June. At that time, Lam also ventured back to her post office box for the first time in a while. It wasn’t overflowing with returned cards but she did receive a few that were sent during the height of the pandemic and when Dreams of a City was on hold.
According to Lam, many people find the postcards and hold on to them for long stretches of time before finding the right moment to send their dreams to a complete stranger. “Maybe they keep them as a reminder of whatever they hope for. Maybe they don’t have an answer and just keep waiting for the best answer that they can think of. If I found a postcard like this, I would do the same thing,” says Lam.
One postcard returned to Lam during the pandemic said “I want the courage to be able to make the friends that I want to have,” an admission the artist found incredibly brave. Lam reflected on this response, “When it comes to being in the middle of a deadly pandemic, people really started thinking, ‘When it comes down to it, what am I living for? What are the things that matter to me the most?’”
The postcard responses usually fall into a few loose categories. This was especially true pre-pandemic: dreams of travel are common, as are career-related goals, particularly creative pursuits such as filmmaking, writing, or publishing. Family-related dreams such as mothers wanting their children to have a better life than they did or a desire to live long enough to see grandchildren achieve something also show up quite a bit.
“I’ve also received a lot of astronaut-related ones,” adds Lam. “With a project like this, because of the anonymity, people don’t have to worry about being judged. So, I’ll get some far-flung dreams—things that you might not necessarily tell someone in person.”
All of the Dreams of a City postcards, including those having to do with space travel, are viewable on the project’s Instagram.
The most popular dream that Lam has seen with the Chicago postcards is tethered to the desire to make the world a better place. “It goes back to the very first card, the oldest card that I received. That card said, ‘To make one film that matters and helps create positive change.’ That’s the biggest, overarching theme—people want to use their own skills and passions in order to create positive change.”
What dream would Lam write on her own postcard? “People ask me that question all the time because of this project,” says Lam. “I always tell them that this project itself is my dream. My mission is always to bring people together. Dreams of a City is not ‘Dreams of Lincoln Park’ or ‘Dreams of the Loop’—it’s the dreams of the entire city. It’s a love letter to Chicago that consists of a lot of different love letters and messages of hope.”