When Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico last fall, many of its residents sought temporary and permanent housing opportunities in Chicago. In November 2017, city employees and volunteers assisted evacuees at the Humboldt Park Field House with medical attention, winter supplies, and housing information.
The experience of the evacuees at the Field House was captured in Public Park, the first installment in a documentary series currently in development by Fieldwork Collaborative Projects, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring the role of public spaces, such as parks and field houses, in the city of Chicago. There will be a public screening at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday, June 8.
While Public Park focuses on Humboldt Park, and the events at the Field House, the larger documentary, Park District, will serve as a research tool for collecting and understanding the Chicago Park District’s network of cultural real estate.
Ionit Behar, director of curatorial affairs at Fieldwork Collaborative Projects, an interdisciplinary group that explores the potential in underutilized spaces, says the group came across what was happening at the Field House and the services that evacuees were being offered there while they were working on a project to revitalize Humboldt Park’s Jensen Formal Garden. “We noticed that the Field House was being used as an emergency site after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico,” she says. “So the Field House basically became another kind of space, adapting itself for what was needed. We knew that was a very important thing that was happening, especially for our work in thinking about these public spaces, like the Field Houses, and how they’re such a rich resource for the residents here. So we made a documentary, not really knowing what was going to come out of it.”
The result was a story about the role of public spaces in the aftermath of a devastating event.
The MCA event will be the first time Public Park will be screened for the public. The screening will be followed by a conversation with members of the Humboldt Park community including activist Eduardo Arocho and Cristina Pacione-Zayas, co-chair of The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago, a group that raised funds for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. It will also include Richard Santiago, an artist who came to Humboldt Park as a hurricane evacuee. Since his arrival, Santiago’s family has been able to join him and he has become an artist in residence at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.
Soon after Santiago’s arrival, Arocho approached him about doing an exhibition at the Humboldt Park Boathouse Gallery, his first instinct was to say no: “I lost my studio, I lost my home, I lost materials. I didn’t have anything here. I can’t just make up a show in a few months.”
But things became more emotional for Santiago when news broke that the Puerto Rican government had cremated 911 anonymous Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria.”They didn’t want to admit that those people were victims of the hurricane.” he says. “There’s a whole process that has been happening about the government denying the of deaths. Even the president of the United States is going to Puerto Rico and diminishing the impact.” All of this made him change his mind about doing the exhibition.
Santiago’s exhibition, “The Frailty of Strength & vice versa,” was made up of 911 monotypes, a unique image printed from a polished plate. “The uniqueness of each Monotype intends to reference the human Fingerprint and the fact that its impression afford an infallible means of personal identification,” Santiago wrote in his artist’s statement.
The exhibition was on display from May 4- 25 and will soon travel to New York, Orlando, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. His story is featured in the documentary.
Although Public Park tells a positive story about Chicago’s role in the aftermath of Maria, Behar and Fieldwork Collaborative Projects acknowledge the persistent need for support and awareness of the current situation in Puerto Rico. “The people that arrived here were the lucky ones. We’re very conscious of that,” Behar says. “There are still a lot of problems. There is no electricity in a lot of places in Puerto Rico.”
The continued devastation that Hurricane Maria brings to Puerto Rico in its aftermath came to light last week when a new study suggested that the resulting death toll could actually exceed 4,000, a gross increase from the originally reported 64.
Even though many of the services offered to evacuees are no longer there, the Humboldt Park Field House still operates as an important public space in Maria’s aftermath. “If you go the Field House and stay there for a few minutes, you’ll likely meet other evacuees,” Behar says. “It’s their community center. They feel it is their second home.”
Public Park. Screening Fri 6/8, 6 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660, mcachicago.org, free.