Where We Are and Where We Could Be: Chicago and St. Louis Imaginings

As Chicago Cultural Agent Dan Godston told interviewer Arlene Goldbard, USDAC Chief Policy Wonk, “each Imagining is a discrete independent event, but then it’s also part of a larger initiative.” This summer and fall, Imaginings are rolling out in 15 different places around the U.S. Each one is different, but whether in small towns or big cities, they all have this in common: arts-based modes of participation and sharing are used to engage neighbors in envisioning their own communities 20 years on, when the transformative power of art and culture have infused everything, changing the face of public and private agencies, neighborhoods, and indeed, civil society. This blog is based on interviews concerning two of them: St. Louis and Chicago. 

On June 8th in the Cherokee neighborhood of St. Louis, Cultural Agent Con Christeson invited her neighbors to an Imagining in the form of a street festival. Cherokee is what is sometimes called a “transitional neighborhood,” with older (many Latino) working-class residents being replaced by artists attracted to cheap storefront rents and live-work space. Like Con, some of the artists are graduates of the Regional Arts Commission’s Community Arts Training Institute (created by Roseann Weiss, also a St. Louis-based USDAC Cultural Agent); they want to support inclusive community development rather than be used as agents of displacement. 

Arlene Goldbard: You’ve been working in a Cherokee studio for about three years, right? Tell me about that.

Con Christeson: Engaging the neighborhood, having a presence as a studio that has a community focus is something that is interesting to me. I sit at the table in the front room of the studio and it’s right in front of the door, which is open. It’s a big old white linoleum chrome kitchen table and people come in and they’re like, “What are you doing? Oh, my grandmother had a table like that. Can I sit down here with you?” 

Arlene: You’ve also been using your storefront windows to engage local folks in art-based dialogue, haven’t you?

Con: For example, we take a picture of the person. We print two copies, giving the person one copy. Then we ask a question like, “What is your superpower?” Then we write it on a post-it note and that goes on the window with their picture. For some reason it’s a magical thing handing people a picture of themselves.

Arlene: How did your Imagining extend these practices? 

Con: We had a couple of young artists who took off and planned two or three things all on their own. One was a sound booth to collect sounds that people would choose to make or stories that people chose to tell while they were there. He wanted to put together a soundscape of the whole Imagining.” The CHIPs youth team reprised their performance of the USDAC Statement of Values from last year’s St. Louis Imagining. A local group of musicians drummed people to a gathering-point on the street. 

Arlene: Who were your collaborators?

Con: For instance, an organization called Bridge Bread recently got a grant from the Skandalaris Center at Washington University: $30,000 to rent a commercial kitchen and employ people who are homeless to learn to be bakers. They’re going to have a store open by the end of the summer, just a stone’s throw from my studio. They market their products in the Protestant and Catholic churches in the area. They made up really great cinnamon rolls for us to give away and they came and told their story. They were really glad to have an introduction to the neighborhood on the street level and be able to showcase wares and talk to people.

Leslie Scheuler, a retired teacher and consultant, shared her observations of the St. Louis Imagining too: “What really struck me was the range of ages that were in attendance.  Children danced to the drumming with a drum corps that included older adults as well as the younger; teens/youth performed; merchants shared homemade cinnamon rolls.  Black, White, and Brown people all together….a couple of Japanese descent in a car with New York plates stopping to take pictures and ask lots of questions.

“It united us. We were from many different neighborhoods, from many different backgrounds and walks of life, but in those moments, we were family. We celebrated together. This made me want to be a part of more of these moments, in many different forms, in many different places, with many different people.” 

A banner displayed at the Imagining on Cherokee Street in St. Louis

A banner displayed at the Imagining on Cherokee Street in St. Louis

Three hundred miles northeast in Chicago, Dan Godston’s Imagining took place on June 14th in the context of a Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble production of Xtigone at Ebenezer Lutheran Church.  Antigone (Sophocle’s 2500 year-old play), turns on brothers fighting for opposing armies. In Nambi E. Kelley’s version, a retelling of Antigone with hip-hop, poetry and dance, the brothers have been killed in drive-by shootings by rival gangs, and the script collapses time to share enduring truths: “The Amazons of the Dahomey, Jamaica’s Nyabinghi, the queen called Nefertiti. That’s our her story," says the main character. “Before Coretta, Rihanna and Mama of the Obama, we were queens. That’s the herstory I claim for me. Not weakness, not disease.” 

Arlene Goldbard: How did you decide to host your Imagining in the context of a theatrical performance?

Dan Godston: I have worked on projects that involve intergenerational groups, and I find that really exciting and important. There are some themes in the play which I find very interesting. It seemed likely they could be good for pre- and post-performance discussions.

Arlene: How did that work?

Dan: We started at 5:30 and then at about quarter till 7 we moved down into the performance space when the play started at 7. And then there was a robust post-performance discussion which involved people who showed up for the Imagining, audience members, cast members, the director. 

Arlene: Tell us more about who took part.

Dan: There were some very young kids who were probably 8 or 10, and then there were a lot of teenagers there. People were talking about specific opportunities for teens. They also talked about threats towards teens that are still persistent, whether you are talking about police brutality or other walls that prevent teens from getting on track toward their best possible, brightest futures. There were a number of people there who are also practicing artists and they also are involved in other capacities with organizations or arts education programs that do offer positive opportunities for teens. So that was a key theme that was running through the Imagining: how the arts can be used as an essential way to be creative and to provide creative opportunities for teens and people of other ages.

It’s amazing how different interrelated themes such as gang violence, gun violence, or just the complexity of trying to envision the future city can be discussed by such a range of people of different backgrounds through the arts. The arts are like the hub, in my mind, they can provide this opportunity to explore so many aspects of where we are now and where we could be. 

Arlene: What do you see coming from the Imagining?

Dan: One of my interests is working on projects that provide meaningful, and dynamic, and exciting, and creative opportunities for teens. I have been in discussion with some other organizations in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest where we want to try different frameworks, different ways by which teens can come together, like in a teen summit, to creatively respond to problems that are facing them and to creatively imagine how solutions can be brought up. The Imagining connected to that. 

A performance of   Xtigone   at the Chicago Imagining

A performance of Xtigone at the Chicago Imagining