“Where are you coming from?” “Where are you going?” In 1991, Olivia Gude, an avid muralist, stood outside the 56th Street Metra station with a tape recorder asking these questions to people who passed by.
As one might think, she came up with a wide variety of answers. “I’m coming from the comfortable middle class and I want to head to the upper class.” “I’m coming from Earth and going to heaven.” “I don’t know where I’m going. I’m lost.” With the responses, she created an oral history-based mural filled with other such quotations and wintry portraits of bundled up Chicagoans. She did so in partnership with the Chicago Public Art Group, with which she has now been working for twenty-five years.
Gude recognized that art was “far from being this preserve that was separate from life, [but] intrinsically part of all of these issues about culture, about human possibility, about justice.” Her 56th street mural focuses on the former; namely, the culture of a neighborhood.
Reading the quotations of the mural, I was fascinated by the wide variety of answers. Some people were soon to be married, while others were just trying to get by in life. While I took them in, I wondered, how would I have answered? Towards the end, I found a quotation that really resonated with me:
“Where am I going to? I’m an economist graduating real soon and going to get out of here… living in the real world, getting away from this cloistered environment. I’m going to miss up there Chicago, I’m not going to miss down here.”
Having lived in Hyde Park for five months, that quotation marked the first time I’d heard someone else express the feelings of isolation and distance that come with the neighborhood. It’s odd that it took a mural to give me the connection I’ve never felt with fellow Hyde Park residents. Then again, Gude created public art with the goal of fostering community interaction and bringing people together. For me, even relating to an anonymous stranger from the past made me feel I had that much more in common with others in my neighborhood.
In the end, Gude had a third question in mind when creating Where are you coming from…Where are you going? That was, “Is a neighborhood a community just because the people are in the same geographic space?” With the mural, Gude moves us closer to the answer she hopes for. When we start to consider the lives and destinations of other people on the street we step outside our bubble. That public interest is the first step to a stronger community.
This is the second article in a five part series concerning public art in Hyde Park. The other articles can be found here.