To Close the City-Suburb Divide

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

Roosevelt University takes pride in its ownership of the historic Auditorium Building located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. As an instructor at the school teaching mostly at the Schaumburg campus, I have come to learn that few Roosevelt students who live and work in the Chicago suburban areas have visited their school’s landmark facility at the downtown campus. “Arts & Urban Life,” a liberal education course I teach at the Schaumburg campus, is designed to introduce the students to urban culture. I developed a curriculum to engage students from the suburbs in learning about the city. We pay particular attention to how the students apply their learning through a collaborative project based on their study of a suburban area in the Chicago metro area. This teaching experience enables the students to see that learning about art and urban culture narrows the divide and blurs the perceived boundary separating the city and the suburb.

The students first explore the rise of the modern city through looking at parallel characteristics and symbols between many different cities across time and cultures. As students develop an understanding of the plan of the modern city, they begin to see how architectural styles and the built environment inform one another. In the built environment, the class examines different aspects of urban culture relating to cultural diversity, labor, urban alienation, gentrification, consumerism, and most importantly, how artists respond to and reflect on these issues and phenomena.

As a main text, students read Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City by Mary Pattillo, a sociologist at Northwestern University. The book addresses a range of issues relating to urban revitalization, including implications about race, class, community resource distribution, and an educational support system in a south side neighborhood, North Kenwood-Oakland. The book helps the students to rethink similar issues and phenomena in their suburban home areas. For example, one student, Liz Sinard, said in her paper: “I thought about if there was such a thing as reverse urban revitalization. Let’s take an area such as Arlington Heights, which is 90% white, and introduce low income apartments. How would that work? Has that ever been done? I think I would like to see what the reactions from current residents are and what happens to the new lower income residents.” Despite the long battles over scattered low-income housing in many municipalities in the greater Chicago area, the student’s new curiosity on this issue has made me realize more that the study of the city is strongly needed in suburban schools.

Toward the end of the course, students collaborate as a group to design a project proposal based on a self-selected neighborhood close to their home base. The students work to adapt and transcend their pre-existing knowledge about city planning and architectural styles, and make connections to artists profiled in the class whose work is germane to the topics or issues of their chosen neighborhood. Students then design a creative intervention using the strategies of one contemporary artist or art collective learned in the class, with the goal of critically addressing the present conditions of the neighborhood. This summer one of the groups researched Aurora; in connecting the artists and designing an intervention, they decided to adopt a propaganda poster-making strategy modeled on Guerrilla Girls projects, but specifically attacking the cuts in art and foreign language classes in elementary schools (see Picture 1). As a second project, the group appropriated Kara Walker’ssilhouettes in addressing the severity of domestic violence (see Picture 2).

Performing the pedagogy of the city demystifies the urban world among the suburban students and encourages them to seek common ground between imaginary boundaries. Eventually, their geographic and cultural consciousness will be enlarged. ◊

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