Mapping 1968 Through The Lens Of 2008

Text and Photos by Monica Barra for AREA Chicago
Map Design by Dave Pabellon

Based on Sam Barnett’s 1968 Oral History Project

My family and I were sitting at home watching the news. You know, at that time Vietnam was the topic because every time you turned on the TV you see something happening overseas concerning the war. There was breaking news, and it stated that at 6pm Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. My mom, I can remember her screaming and crying, and my father, he was really upset. He grabbed her, to try to calm her down. I just dropped my head and started to cry. (Al Johnson Transcript)
It blew on the West Side, and when Daley climbed in the helicopter with Fire Chief Quinn, scores of buildings were burning, several people had already been killed by police, dozens were wounded, and it was a devastated, looted, bleeding place. (167; Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. Mike Royko)

Al Johnson moved to Chicago from Memphis, Tennessee in 1956 when he was just a young boy. It was not long after the move, however, that Al became witness to some of the most turbulent events in Chicago’s history: the 1968 West Side riots. In response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in addition to various other social strains put on the residents of the Lawndale and Garfield Park neighborhoods, residents took to the streets, looting and setting their neighborhoods ablaze. Al is one of numerous long-time West Side residents, who experienced this first hand. What his transcript captures, which historians cannot easily convey, is a perspective of the riots through the lens of a young man growing up there. As he mentions in his interview, “Being a young kid at that time I didn’t understand a lot of things. Why people were the way they were, why they treated people that way, and my parents would explain things to me.” Al’s experience of West Side history was forged without benefit of an outside perspective that most of us look at the riots through today. Al’s ability to tap into his memory of the riots makes his story of the West Side stand out. As a result of his unique experience of Chicago history he is participating in the April 1968 Oral History Project, initiated by local historian/activist/teacher Sam Barnett, which is a compilation of oral histories from over 20 long-time Chicago residents [see more on this project in this issue of AREA #7]. Through Al’s interview, along with several others, the April 1968 Oral History Project will demonstrate how a particular story of the West Side of Chicago, preserved through the memories of residents, impacts and colors how we understand Chicago today.
When I first read the transcript of Sam’s interview with Al for the April 1968 Oral History Project, I thought Al’s story had the potential to cross-over into AREA’s Notes for a People’s Atlas of Chicago project. Throughout his interview, Al located specific places on the West Side where he lived, went to school, and witnessed the 1968 riots. With such specific information, we decided to re-create a map of Al’s remembered Chicago with a twist. In congruence with the “legacy of ‘68” theme of this issue, we combined text from Al’s interview with contemporary images of the West Side to create a map that is a combination of the memories of old places juxtaposed, visually, against their current condition. In order to do this, I went to the Lawndale and Garfield Park neighborhoods and took photographs of several spaces that are part of Al’s story of ‘68 and put them together in a map of both 1968 and 2008. Our goal in making this map is to obtain a sense of how one man’s memory of 1968 speaks to, and influences, the way we experience the same neighborhood four decades later. The benefit of working from a personal narrative of the 1968 riots is that it pulls us back from research and history that, while critically examining the events, cannot accommodate individual stories of these events, particularly those from  a young boy who did not quite understand what the events meant at the time he witnessed them. Having an accurate history of the events is, of course, important, however our project is to access a history, or a sense of place, through less conventional means. As you are reading Al’s excerpts, keep in mind that he was a teenager at the time and that his story is a local narrative colored through the haze of memory.
This is an experiment to see how we read the oral history of a place in the present built environment. How do we see Al’s memory of ‘68 West Side alongside the neighborhoods that exists today. What can we learn from Al’s story about the meaning of a place and time? Does Al’s memory, as a young boy, exist in the neighborhood of today? Does it help us better understand the neighborhood of 2008? These are all questions AREA had in mind as we mapped the legacy of Al’s ‘68.

a brief introduction to the project

Before I went out to the West Side I heard several stories about the atmosphere there, particularly about the vacant and abandoned spaces that litter Madison Street west of California. Thus, I had a vague map already formed in my imagination of what the West Side would look like. When I arrived there, my visions of vacant concrete space was confirmed. While there are any number of explanations for creation of this vacant urban landscape, particularly long-term disinvestment in the area, I had in mind the 1968 riots as the initial event that eventually lead to the contemporary state of the neighborhood. Despite having this assumption, I did not know what to expect when I ventured out west on a Wednesday afternoon. In the end, this map, and article, are really the result of two Chicagos combined: that of Al’s local history and of my contemporary, outsider experience.
As of September 2008, Madison Street in Garfield Park, straight west of downtown, is a smattering of abandoned lots, intermittently interrupted by catfish restaurants, liquor stores, currency exchanges, and other local businesses. If you can imagine a little kid smiling at you with a few baby teeth missing, you can get a vague impression of how the punctured urban landscape looks. Some of the lots are lushly grown over with tall grass and bushes, which could easily be converted into parks and gardens. One particular lot was converted into such a space. It is a small, triangular shaped piece of land decorated with small benches and concrete stumps covered with mosaic tiles and mirror pieces. This park is flanked by a wall to the west that, as of the summer of 2008, is a mural painted by children from the local park district. The wall shimmers in the late afternoon sunlight with the similar broken tile and mirror mosaic pieces. This beautiful park and mural are, however, exceptional moments of beauty on the street; none of the other lots are as developed. Besides the over-grown lots, there are the bare concrete rubble spaces that resemble photographs of the remains of the Berlin Wall after its destruction. Garbage, rocks, broken glass, twisted fences, and the occasional pair of old shoes cover most of the land on Madison. The street resembles an old war zone.
There is, however, a significant amount of street life on Madison. Groups of older African-American men circle around each other, passing the time with stories and observations of the street. They stand in front of several of the greener vacant spaces. Their presence definitely changes the war-torn atmosphere of the street into something warmer, more alive. Gathered in groups of 3 to 8, these men have chairs set up under trees and next to cars parked on the street, camped out on the street in the middle of the day, passing time with each other. The liveliness of their conversations and interactions are a stark contrast to the still vacant spaces behind them. They have converted these vacant spots into communal land and social spaces. Seeing life in front of these desolated backgrounds is rather dissonant. It seems so unlikely to find social life here, emerging out of the bleak landscape, but like the grass that grows over the old concrete foundations of long abandoned buildings, somehow it is breaking through. It is difficult to imagine this street covered in burning buildings with looters violently crashing through store windows, yet the ruins of this are everywhere. This is the modern setting for Al’s memoir of 1968. While it is difficult to accurately say that the ’68 riots are the reason why Madison Street has deteriorated, in addition to several other places in the Garfield Park and Lawndale areas, there is no doubt that today the area is littered with run-down buildings and empty spaces.
These neighborhoods stand as monuments to a neighborhood, and history, forgotten by the Chicagoans that do not live here; that is why it is so important to give Al’s story life. By mapping his personal experience of the neighborhood, we are giving other Chicagoans access to an important part of our collective identity—not to mention a way of knowing exactly where this history exists in the space of our city. Somehow, through cartography, Al’s memory becomes more than an interesting story but a real, tangible site of importance. He has re-drawn part of the city. This is how the Notes for a People’s Atlas of Chicago project should work. Through mapping we re-create the physical spaces of our city and teach each other about what is important to know and remember.

about people’s atlas project

Maps are tools we use to navigate our world. They give us an efficient way of engaging and locating ourselves in space. The prevalence of maps in our 2008 modern lives has each of us relying on access to Google and Yahoo maps online, as well as in-car navigation systems, to get around both foreign locations and the places we call home. Maps, however, are also critical reflections of our social worlds, depicting the relationships people have to places and to each other. Demographic maps show economic and social inequalities as well as proximity and limits to our physical and social worlds. Essentially, mapping is form of communication that is multi-lingual, spanning political boundaries, histories, demographics, and imaginations. The one thing all maps have in common is that they are located in space—this space, that space—as we, the cartographers, are.
The Notes for a People’s Atlas project initiated by AREA Chicago seeks to tap into the basic communicative functions of mapping in hopes of revealing how Chicagoans relate to and define their city through their personal knowledge. Our project is simple: take a few hundred blank maps of Chicago, spread them around the city and get people to fill in the blank. Maps embody what is meaningful to us in space—the space we inhabit. The places and locations on maps are what the public, collectively, deems important to acknowledge. The general public, however, does not participate in the map-making. Atlases and maps locate and give meaning to the places we live in, therefore AREA feels that YOUR maps is crucial to giving meaning to Chicago. The official city limits of Chicago and its neighborhoods or public landmarks do not take into account the residents’ knowledge and experience of the city. The Notes for a People’s Atlas is a direct challenge to this.
At AREA we are not trying to make “politically correct” maps mirroring those that are already in circulation. We find that maps have the potential to be much more. We want to tap into the power of mapping as a way of composing a work about Chicago by Chicago. We use maps to collect a people’s story of Chicago for several reasons. First, maps are condensed forms of communication, dictating to the reader what the cartographer, map maker, believes is important to know. Basically, maps get to the point. Secondly, maps are familiar and transcend languages—everyone from small children to immigrants to senior citizens to young urban professionals can read and make maps. Finally, they give us a very tangible way of envisioning and defining space that shows the multiple “Chicagos” that exist for residents. By seeing what people choose to put on their maps we unveil a story about a certain Chicago tied into places and experiences that hold meaning for actual residents. Together, these maps will write a story of Chicago that acknowledges and celebrates the people’s experience of the city, teaching us all about what makes Chicago our city.
This project began in 2005 by AREA Chicago and has manifested in several ways outside of Chicago. People’s Atlas projects were initiated in Zagreb, Croatia and Syracuse, New York. Additionally, the People’s Atlas Project will also be a part of a travelling exhibition call Experimental Geography, a project exploring critical cartography. AREA periodically holds workshops with loose instructions for making the maps, but for the most part the project is self-directed by the participants, the cartographers. We have blank maps, drop-boxes, and displays of the maps up in various locations in the city. AREA does not want to direct this project—we want to facilitate it.

how to map

Our attention is focused on recording hidden histories of political action, community life, and memories. Stories of lived and imagined experiences of spaces in Chicago. We recognize these relationships to space are subjective and constantly changing; the progressive spatial experience of the city is what we hope to capture. You, the cartographer, are encouraged to map out sites that are significant to you as someone who lives, works, and plays in this city. What do you know about Chicago that no one else does? What needs to shared with your fellow Chicagoans? You can map out local histories, political struggles, forgotten histories, places to find local art in the city, abandoned buildings, places where tourists do not go, neighborhoods where your family is from, places where you’ve felt un-safe, your favorite parks in the city, the best bike routes around town, places where you’ve seen gang violence, places you don’t know in the city, interesting ways public space is used in the city, where to find graffiti walls, distribution of wealth in the city, free museums in the city, and the list goes on. You are not limited to these suggestions, we encourage you to create your own theme or subject to map. If you have specialized knowledge of the city—share, or if you’re new—map the city as you’ve experienced or what you expected it to be. Just remember that we want maps to speak to each about the spaces we live in, so make your map friendly to the greater audience of Chicago by telling a bit about it and making it clear to read. Together these maps will form an atlas of the city written by us and for us.
Through mapping we would like to encourage dialogue. Maps have the power to communicate across the borders that separate us, sparking discussions about what is important to ourselves and our neighbors. As the maps are completed, AREA will display and present the maps to initiate and continue a critical dialogue among communities in Chicago places, events, and issues that matter to them, provoking Chicagoans to talk about, preserve, and act upon their history. These dialogues will hopefully lead to action and social activism among those who see and discuss the maps, having a greater implication for social change in Chicago. AREA uses maps to connect people and raise awareness about political and communal histories that are important to Chicagoans. Your map is a critical part of this discussion.
We hope that seeing Al’s map will inspire you to make your own and understand the potential of the People’s Atlas Project as a means of re-claiming the life and history of this city. We have maps in several of the following locations:
Women and Children First – Andersonville
5233 N. Clark
The Map Room – Bucktown
1949 N. Hoyne
The Boring Store – Wicker Park
1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Quimby’s Bookstore – Wicker Park
1854 North Ave.
AREA Chicago – Logan Square
2129 N. Rockwell
Wolfbait and B-Girls – Logan Square
3131 W. Logan Blvd.
Backstory Cafe – Hyde Park
6100 S. Blackstone

You can download a blank map through our website, which is the running archive of all the new maps we receive: