The narrative about Garfield Park, a historically Black Chicago neighborhood, was incomplete, inaccurate, and painted with a single brush, But it persisted. Over the years, the media had helped perpetuate it: that riots and civil unrest following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. were solely responsible for its social, economic and physical decline. But a 2020 ProPublica investigation found that the neighborhood’s wounds stemmed largely from government and private sector neglect and disinvestment and real estate speculation. And in 2021, CatchLight, ProPublica and CatchLight Local Fellow Samantha Cabrera Friend built upon this work, to create something with Garfield Park residents, and substantially correct the damaging storyline that for decades had shaped perceptions of the neighborhood.
How that was done is a story of sustained, sensitive and effective community engagement — a true journalism-community collaboration — that was attuned to Garfield Park’s residents’ needs, centered their power and assets, and helped uncover and restore a richer, more accurate neighborhood narrative than had existed for many, many years. The project, “Meeting History: A Garfield Park Citizen Archive,” took shape as a community-based visual storytelling and archival project that helps residents (and non-residents) put in focus a previously undocumented history of Garfield Park — one that centers historical Black joy, ownership, legacy, and preservation through the sourcing of citizen archives complemented by contemporary visual journalism.
The project adhered to some key principles: to foster something of value that stayed in the community, as opposed to extracting something for the benefit of the journalist or outlet; and to to closely involve the community throughout the project, not just at its outset.
The powerful nature of the project can be found in the reactions of Garfield Park residents and in the momentum it has gathered.
“This is where I grew up. The same streets. The same parks. The same churches. This story brought me to tears,” Patricia Smith tweeted after seeing “In These Pictures, You Can See a Community,” when it was published in October 2021.
Here’s LaShone Kelly, a contributor to the archive, speaking about the project and, also, Cabrera Friend’s role in it: “Photos are usually a really private thing. There’s a sense of vulnerability when you decide, ‘Hey, I’m opening up my world, Because of her passion about the exhibit and the work, it drew me in. When there’s so much reporting on crime and things that are going wrong, people miss out on the good things that are happening in a community. Are we forgetting to reward and at least acknowledge those things that are going well. A display like this normalizes Garfield Park.”
Currently, planning is underway with the Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago’s premier botanical gardens, to mount another exhibit of “Meeting History,” demonstrating the potential long-term impact of this powerful community engagement project. Arrangements are also being made to place the archives in the permanent special collection of the Chicago Public Library.