From Preservation to Community Engagement in Chrysler Village

In October 2013, Loyola University Chicago public history graduate students launched Public History Lab, a student-driven effort to apply public history skills at organizations and sites of history in the Chicagoland area. This post belongs to a series that chronicles efforts undertaken by members of the Public History Lab.

Spanning several years and spawning multiple course projects, the Chrysler Village History Project offers unique insight into the dynamics of a long-term collaboration between a local community, history graduate students, and faculty. The following account presents the evolution of the project to foster continued reflection on the practice of public history inside and outside the classroom.

The Origin Story

In early 2013, an energetic young alderman from the Southwest side of Chicago reached out to Loyola professor Dr. Theodore Karamanski with a request to nominate the neighborhood of Chrysler Village to the National Register of Historic Places. Located in the Clearing neighborhood just south of Midway Airport, Chrysler Village was one of the few housing construction projects undertaken in Chicago during World War II. It was strategically located near the Ford-Chrysler plant where workers assembled B-29 “Superfortress” bomber engines. Characterized by winding streets and a centrally-located park, Chrysler Village also represents an important link between prewar planned communities and postwar suburban development. As part of a preservation course led by Dr. Karamanski in the Spring of 2013, fellow Loyola history graduate students and I unearthed the neighborhood’s historical significance through extensive research in the archives and on the ground in Chrysler Village.* We continued to develop the nomination in the months after class until the nomination was officially accepted in early 2014 and Chrysler Village was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Aerial photograph of Chrysler Village, ca. 1950, courtesy of Clear-Ridge Historical Society
Aerial view of Chrysler Village, ca. 1950. Photo courtesy of Clear-Ridge Historical Society

Now What?

As satisfying as it was to help put Chrysler Village on the National Register, we couldn’t help but ask how the listing could better benefit the community.  At the 2014 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, Kim Connelley Hicks and I joined a roundtable on preservation to discuss how we could build on our nomination to create a sustained, financially soluble, and socially relevant project for a changing community. The roundtable generated a host of great ideas, but as the original core of students moved on in their lives and careers, we needed leaders with a plan to move the project forward.

Methods and Theory

Once again, Chrysler Village entered the classroom.  Dr. Mooney-Melvin offered to collaborate and integrate an assignment into her Public History: Methods and Theory course that would introduce Chrysler Village to history graduate students and provide an opportunity to develop and present a public history proposal. Students pitched creative project plans that harnessed our National Register nomination research into dynamic public history projects for the benefit of the contemporary community of Chrysler Village.

Community Engagement

A handful of dedicated students decided to put their proposals into action after the course concluded. Fellow graduate students are currently conducting oral histories of current and former Chrysler Village residents in addition to planning a community day in partnership with local groups. Utilizing the framework of Public History Lab, this student-driven project aims to elevate the visibility and significance of the neighborhood’s history within Chicago while also facilitating the community’s participation in its own history making. Additionally, it creates an opportunity for history graduate students at Loyola to build professional skills and experience through service. A recent community meeting revealed that the Clear-Ridge Historical Society and the Alderman’s Office remain enthusiastic collaborators along with a core group of dynamic local individuals. I can’t wait to see how the next generation of students evolve the Chrysler Village History Project. In the meantime, please visit our website for updates and stay tuned for future posts reflecting on the progress of the project.

Reflections

From the beginning, the success of the Chrysler Village History Project has depended on eager collaborators, from community stakeholders to professors to committed graduate students across several cohorts. The project also demonstrates the value of a graduate program in public history where a course project is followed by opportunities to apply skills for the benefit of the community.  If the opportunity and the dedicated people exist, project management remains the last critical component. To build a National Register nomination into a public history project that could be driven and implemented by new students, I needed to utilize organizational and communication skills to keep everyone informed and on schedule with their commitments. At the same time, I also try to facilitate the freedom for others to experiment, struggle, and succeed on their own merits. The ever-evolving project management component of the Chrysler Village History Project continues to help me grow and learn as a public historian.

*Contributors to the nomination included: Joshua Arens, Courtney Baxter, Kim Connelly Hicks, Chelsea Denault, Mairead O’Malley, and Gregory Ruth.

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