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.

Continue reading “From Preservation to Community Engagement in Chrysler Village”

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Public History as It Happens: Grant Writing for a Historical Society (Part 1)

Graduate students in public history at Loyola University recently launched “The Public History Lab,” an initiative to increase community interaction and service. The PHL offered to the nearby Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society volunteer student labor and advice ranging from collections management to membership development and programming. One area of focus is grant writing. This series of posts follows the process of beginning a grant application from scratch. And hopefully concludes with news of success!

Targeting a Grant

As Grant Project Coordinator, my first task was to identify some feasible grants for RPWRHS. Factors for this feasibility include: relevance to the institution, realistic expectations for submitting a competitive application, and the extensiveness of an application in relation to our available labor. I knew, generally, of collection assessment grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Unfortunately the deadline had not only passed, but it also appeared that RPWRHS may not qualify as primarily a “museum.” But only a bit more searching led to the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded “Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institution.”

Continue reading “Public History as It Happens: Grant Writing for a Historical Society (Part 1)”

Preservation and Ephemerality in Public History: Reflecting on NCPH 2014 from a Mile High

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

I am currently sitting in the Denver airport on my layover to Chicago after a fantastic annual meeting of the National Council on Public History.  I was reluctant to leave sunny Monterey for the snowy Midwest, but as always I feel invigorated the conversations with other historians committed to engaging and serving the public.  Two panels in particular remain fresh in my mind as dynamic counterpoints that framed the conference’s theme of sustainability: one on preservation, the other on ephemerality.

People > Things

It occurs to me that the title of the panel on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement” should’ve be swapped around to read, “Sustaining Community Engagement through Historic Preservation,” as it became clear through the course of the panel that preservation should be used in the interest of community engagement and not vice versa.  In other words, people are more important than buildings.  This theme was echoed by Sheila Brennan in the “Ephemerality in Public History” panel, who suggested that public historians should resist hoarding objects for prosperity and instead focus on digitizing objects for greater access or allowing the public to touch and use objects for a full transformative tactile experience. (Check out the notes and slides from her presentation here.)

Rethinking Sustainability

Another recurring question in the panels: how should—or shouldn’t—a project be sustained after the public historian has concluded their involvement? Approaching the end of her dissertation work, Abby Gateau is currently mentoring a successor, while also having successfully aroused a strong and energetic community base who can carry forward the public history work she instigated.  Mark Tebeau reinforced the value of thinking about the end from the beginning, suggesting that recognizing ephemerality of products and projects can lead to better best practices. Finally, Thomas Cauvin, from the audience, reminded us that archives are not the only repositories for saving the past and documenting public history projects—people preserve memory.

The panels on preservation and ephemerality, and the NCPH Annual Meeting as a whole, served as a refreshing reminder to base our public history work in the contemporary community.