Project Showcase: Forty Blocks: The East Garfield Park Oral History Project

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Film Crew photo

Breakthrough’s Film Crew students and adult mentors, along with staff from the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

The Chicago History Museum (CHM) and Breakthrough, a community-based organization that provides social services on Chicago’s West Side, have launched Forty Blocks: The East Garfield Park Oral History Project. Focused on the 1970s to the present, this collaborative effort examines daily life in East Garfield Park, an African American neighborhood that has been marginalized in contemporary Chicago and neglected in the recent historical record.

Forty Blocks first took life when staff at CHM’s Studs Terkel Center for Oral History noticed that post-1968 documentary material on East Garfield Park was very sparse. Following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April of that year, large portions of the neighborhood were levelled during spontaneous demonstrations of anger. When the unrest ended, so did the outside world’s interest in East Garfield Park.

In late 2015, the oral history center linked up with Breakthrough’s Film Crew, a group of middle- and high school students learning documentary filmmaking techniques. In February and March of this year, project staff held a series of training sessions with the Film Crew. Students learned about East Garfield Park’s history by studying documents from CHM’s archives, touring parts of the West Side, and conducting practice interviews. In their oral history training, the Film Crew learned interview techniques, how to explain the project and its goals, and active listening skills.

Months of planning led up to March 26, when the oral history center staff, the Film Crew, interns, and other volunteers interviewed twenty-three narrators over the course of six hours. The conversations centered on what it was like to live in East Garfield Park, what made the community unique, and the hopes, dreams, and concerns residents had for the future of the neighborhood.

On July 12, 2016, the Film Crew’s documentary about East Garfield Park’s history will premiere in CHM’s Robert R. McCormick Theater. Later this year, full transcriptions and audio of these interviews will be accessible on the museum’s website. Nearly every week you can find updates, including oral history excerpts, on Forty Blocks’ Kickstarter.

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