As the dissolution of public housing projects in the 1990s revealed the shortcomings of a nearly half-century experiment in modernist social engineering, the city of Chicago and its housing agency sought a new course of action. Backed by billions of dollars in federal and local funding, a “Plan for Transformation” was launched to demolish high-rise towers such as Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green, and others, and replace them with low-density, mixed-income developments. In the process, communities were torn apart as thousands of poor and working-class people of color were dispersed, despite shallow promises that they’d have an opportunity to live in the new housing being built.

While the final rubble was still being cleared from Cabrini-Green, townhomes and big-box retail stores started cementing their foundations, and just a few blocks to the north, crews soon erected a behemoth of glass and steel called “New City”. Molded by a generic, contemporary urban planning template rife with luxury condos, ample parking, a suburban-style shopping complex, and other amenities targeted toward upper-class consumers, the district has become a simulation of urbanity, and mostly void of actual diverse, mixed-income living.

In that way, the “new city” is a synecdoche of urban environments that are increasingly commoditized, as capitalism’s constant crisis state and insatiable need for new markets pillage the city in search of more profit. Bulwarked by real estate speculation and global investments, current development schemes are unfolding in a socioeconomic context of accelerated income inequality and perpetuating legacies of housing segregation and structural racism. Such factors influence the overall production of space and place and our experience thereof, while also affirming that these mechanisms are indeed social, and thus inherently political.

The Strange Fields of This City features works by three artists exploring different perspectives on the triangulation of place, identity, and culture. On a broader scale, Alejandro Waskavich’s prints engage that triad via a certain paradox in how the Midwest is ideologically constructed: compared to other regions with bolder or more impassioned local identities, the Midwest is rather vague, as its residents tend to simply self-identify as ordinary Americans – indeed, the Midwest is often touted as “the heartland”, “salt of the Earth”, or “the real America”. Waskavich, who was born and raised in Mexico but has lived in Chicago sporadically since college, utilizes printmaking to examine the dissemination of archetypal imagery and visual tropes of the Midwest presented through pop culture, advertising, mass media, commerce, and tourism. In scrutinizing “Midwestern” as a selective, contradictory concept largely rooted in rural culture and white nostalgia, Waskavich also asks about what it then means to be “American”.

Zooming back in on Chicago, Haerim Lee follows the ongoing story of Bill Walker’s mural “All of Mankind”, which was painted in 1972 on a church adjacent to Cabrini-Green, and then whitewashed in 2015 when the building was put up for sale. The land has since sat unsold, and the future of the mural remains uncertain. Through mark-making and chiseled surfaces, Lee creates a set of textured paintings that interrogate the whitewashing of Walker’s mural and reveal the visual content obscured beneath, while photographs document spots where unknown persons have scraped away at the white surface on the building. Her material process helps form a literal and metaphorical palimpsest to sketch the layered social and spatial changes in the area. An accompanying set of paintings subtly lampoon the cadre of powerbrokers, planners, developers, and other players in the spatial regime that has set in motion these urban “renewal” projects at Cabrini-Green and elsewhere.

As Waskavich’s and Lee’s works allude to, the top-down bureaucratic production of space has profound ripple effects on aspects of culture and identity. Additionally, the resulting social fractures and uprooting from one’s home can create a disorienting sense of alienation and isolation. The title of this exhibition references a line in Lorna Dee Cervantes’ poem “Freeway 280”, written about the highway spur that connects San Francisco to San Jose and is the main artery through Silicon Valley. This and other poems by Cervantes detail the violence of gentrification on poor and working-class communities of color who have been continuously displaced as the tech industry has reshaped the Bay Area over the past few decades.

However, within such impacted communities, an alternative place-identity-culture triad is often generated from a grassroots level through tactics of resistance, refusal, and improvisational adaptation. These strategies are made visible in William Camargo’s focus on rasquache aesthetic practices as a vernacular component of Chicanx identity and a resourceful response to socioeconomic circumstance. In his work, which oscillates between his current community in Chicago and his family home in California, we see various permutations of rasquachismo in the material culture of daily life – whether in private domestic settings where personal objects are constantly reused, mended, and repurposed; or throughout public space as an unsanctioned expression, mode of speech, or counterclaim in neighborhoods facing cultural homogenization and gentrification. Taken collectively, these gestures become critical tools in seeking spatial justice and contesting the inequities of urban “development”, while also internally fortifying a shared sense of community among affected residents.

In “Freeway 280”, Cervantes describes the expressway as a “raised scar” that had severed her community and destroyed neighborhood greenspace, causing her to want to move elsewhere. However, in the second half of the poem, grasses and gardens sprout again, and the resiliency of nature parallels a re-emergent local culture, sparking a shift in the author:

Maybe it’s here
en los campos extraños de esta ciudad
where I’ll find it, that part of me
mown under
like a corpse
or a loose seed.

While the poem ends somewhat unresolved, her embrace of home and community suggests optimism as she seeks a renewed individual and collective spirit. By plotting the various complexities and intersections between geography, identity, and cultural production, the artists in this exhibition prompt us toward similar seeds – potential catalysts, or blossomings – for reimagining our own multifaceted connections to place and space.