Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Concept: Ashburn, Chicago.

Today I explored Chicago's Ashburn neighborhood because it's the setting of several plays I am currently revising. That sentence implies a circular paradox. Why wouldn't I have explored the neighborhood before drafting the plays? In a sense, I did.

When I was a First Year at the University of Chicago (in 1997), I chose Ashburn as a setting for a Frankenstein play because the name had a cool sound. Ash + Burn... hmmm... sounds pretty gothic, doesn't it?

According to Wikipedia (and the Trib, if I recall correctly) the name comes from the dumping ground for the city's ashes. In '98 I did have a chance to go out and check the neighborhood out. But I didn't have a car, and I wasn't very familiar with the CTA back then. The trip from Hyde Park would have typically taken ninety minutes, or more. Then, on arrival, Ashburn is a huge neighborhood. I've only been been back there twice, once in 2003, and once in 2005. In the meantime, I have written another play, Raspberry Crush, which I also set in Ashburn.

The neighborhood is young... it didn't take off until after World War II, and during the sixties and seventies, school integration was a hot-button issue here. The neighborhood has gradually integrated, from being predominantly white through the early nineties to a more heterogenous makeup today. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago home ownership remains high, and "racial steeting is not tolerated: 'for sale" signs have been cooperatively banned; lawsuits are filed against realtors who do not comply. In recent years the only signs that have appeared on Ashburn lawns -- en masse -- read: 'We're sold on Ashburn.'" If this seems a little heavy-handed to you, acquaint yourselves with the massive post-World War II sell-offs that devastated much of the South Side.

The neighborhood can be effectively subdivided into three parts. The easternmost part, known as Wrightwood, is now mostly African American, and the housing stock is older than other parts of the area (dating all the way back to the 1950s). The westernmost part, Scottsdale, is still predominantly white, and it is filled with a maze of streets and parish churches and small Chicago-style bungalows.

The central part of the neighborhood, known simply as Ashburn is, you guessed it, the most integrated. It also seems a bit grittier than the other parts, although I suspect this mostly is due to the Southwest Highway (Columbus Ave.), which is a sort of abbreviated industrial corridor that passes through the area on a diagonal, northeast to southwest.

These photos are all from the central, Ashburn section of the neighborhood. They are not fully representative. I was exploring and taking pictures at my leisure. I didn't get any shots of Wrightwood or Scottsdale, or of the myriad churches and parish schools, of Bogan High School or the Richard J Daley College, of Ford City or the strange industrial hinterland just to its east. You can see all these things on Street View though. Strange views sprout from the unlikeliest sources.

And this is an unlikely source...

Excepting its dubious history of racial discord (which, compared to most other areas hereabouts has had a relatively happy ending), Ashburn could be described as one of Chicago's most boring neighborhoods.

I mean that in a good way.

The neighborhood's youth is obvious. The business strips are almost uniformly derelict, and therefore a bit depressing. The residential areas, which take up the most space, are green and tree-lined with prim yards and swept porches and bricks still untarnished by the frost and ice... these spaces are bright and cheerful, and have a slightly suburban feeling.

It's the sort of neighborhood where one would want to raise his kids, and the kind of neighborhood where those kids, as soon as they have access to a car and some friends will probably try desperately to escape. All this gives Ashburn a sort of bittersweet soulfulness; a marriage of youth and maturity and old-age that participates in a basically stable and satisfying life, and yet which is constantly aware of the passage of time.

Of course, all this also begs the question of to what extent we can trust such impressions. We don't know what's happening in the living rooms or the basements (I'd say attics, but most of these houses are single story). It could be black-box theater or political experimentation. It could even be the creation of a Frankenstein monster.

I grew up in a neighborhood much like this, and I find them to be unavoidably poignant places.

They certainly deserve to be the subject of plays and stories.

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