‘The Chicago 77’ puts Chicago neighborhoods on the page

By Sadie Miller

Four local artists spent the last year collaborating on one poem, “The Chicago 77,” which was commissioned by the Poetry Foundation to capture the personality of each of the city’s 77 neighborhoods.

Each neighborhood was only allotted one line in the poem, according to Katherine Litwin and Fred Sasaki, curators of the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation Gallery. Every line had to be “found text” from that area, meaning it could be a phrase that came from a billboard, a piece of graffiti or something a resident of that area said to the artist. 

Litwin said each artist was randomly assigned 19 community areas to explore and was asked to retrieve an item from each neighborhood in addition to the line of found text. These items, ranging from flowers to stray hubcaps, were used to create the paper on which the poem was printed.

The reason for the poem’s existence is a poetry collective called The World Record, Litwin said. The World Record was created at a 2012 London event called Poetry Parnassus, which occurred alongside the year’s Olympic Games. The organization gathered one poet from every country participating in the games and asked each to create a written documentation of events on handmade paper in their own handwriting and native language, Litwin said.

“When we wanted to exhibit the work at the Poetry Foundation, they told us that as part of the condition for exhibiting the work, we need to create a new work on handmade paper, carrying on the tradition,” Litwin said. “They didn’t want it to be exhibited as a dead object, but they wanted wherever it was exhibited [to] generate new work.”

“The Chicago 77” came about because of this request. The Poetry Foundation reached out to four resident artists to bring it to life. Litwin and Sasaki said they looked for artists who were involved with multimedia pieces and could work in multidisciplinary scenarios but still had a background in poetry. The foundation chose Krista Franklin, Fo Wilson, Fatimah Asghar and Jamila Woods. 

The four artists had their own approaches to getting acquainted with each neighborhood. Franklin said she had friends drive her around and she would get out when an object or sentence caught her attention. Asghar, who does not own a car, said she biked around the city. Wilson said she simply walked through the neighborhoods. 

Franklin, who specializes in hand-making paper, said she had some “dicey experiences” visiting certain neighborhoods because they are unwelcoming to strangers.

“But that’s the nature of Chicago,” she said. “People are very much community-oriented. They’re very much about their neighborhood.”

Wilson said she would assign herself several neighborhoods to cover each week. Before each visit, she would review the background information the Poetry Foundation provided her. In her exploration, she said she learned that media expectations do not always reality.

“The South Side and the West Side. The papers make them out to be something to be very fearful of, and I found quite the opposite,” Wilson said. “Many of those neighborhoods seem to be vibrant places where I witnessed very positive interactions in the community. Neighborhoods which were ‘safe’ didn’t have as much vibrancy as you might expect or weren’t always the most welcoming.”

Asghar marveled at the differences in the city’s communities, and she said she favored listening to what people said rather than looking for written words. However, she doubted the project could properly capture such a diverse city like Chicago . 

“Something I thought was so cool is that the community areas are so well-represented just through the process of it,” said Sasaki, the art director of Poetry Magazine. “For example, the first line of the poem is ‘The police are called,’ and the line ‘Where’s Rahm?’ appears twice. Everything that’s happening in the city surfaces in this poem.”

“The Chicago 77” is on exhibit at the Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior St., through May 29, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m.–4 p.m.