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FAMILY VOICES/ AUSTIN
Chicago Avenue, Austin Neighborhood
Chicago, Illinois

Community Architexts--a non-profit arts organization--has developed and implemented a public design program within the depressed commercial district along Chicago Avenue in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. This program was intended to collect and articulate the collective public voice of the largely invisible community of mothers, daughters and caregivers in this inner city neighborhood.









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> In the Eye of the Storm


Site:
Streetscape/ 5500-5701 Chicago Avenue--Chicago

Funders:
The National Endowment for the Arts/ Creation Program

The Illinois Arts Council
Girl's Best Friend Foundation
Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation
Hurvis Family Foundation
The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs

Community Outreach:
While design and construction of the sign structures was overseen by Community Architexts founder and artistic director, BJ Krivanek, each sign is inscribed with quotes drawn from outreach discussions facilitated by Community Architexts partners and staff. Outreach centered on the roles of African-American women as mothers and caregivers within the inner city, designed to draw attention to the myths and stereotypes of the outside community.

During extended outreach programming, we built upon existing relationships with community organizations to locate groups of women and girls of all ages and experiences within the community. We held outreach sessions with women aged eight to eighty-seven at five sites: Austin YMCA, Robert Emmet Academy/ Public School, Columbus Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Recovery Plus Two, and Westside Health Authority. These groups included young girls participating in a summer program, eighth-grade students, middle-aged mothers, elderly women in a nursing home, recovering drug and alcohol abusers, and teen moms.

A number of outreach discussions were held with each age group (recorded and transcribed) which led to intergenerational discussions and editing sessions, to select the texts projected at the Site Activation and incorporated into the Alternative Signs on Chicago Avenue. The underlying objective was to uncover how the concept of the nuclear family--the centerpiece of American ideologyaffects a community in which these expectations are not fulfilled. In turn, how have hybrid, reconstructed family units in Austin affected women's roles and their status in society?

Public Design Program:
The culmination of Family Voices/ Austin began with a one-night Site Activation--the projection of women's statements onto the faade of a prominent building facing Chicago Avenue--to speak directly to the local community. This large-scale environmental presentation ushered in the three-stage Alternative Signs (please refer to the appended concept drawing and slides) which appropriated and adapted seven abandoned sign structures atop small businesses along the streetscape.

Stage 1 was the existing condition. Stage 2 restored and reconfigured the structures to incorporate the public statements of community outreach participants. Stage 3 will return these improved, vacated structures to the small businesses, providing effective architectural signage to bolster their chances of economic survival.

The double-sided sign structures carry large-scale declaratives--readable from cars passing through--which primarily speak to the outside community. Layered beneath and extending below are longer statements--directed to local pedestrians--which primarly speak to the community itself. The declaratives read as highlighted sound bites, appropriating a mass media trope on behalf of the local neighborhood.

Continuing Community Architexts' involvement with the Austin neighborhood, this public design project developed communication infrastructures, to make public the collective voice of a disadvantaged community of African-American women and girls. These women are well aware that they do not measure up to society's mythologies about motherhood, and they have something to say about it to their community and to the affluent residents of adjacent Oak Park, who commute through the Austin neighborhood every day along Chicago Avenue.

It is Community Architexts' mission to reclaim and update the practice of public inscription on behalf of disadvantaged and invisible communities. This project is an assertive act of infiltration into the urban landscape, to appropriate, reconfigure, and inscribe buildings and structures with the lost voices of this community of women and girls.