Forty Blocks: The East Garfield Park Oral History Project

By Catrien Egbert, Yasmin Mitchel, and Peter T. Alter

Studs Terkel Center for Oral History, Chicago History Museum

Before you read further, please google the phrase East Garfield Park. Okay, aside from the ubiquitous Wiki entry, what did you find? Our guess is you saw mostly hits that involved crime and gentrification in some way. The mainstream dominant media portrays this community in the heart of Chicago’s West Side as crime ridden, poverty stricken, and little else.   

East Garfield Park organizations and residents strive to rewrite this narrative. Through a collaborative initiative, the Chicago History Museum (CHM) and Breakthrough, a social service provider on the city’s West Side, have captured a lost history, discussed difficult topics, and documented decades of history previously undocumented.

The Forty Blocks team at the end of the day

The Forty Blocks team at the end of the day

Forty Blocks: The East Garfield Park Oral History Project is a team effort between CHM’s Studs Terkel Center for Oral History and Breakthrough. Through extensive research conducted by a team of undergraduate students from a DePaul University public history class, oral history center staff noticed a lack of documentation of East Garfield Park’s history after 1968. Following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination that year, much of the city’s West and South Sides were destroyed by riots. When those riots ended, so did the outside world’s interest in East Garfield Park and its history.

At the beginning of every year, Breakthrough recruits, employs, and trains a group of West Side middle and high school students in documentary film making. Film and sound professionals mentor these young filmmakers. In late 2015, the oral history center linked up with Breakthrough staff and Film Crew mentors to establish a foundation for the Forty Blocks project. Then in February and March of this year, project staff spent a series of Saturdays working with the Film Crew to prepare for an oral history interviewing day, March 26. Film Crew students learned about the community’s history and studied historical materials from the CHM’s archives documenting East Garfield Park’s pre-1968 past. Through oral history training, the Film Crew learned interviewing techniques, how to explain their project and its goals, and active listening skills.

Months of planning led up to March 26, when the oral history center, the Film Crew, and other volunteers conducted interviews with twenty-three narrators over the course of six hours. The heart of their questions centered on what it was like to live in East Garfield Park, what made the neighborhood unique, and what hopes, dreams, and concerns residents had for the future of the neighborhood. As the day progressed, interviewing came more naturally to the Film Crew. They could see the residents reliving memories of decades past, and their questions stemmed from honest curiosity. The Film Crew took charge, leading the interviews and developing insightful follow-up questions.

Yasmin Mitchel watches while Film Crew students interview Coach Dorothy Gaters

Yasmin Mitchel watches while Film Crew students interview Coach Dorothy Gaters

During the interviews, students uncovered lost experiences and captured perspectives of long-time residents, community leaders, art activists, coaches, and others. They heard about familiar contemporary issues—poverty, education, gentrification, racism, police brutality, community investment, drugs, family structure, and youth involvement—but were able to historically root these problems and question the future of the neighborhood. 

Latoya Winters

Latoya Winters

One of the arts activists, Latoya Winters, a prolific poet and DePaul University graduate student, spoke of the importance of programs like Breakthrough’s Film Crew in motivating young people towards achievement and a better life. Although only twenty-seven, Winters is an expert in facing adversity with determination. In less than thirty years, she has known more than 100 people who have lost their lives to gun violence. “We have to tell them [young people] and show them,” Winters stated in her oral history, “[about]… the experience we had. Let them see what we’ve been through…[how it has helped us] come out on top. We have to show them that there is a way.”

For the Film Crew, the next steps lie in creating a documentary, which will premiere at CHM’s Robert R. McCormick Theater this summer. The oral history center staff looks forward to making the interviews public on the Museum’s website in the upcoming months, and we will post the links here when they are available.   

Forty Blocks has played a significant role in not only sharing the stories of East Garfield Park, but contributing to understanding Chicago through the perspectives of a community of color often overlooked. While experiences differed, the resounding theme of belonging and compassion for each other and the neighborhood resonated across interviews. As 25-year-old resident Lamar Taylor explained, “I have yet to find a neighborhood like East Garfield Park… there’s no place as connected as this place. And again, we have our struggles or whatever, but it’s just…there’s a sense of family here.” 



About the authors and the Chicago History Museum:

Yasmin Mitchel is a DePaul University undergraduate where she majors in dramaturgy and criticism. Catrien Egbert also attends DePaul and is a history major there. They are both oral history interns at CHM. Peter Alter has worked at CHM for over sixteen years and is the director of the Museum’s Studs Terkel Center for Oral History. CHM has hosted Chicago Groundswell meetings for over two years and organized a small oral history symposium in the spring of 2015 partnering with local Groundswell members and the National Council on Public History. The CHM officially became a Groundswell member this year.