This is the inaugural post in a series highlighting urban and suburban public history projects.
The Chrysler Village History Project has its origins in the spring semester of 2013, when a group of history graduate students from Loyola University Chicago nominated the Chrysler Village neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side to the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination was successful, and the Chrysler Village Historic District was officially added to the National Register in early 2014.
Rachel Boyle, who was part of the group that wrote the nomination, explained the district’s historical significance. “Chrysler Village represents an important link between urban and suburban history,” Boyle said. “It was a distinctly urban housing development created by private-public partnerships during WWII, but stands out in Chicago’s physical landscape with its suburban-esque curvilinear streets. Additionally, the neighborhood’s history contributes to Chicago’s history as one of the only construction projects that took place during WWII.”
In many cases, the focus on properties or districts nominated to the National Register fades with their rejection or successful designation. But Boyle wondered if she could take a different route and find some way to put the research gathered during the nomination phase to work for the Chrysler Village community. “Recurring questions [about the designation] from the community lingered: ‘So what? How does this actually benefit us?,’” Boyle said. “The Chrysler Village History Project began as an experimentation of how to harness the neighborhood’s newly discovered history for the immediate benefit of Chrysler Village residents.”
Maggie McClain recounts Boyle’s next steps. “In the interest of capitalizing on this successful nomination, Rachel Boyle visited my first graduate public history course at Loyola [in fall 2014] seeking ideas for how the neighborhood’s history could be used to build community within Chrysler Village.” The course was History 480: Introduction to Public History Methods and Theory, a requirement for incoming MA and PhD students in Loyola University Chicago’s graduate public history program. Boyle, who was by then a PhD candidate, worked with the course instructor, Patricia Mooney-Melvin, Ph.D., to turn these questions into a half semester-long course project. Students in the course had to develop proposals explaining how they would use the history gathered from the National Register nomination to create some kind of value for the residents of Chrysler Village.
Kelly Schmidt, who was also a student in History 480 that fall, explains what happened at the end of the semester. “I joined Rachel Boyle and a group of students who continued the project outside of the classroom.” Chelsea Denault, who had been part of the group that worked on the original National Register nomination, also joined the project at this stage. “Together, we decided our purpose was to preserve and celebrate the historical significance of the community, but we wanted to do so in a way that was accessible and engaging to everyone in the community,” explains Denault. “I thought it would be worthwhile to take part in a new project that involved the residents and provided them with some service, opportunity, or benefit.”
The Loyola team knew that they needed to establish a strong working relationship with local residents before they could move forward with their ideas. “One of the challenges we faced initially was coming in to a community as outsiders,” said Schmidt. “Fortunately, we met a group of residents who were ‘movers and shakers’ in their community and were willing to commit their time and energy to the project. We wouldn’t have had as much success in building a relationship with these residents without the involvement of the director of the local historical society, who was adept at serving as a bridge, communicating our interest in the community as well as what residents desired to see for their neighborhood. Our resident partners were able to draw upon resources and people in the community we never would have known about, or who we wouldn’t have been able to get on board ourselves… Residents were able to build other stakeholders’ trust in ways we as outsiders could not.”
The Loyola team brought the most viable ideas from the History 480 proposals to a community meeting in Chrysler Village in spring 2015. This meeting resulted in the creation of a community committee that worked with the Loyola team to decide on the parameters of what they called the Chrysler Village History Project. Together, they decided to plan an oral history initiative and community history festival, among other things. They also built a website to house historical materials relating to Chrysler Village’s history and to act as a central hub where anyone interested in the project could learn about it and join the effort as a volunteer.
Maggie McClain coordinated much of the oral history initiative, which involved interviewing current and former residents of the Chrysler Village area, transcribing the interviews, and donating them to the nearby Clearing Branch of the Chicago Public Library. They worked with Chris Manning, Ph.D., instructor of Loyola’s graduate oral history class, to incorporate Chrysler Village interviews and transcriptions into his fall 2015 course syllabus. Students in the course recorded and transcribed interviews with current and former Chrysler Village residents for their final course project. The community history festival, which took place in August 2016, also involved the recording of interviews—one of many festival activities intended to help build connections across the Chrysler Village community.
Ultimately, Boyle attributes the success of the project to the strength of the partnerships developed between the team and key community stakeholders. “A cohort of passionate residents were committed to making the project work for their community, and proved to be the core reason the project succeeded,” Boyle said. “The constant support of the local alderman’s office also ensured that the necessary resources were available. And when communication between public historians and the local community struggled, the local leader of the historical society quickly emerged as an incredibly valuable translator.”
The Loyola team faced challenges along the way that ultimately yielded powerful lessons about public history practice. Schmidt explains, “Sometimes in our public history training we study the ideal of public history method, but ideals don’t always prove effective in practice. We had been taking formal avenues…to obtain our goals, which was a slow and expensive project. Our community partners showed us how relying on relationship networks was a far more fruitful approach.” Boyle added, “I recall being rightly convinced by local residents that the marketing for the festival should emphasize ‘fun’ rather than ‘history’ and ‘community-building.’ These incidents drove home that public historians have valuable skills to contribute but need to be tempered by the realities of community stakeholders. In short, shared authority can produce better results.”
Denault notes another difficulty faced by the Loyola team: the decision about what to do with the project once the community history festival had taken place. “We struggled a great deal with how to responsibly extricate ourselves from the project and hand off ownership of the project’s future to the community. After meeting with our resident stakeholders and having an honest conversation about their expectations and vision for the future and how to achieve that, we ultimately felt that we had given our community partners enough tools, contacts, skills, and guidance to remove ourselves in order to let them grow and transform the project to continue to meet the community’s needs.”
With the history festival behind them, the Loyola team is hopeful that community members will continue the efforts begun as part of the Chrysler Village History Project. Boyle said that residents from Chrysler Village recently established a block club to “build off the energy from last year’s festival and continue to foster community.” McClain added, “Many of us in this group felt that we have done what we can to engage the community…it will be up to community members to keep that going.”
Hope Shannon is the UHA newsletter editor and a doctoral candidate in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago. Before joining Loyola’s history program, she was the executive director at the South End Historical Society in Boston. She is the author of Legendary Locals of Boston’s South End, a book that draws on oral history testimony to tell a new story of the neighborhood’s history. Hope is a founding member of Loyola University Chicago’s Public History Lab, and she is the chair of the American Association for State and Local History’s Emerging History Professionals Committee.
This post discusses only a small portion of a very large project. Click here for more about the many facets of the Chrysler Village History Project, including a mural, pop-up museum, short articles about the area’s history, and a collection of historic images. The Chrysler Village History Project was also the recipient of the 2017 Student Project Award from the National Council on Public History and a 2017 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. They received Honorable Mention for the Alice Smith Prize in Public History from the Midwestern History Association.
The Loyola arm of the Chrysler Village History Project operated within Loyola’s Public History Lab, a group founded by Loyola University Chicago history graduate students in 2013 that aims to create partnerships between history graduate students and organizations and sites of history in the greater Chicago area.
Rachel Boyle earned her Ph.D. in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago. In addition to studying gender and violence at the turn of the twentieth century, Boyle brings over seven years of professional experience in every corner of the public history field, from exhibit curation and site interpretation to oral history and historic preservation.
Chelsea Denault is a Ph.D. Candidate in United States History and Public History and Graduate Assistant at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago. Her dissertation focuses on the local politics surrounding the construction of the nation’s largest trash incinerator in Detroit, the community and international backlash against its operation, and the complex and problematic financial legacy it left to the city.
Maggie McClain is the Visitor Experience Coordinator at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, Wisconsin, where she plans and manages family programming and assists with the volunteer program. She is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago.
Kelly Schmidt is a Ph.D. student in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago, where she studies eighteenth and nineteenth century American history, particularly in the area of race, slavery, and abolition. Kelly has pursued her interests in museum work at the Heritage Village Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.