Can Chicago art convince suburban residents that they have a responsibility to help fight violence in the city?

Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones argues that the Chicago art scene can help convince people in the suburbs that they should help fight violence in the city:

But there’s another common theme gaining steam this winter. Many of these artistic responses to violence are trying to impress upon people that geography does not inoculate a city — a region, a nation — from responsibility. Because the killings have, for the most part, been confined to certain neighborhoods, it has been possible for the rest of Chicago to live, work and go about its business mostly untouched. There is this crisis, a crisis of which Chicagoans increasingly are aware, yet still it often is not seen. Were this violence evenly spread throughout the city’s ZIP codes, then there certainly would not be business as usual. Of that there can be no question.

So in works like “Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology,” staged by Collaboraction on Milwaukee Avenue and full of compelling insights, the point is made that the killings have been taking place very close to the actual artistic venue. Indeed, in art exhibits and performance lobbies across Chicago, you can often see so many maps and charts, it feels like you are in a police incident room. It’s not far from here, these pieces keep reminding us. You could ride a bike there in 20 minutes. If you’re driving home, you’re probably going farther. This is a crucial element of raising awareness.

Many of these works, such as “It Shoudda Been Me,” created for the eta Creative Arts Foundation by the University of Chicago’s Dr. Doriane Miller, one of the first in Chicago to understand that fictionalizing violent scenarios makes it easier for those who live them to talk about them, have been created to tour. Officials from the Chicago Park District were at Collaboraction on Monday, checking out the piece as possible programming for neighborhood parks. Clearly, there is a need for such programming in the neighborhoods where this level of violence is a daily reality. Especially this summer, when nerves will on edge all over Chicago, the amount of that programming will need to increase. It’s one way to keep kids off the streets.

But I kept wondering about the places beyond the boundaries of the Chicago Park District, beyond the hipster neighborhoods like Wicker Park. What about Wheaton or Winnetka? Are the stories behind the violence in Chicago understood there in the way that the city’s stunning cultural assets are understood?

This is a fascinating argument: can art bridge the gap between city violence and suburbanites who have the luxury of watching the problems of Chicago from a distance? Jones hints at the broad gulf between suburbs and city and even between the wealthier areas of Chicago and the areas experiencing more violence and difficulty. Urban sociologists have been discussing these for decades. The Chicago School classic The Gold Coast and the Slum noted the cultural gaps between the wealthy and poor on the near north side in the 1920s even though the two groups lived in close proximity. Work in the last 50 years has emphasized how suburban growth has contributed to the problems of the inner city by removing social capital, resources (in the form of jobs, money spent on highways rather than mass transit, tax revenues, etc.), and middle-class norms and values. People in the suburbs may lament the violence in Chicago but how willing are they to act against it or contribute to actions that might help or sacrifice some of their own life?

The trick seems to be to get the suburbanites not just to experience the art or the true stories of violence. Rather, Jones wants the suburbanites to act in response to what they see in art or the news. This is a much tougher nut to crack.

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