Community and creativity in Chicago

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While in Chicago I stayed at the Freehand, a recently opened hotel/hostel in a converted 1927 Tokyo Hotel… There is a great cafe, a bar and a lounge, and I was happy to be able to bag the armchairs by the fire and work for an evening. I love to be able to find a cafe or other space to work in, where I am surrounded by people but somehow shut off, but I also still hanker for that more romantic notion of a cafe as a more collective space, somewhere where people congregate, where ideas can flourish and people can come together in creative ways.

It was great to read about all the literary communities that grew up in Chicago throughout its history in Chicago Authored, an exhibition at the History Museum. In a booklet that ran thorough the various creative communities that had developed in the city, I learnt about the Jackson Park art colony, The Little Room and the Dil Pickle Club, the relationships and connections that flourished, and the work that resulted, including publications such as the Little Review and Poetry Magazine, published by the Poetry Foundation.

Reading about all of these people, their relationships and their work stirred up a longing that I’ve had since I was younger for creative community, for a network of relationships that are productive. A notable number of the Chicago artists were journalists, a fact which also provoked me to think about what a community of journalists could achieve together. This blog reflects my love for cafes, but it is also part of my search for understanding how we create collective space.

Of course, it could be that I just haven’t found the right places, but I do get the impression that while a number of cafes and other spaces give the appearance of community, they are largely places where individuals come together and remain largely separate or talk to people they came with – there is no crossing of the space between. Perhaps it is online where these connections happen and creative relationships can begin to flourish, but what is happening to physical space as we migrate there?

In the Freehand lounge there were people working on their computers, who are of course part of networks that extends beyond the physical space, while the people who are gathering together are drinking, talking, laughing. This recreational space is important, but I’m also drawn to the ideas of spaces, relationships and connections that allow creativity and new ideas to flourish.

I came across this post, which talks about the gentrification of Chicago that is not dissimilar to sentiments I heard about San Francisco. It’s as if in the process these collective spaces are somehow hollowed out of their original meaning and purpose, so people get the outline, but not the relationships and shared life and experience that shaped it. Is there any way that aspect of cafe life can be recovered, nurtured?

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