Artist: Austin Pope
Host: Hugo Ivan Juarez

The Miseducation of Chicago, Photo inkjet


If you had walked into my bedroom during the long pandemic winter, you would have seen a framed photograph by the artist Austin Pope. The image is of the former Paderewski Elementary which once served the community of South Lawndale in the west side of Chicago. Paderewski is one of the forty-three schools closed because of a decision made by the Chicago Board of Education appointed by then Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. In the center of the photograph there is trash, natural debris and piles of plywood that emphasize the lack of maintenance for the building. These remnants are in a nook of the building which encapsulate the materials that have been left behind. There is no text or any signifiers to what this building could be but in the top left-hand corner you can see two security cameras facing outward. There are no people within the image and there are no signs of life. The sky is overcast and plays along with the neutral tones of the building. White, cream, bricks, grids, wood, leaves and a straightforward perspective that seems lower than the average eyesight.

It is almost as if the photographer was crouching down or shooting the photograph with a short setting on a tripod. I found out later that this moment was shot with a Large Format Camera which is a photographic technology invented in the nineteenth century. This perspective put me in the place of the kids that used to walk in and out of this now abandoned school. I wonder about their stories and how many memories were had in this place. Chicago born author Eve Ewing discusses these issues in her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard. She notes that public forums became more like obligatory meetings for the Chicago Board of Education. Neighbors, parents, and kids all shared their stories, but nothing was done by the people downtown to save the forty-three schools.

Austin and I first met in The Loop so he could drop off his artwork. He pulled up in a white four door and we began to have a conversation on the corner of Wabash and Monroe. I told him that I had just flown back into town from Texas. We talked about the differences between Dallas and Chicago. The conversation would pause as the trains on the loop passed by what seemed like every five minutes. He shared with me his message and told me that these photographs are meant to be seen in a series. I asked if he would like to sell them and he said no. Selling the series would be a disenfranchisement to the communities who continue to suffer because of the closures. The more I get to know Austin the more I get to know Chicago. As the train passed by for the umpteenth time, he shared with me this idea that people know Illinois as a blue state but when you live here you begin to see the disparities.

I had a phone call with Austin a few weeks after our first meet and we continued with these conversations. We were making plans to drive around the west side to see some of the schools in person. This is where I first learned about Eve Ewing. This is where I realized that closing schools means erasing history. As we drove around, he explained to me that the closer the schools were to downtown the more likely they have been developed into something new. Sometimes the city sells the land where the schools once were, and they get demolished. Most of the time the schools sit there abandoned and continue to haunt the black and brown communities where many of the closures occurred.

On a cold snowy day, I decided to walk through East Garfield Park to the western edge of The Loop. I followed the raised train rails from above and I knew I had reached West Loop because suddenly, the streets began to be adorned by ornate lampposts. It was right before this that I noticed a building that looked like a school. I did a double take and took a closer inspection. Within minutes I realized that this was one of the schools that Austin had documented. It was the peak of winter so the streets were quiet, but you could tell that this school had been abandoned. The train passed by and I was reminded of the very first conversation that I had with Austin. This time I was alone, but the dots had already been connected. In that moment I was a witness to the truth that Austin had spoken and captured. In that moment I became an advocate for the work and photography of Austin Pope.

—Hugo Ivan Juarez