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Public housing through the lens: Ryan Flynn

Rowhouses and Skyline

The city skyline from the top of the newly-rehabbed Cabrini rowhouses. Credit: Ryan Flynn

A couple days before he moved into the new mixed-income community near Cabrini-Green, Ryan Flynn got his bike stolen at work.

Crappy, but he shrugged it off.

Then the day he moved in as he unloaded boxes from the moving truck, a man approached him.

The guy, who looked a little rough around the edges and walked with a limp, asked Ryan if he needed help carrying boxes.

While he was talking, Ryan noticed the guy's bike.

It looked a lot like the one that was stolen. Same color, same model. Even the same stickers Ryan had put on it.
So he asked the stranger, "Can I take a look at your bike?"

"Sure," the man said.
 
After taking a closer look, Ryan hesitated and then said, "I wouldn't say this unless I was absolutely sure, but my bike got stolen a few days ago, and, well, this is my bike."

Cabrini reds

One of the former Cabrini red buildings. Credit: Ryan Flynn

The man was floored. He explained that he'd gotten it a few days earlier a couple of blocks away. Ryan believed him, paid him $20 for the bike (twice what the man had paid) and shook his hand.

The funny thing is, when you ask Ryan about that story, he says he thought it was a good omen.

A good omen? Getting your bike stolen by your neighbors is a good omen?

Yes, he says. It came back.

For this, and many other reasons, I think Ryan is pretty much one of the coolest people I have ever met.

I ran across his website - Cabrini-Green.com - last winter, and on a lark, sent him an email to see if he would be interested in getting coffee.

We met each other on a bitterly cold morning at the Starbucks at Clyborn and Division, just blocks from his home in Old Town Village West.

He recounted to me how he moved in to Cabrini back in 2005. He used to drive by the area for work and noticed the reconstruction. He figured a home there couldn't be a bad investment. But mostly, he wanted to be a part of what was going on. He knew public housing had been a historical disaster, but believed that something good could come to the neighborhood if the right people came together.

Soon after, he began taking pictures and started his website. He's a graphic artist, painter and photographer, so the work came quite naturally to him. I can never tell if I like his photos or his paintings better. They both add something the other one misses.

Division Street

The two sides of Division Street. Credit: Ryan Flynn

Why take photos? I asked.

He was just drawn to the changes that were taking place.

"Since the day I moved in I have wanted to document the changes that take place as the old high rises are torn down and converted to mixed-income housing," he says. "This is the next chapter in one of the most historically depressed neighborhoods since the very beginnings of Chicago history."

It's an interesting photo subject. It's not a bowl of fruit or a basket of kittens. The buildings give you a graphic representation of the survival of residents in Cabrini-Green.

Building in demolition

An upclose shot of the demolition process. Credit: Ryan Flynn

"Visually I am drawn to the imperfection, the texture and the outwardly physical depiction of the violent, turbulent history this neighborhood, these buildings and the people within have lived through," says Ryan.

Ryan says he struggles with the dual role of artist and neighbor. He documents the changes, but he also can't deny he's part of what's making them happen. It's a dilemma that sometimes pulls him two ways at once.

"The dilemma I have is that, as an investor, I do want the neighborhood to change and for everyone living here to get equal treatment and improved living conditions," he says. "Yet as an artist, I feel the compassion for those who struggle and are forced out of their homes against their wishes."

And this is the thing that's so neat about Ryan. So many people I meet squelch that kind of cognitive dissonance - feeling two ways at once. But he embraces it. He also embraces the small, day-to-day struggles of the neighborhood.

"It has made me more passionate about both sides of the discussion. On one hand, I am now more against some aspects of public assistance, as I see first hand how these programs are abused," he says.

"On the other hand I meet and interact with families who do sincerely need help and very much deserve it. There is no complete right or wrong answer for the whole problem. Each case is different and new issues will continue to rise."

I feel like it's so rare to meet a twenty-something white guy living with his girlfriend, who both, despite being raised in pretty affluent communities, want to invest in Cabrini-Green. Not just for the land value, but because they hope for a new community where people are engaged with each other.

Skyline over empty lot

Credit: Ryan Flynn

The first time we met, he told me about his wonderful downstairs neighbors, who are public housing residents and how he's gotten to know them and their two teenage granddaughters. He loves them. Thinks they're great. Couldn't ask for better neighbors, he says.

I looked at him quizzically. "Ryan, I get this sense like you're rooting for your neighbors. Like you're rooting for them to succeed."

He shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah, I guess I am."

I think he has no idea how rare that is.

That gives me a lot of hope.

Note: To really give credit where credit is due, Ryan was also gracious enough to allow us to use one of his photos for my blog logo. Thanks, Ryan.

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