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Sep. 9 2009 - 5:00 pm | 127 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

“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.

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

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.

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,


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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

    In addition to being a journalist, I also teach dance for the Chicago Public Schools. I don't just do it for the money. I love children and love arts education. I'm also on the board of a new nonprofit dedicated to helping the underserved find jobs called Employing Hope. I write fiction, keep house, and am generally a renaissance woman.

    Follow me on twitter @mmcottrell.

    See my profile »
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    Contributor Since: October 2009