Q&A with Serhii Chrucky: Remembering Chicago’s Past

As a founding member of Forgotten Chicago, Serhii Chrucky (pronounced SIR-he KROOTS-key) spends his available time (when he's in not in class at UIC) examining relics of Chicago's past. Forgotten Chicago is part photo album, historical repository, and architecture / infrastructure as art.

Schlitz Tied House
Schlitz Tied House, 21st and Rockwell. 2008. Photo: Serhii Chrucky.

Our main goal is to discover and document little known elements of Chicago’s infrastructure, architecture, neighborhoods and general cityscape, whether existing or historical. — Forgotten Chicago

ArtStyle: What's the background of Forgotten Chicago?

Serhii Chrucky (SC): Jake Kaplan and I went to Whitney Young High School on the near west side, and we met there as freshmen. I suppose the first effort we made in the vein of what we do on the website was a trip out to 54th Avenue on what is now the Pink Line. We were looking at the stations houses along that line — some dated back to 1895 — and I was photographing them. Of course, that line is very different now. I wish I was better at taking and storing photographs then. I don’t know where those negatives are anymore, but at least the motivation was there.

I met Corinne Aquino at a party a little more than two years ago, which was about the time Jake and I were seriously considering doing the site. We would drive around on the weekends exploring and photographing, and Corinne ended up coming along every week.

Mike Damian also went to high school with us. He handles behind the scenes tech-related issues.

Corinne and Jake contribute writing, research, and ideas. I am responsible for the visual aspects for the site, such as the design, layout, and photography, and I write pages as well.

Division Bridge
Division Bridge, Division and Halstead. 2007.
Photo: Serhii Chrucky.

ArtStyle: What is Forgotten Chicago all about? Do you focus mainly on architecture and signage?

SC: The overarching subject of the website is Chicago’s built environment. Architecture and signage are two out of three main areas, the other being infrastructure. We try to focus on things which are not well known or already written about. Being so involved with all of the intricacies of creating this thing, I find it hard to step back and sum it all up. When people ask me what the site is about, I always stumble for the right words. I haven’t perfected that yet.

Lunt Bus Turnaround
Lunt Bus Turnaround, Pratt and Kedzie. 2008. Photo: Serhii Chrucky.

ArtStyle: Why are you interested in the relics of Chicago’s past? Have you thought about the significance of what you are doing in terms of preserving the remnants of Chicago’s history before they completely disappear?

SC: Regular people have little control over their environment outside of home and work. The urban environment is entirely man-made, carefully designed, and subject to change overnight. Beyond being completely dependent on this environment for resources, we are affected psychologically by it. But there is little permanence, and notable buildings are torn down here every year. To the regular person, at least to me, this is traumatic. Writing about and photographing places before they disappear is my small way of stabbing back at the demolition machine, the powers that be, and in a way, time.

However, being so conscious of what the built environment used to be like, I can’t help but walk or drive down a street and see a series of voids. Also, I want to be clear that I don’t do any of this out of reminiscence for the “good old days.” I simply believe that Chicago in general has an awful record when it comes to preserving its buildings. There is this history of turning against the past rather than seeing value in what already is.

As far as preservation goes, I don’t think that mere photography counts. An image of a building is no substitute for a building. I also think the balance of power is so greatly skewed toward the side of developers, politicians, and the whims of the wealthy, as to make the work of real preservationists quite difficult. I’m not saying nothing has been accomplished, or that everything should be saved, or even that there aren’t exceptions.

All that aside, I’m not bitter about everything that falls by the wayside of “progress.” There are some things which become disused through actual obsolescence, and sit idly for years. There are patterns of development that occurred rationally, but the reason has become lost. There are many curiosities and quirks that if, investigated deeply enough, will turn up interesting stories.

Miami Bowl Sign
Miami Bowl Sign, Archer and Pulaski. 2003. Photo: Serhii Chrucky.

ArtStyle: Does infrastructure include public art such as murals?

SC: Infrastructure includes things like roads, rail, canals, bridges, sewers, and so forth. Any discussion of public art on the site would be tied into a discussion of the support — buildings, or as we see often, embankments. I’m working on a page about the Bloomingdale branch, a disused rail right of way on an embankment, much of which is covered with some of the most interesting murals in the city. So, in this particular instance, I suppose infrastructure includes murals. Otherwise, public art is like any other art form, and we wouldn’t cover it as a phenomenon unto itself.

Patio Theatre Marquee
Patio Theatre Marquee, Irving Park and Austin. 2008.
Photo: Serhii Chrucky.

ArtStyle: Have you done any historical research to determine what to search for? What criteria do you use in terms of your search subjects or objects?

SC: We do research not to determine what to search for, but to find out more about what we’ve found while searching. Topics and subject matter seem to come about organically through observation and discussion.

There’s no organized method. We have a backlog of so many ideas for pages at this point; I don’t foresee running out of them. We’ve gotten much better at researching since we began the site. It's definitely an under-appreciated skill.

The criteria for how we cover material is pretty simple: the topic has to be about the built aspect first and foremost, with any social aspects second. You’ll never see us write something like “Race and Class in Pilsen: 1930-2010.” Our version would be “Changing Demographics in Pilsen As Seen Through Ethnic Iconography,” or something similar. That’s just an example. I don’t even know if that’s feasible. There aren’t many Bohemian murals.

Revells Ghost Ad
Revell’s Ghost Ad, Halsted and 69th. 2008. Photo: Serhii Chrucky.

ArtStyle: What do you want people to learn about what you discover?

SC: If you had asked me a month ago, I wouldn’t have had a good answer. Recently, I’m hearing more and more about how people read the site and are influenced to go out and explore the city in greater detail for themselves. If the website helps to influence the perception people have of their environment, then we have achieved something far greater than an assemblage of esoteric facts.

Wood Paved Alley
Wood Paved Alley, Hudson and Armitage. 2007. Photo: Serhii Chrucky.

ArtStyle: In addition to your website, do you intend to display your photographs in a public forum?

SC: Yes, of course. I had some photographs in a show at University of St. Francis in Joliet a number of months ago. I didn’t find out until I went to the opening that the curator had also included Forgotten Chicago in the show in the form of an article printed out and placed in a display case. He had it up on a computer as well, though I can’t say how much interest it drummed up. I don’t know if Forgotten Chicago itself should be displayed as an art object or in a gallery context, but I jump at any opportunity to show my photographs as prints, rather than web media. The photography for Forgotten Chicago is one of many projects I have going. Any interested gallery directors out there?

97, Evergreen near Damen. 2007. Photo: Serhii Chrucky.

ArtStyle: Have you thought about partnering with a cultural institution such as the Chicago History Museum to further your goals?

SC: That is a very tricky question. On one hand, we would all love to do the website as a day job. Getting paid to do this work would be our one and only reason to consider partnering with any institution. On the other hand, the pursuit of money is something which could harm our integrity. Integrity in the sense that you, the reader, know we haven’t been paid to advocate any specific agenda. Some people may consider the opposite to be true — the institution is the bearer of culture, the “reliable source,” and our website is merely “info-tainment.” We don’t see it that way. Museums, colleges, corporations and so forth interpret history from a different perspective and package it in a certain way. Our website is written in what could be seen as a hesitant first-person perspective, with our feelings about the subject matter inextricably coloring the material. We want to be able to write about what we want, cover topics that may seem too trivial to throw money at, and not be restricted in what we say or do. That is not to say an arrangement couldn’t be worked out; it depends entirely on the terms and circumstances.

Lagoon, Indian Boundary Park. 2007. Photo: Serhii Chrucky.

ArtStyle: Have you thought about the future, and how long you will continue to do your searches?

SC: I will continue to work on the website as long as I live in Chicago. I don’t plan on living the rest of my life here, but I do know I’ll be here a few more years. I’m sure the rest of the people who work on the site would say the same thing, but one never knows what the future may bring.

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