Two summers ago, I would often find myself meandering through the veins and arteries of downtown Chicago. A digital application focused on showcasing hidden restaurants and coffee shops around the city employed me as a field journalist. I’d discover various locations, talk with ownership/employees, then write about it. In late June — around this time, actually — my ventures led me a little farther north than my typical stomping ground. I was given instruction to roam “Edgewater” (I’ve now learned nobody calls it that) in search of hidden spots that were worthy of showcase.
My discovery wasn’t a particular pizza joint or taco truck, but an entire community — Chicago’s hidden gem, Rogers Park. The vast majority of my day was spent weaving through parks and back alleys, observing a sort of utopia. It was a far cry from my southwest suburb, where everyone trades judging glances despite looking pretty much the same. Rogers Park was buzzing and alive. I strolled down North Sheridan and was greeted with smiles and head nods. I made my way to the lake and stumbled upon Tobey Prinz Beach Park. I watched as a crowd of all ages, colors and backgrounds threw frisbees, sat on blankets and basked in the warm sun. Its aura was one filled with positive energy — and as I stared out at the beach's little lighthouse, I could only imagine that it was a shipman's marker for Chicago’s happiest neighborhood.
Over a year later, I stumbled upon an Instagram page @residentsofrogerspark. It was in its infantile stages, but its contents were brimming with compassion and personality. One post spoke to a French-Senegalese man who runs a language academy. Another documents a mother and her daughters, and why they love calling Rogers Park home. For months, I read every post made available, indulging in a place where everyone seemed like family.
It wasn’t until late this spring that I was able to meet with the account creators, Leah Schiffman and Iman Music. That warm sense of belonging I felt in just a day at Rogers Park was something they’d cherished their entire lives as longtime residents of the community. Their project was simple: speak to and document the people that make their neighborhood whole. With photographer Saeed Durojaiye by their side, they set out to accomplish exactly that, and they have done so for nearly a year. What is now a full-fledged case study was once an idea, and a long-standing one at that, Music tells me.
“Leah actually had this idea sometime in high school, but our focus was elsewhere, so it didn’t manifest at that time. Down the line, when COVID came around, Leah moved back home from Minnesota for a few months. We live a couple blocks away from each other.”
@residentsofrogerspark remained an idea until a visit to local Chippewa Park last summer lit a fuse. What they observed was an affirmation of a tight-knit, caring township.
“There were little boys in yarmulkes playing with little girls in hijabs, all different races and religions — it was inspiring, especially during a time when everybody hated everybody. Our community was still together. That honestly re-sparked the idea.”
Just like that, the group began setting upon Rogers Park in search of stories and experiences. Starting a platform based on conversation in the heat of a pandemic, however, presented obstacles, Schiffman explains.
“It was challenging having to transition from in-person interactions to Zoom interviews. It’s hard to capture that personable element of what we do on a video call, and since we had been doing face-to-face profiles for so long, it was a tough adjustment. There’s just an intimidating factor that comes into play when you’re talking on Zoom.”
Still, with restrictions in the way, the pair looked to maximize their project’s mission. Luckily, Rogers Park remained exciting. “COVID didn’t end up being as big of a barrier as we thought it would be. Summers here are so lively with people at the parks or beaches, so as long as we were wearing masks, everyone we approached was receptive.”
In the case of @residentsofrogerspark, the process is as important as the product. Schiffman and Music’s outlook on approach has adjusted, but through numerous trials, Music has found what works best — whether the meeting is planned ahead of time, or completely random.
“The first quarter to half of our interviews were mostly with friends and strangers we’d approach on the street. In all reality, lots of our connections come by word-of-mouth. We’ve had a lot of luck picking the right people because then it turns into a sort of web, where they have groups of friends that have groups of friends that all want to be a part of what we’re doing.”
Music makes it clear what has resulted in their best moments.
“We do, however, often prefer walking up to people in public. We’ve found that those conversations are more intimate. When we coordinate a profile, lots of times, that person has the opportunity to think about what they’d like to talk about — the field interviews really eliminate that. Really, we love it either way.”
What compels someone to engage in such a personal conversation with people they’ve never met? Schiffman says that’s never been a cause for concern. “It seems to be a characteristic of people that live in Rogers Park. The community feels naturally friendly — we’ve never had an issue with going up to someone randomly; it’s always greeted with a smile and a conversation.”
Since its inception, Schiffman and Music’s page has tallied well over sixty individual profiles. Sure, each is uniquely wonderful, but a few stand out for the crew as truly special moments. Music’s first thought is the account's very introductory piece.
“One of our very, very first interviews was with this man named Victor. At that point in time, the majority of our profiles were friends and acquaintances, so we were still figuring out the dynamics of approaching strangers. We walked past Victor — he was blaring music and had a walker — but didn’t try to get a conversation the first time. Moments later on our way out of the store, we happened to pass by him again, and it felt like fate, so we went up to him. He’s this amazing man — he shared so many stories, told us about his time in the Navy, even recited one of his poems for us. I think I got emotional during that conversation. He was so thankful to talk. That was a breaking point; it’s where we realized that, as much as this project is for us, it puts people in an even better mood. At that point, it felt rewarding.”
Schiffman struggles to pin down one particular profile, and instead shares a few of her favorites. One that stands out, however, is a dual interview with two longtime friends.
“Another one of our early ones was with two older women named Rosie and Linda. It was the sweetest interview ever — they’ve been Rogers Park residents for forty-plus years, are best friends, and they go to this spot at the lake every Friday to watch the sunset. What was amazing was hearing, from them, how their friendship had grown and changed alongside this neighborhood. At first, they were a little hesitant to share with us, but as soon as it got going, they completely opened up.”
When she tells me this story, I can’t help but picture Schiffman and Music in that same spot twenty years from now. Their friendship sprouted in Rogers Park, and continues to grow alongside their joint project — “It’s really strengthened mine and Leah’s relationship — doing this project together in the place we love. I feel like we get so caught up in constantly finding ways that we can help others when it can be as simple as giving someone the time to talk. Together, we’ve realized that.”
The photos that Saeed Durojaiye takes not only visualize their interviews, but tell stories in and of themselves. They’re meant to capture a moment in time, and often do so in fluid fashion, says Music.
“We try to make them as candid as possible. Obviously, during COVID when we were doing our interviews digitally, that was pretty much impossible, but when we have the chance to be out in the field, it’s all candid. Sometimes, if the person is a little bit shyer, we’ll coach them a little bit on how to stand or sit. For the most part, it’s all natural — even when they’re posing, it’s their choice on what they do.”
Furthermore, Schiffman understands how important the landscape is to their objective — capturing the entirety of Rogers Park.
“It’s easy to identify with structures and locations in Rogers Park. They’re all very distinct and, for us at least, pair with memories. For Iman and I, Chippewa Park holds lots of value. I guess the biggest reason we do it is an effort to encapsulate Rogers Park as a whole. It’s not just the people — it’s the greenery, it’s the lake, the beaches, the architecture… everything.”
We as a people — a society — have so much work to do. For starters, looking to Rogers Park for pointers may not be such a bad idea.
“Despite our country's diversity, we are still so tense and split up — more so recently than in a long time. For that reason alone, Rogers Park feels like the antithesis of what has gone on in America. There's respect and understanding from one neighbor to the next, regardless of background.”
The “antithesis” of America’s current predicament — Schiffman and Music recognize how uniquely important their nook of the world is, and can be, for the rest of a country struggling to get along.
There's work to be done. Instead of pointing fingers and assigning blame, let’s start by modeling after Rogers Park — the quaint north side neighborhood is the epitome of a true American community.
All group photos by Hunter McNeeley
All other photos by Saeed Durojaiye
Follow @residentsofrogerspark on Instagram