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City of Dreams Project Aims to Reveal Chicagoans' Hopes

 Local artist Jenny Lam will distribute postcards that ask readers to share their dreams.
Dreams of a City
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CHICAGO — If artist Jenny Lam was to write her dreams on a postcard, she's not sure what she'd say.

Lam never thinks of it, she said, but she wants to accomplish many things before she dies. Maybe Lam would write, "Make a difference."

"And I know that everyone wants to make a difference in the world, but to me, as an artist and just as a creative person, make something that inspires people and touches people," she said.

The question — What would you write? — has come up more often as Lam receives attention for one of her latest projects, Dreams of a City. Lam leaves postcards across Chicago with a mailing address and stamps. On the postcard, the 25-year-old Logan Square resident asks whoever finds the postcard to tell her one thing they want to do before they die.

 A postcard from artist Jenny Lam's New York City of Dreams project.
A postcard from artist Jenny Lam's New York City of Dreams project.
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Courtesy of Jenny Lam

"I do believe that art is a way to bring people together, to unite people and also break down certain barriers: geographical barriers, different particular stereotypes," Lam said. "This is kind of my way of trying to bring everyone in the entire city together."

Lam plans to leave thousands of the postcards in every neighborhood. She did something similar from 2008 to 2009 in New York, where she lived while a student at Columbia University. She stuck to Manhattan, which is 33.77 square miles to Chicago's 234. Lam said she received about 100 postcards back — or 10 percent — of those she placed in Manhattan.

Lam is helped by assistants like Mary Iwanicki, of Ukranian Village. Iwanicki has dropped off about 100 postcards around Ukranian Village and Humboldt Park. Iwanicki was drawn to Lam's project because she said she "loves public art exhibits" and found the subject interesting.

"Anything where you can get the public involved is very, very nice," Iwanicki said. "It's kind of old fashioned to write, to use snail mail. ...I don't think we'll ever outgrow personal letters.

"Everyone has a dream, no matter where you came from."

Once Lam feels she has sent out and received enough postcards, which she said could be months, she plans to create an art installation. She will take one postcard from each neighborhood and install the postcard where she originally left it, which she keeps track of through codes written on the postcards.

Lam hopes people will visit the individual installations and sees her plan as "a way to get people out into the city and bring art into areas that don't really have art."

She also wants to have a large installation with multiple postcards, and ideally she would find a spot for it in a Loop gallery.

"It will be a large, three-dimensional map of the city," Lam said. "Each postcard will be displayed kind of where they were found. So it'll be like you're walking through the exhibition and you're talking through Logan Square and then you'll walk to another neighborhood and you'll see the postcards that came from that. You'll be able to handle and touch them."

Lam has even received a $3,000 Individual Artists Program grant to help make her goals a reality. She said most of the grant money will go toward stamps for the postcards, but she also plans to use it for the exhibition and her installations.

Though she seldom, if ever, has a chance to meet those who reply to her postcards, Lam has been able to talk with them. In New York, some people wrote their contact information alongside their dreams. Lam said she would talk with them and "learn more about their life and their dream and what they want to accomplish."

Another time, Lam and another one of her assistants, Silvia Gonzalez, who teaches an after-school program in Chicago Lawn, had students fill out postcards.

"Reading dreams of children from the South Side made my day," Lam said. "A lot of, 'I dream of owning an island one,' 'I dream of becoming a great adventurer.' It warms your heart and it breaks down a lot of stereotypes about the South Side."

Ultimately, breaking down those barriers and stereotypes is Lam's goal for Dreams of a City.

"Chicago right now, it's the most segregated city in America," Lam said. "This is a way ... to kind of bring people together, bring various people to different neighborhoods. And also, it's kind of my own love letter to the city because I love the city so much."