P = Peter Hoffman
L = Libby Hoffman
A conversation with my mother about where I grew up.
L: Artists, it seems in general have a disdain for the suburbs (laughing) so I’m curious to know, to me these don’t look like disparaging photos, so what are you getting at here with these pictures?
P: I’ve always kind of had the idea that if you can’t make good photographs of whatever you see every day, you’re not looking hard enough. I don’t mind pursuits of the exotic but I just feel like if you don’t try to do what’s not that, then you’re missing part of life. I guess I don’t put that out there but these pictures are where I grew up – it’s very boring to me. When I made these pictures in Oak Hill West I was really jetlagged having just returned from nearly three months in New Zealand. I was just going on walks in the middle of the night because of this. Being out at a strange time and having returned from a period of absence let me see the place a bit differently, which is something. Oak Hill West is possibly the place most familiar to me.
P: How do you think about these pictures? I mean you said that they’re not disparaging to you even though a lot of artists can be grumpy about the suburbs – You’re my mom, so you’ve heard me talk about where I live and the suburbs in general and so what’s your impression of what I think about this place?
L: I understand the way you think and there’s a lot…its accurate, but the perception of the accurate information is different between you and me. Because I’m just that much older than you, and having been younger and having been attracted to city living, although I could never afford to live in the city I lived close to it and went to it often, I get that, I get that mentality that downtown never sleeps, there are more interesting people, there is more cultural diversity, just a lot more going on. But it’s also just like, at a certain point in time a lot of people change their mind and think “I’m tired of this and I just want to go somewhere that looks just like this (points to photograph) – because during the day I’m still going to where its all going on, but after 6 I just want things to be quiet.”
P: If someone asked you “What does Peter think of Naperville?” what would you say?
L: I think that he perceives it as sterile…uninteresting, safe, grey slate.
P: (laughing) okay okay, and I guess I probably wont argue with those things.
L: I wont either…well maybe I would argue with the uninteresting a little. As an aside, the more I work where I’m working (at a food pantry) – there is such a part of Naperville that you would not know exists. Interesting people – so its not so much where you live but how you choose to participate in the community – is what I’m learning.
P: I think it’s totally accurate, it’s just about your attitude and some things will make you change your attitude. If you’re faced with people from different walks of life on a daily basis that has the power to change your perception. You have the experience and, in my eyes slash good fortune of working with people that are from all walks of life.
L: Lets look at this photo. It’s a bit ominous and suggestive. But we know what goes on in that house (laughing). Really, nothing! And we’re thinking like that’s just as sterile as you can get there, but we know that. But we don’t know that really, it’s just our perception.
P: Yea. But I mean you rarely see an ambulance on this block or you rarely hear a noise that’s out of place and most neighbors that you talk to are pretty friendly and so you could be inclined to think that about most homes here right?
L: Thats right. It’s the unusual situation that makes the neighbors come out and talk to each other – if something horrible happened for instance.
P: It’s true, it’s true. Last time I talked to the (Family name) was when I found out he had cancer. I was just riding my bike home and he was outside mowing the lawn and we made eye contact and I just felt like, knowing what I knew, that I should talk to him, even though in general he had been a person I found abrasive in the past. It’s unfortunate I had to hear that news about him for me to stop and talk to him while he was mowing the lawn. Who knows how many times I had ridden past him before. But, on the other hand, I don’t think I had anything to say. I mean, I guess I wanted to ask how are you? Does that count as having something to say though?
L: And then the end of the story where she decides to leave him…
P: Yea – I should have photographed their house. Well I mean, I guess the houses are symbols anyways so it doesn’t matter if that house is shown, we know that one of the houses does have that story.
So, it’s usually the anomaly that gets people to talk to each other here. Do you wish that this place had a different layout or that there was a community that was fostered a little more organically or do you feel like it’s human nature to just slowly retreat?
L: This has something to do with life phases too. Everyone was more community oriented and friendly when we all had kids similar ages and you were all running around outside and were on each others soccer teams and all that.
P: I remember that.
L: It is going through a phase where everybody is older, the kids are gone, people have moved.
P: Then it’s not just me, because I felt like this place used to have more community.
L: It definitely did – part of it is that we all kind of moved in to the neighborhood simultaneously. Now there are neighbors that try to revive bunko, the block party, but its just not happening.
P: Just not the right timing?
L: Umm or just, half the people that used to play with us are gone and the other half are angry because somebody said something at some point during the past twenty years.
P: Like what?
L: You know, neighbor fights – like between the (Family A) and the (Family B) for example – and you know, that went bad and it appears to be an irreparable relationship. I dunno why, its stupid, stupid.
P: Do you know what started the fight?
L: I think it’s because Mrs (Family A) has a really strong personality and Mr. (Family B) did as well. The two of them fought for attention in a social setting. I think the straw that broke the camels back was 10 years ago we were having a progressive dinner and Mrs. (Family A) is gluten-free and everyones known that cuz she’s had Celiac’s forever and Mr. (Family B) came up to her and said “Here (Mrs. Family B) I brought you a bunch of buns – have one!” and that upset her so much that he and her husband walked out of the party and that was it for them.
P: That was 10 years ago? He knowingly did that?
L: Yea, probably he was joking. But he can’t eat seafood. So I’m thinking my reaction would have been “And I brought you some crab legs…hahaha lets go get a drink.”
But also, you know, Mr. (Family B) doesn’t call and say “Hey can we get past this?”
P: So they both just have their backs turned.
L: Yea, and there have been other little minor ones where, I don’t get it, people can’t get over what they perceive to be an insult. I don’t know.
P: And so there is no more bunko and block parties.
L: Well, there are attempts but, yea you just can’t get continuous momentum. I think a big part of the reason, though, is that people have moved and the ones that have moved in to the neighborhood choose not to participate. That may be a cultural thing.
P: This neighborhood is more ethnically diverse now.
L: Absolutely – the same sort of ethnicity – lovely people, but it can seem like participating in our community is not something that they want to spend their time on. That’s fine and I think that’s probably historic.
P: Well besides your gregarious neighbor.
L: But remember when he came and photographed you and dad repainting the house? He was fascinated by it. Culturally, and I have been reading about this lately, they are used to hiring people to do work like that. But you know, when you’re out painting the house people walk by and you talk to them.
But isn’t it that way with immigration in general? When people come to this country they tend to, before their kids break out, they themselves are more secluded. I think its just a natural progression.
P: Yea I agree, I mean I’m sure you have more pressing concerns than bunko when you are new to the country. But yea, it has changed the dynamic of the neighborhood.
L: (Pointing at photo) – That’s one house that – it’s my impression that not happy things happen there…
And then the people that bought the huge house on the corner – the couple still wants to live downtown because they’re doing something really damn important so they moved their parents out here with the kid so the kid could go to the Naperville schools. I think it’s really interesting because these people here (pointing at a house out the window) – they also moved here from the city – he’s a physician at Northwestern – so the kid could start school at Steeple Run.
P: Well CPS (Chicago Public Schools) isn’t exactly making parents happy right now…unless you’re lucky enough to be at a Charter I guess.
L: No but send them to the Latin School or… whatever it’s all fine, it’s just hard for me to understand jumping through all those hoops. I can envision many simpler solutions but perhaps there are other reasons I don’t know.
P: I thought no one was living in that corner house.
L: So that house – that was the one they were trying to sell for a million bucks, lets say they sold it for 700 – I mean they lost their shirt on it whatever it sold for, so it must be just these grandparents and this kid and the lights are never on in this house and the grass just gets overgrown and… Don’t get me wrong, we are happy they bought it, it’s just interesting. They own this house and they wanna pay the taxes and nobody is there! That just seems like too much money to burn.
P: Well, maybe for us it would be.
L: Okay, but would you buy this for a sort of vacation house, or just to send one kid to school? I mean I don’t know. People rent cheap studio apartments to do that sort of thing…
P: I wouldn’t. But hey, maybe it’s a drugs stash, you know they find those out here from time to time (laughing)
L: Haha, maybe it is, except there’s no action going on there, you think you would see some action…