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Meet Maya Dukmasova: Challenging how we think about public housing

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Maya Dukmasova, originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, now calls Chicago home. Wishing to explore her new home city, Maya started the 'Today in Chicago' project. Every day she would hit the streets, trying to go to different neighborhoods. You can find her photos of our city on her website.

Tell me about 'Today in Chicago'.

'Today in Chicago' is an ongoing street photography project that I started shortly after moving to Chicago in August. I decided to do it as a way to practice and improve my photography. I thought the format of a daily Tumblr post would keep me committed and motivated to going out and shooting daily. It was also a way to explore my new city and its neighborhoods.

Just an idea I had in my first or second week in Chicago. I hadn't found a job yet and I didn't really know anyone. I thought "I need to get myself out there and see as much of the city as I can." Plus, I wanted to commit to improving my photography skills because I think they will definitely help my career prospects as a journalist.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from your photographs of 'Today in Chicago'?

There's kind of two streams of response; from casual Tumblr followers or accidental visitors, or just people who check in regularly. Though I don't hear from people very often (my following is less that minuscule by Internet standards), when I do, I get positive responses and compliments. People like the way I capture street scenes and people.

However, I'm more interested in the response of professional photographers, whose feedback I've been lucky enough to get. In many ways, I'm not even at the beginning of my development as a photographer. There's so much I still need to learn and improve on from composition, to lighting, to technical mastery of my camera, to presentation of a series of pictures. I've gotten a lot of great, constructive criticism from professional photographers and use it as guidance to improve my work.

I also look at the work of great street photographers for inspiration. While I hope to gain a bigger following for 'Today in Chicago' over time, I don't want to orient myself solely towards what's trendy with casual visitors. I know there are lots of bars I need to reach for, and hopefully, the casual audience continues to appreciate what I'm doing and my work earns some professional respect.

What have you learned from taking photographs in Chicago?

Besides learning more about the layout and history of Chicago neighborhoods, I guess the biggest thing has been a discovery of how comfortable people are with having their picture taken. A lot of times I will ask someone's permission to take their picture, and overwhelmingly, people say yes. I do plenty of clandestine shooting in public too, which is also fun.

I love seeing people being themselves, and interacting without inhibitions. I love people's ticks and mannerisms and gestures, and feel an irresistible pull to document hem. I also just take pictures of stuff I find beautiful - light, textures, landscapes. I guess a lot of time I'll 'see' a picture happening, and I rush to capture it with the camera.

But Maya Dukmasova is not only a photographer.

In addition to my ongoing photographic activity in Chicago, I also have a blog, 'A kitchen for every pot' devoted to public housing, and it's a topic I'd like to devote myself to as a journalist in the years to come.

Why do you need to raise the $5000?

In March, I want to participate in something called the Millennial Trains Project. It's a 10-day, cross-continental train trip organized by a D.C.-based non-profit. It takes 40 young people with unique ideas and interests and gives them an opportunity to advance a project in the context of the journey. Everyone on the train will be working on their own, different project. These can range from dissertation research, to start-up development, to journalism, etc. The whole trip is coordinated by the Millennial Trains Project team.

As we travel, they will have speakers come to conduct seminars with us on the train, and the MTP team also organizes meetings with various community leaders in each city we stop in (previous on-train mentors have included editors from the Associated Press, National Geographic, and Chronicle of Higher Ed, consulting firm representatives, venture capital people, State department representatives, non-profit directors, and professors). So in a way, the train is like an incubator for everyone's ideas, and the process of brainstorming with the other travelers, as well as connecting with mentors in different fields, is supposed to help us along with our goals.

In order to participate, each person needs to raise $5000, which goes directly to pay for the train. It's a dozen or so refurbished, 1950's Amtrak cars which are attached to a locomotive, renting the cars and the locomotive is pricey as you can imagine!

My project idea for the Millennial Trains Project is to examine how public housing communities across the country are being impacted by gentrification. I will explore how each of our host cities (L.A., Albuquerque, Kansas City, Louisville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Miami) accommodate transplant gentrifies while serving the needs of public housing communities who have stuck with the cities through thick and thick and have had to live there even when it was least desirable. I also want to use the opportunity of spending 10 days on a train with a bunch of young people to interview them about their experiences of urban life and contact with urban poverty. The last time this train project happened, in August, most of the participants did indeed live in cities.

Why do you want to do this project?

I think gentrification is an important new trend that's revitalizing American cities, and it's very appealing to my generation. I'm enthusiastic about the fact that Millennials are embracing cities, turning away from alienating and unsustainable suburban sprawl. However, I am also concerned about how the appreciating value of urban life may impact low-income communities.

I am worried about a future of homogeneous neighborhoods catering to the highest bidder. Public housing communities have been with American cities through the worst of times, and I believe that a healthy urban future includes collaboration and communication between these communities and Millennial newcomers.

I hope that this project contributes to a better understanding of the problems facing low-income urban communities in American cities, especially those normally out of the public eye. I also hope to advance our understanding of gentrification beyond the simple narrative of increasing tax revenues and an influx of small business to a struggling city.

If you become part of this project you describe above, what experience/knowledge will you bring to Chicago?

I will include Chicago in my research of gentrification trends across America in the context of the Millennial Trains Project. I think learning more about public housing communities and how cities are working to revitalize themselves in other parts of the country will give me better perspective of what's happening here in Chicago. I'll be able to compare and contrast what works and what doesn't, improve my questioning and deepen my analysis. Chicago has been seen as nation-wide leader of public housing reform, understanding what that means has to involve examining how other places have used its example.

Do you think you're making a difference, or do you want to?

"Making a difference" is kind of a vague term. The aim of 'Today in Chicago' was never exactly public service, though hopefully, my images of the city and its people helps those not from here to get to know it, and maybe will stimulate someone's desire to come visit. However, as far as the Millennial Trains Project goes, I definitely hope to advance a certain social justice journalism with the project.

Reporting on disadvantaged communities living in public housing, which has been deemed a 'failure' in America and is on its way to extinction will hopefully 'make a difference'. I think these communities are under-served by the media and their stories tend to only be communicated through the lens of criminal activity. I'd like to help advance a more humane understanding of the struggles facing these communities, and hopefully dispel some of the myths or complicate the narrative surrounding the desirable phenomenon of gentrification.

There are 41 days remaining for Chicagoans to join Maya Dukmasova in making a difference.

Here is her invitation:

Love 'Today in Chicago'? Want an original print of one of my photos? Then I’d like to ask you for 4 minutes of your time today, to watch this video. In March, I’d like to embark on a big reporting project across 7 American cities as part of the Millennial Trains Project. I want to write about and photograph how public housing communities are being impacted by gentrification. But I need to raise $5,000 to go, and if after watching the video, you think this would be a good project, I’d be immensely appreciative of your help. It’s corwdfunded journalism.

You can find out more details about the project and how to donate here: If you use the hashtag #todayinchicago in a note with your gift, I will give you a print of any 'Today in Chicago' photo you choose, no matter how much you give!

If you’re unable to give, I would be very grateful to anyone who can just reblog the post or share the link. If I don’t raise the $5,000 in the next 40 days, everyone’s donations will be refunded.

I’ll be back with regular photo updates tomorrow! Learn more about Maya and see her wonderful photos here.



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