“Have you ever heard of Dunning?”, I posed this question to a few of my friends in their fifties and above. All of them answered with a resounding “Yes!”. Dunning, to them, represented as sort of a mythological folklore that their parents told to them as kids.
“If you were bad,” they warned, “you get sent to Dunning.” It became associated with those that are permanently labeled as “criminally insane” or “mentally unfit” or “too poor and sick” for society. That ominous threat from parents was a reality for many folks who once inhabited the Dunning area, located on the Chicago Portage Park neighborhood in the Northwest Side. It served as the site of one of the most prominent mental asylums in Illinois (Chicago Read Mental Health Center currently exists), and strategically located away from the heavily populace of downtown Chicago. Through the years, that area has undergone a transformation with major housing and retail development as the stories about Dunning have largely gone untold and forgotten by many. It wasn’t until a recent story a few years back on Chicago’s WBEZ site that ignited renewed interest about Dunning’s dark past, and the current national dialogue concerning mental health. It would also reveal that 25 years ago, a large number of bodies in unmarked graves were discovered in the midst of developing land for housing, retail, and Wilbur Wright College.
Dunning was originally built as a farmhouse for the poor who were unable to obtain a job in the city. As Chicago’s population grew during the massive migration wave towards the turn of the 20th century, the city faced overcrowding, fewer job opportunities, and heavy poverty. The farmhouse would take in many more poor folks, and eventually bring in those with mild to severe mental health issues. This would eventually lead to the formation of the Chicago State Hospital which covered a vast 300+ acres.
Mental health treatment in those times were often neglected and barbaric as dangerous medical experimental procedures were often performed on patients. The facilities were overcrowded, the living conditions were horrid and unsanitary, and the lack of attention and care from the medical staff made it impossible for residents to get the treatment they badly needed. Like many mental asylums, Dunning was a permanent prison for these residents with almost no hope of being released. Mental hospitals were not seen as treatment, but as a place to ensure that those who were seen as misfits or outcasts from society would be kept away from them permanently. These patients would soon be discarded and forgotten, and live out the rest of their lives in isolation and confinement.
Many of the Dunning patients had little to no family support. When they had passed on. there was no financial assistance for a proper burial. Instead, they were buried with other corpses in unmarked graves with no public knowledge that there was even a graveyard on the facility grounds. It is told that there could be an estimated 38,000 human bodies buried there which included unidentified / unclaimed victims of the Chicago Fire of 1871. With incomplete and vague record-keeping of patients who lived and died in these grounds, the full narratives of these lives will remain an eternal mystery. Recently, there’s been renewed interest in improving the awareness and honoring those buried in Dunning such as this Facebook page.
On April Fool’s weekend, I decided to pay a visit to the Dunning site. After reading the article on WBEZ (posted earlier on this page), I became drawn to learning more of the place that housed so much suffering, and the patients that were rejected by society when they were living, and in death. I thought about our nationwide struggles in understanding mental health issues, and most certainly, in Illinois where it has ranked last in mental health funding. I still wonder about the well-being of people that I had once been connected to that have struggled with mental issues. Perhaps, visiting the memorial would give me a more intimate reflection towards the lives that were left abandoned into eternity.
The memorial park, located on Belle Plaine Avenue by Wilbur Wright College, is surrounded by middle-class suburbia. There were no street markers leading up to the memorial. In the background is a view of the bleak industrial buildings. This small land, about half the size of a little league baseball field, stands vacant and devoid of human interaction. Slightly overgrown grass, less than half a dozen damaged gravestones, a few round concrete grounds (that resembles a satanic circle) with memorial plaques commemorating those buried in these grounds, a park bench, a tiny narrow gravel path around the park, a tall naked tree, and a garbage can that stood by the entrance are all that is present at Dunning Memorial.
Five minutes into my visit, the calming winds soon turned blusterous. Snow flakes furiously pelted across my face as the winds resisted my advances to move forward. It’s as if these souls were telling me to leave them alone. I acquiesced , and left the park in the midsts of an unusual April winter storm. As I drove, there was a street sign called “Bittersweet Place,” a symbolic irony that for years, Dunning was a place for those considered to be misfits and outcasts of society, and now, it’s a bustling middle-class neighborhood with a senior residence building and community college in its presence. Though the park lacks the proper honor and dignity for those lives, there is something to be said that those souls lying in those grounds are now sharing their space with their living neighbors. I can only imagine that they are finally back in a community that they have long been rejected from, and perhaps, there is some kind of solace that comes with that.
All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim