Endangered by Poverty and Wealth

pilg bap front

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois released its 10 Most list last Wednesday in Springfield. That is, Ten Most Endangered Buildings in the state. The ones in Chicago are particularly evocative because of what they share: deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods. In the west side’s North Lawndale neighborhood, the “most endangered” was not a building but a bunch of buildings stretching along Douglas Boulevard, massive former synagogues and schools. The threat is basically the weight of poverty and disinvestment multiplied by years.

North Lawndale was featured in a 1987 Chicago Tribune series as the most impoverished neighborhood in the city. My wife Felicity Rich photographed the buildings for the AIA Guide to Chicago in 1992 because most of the photographers didn’t want to go there.

Almost twenty years later, SAIC Preservation students have joined with a multi-pronged effort spearheaded by the University of Illinois at Chicago to recognize and revitalize the community. But good intentions and positive moves can’t reverse fifty years of decay overnight.

Another “Ten Most” building contextualized by the inner-city is Westinghouse High School 3 miles due north. This is the largest Prairie School building ever built, as the massive Bunte Brothers Candy Company, designed by Schmidt, Garden and Erickson in 1920, its orthogonally redented tower the only landmark on lonely Franklin Boulevard. I helped Felicity shoot some large-format photos of this one a few months ago. The threat? How can you describe it? Idiocy? A new high school is being built across the street and this modernist behemoth is to be demolished for athletic fields – in a neighborhood consisting largely of vacant land. The logic behind this is so tortured it had to be rendered to middle eastern potentates. After fifty years it should be obvious that demolition is not the solution to inner city problems. Quite the opposite.

And then there is Pilgrim Baptist – the shell of one of Chicago’s greatest buildings, forlorn in an otherwise gentrifying corridor of the Near South Side. If you haven’t been to Chicago in a while, the South Side is a revelation – and a revaluation. Every bit of it within a mile of the lake from 26th to 83rd has come up. A Sunday Tribune magazine series by Ron Grossman and Charles Leroux recently profiled it, and I just did a piece about the 1990s landmarking of North Kenwood in Future Anterior. Yet all of this new wealth is just as damning for a landmark as the West Side’s poverty. Pilgrim Baptist needs many millions, but its parishioners are the remnants of the old neighborhood, not the new professionals. We can hope that those moving in adopt the historic building as their own, but if the million-dollar neo-Victorian townhomes across from the Glessner House are any indication, our hope may be in vain.

Image: Pilgrim Baptist after the fire

One Response to “Endangered by Poverty and Wealth”

  1. beth Says:

    Yes, while endangered by poverty and wealth, I believe ignorance should also be added to the list. Most people who don’t want to go into these neighborhoods are cloaked by the ignorance of the stereotypes they embrace. And there are so very many who live in these neighborhoods not knowing the gem of history held in the built environment. Then there are those who are motivated by the ignorance of money looking to develop the almighty kingdom of the dollar for themselves at the expense of those poverty stricken.

    This vicious circle needs to be broken. Education is the tool to do it but it will be a tough road to travel with many more structural casualties along the way. Is it time for a government-sponsored, community-based historic preservation program? Perhaps one that will be run through the public schools in connection with religious institutions? Is it possible for church and state to actually work together on something like this?

    The bottom line is the younger generations in the neighborhood must learn their history to value it in order to be proactive about protecting it and here is where we fall short. Knowing the state of our governmental affairs, I truely doubt they would support a project of this type. Are there any Rosenwald’s or Carnegie’s or Rockefeller’s or Jeanes’ in the house? Who wants to help take it to the next level?

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