Archive for April, 2007

Oak Park on the Make

April 30, 2007

op mad bldg corner407s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Oak Park recently elected a new Village Board that promises to get development moving again, and they have an early opportunity to allow the demolition of a very nice c.1920 commercial corner building for a parking lot with a Walgreen’s in the back. Will this demolition prove their development-friendly mettle?

One could argue that being on Madison Street, where almost every historic building is already demolished, there is no context. As Michael Moran of Preservation Chicago likes to note, this argument is like going to a dentist who says “several of your teeth are missing – why not get rid of the rest of them?”

The saddest part of this particular demolition/redevelopment is not the loss of a lovely building or a gloriously cantankerous and independent drug store, but what it says about Oak Park. In Lake Forest, Hinsdale and Brooklyn Heights, just to name a few places, Walgreen’s and CVS can be found in historic buildings – the one in Lake Forest is nearly identical to the one at Oak Park and Madison. Apparently, Oak Park is not as important as Lake Forest, or as sure of itself. Or did we even ask?

Economic development is a delicate dance, a mating ritual as it were. Some communities look for a lifelong mate and thus the ritual, the dance, is very elaborate, drawn out, to insure the best intentions of the suitor. Other communities are less choosy – a high schooler could easily fill in the nouns used to describe those that skip the ritual dance and get busy. These relationships don’t last and the suitors, realizing what an easy conquest the community is, come back again and again, dipping into the local TIF accounts and putting up businesses that don’t last a decade, while demolishing the stately qualities that would allow the community to be choosy. Instead of a marriage you get a series of one night stands. You get used, abused, discarded.

Walgreen’s is looking for the same thing as every other guy, but Lake Forest insisted he behave like a gentleman.

Walgreen’s wants this corner because it is half a mile from CVS at Madison and Ridgeland, which has torn down similar buildings in the Village (Oak Park and Roosevelt was a nice one). Walgreen’s has one of the nation’s LEAST SUSTAINABLE approaches to economic development – it will run its older store at Clinton and Madison while it builds the new one at Oak Park and Madison, and then leave a gaping hole at Clinton when the new one opens. This is how Walgreen’s has done it in Maywood and Westchester and Bensenville – the company gets to maximize the cash flow by making the town give them two development sites for the price of one. The town already has the store and the tax revenue – how much increment do you get out of the same store?

From the urbanity perspective, Oak Park loses one of the few remaining corners in what is turning into a mile-and-a-half long parking lot on Madison. Driving into Forest Park on Madison is like leaving the wilderness for civilization.

But this is what happens to towns with a “She’s Gotta Have It” approach to economic development. We all know that Walgreen’s is a cad and a masher. Soon enough, we will know what to call Oak Park.


ruminating authenticity

April 19, 2007


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Phimai, 1986. Before it was ruined. Back when it was authentic.

Preservationists feel strongly about authenticity. In our Western world authenticity is fabric and context: we want original fabric in its original context. If all the furniture in the house is from other places, or if all of the logs in the log cabin have been replaced, we find it inauthentic. If the building has been moved from its original site to a historic building “petting zoo” (think Greenfield Village) we find it inauthentic.

I have made much of the Eastern view of authenticity which sees the craft and technique as authentic – hence a 1000-year old Shinto temple in Ise that is actually only 10 years old but was made with the same tools and techniques used 1000 years ago. Meanwhile we use nail guns and epoxies to maintain our “authentic” 200 year old building.

The problem of authenticity gets more complicated the closer you look at it. Right now I am in San Francisco at an ICOMOS conference on heritage tourism on the Pacific rim. Angkor will get a million tourists next year, twice as many as two years ago. The rush to authentic sites might destroy them. Several speakers, including Tim Winter of Australia, pointed out that Western ideas of authenticity have a lot to do with the romantic and solitary idea of discovery – encountering Angkor in the jungle as a forgotten site. In several Asian countries they are more interested in a group experience and rebuilding a missing site gives them a better sense of what is was like. Soon there will be more Chinese and Indian tourists in the world that Europeans and Americans, and the tourism industry will cater to their expectations and romantic ideas, not ours.

In 1994 in Nara they developed a more Asian concept of authenticity for heritage protection. This has often been interpreted to rebuild completely vanished and often poorly documented sites, a tendency Asia shares with Eastern Europe. And Tucson, apparently, where they are rebuilding a Spanish building that doesn’t even have surviving foundations. The argument is that visitors get a more authentic experience even though the thing itself is not authentic.

What is authentic – the thing or the experience? Everything cultural, is by definition, an artifice of human action, hence it is in some way artificial. But it is also authentic, if people do it in some “indigenous” way. So is the carved stone Jayavarman VII you buy at Angkor by a Khmer craftsman more authentic than the karaoke bar that craftsman spends his free time in? Nowadays we interpret historic sites by stressing continuity with the present. I like to define history as something that started a long time ago and isn’t over yet. But doesn’t that make the karaoke bar part of history? Part of Angkor? It’s there and it is as tangible as the 12th century temples.

We like to think of things as pure or untouched by commerce, but commerce is simply another cultural activity. Tim Winter passed around mass produced tchotchkes from Angkor which us educated types can decry as cheesy and inauthentic. But he challenged us to deny that these were part of the experience of many tourists.

Our conference is at the Presidio, a former military base. There are beautiful woods and palm trees and natural areas. But they are all cultural creations – they were designed and constructed by people, just like the parks in Chicago. Nature doesn’t exist outside of us in a pure state. Neither does culture – the Khmer guide who showed me the Bayon in 2001 was wearing the same brand of shoes I was and each of us were wearing those shoes with equivalent authenticity.

I’m starting to think authenticity is like heritage, an ideology that distracts us from reality. The truth, as someone said, is never pure and rarely simple.

Urban Renewal

April 7, 2007

Spin, By Felicity Rich

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Felicity is in the Urban Renewal show opening tonight (Aprill 6) at the Southside Community Arts Center. The building is a Chicago Landmark, its 1890s exterior by L. Gustav Hallberg, who did a number of tony Victorian mansions, and the interior is by a pair of New Bauhaus grads who gave it the streamlined white wall treatment when it became a community arts center in 1940. It is the only community arts center still in existence in the nation, and it has trained and exhibited generations of African-American artists.

Felicity’s piece is “Spin” and it is a ceramic structure with facades that differ and perhaps suggest various forms of urban renewal over time. There are vines or plants on some side and actual grass on top. Is it broken or not? Is it modern or traditional?

There is an interesting spin to the debate about urban renewal nowadays. The public housing highrises built between the 50s and 70s were already considered abysmal failures by 1972 when the Pruitt Igoe complex in St. Louis was famously imploded. The traditional wisdom had it that the highrises exacerbated the social problems. The original federal projects, low-rise gems by starchitects (see Pat Reardon’s great Trib article this week on Lahtrop Homes) were good, the highrises with exterior stairwells were bad. Urban renewal was bad when it replaced small, crowded, fractionally plumbed buildings with highrises like the Robert Taylor Homes, a 30-block wall of chainlink and concrete derided for the entirety of their existence. Now Urban renewal is bad because it demolishes those same highrises. As part of the Urban Renewal show there will be a screening of Venkatesh’s film on the “forced removal of Chicagoans living in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project” at the Little Black Pearl on April 16th.

This is a fascinating but not uncommon historical phenomenon. What the phrase “urban renewal” describes formally has flipped absolutely. Then, “urban renewal” meant the demolition of low-rise Victorian style communities and the creation of sterile Modernist highrise environments that destroyed community. Now, “urban renewal” means the demolition of Modernist high-rise communities and the creation of sterile Victorian low-rise environments that destroy community.

One of the realities of environmental change is that loss causes nostalgia, no matter what that loss is. Now we lament the loss of the highrise public housing projects, which are already being replaced on the South Side. The west side replacements have been up for a while. Stories about social cohesion in the highrises are everywhere today, and tales of snipers and gangbangers controlling stairwells have faded as the demolition proceeds apace. People were forced out of their homes two generations ago into inhuman environments and now their descendants are being forced out – did the environments change, and if so, did they change for the better?

Environmental change causes root shock says Dr. Fullilove, and things we hated years ago become things we loved. Right now in New York City there are three exhibits about Robert Moses, each distancing itself from the 1974 biography The Power Broker by Robert Caro. Moses rode roughshod over communities in the 1950s and 60s and they rose up against him and now, 40 years later, New Yorkers long for another planner/dominatrix. Maybe “urban renewal” is the safety word.

“Preservation is a fundamentally conservative notion that resonates with our primal fear of change.” That is the opening sentence of a piece I wrote in the current issue of Traditional Building.

So, what is fundamentally conservative and what is fundamentally progressive, and what does that look like today?


April 3, 2007

The Grave Dancer bought the Tribune. Appropriate, I suppose, that the billionaire collector of distressed properties, having divested himself of real estate at the tip of a century bubble, should dive into the distressed world of old media. It is even oddly encouraging for those of us who like to sit on the couch or at the kitchen table with morning coffee and read the paper. I read lots of internet news, but never on the couch or kitchen table (or toilet). Technology is additive.

My brother emailed to ask what I thought of Sam Zell and of course the first thing I always say about him – as I said to my college colleague Jason (who works for Zell) on Saturday is – where is the damn Norton mural? John Warner Norton, one of the great Illinois artists of the first half of the century, painted a stunning Deco mural on canvas on the ceiling of the 1928 Daily News Building at Madison and the River.

The mural is about making (reporting) and delivering the news, and its graphic constructivism and bright color palette make it a major masterpiece as it narrates in dynamic angles the process of news production from reportage to typesetting to delivery in a whirl of 1928 high tech abstraction – planes and trains and automobiles. Zell bought the building and the mural has been mysteriously in storage for over 12 years. Every couple of years the Reader wonders about its whereabouts. So do we at Landmarks Illinois.

Now that he is a newspaperman, it would be appropriate for Sam Zell to reveal the restored mural. But he is famously allergic to culture, at least according to the 1994 Tribune article about Zell’s Angels, his millionaire motorcycle buddies. Whenever they tried to stop at a landmark or cultural site, Zell cringed and moaned.

Maybe we could convince him that the restored Norton mural, like his S corporation ESOP restructuring of Tribune debt, is an elaborate tax dodge. I could do that easy.