Urban Renewal

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?


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