Every day I scour the papers (real and virtual) for landmarks news and todays was about an arson fire apparently targeted at the restoration of the Morse theater,a lovely little 1912 nickelodeon. Graffiti in the theater (“You want war. Get uz”) seemed to indicate that those responsible were fighting gentrification of the neighborhood. The restoration of the theater was “the main spur to the transformation of the neighborhood.”
If the theater can manage to shift a “gang-infested” neighborhood into a livable community, well, I have to say that is about the best reason to save an historic theater.
But someone opposes this and violently. This strikes me as similar to the arson fires that burned a series of 6,000 square foot “green” homes out West several months back, or the spasms directed against Wal- Mart and Starbucks and McDonald’s. But the fight against gentrification is tricky business, for several reasons.
First, as in almost every social movement since 1848, there is the problem of the vanguard of the proletariat. “Get uz” is too artistically crude and deliberate to be written by anyone other than a college-educated anti-gentrification activist. A true vandal doesn’t declare war. What we have here are likely suburban-bred activists living in a neighborhood for its endearing sketchiness, for the anonymity it grants their coming-of-age adventures; for its conformity to outside views of the city as gritty; for its opportunity to speak up for the oppressed. I get it – I went through this in Wicker Park in the 1980s and Logan Square in the 1990s. But being the vanguard of the proletariat is a vanity and a conceit if the proletariat didn’t ask you.
The second problem is of course preservation. Now we all know preservation is for rich people and what happens to a neighborhood is the artists and gays move in and start fixing up the buildings and the neighborhood has this really cool bohemian phase with the old ethnics and gang bangers coexsting with the new hipsters and then when a certain number of buildings get fixed up the developers come in and Starbucks arrives and it is all ruined and preservation is to blame.
The City opposed landmarking Wicker Park in the 1980s because of fears of gentrification. Only the preservation side of the equation didn’t conform to our prejudices as outlined in the paragraph above. In 1987, unlandmarked Bucktown was gentrified in one year. Five years later, Wicker Park hadn’t yet caught up, despite a late 1970s National Register designation and a 1990 Chicago Landmark designation. Seems gentrification had bigger fish to fry.
Why is gentrification bad? Because poor people are displaced. But gentrification can occur without displacement and displacement can occur without gentrification. These are not equivalent things. And both can occur without historic districts. People who own property do well with gentrification – renters are the ones who are hurt. But are any urban neighborhoods permanent? Displacement to homelessness is the real issue – displacement to another location is not. Real estate development is a big ugly evil thing for those on the short end of the social stick, and you can’t hide from it. The real question is: what is the alternative? Anarcho-syndicalist socialized land use zoning?
John McCarron wrote a Tribune series about this over 20 years ago, when many city leaders and politicians were opposed to gentrification. McCarron was a little surprised that aldermen would oppose projects that would help their neighborhoods rise out of poverty. But poverty politics made a certain sense in the 1970s and 1980s – an alderman could count on a whole precinct of votes out of a single public highrise. Homeowners had been leaving the city for decades so they were less politically important. Political power in the inner city depended on dependent populations and ironically, on forestalling their empowerment. Because if they were truly empowered, they might leave. Or stop voting for you.
But by the 1990s, a shift was happening. In places like North Kenwood, homeowners were all that was left after years of poverty politics, decline and demolition. Suddenly, a bunch of elderly homeowners were asking for landmarks designation to protect what they had been protecting on their own for thirty years – their homes. They asked me to come help them save their houses from a big evil real estate developer and The City. So we did and 15 years ago the neighborhood was landmarked. No one spoke in opposition to the designation of that landmark and perhaps no one spoke for the proletariat if any were still there and I spoke for the elderly homeowners and some new homeowners who promised they could rescue buildings considered unsalvageable.
Old-line poverty politicians accused them of “middle class aspirations.” Yow, there’s a curse you could bestow on two and a half billion Chinese and Indians. The only people who don’t have middle-class aspirations are middle-class vanguards of the proletariat – they have “working class hero” aspirations. I get it. I had that.
Today North Kenwood has gentrified (and even integrated) and some of those who fought to save it are now the old-timers, being left behind by a new generation. There are people who live in a place for 50 years but most of us, whatever our means, live in a place for 5 years, so both the gentry and the hoi polloi are always moving, like history. That is modern life – once you leave the rainforest or the farm, life will no longer be static but dynamic, always changing.
Which, perhaps counterintuitively, is why we save buildings. Because they provide an element of stability and identity to our dynamic, fragmented existence. Until the anarcho-syndicalist paradise of UZ arrives, historic buildings may be the only unchanging things in our communities.
postscript: thanks to bwchicago for correcting my oversight – the theater is on Morse in Rogers Park, not Uptown.