Archive for February, 2010

Chicago’s Old Town

February 27, 2010

Chicago’s Old Town was one of the city’s first historic districts, designated in the 1970s along with its neighbors Mid-North and Astor Street and Kenwood on the south side. Unlike its landmarked contemporaries, Old Town’s history and architecture were more modest. The landmark plaques on the streets describe a working-class German neighborhood and even today the enduring image of Old Town is a simple worker’s cottage, 1-2 stories high in frame or brick, perhaps with some decorative window hoods and brackets at the eave.

Architecturally, then, Old Town remains among the most modest of historic districts, and in a town that celebrated the modernist architectural narrative of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Old Town offered little beyond a five-house row of early Adler & Sullivan townhouses. Daniel Bluestone reports the famous quote by Chicago’s first preservationist, Earl Reed, and Old Town resident who lamented that his neighborhood “exhibited not even a hint of the International Style in Architecture.” It was like Greenwich Village in New York, a bit of an architectural mongrel, but still a place with a strong “sense of place.”

Old Town also shared with Greenwich Village a passion for community activism that more than made up for what it lacked in architectural elitism. Community groups arose immediately after World War II in an effort to create a stable, family-friendly community a short distance from downtown and only steps from the Lincoln Park lakefront. Old Town also shared a community narrative about artists and freethinkers. The Old Town Art Fair – the first in Chicago – began in 1949 and cultivated the artistic image of the community Greenwich Village had pursued even earlier in the century. Both Greenwich Village and Old Town traded on their bohemian nature but became uncomfortable with that status during the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s.

Old Town actually supported urban renewal in an effort to improve their neighborhood, although public sentiment turned sharply against it once the bulldozers started rolling. In the 1970s they turned to Chicago Landmark status – and downzoning – in an effort to limit the highrises that were walling off Chicago’s lakefront. Their success in stopping highrises was limited, another parallel to Greenwich Village, where those godawful white brick behemoths soared in the 1960s during the four years it took for the neighborhood to become a designated New York Landmark.

Community activisim took the shape of an historic district and Old Town has always been one of the most active communities, participating in permit review meetings at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The uninitiated think of landmarks review as some form of “architectural police” but in reality it is quite simply a forum for the community to make their feelings known – an attempted democracy of the built environment. The historic district gives the community a place to voice their opinions – and they have done so in Old Town – markedly – for over 30 years.

When I take my students to Old Town today – as I did last week – I ask them to look not just at the architecture, but also at the sense of place. There is a scale to Old Town, a closeness of building to street and street to cross street and curb to curb that you simply don’t find anywhere else in the city. It is not so much about the rope mouldings above the windows or the paired brackets and dentils at the eave or even those Furnessian ornaments on Adler & Sullivan’s Halstead Houses. It is about a premodern relationship of buildings and streets and narrow alleyways – something not unusual in Rome or the old part of Edinburgh but exceedingly rare in Chicago.

And when I walk through the streets of Old Town I also see the narrative of community activism – an activism that continues more than three decades later as Chicago Landmark status becomes a forum for community groups to provide input into the disposition of their built environment. How will buildings look after they are rehabilitated? What kinds of new construction or additions are acceptable to the community?

I researched Greenwich Village and Old Town for my dissertation and one of the things that struck me was how both communities lacked traditional architectural distinction but planned to use district designation in order to make the community more architecturally coherent over time. And it has happened. Old Town has seen more of its cottages and brick flat buildings brought back to their original design. Areas around Old Town have also “improved” but with new construction at a new scale and style that diminishes the sense of place.

Thirty years ago you would see the same kind of neighborhood north and west of Old Town and today you don’t. The historic district retains layers of history, a rootedness, a sense of unique, distinct and coherent place. Those areas outside are nice enough, but they are like a lot of other places. Their sense of place is every place. Old Town may not have the fanciest architecture, but at least you know where you are when you are there.


Read the paper the Day Before

February 20, 2010

The greatest casualty of the 24-hour news cycle is not attention span – it is memory. The current Olympic tiff between the ice skaters is a classic example. Silver medalist Plushenko lashed out at judges after they awarded gold to Lysacek, who performed a more elegant routine – but didn’t do any quads. Why this is a controversy is a complete mystery to those of us who read the paper THE DAY BEFORE the competition, when there was a big article about the ice skating judges who said – flat out – that they weren’t going to judge the competition solely on jumps. I sort of understand Plushenko being upset that he didn’t get gold for a more difficult athletic accomplishment, but he was totally warned THE DAY BEFORE.

The same thing happened five years ago – when this blog began. The day before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the newspaper had a large cross-section illustration describing how the levees in New Orleans would fail and how the city would flood. And then it did. And President Bush and the feds claimed they didn’t expect it. I guess they didn’t read the newspaper, because there it was THE DAY BEFORE.

You can only learn from the past if you remember it, and unfortunately there are a lot of examples of really short-term memory.

Chicago’s Black Literary Renaissance

February 11, 2010

I do a lot of tours. I have been doing tours of architecture, geography, history, industry and all sorts since the fall of 1983 for organizations ranging from the Geographic Society of Chicago and Field Museum to the Chicago History Museum and Department of Housing and Urban Development. I have done a fair amount of tour training as well, including the Community Showcase tours Rolf Achilles and I did with Jean Guarino last year for various Chicago neighborhoods.

The last few years I have been doing a fair amount of tours for Art Institute of Chicago members – Illinois & Michigan Canal, Farnsworth House, Chicago churches (coming up March 18 and 19, 2010!), parks and boulevards. Last fall I resurrected a tour I first did in 1994 at the urging of the Geographic Society of Chicago – Literary Chicago. The tour consists of an extensive driving tour of Chicago soundtracked with the recitation of a fair amount of poetry and prose inspired by, written in and about the sites we are passing.

This year the tour added some of the newest literary landmarks in Chicago – sites associated with the Black Literary Renaissance. Our tour went past the home at 6140 S. Rhodes where Lorraine Hansberry lived the events she later dramatized in A Raisin In The Sun, the home of Native Son author Richard Wright at 4831 S. Vincennes, and the Hall Branch Library at 4801 S. Michigan. Woodson of course founded Negro History Week which has become Black History Month, which is February which is now. The tour did not take in the longtime home of Gwendolyn Brooks, Illinois’ first poet laureate, since it was several miles further south, but I have always included a half dozen of her poems on the tour, recited as we drive past the streets of Bronzeville that inspired her 1947 collection A Street In Bronzeville.

This recognition of Chicago’s important role in African-American letters helps balance a history that has often focused too narrowly on the Harlem Literary Renaissance, which was certainly the epicenter but not the only center. Chicago’s gritty, realistic and unpretentious style had an important and influential role to play in the cultural awakening of Black America throughout the 20th century. Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison are essential, but so are Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, Richard Wright, the first black author of a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and Lorraine Hansberry, the first black woman produced on Broadway.

This is heritage conservation, preserving sites that embody watershed moments in our history. Hansberry’s house is part of a literary tour but it is also the site of a Supreme Court battle that struck down racial covenants on property. Wright’s home was an important stop on a journey that took him from radical politics to expatriate status while trying to survive the Depression in Chicago. Brooks’ work documented the separate society in America’s most segregated city and the Hall library collected and disseminated the massive cultural production of African America.

Back in 1992 when I attended my first National Trust conference, I was working with Floyd Butler and the Young Urban Preservationists, and they were promoting restoration of the then-neglected buildings of the Black Metropolis Historic District. We liked to boast that unlike Harlem, many of the Black Metropolis Buildings in Chicago were built by and for blacks in the 1910s and 1920s, whereas many of the Harlem Renaissance Buildings were “inherited” from other groups. In 1992 I helped advocate for the city’s rehabilitation of the Chicago Bee Building, and by 2000 most of the derelict buildings of the Black Metropolis were restored, from the Eighth Regiment Armory where segregated soldiers mobilized for five wars to the Supreme Life Building, now the Black Metropolis Convention and Visitors Bureau, a site my graduate students visit each fall.

But the sites of Chicago’s South Side are a little like the sites of Chicago’s great architects – they get no respect at home. I live in Oak Park, where a majority of the Frank Lloyd Wright tourists hail from Japan, China and Europe. Similarly, when I hear stories of tourists at the old Grand Terrace Ballroom (now a hardware store on 35th Street) or Black Metropolis center, they seem mostly to be Danish or German or English. Americans are not always the first to embrace their heritage, just as it took a lot of mad dog Englishmen to collect postwar African-American R&B and re-deliver it to us in the 1960s as rock and roll. Why? Ask Gunnar Myrdal. When City Council voted on these landmarks yesterday, they added an extremely vital chapter not only to the history of Chicago but to a cultural expression – and a cultural conflict – at the heart of the American experience.