Posts Tagged ‘urban renewal’

For Richer or Poorer

May 29, 2010

One of the truisms in the heritage conservation field is that buildings are preserved in two economic conditions: wealth and poverty. With wealth you can reinvest in and maintain property in its original state; in poverty you lack the finances to demolish or alter historic property. In the middle, the whims of temporal fashion and a modicum of money lead to constant alterations that destroy a property’s integrity, while the spasms of economic opportunism foster removal and replacement.

I realized this a quarter-century ago when I was living in East Ukrainian Village/West Town/Wicker Park while working on the history of Bridgeport. West Town had not seen new investment in over 30 years and had a rich stock of historic buildings with a lot of historic integrity. It was poor. Bridgeport was technically the oldest neighborhood in the city, dating to 1836, but as seat of Chicago’s political dynasty for a half-century it always had a enough money to modernize and thus had very little in terms of intact historic resources.

East Village, 2006

Now, if you have read my 2005 Future Anterior article “Race Against Renewal” you know that historic districts have in fact been used by inner-city communities as a way to improve their neighborhoods and satisfy middle-class aspirations. How can this be if the middle-class are the ones messing up historic buildings?

The answer lies in the tipping point: when a district tips from being an under-resourced working class neighborhood into the middle-class. At that tipping point, the sweat equity efforts of hundreds of rehabbing historic homeowners are trumped by developers scrambling to redevelop property and build new buildings.

The urban pioneers – those with middle-class aspirations – create the market by improving their properties and living there, improving the neighborhood’s perceived safety and prosperity. Then the market steps in like Bigfoot and tips the apple cart, scrambling to cash in. In some cases, there is active displacement of the pioneers; in most cases, there is an influx of new homeowners sans history, with little understanding of the neighborhood’s evolution.

East Village is emblematic: the historic districts enacted a few years ago are discontinuous, interrupted by stretches of mini-highrises and other demolition redevelopments. These developments in the late 1990s and early 2000s were cashing in on the efforts my friends and I made in the 1980s. The historic district is itself a picture of that tipping point: a neighborhood that was intact and then disrupted by new development out of character or scale with the original.

Many other historic districts have a similar issue: Eleanor Gorski, architect for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, can tell you that much of their permit review over the last two decades has been for Wicker Park and Calumet-Giles-Prairie districts, two neighborhoods designated at the end of the 1980s when they still had a lot of vacant land from postwar disinvestment.

In my historic districts seminar, we look at these phases of development and their contradictions: we want to preserve the original architecture of an area, in order to relate its history visually, but that history may include periods of redevelopment. Also, historic district designation often comes, as shown above, at or about the tipping point when new development starts to take over and push the neighborhood into a newer, and sometimes less felicitous, incarnation. Indeed, historic district designation is usually an expression of that tipping point: a way for those that MADE the neighborhood what it is to hang on to their investment, their sweat equity. Those that complain about the districts are usually the johnny-come-lately developers, swooping in like vultures to lay claim to the killing someone else made.

So, in a sense, the truism follows: as inner-city districts are rehabilitated, they become those middle-class communities like Bridgeport subject to the ephemeralities of architectural fashion and the temptations of redevelopment. The current lawsuit against the city’s landmarks ordinance includes an East Village plaintiff seeking exactly that sort of economic opportunism.

Critics say that historic districts are an attempt to freeze time, which of course they are not. But they are an attempt to freeze the frenzy of redevelopment that seeks to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Historic districts are an a nuanced planning tool that can secure past investments for rehabbers. insure the prosperity of a community, guarantee aesthetic integrity and limit the depredations of the spasmodic redevelopments that caused Chicago sociologists in the 1920s to adopt the fatalistic view that all neighborhoods must grow and then die and be rebuilt from scratch. That idea is generations behind us and it is not a sustainable urbanism.

Urban Renewal Returns!

February 8, 2008

lake meadow PS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Chicago is socked with its biggest snowstorm since 1999, and it seems we have been socked with big snows weekly all winter long. But we are also being blanketed with development. Well, development PLANS…
Developer Jerry Fogelson on his $4 B development near McCormick Place: “It’s the only vacant piece of land on Lake Shore Drive and it’s ugly. Our plan is to cover this entire area.” OOOOOKKK – works fine, unless it turns out ugly.
But it doesn’t end with the 23 acres between 14th and 22nd, because developer Draper and Kramer announced three weeks ago that they are redeveloping the 70-acre Lake Meadows complex between 31st and 35th Streets. This one is only a $1B development because they are demolishing the famous SOM towers built 50 years ago BY THE SAME DEVELOPER. The reasoning is also THE SAME as 50 years ago: gateway to the community, revitalize the area, etc. etc. And as much as preservationists and the general public lambasted the towers in the park – Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores were one of the SUCCESSFUL private urban renewal projects – even integrated, no small feat in 1960. Ira Bach’s guides to Chicago celebrated the modernist conceit of the highrise apartments by bragging that the buildings occupy only 10 per cent of the land, leaving 90 percent for open space….
Of course, Draper and Kramer today sees that formula – as we all do – as wrong, and so they want to bring back the street grid and low-rise, diverse housing and shops EXACTLY LIKE THE ONES THEY DEMOLISHED IN THE FIRST PLACE.
That is the beauty and tragedy of what I do: each decade unfolds another “I told you so” as the Santayana-deprived of the world unveil their billion-dollar developments and we ask why can’t you save some little piece of this it was once beautiful and functional and could be again only it needs money and care…

But that’s not how the economy works. The real estate economy – at the micro level of a billion-dollar 70-acre development – works best when it is wasting resources. The banks like new and the buyers like new and just like that there is capital to knock everything down and start again and if you ask the banks and buyers to invest in what we already have they see a smaller margin and would rather wait for someone to tickle them big-time because there is no party like the party where you plow it all under.
Of course, at the macro level, this is a bit dangerous for the economy, what with all the waste of materials and fuel costs, but that will only become actionable after a bigger climate change and a proper trans-species die-off that actually affects this macro level.

The ironies are piling up faster than the snow: A developer gets to do an urban-renewal sized project why?? Because that developer did one 50 years ago in the same place! Great work if you can get it – a money-printing machine; sort of like the replacement windows (you always have to replace them!) They should make sure during this round that the buildings only last 30 years. Hey, makes perfect economic sense…
Crain’s Chicago Business reported that “Lake Meadows could have the same catalyzing effect on the surrounding community as Dearborn Park, a big Draper & Kramer project in the 1980s that spurred the revival of the South Loop as a residential neighborhood.” Excuse me? The rehabbers in Printers Row didn’t revive the South Loop by spending HALF A BILLION in certified rehab projects between 1978 and 1988? What is that in today’s dollars?
Draper & Kramer did spur revitalization of North Kenwood in the 1980s – by proposing to tear the whole neighborhood down. That got the neighbors so upset they landmarked it, restored it and rebuilt it instead. At the time I thought that the sort of massive projects we saw in urban renewal were 20 years behind us. 20 years later, and they are in front of us, the largest residential development project south of McCormick Place. Welcome back, urban renewal!

Place Identity

October 11, 2005

This weekend I led the Chicago Fire tour for the Chicago Historical Society as I have for the last four or five years. We follow the 4-mile long path of the fire, hearing eyewitness accounts and describing how it spread and what it destroyed.

The Fire is a central event to the civic identity of Chicago – it is one of the four stars on the city’s flag. When my Michelin editors came here a dozen years ago to begin work on the first Green Guide to Chicago, they commented on how Chicago people talked about the Fire as if it happened yesterday. That means the historic event has a central piece of the city’s identity.

This happens everywhere. Go to Ireland and the 1690 Battle of the Boyne was yesterday. Go to Atlanta and Sherman’s march ended last week. Parts of Paris are forever 1890 or 1850 and the 1770s trail through the streets of Boston. The Thais are still celebrating 200-year old victories over Burma and the Dai Viet recall a millennia-gone general who began a millennia of resistance against the Chinese.

Place identity is forged in these events – or years after them – but the process usually involves the debasing and freebasing of the actual history into that potent and toxic distillate known as heritage. Heritage is history reworked to support a particular political (and/or religious) agenda.

Destructive historic events – wars and disasters – are especially useful as instruments of heritage. That’s because heritage carries the instrumentality forward, allowing later and unrelated depredations to be blamed on the same identity-forging event. Preservationists from Atlanta- seeing Chicago – would always tell me they couldn’t preserve anything because of Sherman’s destruction. Horsefeathers. Sherman burned Atlanta 6 and 1/2 years before Chicago burned to the ground. How many 1950s urban renewal projects can be blamed on an 1860s general? There are towns and bridges and plantations that the Confederates destroyed (to prevent Sherman from getting them) that are now blamed on Sherman in official historical markers installed two generations later.

Similar things happen worldwide. Anything destroyed in Ireland was destroyed by Cromwell, the most rapacious of the Anglo invaders. It’s even true here. Everyone knows the Water Tower was the only building that survived the great fire. Wrong. On our Chicago Fire tour I note that a large 5-story brick building survived the Fire in the Loop – Lind’s Block near the river, and even Mrs. O’Leary’s house (the fire burned north from her barn, sparing the house) survived into the 1960s, only to be razed during the manic progress frenzy of urban renewal. Urban renewal also took aim at the Water Tower itself in 1948.

Marseilles (France) wiped out most of its old quarter after the Second World War, but thanks to a plaque put up to commemorate the destruction of a couple dozen buildings by the Nazis in 1943, we can blame the whole thing on the bad guys, even if their efforts paled in comparison to 1950s French city planners.

Identity is a crutch and heritage is a part of all identity – whether communal or personal. But heritage is always a reduction – a simplification – of history. Real history is too messy and contradictory for a project that needs as much reassurance as identity.