Posts Tagged ‘Wicker Park’

Forgotten Chicago

November 20, 2010

I do several local Chicagoland coach tours each year for the Art Institute of Chicago (as well as an international tour every year or two) and this fall we came up with Forgotten Chicago, which explored northern and southern edges of the city and I tried – mostly successfully – to find sites that most people didn’t know about – or forgot.

First, we went up to the northwest corner of the city near O’Hare airport and drove past one of two old farmhouses in the area, the 1850s Wingert House on Canfield before stopping for a tour of Chicago’s oldest house. Now, most people think Chicago’s oldest house is the Clarke House, a heavy-timber structure built in 1836 and moved twice, most recently in the late 1970s when it was restored near the Glessner House Museum in Prairie Avenue, close to its original location.

Clarke House, 1836

But in 1833 Mark Noble, an English farmer, built a frame house (NOT a log cabin) in what would become Norwood Park, then several miles outside of the city. The home then had an Italianate addition in the 1860s and the neighborhood became part of the city in 1893.

The house was restored a decade ago by the Norwood Park Historical Society and we were greeted on our visit by my dear friend Susan Kroll, who was a key player in saving the house back in the 1980s when I was Chicago Programs Director at Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and someone wanted to tear it down and replace it with 12-18 houses on a cul-de-sac.

Today those houses would be over 20 years old, and thus once again obsolete

We then traveled east through Gompers Park and past Bohemian National Cemetery to the former Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium on Pulaski Road. The TB sanitarium closed in the 1960s, and the site almost became a strip mall and a couple thousand housing units.

Because a strip mall and a bargeload of houses is the most clever response humans can devise when confronted with a sight like this

Again, the community rose up and defeated the plan – actually they did built some new housing on a corner of the site, but saved all of the old TB buildings, converted them into an absolutely lovely senior housing complex, and created North Park Village Nature Center, 40 acres of lagoons, wetlands, prairie, oak savannah and animal habitat.

What, no Quizno’s?

We then had lunch at JAM, which is on Damen in our old Wicker Park/East Village stomping grounds and is a super hip place – I have to give credit to Aleksandra Matic and Michelle Hodalj at Member Travel because they picked it. From there we headed south, to see a place I discovered long ago when I was on Chicago Eddie Schwartz’ radio show in the 90s. We had a history panel of about six local experts (including me) and callers would try to stump the panel. The incomparable Ken Little knew every street in the city and talked about Winneconna Parkway, which winds along the Auburn Lakes, 8 acres of picturesque beauty just north of 79th Street.

Winneconna Parkway – Auburn Lakes

On yesterday’s tour we had a handful of people who had grown up in Auburn-Gresham, which changed dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s and still suffers from disinvestment and crime. This condition has added to its “Forgotten” quality but the landscape was appreciated by all. We drove down 79th Street, past the Nation of Islam sites and then St. Sabina’s off of Racine, and then visited Hamilton Park, a 1905 gem sandwiched between railroad embankments, one of the most lovely of the pioneering “Progressive Parks” developed by Chicago’s South Park Commission in the first decade of the 20th century.

The parks were designed by the Olmsted Brothers and the fieldhouses – a NEW building type at the time – were designed by Daniel Burnham & Co.

The fieldhouses hosted club rooms, auditoria, libraries, and all sorts of amenities designed to alleviate the conditions of crowded immigrant districts. They also tried to actively acculturate the immigrants with mural cycles that depicted and instructed in American history. The murals at Hamilton Park are by the great Chicago artist John Warner Norton and they have been marvelously restored.

The tour wrapped up with a drive through of Oak Woods Cemetery, every bit as lovingly designed as the more famous Graceland Cemetery on the north side, and with nearly as many famous burials, including a trove of Civil War history and the largest burial of Confederate soldiers in the north, the Confederate Mound Monument (1895) marks the grave of over 4,000 POWs who died in Chicago, mostly of cholera and typhus in Camp Douglas. I didn’t take a picture on this trip, but here is the mound in winter:

You can also find the graves of notables ranging from Mayors (Big Bill Thompson, Harold Washington) to mobsters (Big Jim Colosimo) to scientists (Enrico Fermi) engineers (George A. Fuller), and athletes (Jesse Owens, Cap Anson). They even have a lovely Arts and Crafts chapel by the architect who designed my house.

Lake Shore Drive up from 67th and home. What are your favorite Forgotten Chicago sites?


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.