Optimism has fallen out of fashion. Who’s got the time for it? We’re all busy bemoaning the nation’s problems—the economy, healthcare, education, the environment, national security—and fighting over the best way to solve them. After all, it’s much easier to be cheerful when the livin’ is easy than when you’re living on food stamps (the current status of one out of every eight Americans). At a time like this, hope runs a close second to jobs as something America could use more of—a lot more of.
One place you wouldn’t expect to find much hope is North Lawndale, a poor black neighborhood on Chicago’s far west side. As of 2001, nearly three-fifths of the adult population were on probation, on parole, sentenced to prison, or incarcerated. And in 2005, when, as curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, I began working with Lawndale residents on an exhibition about the community’s social and architectural history, 42 percent of households in the neighborhood had incomes below $15,000.
Things were different in the first half of the 20th century, when Lawndale was home to one of America’s largest Jewish communities, with stately stone-fronted townhouses, a grand boulevard of Beaux-Arts synagogues and civic buildings, and prominent residents like Benny Goodman and Golda Meir. Major industries ringed the neighborhood: the International Harvester/McCormick Reaper Works, a Western Electric plant, and the Sears, Roebuck and Co. headquarters.
By 1960, in a classic case of white flight, 91 percent of the Lawndale’s 125,000 residents were black. Martin Luther King Jr. made the neighborhood his Chicago base of operations, and after his 1968 assassination a major riot broke out there. Within two years, Lawndale had lost 75 percent of its businesses, including International Harvester. The Sears brass decamped to its eponymous tower downtown in 1974.
In a desperate effort to stem the tide, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other groups awarded more than $250,000 in grants to a local gang, the Conservative Vice Lords, to open a shopping and community center. The initiative was a bust, and drugs, crime, and poverty took hold of North Lawndale. The 2000 census recorded a population of only 41,768.
A decade later, North Lawndale has reason to celebrate, with the opening of the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, a massive conversion of Sears’ 1905 powerhouse. The before-and-after photographs astonish me—the 100-year-old boilers and steam pipes have made way for a clean, light-filled learning environment. Five years ago, when I was working on the North Lawndale exhibit, I toured the old powerhouse, and a few community leaders spoke of reclaiming the vast, dilapidated building for a higher purpose. I never thought it would happen, and I’m so very glad to be proved wrong.