Chicago’s architecture is important. Its buildings are the stuff of lore, books, and architecture tours. These days, there is little evidence around town that Chicago ever butchered the world’s hogs or stacked the nation’s wheat, as poet Carl Sandburg famously wrote in 1914. But more than 140 years’ worth of some of the finest buildings in the country are still here and are added onto constantly.
The buildings Chicago honors most are the skyscrapers that line up along Dearborn, LaSalle, and State Streets, Michigan Avenue, and Wacker Drive, designed by titans of architecture such as Holabird & Root, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Buildings such as the Chicago Board of Trade, an Art Deco beauty that sweeps skyward from the foot of the LaSalle Street canyon. Or the dark and brawny Willis Tower (née Sears), once the world’s tallest building, that punches its way through the clouds over the West Loop. And there are the 21st-century newcomers, such as Jeanne Gang, FAIA’s Aqua Tower, an 82-story structure that looks as much a sculpture as it does a building.
The North Side’s architecture is most certainly appreciated, especially the homes and buildings in the mega-monied Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, and Lakeview neighborhoods, and the miles of classy residential towers along North Lake Shore Drive. The South Side, however, has been largely omitted from Chicago’s architectural discussion.
Before we get too far along, let’s define the South Side’s boundaries. We’re talking about an area roughly bounded by Cermak Road to the north and 138th Street to the south. The eastern border is Lake Michigan, while its western edge is an uneven and unofficial line marked by Western Avenue to the north and the city’s jagged western boundaries. Within the South Side, you’ll find the Near South Side, which is closest to downtown; the Southwest Side, which encompasses neighborhoods west of Ashland Avenue; the Southeast Side communities east of Stony Island Avenue; and the Far South Side, which are generally the neighborhoods south of 95th Street. For decades, most of the buildings in that vast area have been flat-out ignored by the architectural press, architecture tours, and lectures—and many Chicagoans themselves. (One bright exception has been the Chicago Architecture Center’s yearly Open House Chicago weekend. On a recent tour, about 25 of its 250 architectural treasures were located in predominantly black South Side neighborhoods.)
A Legal Theft
Let’s make it plain why this most egregious slight is happening: the South Side is dangerous flyover country to most outsiders, seen as a place where people are mostly black, poor, and murderous, living in squalor, disinvestment, abandonment, and violence.
Of those who do come to document the South Side, far too many practice ruin porn. These are photographers who fill their Instagram, websites—and more than a few art galleries—with images of abandoned and half-demolished South Side buildings. Their photographs of these fallen structures and lost places are beautiful and macabre, like the Victorians’ post-mortem photographs. Very little of this work bothers to question or challenge the larger and often racist institutional forces and policies that led to the decline of these buildings and neighborhoods. To present these images without that narrative irresponsibly reinforces the notion that the South Side is an architectural wasteland. Nothing could be more untrue.
Even the South Side neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Beverly—well-planned and mostly white communities with celebrated residential architecture—are affected by this narrative. When I lived in Beverly for the first decade of the 2000s, I noticed one of the major gripes among my neighbors were other Chicagoans, particularly North Siders, repeatedly “discovering” the Southwest Side community—“I didn’t know this was here.” Beverly has been a Chicago neighborhood since 1890.
The crime and economic woes of the South Side should not be dismissed. But they can’t be discussed or addressed without also mentioning how the banking, real estate, and insurance industries have cruelly conspired for decades to value homes and properties in black neighborhoods far less than those in white communities. Nationwide, a house in a black neighborhood is worth 23 percent less than a home in a white community with similar amenities and features, a Brookings Institute study discovered in November 2018. Brookings found the median value of an owner-occupied house in a black Chicago-area community was $114,000. The same house in a similar white neighborhood in the region would be $151,000.
According to the study, that differential over the years means untold millions of dollars in potential real estate equity—cash that could’ve been pulled out to send kids to college, fund businesses, climb into or above the middle class, save a residential landmark or build a future one—were robbed from property owners on the South and West sides of Chicago. And the theft was done neatly, cleanly, and legally with a balance sheet and a ledger. The South Siders would’ve stood a better chance against a stick-up man on the street.
Adding deep insult to this injury: the South Side makes up more than half of Chicago’s landmass. In other words, most of the city is the South Side, a geographic area that’s the size of Philadelphia—twice the size of Brooklyn. More than 750,000 people live on the South Side, a population rivaling that of Boston or Detroit. And yet Chicago has turned its back on it—and its architecture—with relative ease. “It’s a North Side city,” author and Columbia College Chicago history professor Dominic A. Pacyga told me, describing a prevailing mindset within much of the city and its leadership. “And if you’re the South Side, you have two-and-a-half strikes against you already.”
But the South Side matters. And its architecture deserves to been seen and protected.
A New Mayor’s Opportunity
The new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, will have a huge role in deciding the future of the South Side. Mayor Lightfoot, a black woman from the North Side, was elected to the big chair in April after Rahm Emanuel decided not to run for a third term. Chicago has become two completely different cities, with a rich and well-appointed northern half and an increasingly tattered and disinvested South and West Sides. As mayor, Lightfoot must work—and hard—to bring development to the greater South Side, while pushing back conceptions that the area is too far, too poor, too out there.
Both Emanuel and his predecessor, Richard Daley, were good at scoring base-hits in the South Side. Lightfoot has to swing for the fences and dismiss small-scale urban planning and catch-as-catch-can deals done without a larger plan for the area. The Obama Presidential Center, likely to be built on Lightfoot’s watch, could be one of those home runs. At this writing, the Obama apparatus only argues for what it needs to get the center built—things like park space, wider roads, closed-off streets, and room for parking. But the apparatus hasn’t rolled up its sleeves or used its clout to push for—or help fund—tangible amenities that would help both the center and the surrounding area.
For instance, the city and the Obamas should be fighting to rebuild the elevated CTA Green Line tracks and stations that once ran down East 63rd Street between Cottage Grove and Stony Island Avenues. In one of city’s worst planning blunders, the mile-long leg of track was demolished in 1997. But the rebuilt mile section would bring patrons from downtown to within a short walk of the presidential center. And it would put back an important transit link for South Side residents while improving redevelopment efforts along 63rd Street.
Object lesson: The Green Line station at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue was spared demolition, and since 2016, the intersection has come alive with new transit-oriented retail and mixed-use development. This is the kind of action the South Side needs.
The absence of a true plan to embrace and help the South Side has bred a certain cynicism on that side of town. I’d wager it’s occurring on the West Side also. There is an open and ongoing discussion among black people that we are no longer welcome in Chicago and that the city’s government, civic leaders, and policymakers are purposely chasing black people out of the city by not fully reinvesting in the South and West Sides. And it’s playing out to some extent with a historic depopulation that’s happening now in the South Side’s black neighborhoods. More than 240,000 black people—mostly South Siders—have left Chicago since 2000 and are taking up residence in jobs-rich Northwest Indiana and Southern cities.
The Grand Boulevard neighborhood had a population of 53,000 in 1980. Fewer than 22,000 live there now. On the far edge of the South Side, the Roseland community’s population has fallen to about 22,000 from 64,000 in 1980.
The Washington Park neighborhood directly west of the University of Chicago was a largely working-class black community of nearly 60,000 before World War II. Today about 12,000 people live there. Along with the population plunge, demolitions have left this one neighborhood with a mind-boggling 500 parcels of vacant land.
The population free fall puts the South Side’s architecture at additional risk, particularly churches and schools that were sized and built during the area’s boom years.
As mayor, Lightfoot has to work to reverse this population exodus—or at least stem the flow. That means inventive and sophisticated redevelopment efforts planned at a city scale, and aimed at rebuilding the South Side and retaining and growing its population. And she certainly must correct and keep clear of the type of corrosive and cavalier policies of her predecessor that led to the mass school closings—with no public discussion beforehand, or clear public benefit afterward.
Granting city landmark status to more South Side buildings also would be a key step, along with creating more landmark districts on the South Side. Such a move would keep away bulldozers and preserve the South Side’s trove of good architecture. And for homeowners there are local and state tax incentives and permit-fee waivers designed to help owners restore historic properties. All of these could ease the burden of homeownership and help rebuild communities.
A New Chapter
Black and brown people started coming to the South Side more than a century ago in hopes of finding the first-class citizenship and opportunities that were denied them elsewhere. The decades that followed brought astonishing achievements for many people of color on the South Side. The buildings tell part of that story.
But the buildings and neighborhoods tell another story also: that for black people those 100-plus years were also filled with restrictive housing covenants; racist city policies; the historically brutal ways black neighborhoods have been policed; the economic, social, and cultural disinvestment of the South and West Sides—and now the astonishing wealth and privilege being built and put on display in the form of the new and predominantly white high-rise neighborhoods around the outskirts of downtown. If the city’s political, cultural, and civic leadership care at all about Chicago, now is the time to stand up for the South Side and the West Side, bringing forth bold, visionary, audacious plans needed to revive and support these areas, their buildings—and the people who live there.
It’s time to write a new chapter for Chicago’s South (and West) Side. Let it begin now.
This essay was adapted from Lee Bey’s Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side, published by Northwestern University Press in October.