029_02_787-791 and 029_01_792-894 are particularly personally significant for me. They offer a journey through the neighborhoods adjacent to the neighborhood of Hyde Park in which I grew up. These include Bronzeville, Washington Park, Englewood, and Woodlawn. When I grew up in Hyde Park in the late 1980s, these were neighborhoods that I was told were not to be entered because they dangerous. Today as I live on the Near West Side of Chicago, they remain neighborhoods that the news media reports as being very dangerous and plagued by significant gun violence. When one actually ventures into these areas, however, one finds less danger and more the traces of decades of disinvestment. You see the effects of a war on drugs and poverty, de-industrialization, redlining, exclusionary banking practices, policing, etc. You see material decay and what has become of a set of extraordinary works of architecture. As you walk these streets and peer into the vacant lots that once housed grand structures, you can imagine the traces of another people and way of using space. At the same time, you see the return of nature as it takes over these sites. They are, in many ways, more alive than those elsewhere in the city. For me, they hold tremendous poetry that I have attempted to capture in the set of photographs 029_01_792-894. They hold a beauty in the tragedy of the loss, decay, limited opportunities, and violence.
Whereas 029_01_792-894 collects these sites and juxtaposes vacant sites with photographs of some of the structures that remain, 029_02_787-791 take 5 sites and imagines how they might be occupied again. This occurs in a very abstract manner making use of a geometric structure drawn on the site as something that might come before a formal program is introduced that might, in turn, attract investment. In many ways, I see this work as investing in the groundwork of imagining how these sites could become a platform for discourse that could lead to transformation.
There are a number of challenges when thinking about what to do with a vacant lot. The site is, of course, vacant for a reason. Perhaps demand for the program that the former structure housed no longer exists. Perhaps the building that was once on the site decayed sufficiently after years of neglected maintenance such that it was no longer feasible to repair or keep the structure from collapsing. Perhaps the site was subject to some form of violence that resulted in the destruction of the building. Or, perhaps, the site was subject to a broader policy that displaced people and caused the site to decay.
In some cases, the conditions that caused the site to be vacant to begin with have not changed and it is, a result, difficult to develop a strategy to build something new on the site. Financing does not exist to build homes, customers with sufficient purchasing power do not exist nearby to support a new business, and infrastructure does not exist to support whatever is built. In other cases, the conditions have changed and investors are eager to fill these sites. The result is often to displace those who live on the site either directly or via rising property taxes and cost of living.
When new investment does occur, it often results in the construction of new houses, apartments, and commercial spaces that effectively replace what has vanished. While in some cases a vernacular tone is given to the architecture that echoes these lost buildings, the overall effect is one that largely erases the past, the history of these sites, and the people who lived on them. Madison Street on the West Side of Chicago and new developments in Bronzeville are good examples of development trends that provide little continuity with the historic nature of these sites.
In contrast to these trends, some initiatives have sought to preserve the latent memory inherent to a vacant site. This might include choosing to leave a site vacant and connect it to an adjacent property that has historic significance and that is preserved – perhaps with a new function. The Stony Island Arts Bank and the Rebuild Foundation’s broader efforts in Jackson Park Highlands and good examples of this approach. Another example is the City of Chicago’s program of offering homeowners the chance the buy lots of $1 on the same block on which they live. Another approach that does not necessarily connect directly to the history of a site, but that nevertheless offers an alternative to strictly developer driven investment is turning vacant land into urban farms.
While a number of other ideas have been proposed to fill vacant lots throughout Chicago, these proposals are often met with the economic reality of financing their implementation. At the same time, the people who live near many of these vacant sites on the South and West Side of Chicago are perhaps more interested in investment in existing homes, infrastructure, social services, job development programs, and new businesses. Still, there is hardly any money available to make such investments. The result is a situation without an easy or direct approach that might call for a more innovative and perhaps whimsical solution inspired by the humanity and innate desires of those both living near these sites and those who might be attracted to them if given a reason.
It is also important to keep in mind the shear amount of vacant land that exists on the South and West Side of Chicago. A handful of interventions would have a minimal impact given the scale of the problem. They would get lost without a means of both highlighting their existence and amplifying their individual impact. With this in mind, and given the absence of immediate funding sources, it would be worth considering representing these interventions virtually and / or within an exhibition context that creates continuity between the interventions and a central point of access. The access point could serve as a platform supporting additional information about the various sites and their histories. It could also provide a means of attracting broader attention that could be used to attract future funding.
What, if anything, should ultimately be proposed for these vacant sites? Should they reflect the decaying homes nearby? Should they tell the stories of the people who once lived on the site or of the buildings that used to be there? Should the businesses that remain be reflected? Should the local ecology of the site be reflected? While creating something that reflects these elements may be effective, an alternative option exists. This approach would see any intervention in these sites as a platform. Each would provoke the visitor to do something, learn something, see something, and feel something. They would be something unexpected encountered in the landscape that helps people to imagine a world beyond the here and now. This would involve transporting people to a situation where they are not limited by poverty, disinvestment in infrastructure, violence, systemic racism and classism, and general lack of opportunity.
These platforms could also be designed as a place where visitors can make a contribution. They could be places to record a story, spend time with friends, have a moment alone to meditate, or learn a new skill. They could also be places where those from different backgrounds meet around shared interest in the various provocations and ideas inherent to each intervention. This result might lead to new opportunities for people of different background that might in turn reverse some of the disinvestment in the area.
A series of stories driven by commonly shared themes and places is the foundation of this series of platforms. They are used to provoke the design of a platform or stage to house them. This stage, however, is more than a place where these stories might occur. It is a place where people can come, internalize these stories both through text and via the power of the architecture of the place, remember or imagine their own stories that are similar, record those stories for others to share, and perhaps even one day build a similar platform that holds their own stories and that might provoke others. In this sense, the stories that follow serve as the origin point of the architecture that in turn is a challenge to others to engage the ideas and themes of the story and place it inspired on their own terms.
Some desires that might worth considering include:
1. A burning desire to get out of the neighborhood; to escape
2. A desire for recognition; for what one is worth; before an audience; that confronts the protagonist as to the means of achieving this recognition
3. Mourning the loss of a loved one; how does one get over the loss?
4. Selling possessions for a reason
5. To raise a child who has more opportunities that you did
6. To disappear entirely; perhaps with the aid of drugs or alcohol; or even to end one’s own life
7. To come out as gay, lesbian, or trans
8. To defend one’s honor against an insult
9. Putting in the effort and overcoming a struggle to graduate from a program
10. Doing the work to overcome an addiction
11. Deciding to give up on a dream to care for a loved one
12. Becoming friends with someone who does not share one’s belief or background
13. Saving someone’s life who is overdosing, making a decision about whether to call the police
14. Deciding to end a relationship
15. Deciding to propose marriage
16. The birth of a child
17. The death of a grandparent; having to make a choice about whether you are going to be able to travel for a funeral due to time off work and cost
18. Having to make a decision about what food to buy due to cost
19. Having to decide what bills one is going to pay
20. Facing eviction and having to decide what to do
21. Achieving success; fame on a national and global scale; in such a way that attention is brought to the area;
22. Buying a home; making an investment;
23. Renovating a home
24. Cultivating a new craft or starting a new business
25. Firing a gun for the first time
26. Causing harm to someone accidentally
27. Joining a community
28. The first day at a new school
29. Starting a new job
30. Arriving in a new city and finding an orientation
31. Creating a work of art; maybe a portrait; maybe a landscape; something that reflects the surrounding community
32. Telling a story; relaying a history
Some histories and stories relevant to these vacant sites include:
1. The state of the land prior to the arrival of Europeans
2. The massive amount of livestock driven to the stockyards
3. The great migration to Bronzeville and West Side
4. The birth / development of Blues and Jazz on the South Side
5. The ’68 Riots on the West Side
6. The atomic age of which the suburbs are so emblematic
8. Prosecuting gang leaders leading to a fracturing of the gangs and rise of cliques
9. The war on drugs; crack vs. cocaine; and the broader trend of mass incarceration
10. The long-term effects of mass incarceration of the family unit
11. The rise of the Nation of Islam on the South Side
12. The development of house and hip hop as well as the related fashion
13. The introduction of high-density public housing; Robert Taylor Homes among others; as well as their later demolition
14. The demise of public house
15. The Plan of Chicago and the network of urban parks
16. The major manufacturing plants; including Hawthorne Works, Sears, Steel;
17. More recent immigration; particularly Latino
18. The civil rights movement and residence of Martin Luther King in North Lawndale
19. A growing health crisis related to food deserts, lack of nutrition, diabetes, etc.
20. The rising gun violence on the South and West Side during the 00s to present
21. The urban farming movement and interest in cultivating local ecology
22. Decades of government policy that prioritized north side and affluence and largely white neighborhoods at the expense of the other communities
23. The declining quality of education and inability to fund quality education
24. Defunding of social services; mental health in particular
25. Police brutality; John Burge in particular
26. The 2020 protests and Black Lives Matter
27. The Columbian Exposition / World’s Fair of 1893
28. Construction of the interstate highway system
29. Gentrification of Bronzeville, West Loop, and Near West Side; the shifting policy of the UofC to be more supportive of community development; though perhaps an illusion
30. The election of black politicians to positions of power; Harold Washington, Carol Moseley Braun; Barack Obama
31. The shifting of manufacturing overseas
32. The decline of retail and lack of positive activities; beyond socializing around liquor stores
The following are the first of a potentially vast collection of provocations that could be distributed throughout these sites and used to provoke broader sharing of stories and dialogue that could, in turn, begin to reactivate some of these site.
1. Housing Security
For too many, an affordable and safe place to live is not something that they can count on. There are many reasons why this might be the case. The cost of living has risen in many areas faster than wages. The social safety net has been eroded such that those living paycheck to paycheck have little cushion to fall back on when a crisis occurs. For some, the lack of formal immigration status can create situations where predatory lending or renting practices occur. In other cases, families have been pulled apart due to events ranging from drug use and incarceration to domestic and community violence that make it difficult to maintain a stable home. The result is a situation where people are unable to build long-term wealth and ties to a particular place and community.
The vacant lots of Chicago – particularly on the South and West Side of the City – bear witness to this housing crisis. On one hand, they reflect decades of disinvestment in neighborhoods that has resulted in the decay of housing stock to the point where it no longer is possible to preserve the home and, instead, it needs to be torn down. This situation only further exacerbates the shortage of housing. It is also indicative of a broader problem of maintenance that afflicts many of the other houses in these neighborhoods where a large number of vacant lots exist. On the other hand, these lots reflect a decline of urban manufacturing that has left huge swaths of lands vacant and, often, contaminated. The result not only creates large swaths of land that are difficult to traverse on foot, but a situation with far fewer jobs capable of sustaining those living nearby.
The current appearance of many of the neighborhoods that have faced disinvestment also trace a deeper history of how people in these neighborhoods have related to housing as well as how institutions have dictated that relationship. Many of these neighborhoods saw a steady flow of migrants and later immigrants. Given conventions of only allowing Blacks to live in particular neighborhoods, this led to the subdivision of many formerly single-family apartments and homes into much smaller living units where overcrowding was common. Red-lining practices soon followed that defined where Blacks could live and what loan rates were available. Fear-mongering property owners took to the practice of “block busting” to convince White residence to sell at a discounted rate before their house was worse little or nothing after Blacks moved in. These same property owners would then rent to Blacks at inflated rates and invest little money in the property – ultimately leading to decay and demolition.
The history of housing in these neighborhoods must also include the construction of high-density public housing such as the Robert Taylor Homes that was part of the State Street Corridor of other Chicago Housing Authority housing projects. While originally intended to create safe, clean, and affordable housing conditions, they led to the concentration of poverty and were afflicted by drug dealing, violence, and gangs. Ultimately, they were torn down and replaced with mixed-income low-rise housing developments. The underlying need for sustainable and affordable housing, however, has not been addressed.
What should be done to address housing insecurity and what role can the vacant sites around Chicago play in a solution? What skills does one need to acquire? What tools should a personal have?
In answering this question, it is important to consider responses that may not be entirely obvious and that may not offer a comprehensive solution, but that instead may be a small step towards in the right direction. This will help to avoid reverting to standard answers that point to a need for investment in jobs, a social safety net, and a robustly subsidized affordable housing program. These policies have been in existence for quite some time and have yet to lead to a clear path to a solution. In this sense, responding to this question might also involve considering why these past efforts have failed and what might have to change for progress to be made.
2. Leaving, Remaining, Arriving
There are many people for whom the place in which they were born is not the place they want to stay once they are grown and have the means and freedom to choose where they would like to live. For some, this desire to find a new home is driven by the conditions in which they were born. There might not be enough money, food, space, and affection. The home may be poorly maintained, the tools that one needs to succeed may not be available, and there may even be violence. For others, the desire is simply driven by wanting to define one’s own identity independently of one’s parents and the place they chose to raise a family. This might be connected to simply wanting to live in a different climate. It could also be related to a desire to attend a particular school or work in a particular industry centered in a particular city.
The vast number of vacant lots throughout Chicago’s South and West Sides reflect a general flight from these neighborhoods. They trace a declining population that has been chosen or been forced to live elsewhere in hopes of finding enhanced safety and greater employment opportunities. While this displacement may bring better opportunities, it dramatically affects family structures and friendships. Individuals and families may rely on people they know in their communities, but must also find ways of making new friends and connecting to a new place. This process can be particularly challenging in neighborhoods where there are not sufficient public places in which to congregate. In some cases, this may be a result of traditional places that serve as gathering and meeting points declining – perhaps as a result of a lack of monetary and other resources. In other cases, while there may be places to meet such as grocery stores, restaurants, and clothing stores, they are run by larger corporations that make little room for encouraging people to linger, meet, and form a community.
The areas on the South and West Side with vacant lots have been particularly affected by a loss of spaces in which to congregate and, more generally, with the capacity to support a cohesive sense of community – with the few churches that remain often serving as focal points. This is particularly striking given that these neighborhoods – Bronzeville on the South Side in particular – served as a destination for those migrating north during the early 20th Century as part of the Great Migration. During this period, Blacks moving from the South formed an extraordinarily rich culture that gave birth to Blues, Jazz, and Black literature. While still subject to the Jim Crow laws, the people living in these areas provided tremendous community support for those trying to find their way in the world. They found spaces to congregate and form a community in a wide range of nightclubs, cafes, cafeterias, schools, and churches. They also were supported by a rich and active street life that allowed people to come together in public. Much of this, however, has changed. Today, these streets are largely silent, the number of businesses serving the community has declined dramatically, storefronts are shuttered, and the great nightclubs the hosted legendary jazz performers have vanished.
What is needed to make these communities welcoming again? How can people who arrive meet those already living there? How can the neighborhood become more like a living room where people can gather? How can people feel comfortable inviting new members of the community into their homes? What tools and skills are needed to live in these communities? What tools do people need who are thinking of leaving?
In considering these questions, it is important explore not only ways of creating new community spaces and tools to help people both arrive, depart, and generally find their way in the world, but also what the form of those spaces and tools are. This would be to both draw upon the history of urban form as well as to think imaginatively about forms that maybe yet to be realized. An exploring of the business model associated with these forms should also take place concurrently. Funding sources for these forms / business models should, in turn, be subjected to an imaginative search. This would involve pressing existing funding sources to expand their vision for how a return on investment can be realized as well as thinking about novel ways of generating funding that may, in the process, help to build a community.
3. Giving Birth
Standing in the center of a vast vacant site in Chicago, imagine being at the same location before the arrival of Europeans. Imagine the land before it was used gently by the First People, before it was used for farming, before light manufacturing and heavy industrial production, before it was polluted by decades of industrial waste, and before houses were built all around. It is land that was once covered by Lake Chicago and later by forests, marshes, and prairies; land used for centuries by the indigenous population to provide sustenance and support trade. It is fertile land that attracted settles who gave birth to a great metropolis on the banks of Lake Michigan. When one walks in the woods on the outskirts of the contemporary city, it is still possible to imagine what this place once was like.
Now, standing in these vacant lots that once were occupied by stately houses, commercial establishments, apartments, churches, warehouses, and factories, it is possible to imagine what they might give birth to in the future. On one hand, this could be a new physical reality – structures and platforms and media screens and pop-ups and tents and landscaping and lighting. On the other hand, it could be the next generation of people who will live in these communities. These would be the people who are given reason to identify with this place and want to care for it into the future. They would need to understand the deep history of these sites and imagine their potential beyond the limits that have been imposed by generations of disinvestment and institutions that label them a certain way and that, in turn, limit anyone who might care for these sites.
As vegetation grows and those who keep the grass neatly mowed struggle to keep up, the native ecology begins to return to these sites. This ecology can serve as an inspiration for those who might come to care for these sites in the future. Beyond inspiration, it can help people sustain existence in these communities through the introduction of urban agriculture. At the same time, the cultural history of these neighborhoods can serve as inspiration – both in the positive sense of the major contributions to music, art, and religion and in the negative sense of the struggles that generations of people have had living in these parts of the city to care for children, feed families, secure stable employment, and build wealth. In this sense, the history of these sights might be both a point of departure and something draw a sharp distinction from. It could be possible to think of an alternative logic by which a future might be born. One that does not impose an external will on the land, that does not define itself in relationship to dominant forces of capital, and that is not made subject by others.
What would be required to give birth to such a way of inhabiting a place? What do people need to build a family in a place? How should mothers be supported during birth and as their children grow up? What tools do they and other members of the family need?
At a basic level, the fundamental requirement is stability and a capacity to procure the goods and services that one needs to build a family. It is important to have access to the infrastructure of caregivers, food providers, safe places to play, and fun activities to stimulate the body and mind. The means of achieving this situation, however, is more open to debate. The fundamental lack of good paying jobs in these areas makes it difficult to sustain reinvestment. At the same time, inviting those from other communities to invest can lead to significant displacement of residents and, essentially, displacing the problem. In considering these challenges, it is important to return to the notion that ecologies function through the interconnectedness of that various parts that compliment and support each other. Building a network of businesses specifically geared to kickstarting investment, inhabitation, and birth can feed each other. People can work in one business and consume from another. A push to consume locally can be made to keep money in the local economy. At the same time, infrastructure can be put in place to help the locality connect to and compete within the digital sphere. Such a process would, however, require thinking of the neighborhood as a start-up to the point that one follows the model of a start-up wherein losses may be tolerated for several years while waves of venture investment are made because of the strength of the team and their idea. In this way, a new ecosystem might be born.
Little light penetrates deep into the cave. It is difficult to discern if anyone is there. It’s a place of refuge – a place to retreat when the world is too rough, when fear grips the soul, and when hope diminishes more each day. Protected by the armor of the cool damp walls, there is time to look inward. Many people around these vacant sites put on such armor each day. Retreating even as they walk in public – invisible to many, an object of fear for others. They want to be seen, to be worth something, and to achieve something before an audience. Lacking a clear path to such recognition beyond the limits of the neighborhood, they succumb to the theater of violence that has gripped the South and West Side of the City of Chicago.
It’s easy to imagine wanting to slip into a cluster of trees, behind a rock, around a corner, and find the entrance to a secret cave that will provide a gateway to another world where possibilities exist. As if by magic, this new world has room to move in myriad directions. The sound of the voice resonates and is amplified by the walls. A nurturing fire burns in the center as people gather to listen, tell stories, do magic tricks, and transform the universe into something tenable for human existence. All around, the walls bear traces of this transformation – records of those who have been here before and contributed to the effort to make something out of nothing.
There used to be many of these caves all around the South Side of Chicago. They were filled with magic emanating from those gathered deep within the space. The Black musicians who came together in these smoke-filled clubs in the early 20th Century as the Great Migration from the South accelerated brought folk tunes, sacred music, and instruments associated with these traditions. They expanded upon a musical tradition that had evolved over a century of enslavement and that had roots far earlier in musical traditions of Africa. They brought musical forms from New Orleans, Memphis, and other cities of the South that evolved into what became known as Blues and ultimately Jazz in a rapid period of evolution. The sounds captivated the Black community as well as members of the White community who were drawn to the energy, freedom, and improvisation that characterized the music.
The many clubs that dotted the South Side of Chicago, however, have almost entirely vanished. Those along 47th St., 55th, and 43rd, 63rd St, 79th St., Cottage Grove, and elsewhere throughout the South Side of Chicago are gone – traced only in the recording made by legends within the interior. The magic, however, can still be heard in these recordings. The extent of their influence, moreover, can be felt in countless songs and recordings that have been made by artists working in the jazz genre as well as R and B, rock and roll, disco, house, and pop. The venues, however, have not returned. There are no dark caves into which one can climb to listen to a few sets and sip a whiskey. Instead, there are empty storefronts, vacant sites, and silence.
What can be done to bring magic back to the South and West Sides of Chicago? What tools need to be given to people to rebuild these cultural institutions? How can people build upon the success of spaces such as the Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank in other sites? How can the spirit of joy in surprises be reignited?
Creating funding sources is naturally one aspect of the solution. There need to be new institutions that are willing to take a risk on a neighborhood that has faced decades of disinvestment. At the same time, the culture of these neighborhoods as well as the city as a whole needs to be considered. In making such a consideration, the forms that can best hold, support, and grow the culture need to be considered. It may not be the case that a traditional jazz club is appropriate. Instead, something more open and adaptable might be desirable. The role of new and social media may play a significant role in what comes into existence. Finally, it will be important to consider how these new venues might relate to one another and how they relate to the broader community and culture of the city.
Violence has become associated with the South and West Sides of Chicago. Every day, stories of kids being shot while sitting in parked cars with their parents or people pulling up next to cars and opening fire are reported in the newspapers. They describe neighborhoods plagued by hatred, conflict, and loos that feeds on itself and grows with each shot fired. These are not random acts of violence, but thoughtful attacks carried out on streets that have become a stage for grievances to be aired and, perhaps in some distant future, resolved. Those living in these neighborhoods have become so afraid of getting caught in the crossfire that they refrain from sitting on their porch and hide indoors away from windows. Too often, the articles in the paper end by noting that no one is in custody. Still, community members remain positive and committed to fighting this negative image of their neighborhood.
The vacant lots throughout the South and West Sides of Chicago reflect this violence. It is hard to imagine wanting to move into a neighborhood that is plagued by stray bullets and then go on to invest capital. At the same time, the vast stretches of sidewalks without buildings and shuttered windows of homes where people are afraid to look out make for a ripe situation to engage in acts the perpetrators don’t want others to see. Like the violence itself, the vanishing presence of human habitation feeds on itself. While this is not to say that blight is the cause of the decay of these neighborhoods, it is to suggest that the social, cultural, and governmental policies that have provoked the initial decay have accelerated. Although there are community members who have done their best to maintain the built environment interrupt violence, the forces they are working against are perhaps too strong.
While there is no one cause for the violence that continues, the mission of City leadership, police, and prosecutors beginning in the early 1960s to break up gangs by arresting and incarcerating their leaders has played a significant role. Doing so destroyed the hierarchical structure of gangs and the balance of power between gangs with different territory and led to a fracturing of the gangs into smaller cliques often with one or two blocks to call their own – leading, as a result, to more frequent clashes and significant difficulty for unaffiliated community members who want to cross from one territory to another to get to work or school. This occurred in the context of gang leaders who were actively trying to reform their image and become forces of community organizing, employment, and empowerment. This empowerment and attempt at transformation, however, was a considerable threat to the machine led by a mayor who himself had been part of an Irish gang when he was a youth in Bridgeport. He recognized the power that these institutions had and the way they could break the reliability controlling the Black vote. His actions, however, failed to understand the consequences of removing strong male leadership from the community while also failing to provide programs and opportunities that would give youth something else to do.
In this context, is there a way to interrupt the violence? Is it possible to get the huge number of guns off the streets? Is there a way of breaking the cycle of insults and retribution? Is there a way to counter the glorification of violence and the feeling of honor and pride in killing to get revenge? What are the tools that would required to support this alternative future?
It is easy to point to a lack of jobs, education, and money as solutions to the problem. In reality, it is far more difficult and requires deeply engaging those who are living this reality. These young men and women, as well as those to whom they look up, need to have a sense of opportunity and hope that will help them to value their life and their future. It needs to be better to continue living a free life than letting the state pay for one’s room and board while incarcerated. This requires moving away from a punitive system of justice to a restorative system of justice. It also requires seeing poverty and violence as deeply connected and both less as something inevitable or characteristic of a certain group of people and more as a disease that can be researched and cured. This is not to say that there should not be consequence for such violence or that policing should stop, but that the focus should be on prevention rather than punishment. One possible path forward would be considering how to make these spaces physically safe and gun free and how safe zones might serve as seeds that grow and become oases in an otherwise still violence area. Perhaps it will be the many vacant lots from which this dream might grow.