The University of Oklahoma Institute for Quality Communities has been getting a good deal of Twitter ink for its digital presentation of before-and-after aerial images of urban renewal in the US. The ‘swipe’ feature of these juxtaposed images was something that I had not seen. This project benefits from high-resolution images that can be perfectly aligned. Once you find images of the exact scale and frame, then the project was off to the races.

These images—with sets for the Midwest, Southeast, Northeast, and Oklahoma and Texas—can give hours of fascination to anyone interested in the magnitude of urban renewal and disinvestment in postwar cities. As you might expect, cities like Detroit and St Louis make for jaw-dropping images of huge tracts of land literally wiped off the map between 1950 and today. We also come closer to appreciating the radical impact of highway construction, as entire dense residential sections are plowed under by concrete ribbons and behemoth interchanges.

This GIF from the OU “60 Years or Urban Change” project shows parts of Cleveland getting wiped out.

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The sweepstakes for the Obama Presidential Library continue to heat up. For the University of Chicago and the surrounding area, near certainty has shifted to anxiety and a win-at-all-costs stance. A consensus is forming among those most passionate about attracting the Library, one which is based on urbanness, the mid-South Side’s exceptional connection—and entitlement—to the Obama legacy, and an aphoristic expectation that the Library will be a transformative presence for an under-served community. None of these claims are as absolute as boosters imagine.

The University of Chicago seeks to offer up this slice of Washington Park to the Obama Foundation.

The University of Chicago seeks to offer up this slice of Washington Park to the Obama Foundation.

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I was lucky enough to catch a pre-wide release showing of Selma earlier this week. Overall, with a few caveats, I found the movie an effective piece of history that should have a positive impact on the public memory of the Black Freedom Struggle. I have quite a few thoughts about the film—many half-formed—but here I’ll just stick to a few of the themes that struck me most:

  • The LBJ Depiction: fast and loose with many historical ‘facts,’ but the ends justify the means.
  • Keeping the Black in the Black Freedom Struggle: the ‘white savior’ theme is unavoidable—but challenged; the historians’ age-old dilemma between power and agency is here—but maybe only by accident.
  • Intra-movement Tensions: Valiant focus made possible by the above point, but SNCC is an unfortunate and ill-formed prop; consensus carries the day.
  • A Cast of Thousands vs. the Bio-pic: ‘Whoa it’s awesome that you have James Orange and Bayard Rustin in there.’/’Why aren’t you telling me more about Orange and Rustin?!’
Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) marching from Selma to Montgomery in the movie Selma. (Paramount)

Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) marching from Selma to Montgomery in the movie Selma. (Paramount)

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"IOU": The Uptown Truman College mural, in its deep winter (2013).

“IOU”: The Uptown Truman College mural, in its deep winter (2013).

MIT professor of urban studies Larry Vale recently published a book that deals with what he terms, “twice-cleared” places. A prominent example he employs is the site of the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. There, a mixed race low-income and working-class community was cleared in the mid-20th century. After a generation of mass public housing, the iconic—if not infamous—Cabrini-Green towers were then razed as part of the city’s landmark demolition of concentrated projects. Upon this second clearance, officials directed the construction of lower-density mixed income housing, a Target, etc, etc.

As Vale shows, twice-cleared areas represent complicated, layered social and cultural productions of space. In Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—the city’s perpetual ‘next big thing’ neighborhood—there are an increasing number of twice (and thrice, and more) cleared spaces. The current iteration of ‘can’t miss’ redevelopment in Uptown centers around the $203 million renovation of the CTA Wilson Red Line station. After several years of planning, budgeting, and community feedback, demolition has finally begun. Among the first structures to meet the wrecking ball was a CTA viaduct wall that had borne witness to a contentious clearance of space one generation earlier. This wall hosted a mural painted in direct response to the clearance of a low-income area in favor of a city community college. The mural became faded and obscured by plant growth. Its sun-bleached, mournful, almost seething message could only be seen during the winter. Now demolished, the mural is only a memory, a fitting parallel to the challenge of preserving the history of displacement in Uptown.

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Broadcasting Oct 18 1965

A WJJD AM 1160 ad from Broadcasting, October 18, 1965. Clever commentary on Goldberg’s corn cob-shaped Marina Towers (also new to Chicago at the time)?

On February 15, 1965, Buck Owens’ hit “Tiger by the Tail” roared to life just as WJJD AM 1160 deejay Chris Lane concluded his weather report. All-country music radio in Chicago had arrived. Thanks to the Bensman Radio Archive at the University of Memphis, we can relive one of the first hours of WJJD’s format switch: I received a cassette tape copy of three hour-long WJJD air checks, then digitized the audio via Audacity. Over the next several weeks, I will be rolling out a blog dedicated to exploring these selections from February and May 1965, specifically placing the broadcasts in spatial and cultural context.

The air checks are basically a recording of the entire broadcast as it was heard over air, as required by the FCC. Therefore, the deejay, music, advertisements, and public service announcements make for prime fodder for historians. The format switch was a smashing success for WJJD, and part of a national trend of new all-country stations from Seattle to New York City. The playlist was a mix of smooth ‘countrypolitan’ and songs that leaned more towards the honky-tonk, such as Owens’ hit and George Jones’ “White Lightin'”. Lane’s voice is stripped of any harsh southern accent, and his banter is mostly devoid of corn-pone. Between hits, he headlined his news updates with Nat King Cole’s death and large protests in Indonesia on America’s growing presence in Vietnam.

Turn off your TV, close all other browser windows, pour your favorite drink, click below, close your eyes…and journey back to Chicago of February 1965.

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This post is two of three that previews my presentation at the 2014 Urban History Association Conference in Philadelphia. The session is titled “Surviving the Seventies: Mulltiracialism, Place, and Activism in Chicago and Detroit” (Session 18, Friday October 10, 10:30 am).  My esteemed fellow panelists are fellow PhD candidates Andrew Baer (Northwestern University) and Kyle Mays (University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign). Dr. Carol McKibben (Stanford) will comment. 

Bob Rehak’s online portfolio, with over 500 images representing about 10 percent of his Uptown work, is best understood through four conceptual categories that correspond to the rich human component of people surviving the Seventies in Uptown.

I. Environment: The Land That Urban Renewal Forgot, or the ‘Golden Ghetto?’

“No Pity.” ©Robert Rehak.

“No Pity.” ©Robert Rehak.

 Rehak was initially drawn to Uptown for its “visually rich environment.” Uptown was an island of poverty in what was otherwise the cleared-and-“renewed” or gentrifying sea that was the North Side of Chicago. The area presented a bracing array of social behavior that appeared exotic and arresting to the young, white, newcomer to the creative class. Rehak carefully documented the built environment that was both formed by, and formative for, low-income Uptowners. The extent of infrastructural decay stunned Rehak, even after having preconceived notions of what the ‘slum’ would look like. He documented upturned abandoned cars, half-finished demolitions, gangways choked with litter, and even a literally a “bombed out” apartment building. A mundane but elemental commercial landscape crowds the backgrounds of most of his portraits. A typical block along Wilson Avenue or Broadway consisted of a pawn shop, tavern, resale shop, bodega, and an abandoned storefront—with several other taverns interspersed. Today, Rehak’s portfolio presents an invaluable visual record of a community perpetually on the verge of ‘improving.’

"Wilson, West of the L," 1974.

“Wilson, West of the L,” 1974. The mural in the background–painted in response to the displacement of thousands of low-income residents in favor of a community college–is slated for imminent demolition.

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This post is one of two that previews my presentation at the 2014 Urban History Association Conference in Philadelphia. The session is titled “Surviving the Seventies: Mulltiracialism, Place, and Activism in Chicago and Detroit” (Session 18, Friday October 10, 10:30 am).  My esteemed fellow panelists are fellow PhD candidates Andrew Baer (Northwestern University) and Kyle Mays (University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign). Dr. Carol McKibben (Stanford) will comment. Read Part One of the preview here.


In November 1973 young advertising copywriter Bob Rehak stepped off the El train at the Wilson stop in the heart of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. That Saturday was a characteristically cold and misty Chicago fall morning, adding a layer of atmospheric drama to Rehak’s mission. After months of passing through the economically depressed area on his way to work at Leo Burnett Agency in the Loop, Rehak had finally summoned enough courage to descend from the El platform and onto the street—Nikon F2 camera strapped to his shoulder and blank model release forms in hand. What would become a two year photographic obsession that produced over 5,000 images actually started simply enough, despite Rehak’s apprehensiveness. He approached the first person who caught his eye, a middle-age black man who “seemed a little unstable.” Rehak asked him, simply, “Can I take your picture?” The man immediately dropped a knee to the litter-strewn cracked sidewalk, brought his hands together in prayer, fixed his eyes just past the gaze of Rehak’s Nikon, and proclaimed, “I am Jehovah!” The shutter clicked, Jehovah signed the release form, and later that night Bob Rehak developed his first Uptown photograph in his apartment’s dark room. Only after the print dried did he notice that the man had made an imperfect, if not poetic, expression of prayer—he was missing parts of three fingers on both clasped hands.

"Praying.” The first photograph in Rehak’s Uptown portfolio. ©Robert Rehak.

“Praying.” The first photograph in Rehak’s Uptown portfolio. ©Robert Rehak.

Rehak’s Uptown sojourn began as a personal creative exercise, which he intended to sharpen his writing skills.  The people and places of Uptown, however, would not allow such a simple or self-interested endeavor. Instead, the neighborhood—in all its poverty, violence, diversity, hopelessness and hope, and even pride—essentially collaborated with Rehak , presenting a complicated self to the camera and infusing the images with profound stories of survival. After forty years in storage, the ‘discovery’ of Rehak’s Uptown portfolio created a viral sensation. Now, the work represents perhaps the most searing, comprehensive, and complex portrait of a struggling urban community in the mid-Seventies, defying any classification as simple as ‘gritty realism.’

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The killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, and the resulting community reaction, has put police brutality protest in the spotlight. The mass marches, limited looting, and confrontations with aggressive or ‘militarized’ law enforcement that typified the Ferguson protests seem like a relic of an earlier age. Many have been quick to draw parallels to Harlem (1964), Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and Camden (1971), among others. I would like to add one more historical note, pulled from a chapter that I just so happen to be drafting this month. My case involves several similarities to Ferguson, but it is remarkable mainly because of a difference. The August 12, 1966, Summerdale March in Uptown Chicago was almost exclusively white.

A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)

A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)

Uptown Chicago 1966

1960 So Whites

Map depicting the number of whites who moved from the south to Chicago between 1955 and 1960.

An uncommon density of vacant low-rent housing in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a postwar job crisis at home attracted tens-of-thousands of working-class and poor whites from Appalachia and the south through 1970. By 1960, many considered Uptown the nation’s foremost “Hillbilly Ghetto,” even though the area’s low-income community also consisted of American Indians, non-southern whites, a smattering of African Americans, and a growing Latino population. Uptown’s postwar southerness has been ‘discovered’ time after time by various segments of the dominant culture: urban renewal advocates, social workers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, country music radio executives, the New Left, sisters religious, the War on Poverty, and on and on up through…urban historians.

When the SDS created the Economic Research and Action Program (ERAP) in 1964 to work towards an interracial solution to urban poverty, Uptown was a natural choice for one of the early projects. By 1966, SDS members were clamoring to be part of the Uptown ERAP effort known as Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). Noted organizers like Rennie Davis, Richard Rothstein, Vivian Leburg Rothstein, Todd Gitlin, and Casey Hayden lived in Uptown, undertaking the slow and uneven process of pushing locals towards political action. Early successes included a sit-in at the city welfare office, and tenant strikes that resulted in contracts between collectivized renters and landlords. These efforts antagonized most of the local political and social elites. The notorious “Red Squad” of the Chicago Police Department quickly placed JOIN under surveillance, and soon relied upon information from a local JOIN member who had become disgruntled with the outside activists’ “Unamerican” opinions about increased involvement in Vietnam. A law student soon infiltrated JOIN on the CPD’s behalf.

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Graduate students in public history at Loyola University recently launched “The Public History Lab,” an initiative to increase community interaction and service. The PHL offered to the nearby Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society volunteer student labor and advice ranging from collections management to membership development and programming. One area of focus is grant writing. This series of posts follows the process of beginning a grant application from scratch. And hopefully concludes with news of success!

Targeting a Grant

As Grant Project Coordinator, my first task was to identify some feasible grants for RPWRHS. Factors for this feasibility include: relevance to the institution, realistic expectations for submitting a competitive application, and the extensiveness of an application in relation to our available labor. I knew, generally, of collection assessment grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Unfortunately the deadline had not only passed, but it also appeared that RPWRHS may not qualify as primarily a “museum.” But only a bit more searching led to the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded “Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institution.”

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This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014. Originally posted at The Lakefront Historian.

The public historians assembled here in sunny Monterey spent their first day and a half covering what has become familiar yet still challenging ground for those of us in the profession. In round-tables, poster sessions, panel sessions, and working groups, they swapped insights on the cultural work that goes into interpreting an increasingly inclusive past to a likewise increasingly diverse public. The sessions I have attended include those about museum exhibits “co-created” with community members, the latest in attempts to interpret slavery at historic sites, my own working group about innovative reuse of “less-than-charismatic” structures, and sustaining public history though community engagement. Implicit in all these topics is the internalized impact of social history and the commitment to embracing marginalized voices—-both historical and contemporary. I actually feel that this laudable aspect of public history has become a little too familiar for practitioners, maybe even sometimes taken for granted. I’m certain that the social and even activist history ethic undergirds the projects highlighted thus far in Monterey. But I still crave even more forceful, direct, and critical expressions of public history work as ‘on a mission,’ for lack of better phrase.

So imagine how surprised I was to read that, according to the New York Times, museums have generally gone too far in exploring diverse, contested, and contradictory themes. Edward Rothstein’s “New Insights into History May Skew the Big Picture” deserves a much fuller take-down than I care to provide at this time (and I hope that many of us currently here in Monterey will get home, unpack, and take up that very task). But suffice to say Rothstein’s synthesis of gripes about major exhibits is vague, myopic, and intellectually sloppy. The closest he comes to coherently expressing his critique is a passage that could have been ripped from a disgruntled letter to the editor circa 1995 circa Smithsonian circa Enola Gay exhibit.

This mixture of new insight accompanied by new simplifications has become familiar elsewhere as well. The transformation of history that began in the 1960s (inspired by the American political left), took decades to have full impact on museums, but its perspectives have now become commonplace. Museums, in their traditional roles, were almost mythological institutions claiming to display the origins and themes of a society, shaping understandings with a coherent interpretation of the past. That model has now been remade with the singular replaced by the plural, coherence displaced by multiplicity.

Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey's Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in need of revision.

Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey’s Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in ironic need of revision.

There’s a lot to unpack from that paragraph and from Rothstein’s subsequent expressions of dismay about the scourge of “identity museums” (he seems to have a particular disdain for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian). For example, Rothstein should be reminded that those hoary “almost mythological institutions” of yesteryear were as much “identity museums” as the NMAI or any other such place. It’s just that the identity promoted then was elite and white. And then there’s his alarm at the way that the National Archives dares to call to attention to the fact that the nation’s past (and, gasp, present) has failed to live up to its lofty ideals.