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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"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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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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Postcard for the exhibit opening, depicting Conservative Vice Lords, an alderman, and the Illinois State’s Attorney in front of a CVL social club, 1969. (Hull-House)

The horrific killing of 7-year old Heaven Sutton dominated the July 27 Chicago news, an inauspicious backdrop for my visit that day to a museum exhibit about the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL)—a West Side Chicago gang that went ‘legitimate’ in the 1960s. Today’s crime statistics demand that only shootings involving extraordinary circumstances warrant significant attention from the mainstream media. In the Heaven Sutton case, these heart-wrenching details include the victim’s young age and that she was a victim of cross-fire while selling candy with her family—just after having her hair styled in anticipation of an upcoming trip to Disney World. There have been over 200 Chicago homicides thus far this year. During the 2011-2012 school year, 24 Chicago Public School children were killed, and an additional 319 were wounded by gunfire. Whether media coverage of shootings consists of short blurbs in the metro section or a Pulitzer-worthy serial expose, one theme remains: the vast majority of shootings are flatly depicted as “gang-related.” This persistent motif trains us to understand loose associations of urban youth (“gangs”) as the inevitable cause of violence and disruption, a convenient—even if unthinking—way to avoid many of the structural social and economic foundations of inner-city violence.

Continual “gang violence” also makes it difficult to remember a time when some street gangs shifted from illicit activities and violence to community service and legitimate political activity. History shows that gangs often embodied complex notions of resistance, consciousness-building, empowerment, and community. At times, dominant political and economic forces have even enlisted gangs in collaborative social welfare efforts. Certainly the actions of Heaven Sutton’s killers fall far from such aspects of gangs. And it could be argued that the positive potential of street gangs happened in a historical moment, long since occluded by the national cocaine and heroin epidemic and the precipitous decline of Federal and municipal funding for urban social programs. Regardless, “Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords,” an offsite exhibit curated by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, looks back to the 1960s when the urban crisis called for innovative partnerships between legitimate institutions and some of the gangs once assumed to be among the root causes of that very crisis. This timely exhibit questions the absolute ties between street gangs and destructive violence, suggesting that groups of frustrated young people are not destined to wreak the community havoc so prevalent on the evening news. More »