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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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. 

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Originally posted at Innovative Reuse in the Post-Industrial City, the blog for our working group at the 2014 NCPH Conference.

Cuneo Hospital Building, Chicago (2013)

Cuneo Hospital Building, Chicago (Hunter)

This is one of seven case studies by members of “Innovative Re-Use in the Post-Industrial City,” a working group at the 2014 National Council on Public History annual conference. Read more about the working group here

When the topic of re-use and preservation of post-industrial urban buildings arises, we most often think of abandoned factories, warehouses, and transportation infrastructure. But “post-industrial” relates to a broader theme of the city in the age of de-industrialization: an era typified by employment and population loss, economic decentralization, and the under-funding of urban public institutions. Population loss has had a particular impact on the built environment of cities formerly defined by the industrialized economy.

I am interested in the fates of buildings that once proved integral to the lives of those who lived in densely populated areas. The re-use and preservation–specifically–of spaces that once housed hospitals, schools, and funeral homes, presents a series of vexing issues. Throw in the fact that many of these buildings were built during the burst of postwar construction, and preservationists face an additional challenge–overcoming the perception of Mid-Century Modernism as ‘ugly,’ ‘soulless,’ or ‘cold.’ Sometimes abandoned hospitals, schools, and funeral homes occupy spaces long-coveted by developers. Other times they languish in neighborhoods completely devastated by de-industrialization, left to the ignominious fate of surrounding empty lots and unmarketable housing.

This case study looks at the efforts to preserve and re-use the Cuneo Memorial Hospital in Chicago, a Mid-Century Modernist marvel that sits on a premium corner in an area ripe for economic re-development. Although not the headline-grabber of the unsuccessful fight to save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital a few miles to the south, the effort to stave off Cuneo’s demise has involved preservationists, sustainable re-use innovators, and advocates for affordable housing. Unfortunately, Cuneo’s fate is dire. The subsidized plans for luxury apartments to replace the empty hospital have proven impervious to Cuneo defenders; the local alderman sides with the developers, and the Chicago Landmarks Commission denied landmark status for the building. Even an innovative plan for community-focused re-use that preserved Cuneo’s architectural integrity with an eye towards environmental sustainability failed on the launching pad. For those invested in sustainable historic preservation and re-use in the post-industrial city, Cuneo’s plight is both informative and sobering.

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From Civil War Memory.

Cross-posted at The Lakefront Historian.

An unexpected media and political discourse has emerged as the Federal government nears a second week of being ‘shutdown.’ Access to sites under the watch of the National Park Service (NPS) became a political football. The conversation started almost simultaneous to the actual shutdown, when a squad of octo- and nonagenarian Mississippians stormed the barricades of the World War II Memorial in the middle of the National Mall. An irresistible media story, for certain. Politicians–as they do–seized  the spectacle. The next day a GOP Congressman berated an NPS ranger charged with manning the barricades, in truly a pathetic display even for Washington politics.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGhQUt2YRwE

NPS closures became highly visible, with signs, barriers, and traffic cones juxtaposed against heritage sites and natural treasures. GOP congressmen offered the President a “compromise” that would have reopened the NPS sites while budget talks continued. President Obama turned down the proposal, and his rivals immediately attempted to seize the moral high ground. Some pundits ran with the idea that preventing access to “open-air monuments” was unconscionable, if not outright illegal.

Let’s turn to a bona fide, PhD’d historian for further discussion on the matter:

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Originally posted on The Lakefront Historian, the blog of Loyola public history graduate students.

Anyone with the least amount of training or education related to the management of historical resources knows the importance of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (1966). Section 106 is deceptively complicated and vague, resulting in negotiations between preservation ideals, community desires, and economic development.

The head of any Federal agency having direct or indirect jurisdiction over a proposed Federal or federally assisted undertaking in any State and the head of any Federal department or independent agency having authority to license any undertaking shall, prior to the approval of the expenditure of any Federal funds on the undertaking or prior to the issuance of any license, as the case may be, take into account the effect of the undertaking on any district, site, building, structure, or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register. The head of any such Federal agency shall afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation established under Title II of this Act a reasonable opportunity to comment with regard to such undertaking.—[16 U.S.C. 470f — Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, comment on Federal undertakings]

Section 106 handouts from the CTA. In this day and age, a link to their PowerPoint deck would have been nice.

As public history graduate students, we are well-versed in the letter and spirit of Section 106. But rarely do we have the opportunity to observe the process in all its messy and contentious glory. Recently I attended a Section 106 public hearing related to the $203 million reconstruction of the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) Wilson Station. The Wilson Station project is using tens of millions of dollars from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and sits in the Uptown Square Historic district—-thus triggering the 106 process.  Uptown is a neighborhood well-versed in community political participation, and has long served host to very diverse expectations of development, preservation, and economic and political justice (Hey, someone should write a dissertation about that). The CTA, FTA, the alderman’s office, and the City of Chicago have an enormous stake in the project that is deemed a necessary infrastructure upgrade and an essential key to the eternally-incipient ‘revival’ of Uptown. These factors, combined with the minimalist and impressionistic nature of Section 106 itself, promised to make for an interesting evening. This initial 106 meeting lived up to my expectations.

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