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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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 »