"Two Youths in Uptown, Chicago, Illinois, a Neighborhood of Poor White Southerners" by Danny Lyon, August 1974. (National Archives, Documerica, 412-DA-13498).

“Two Youths in Uptown, Chicago, Illinois, a Neighborhood of Poor White Southerners” by Danny Lyon, August 1974. (National Archives, Documerica, 412-DA13498).

“Growing Diversity: Urban Renewal and Community Activism in Uptown Chicago, 1945-1981”

The population of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood  is among the most economically, racially, and ethnically diverse in the nation. This attribute resulted from a historical process centered on the shifting politics of cultural diversity itself. Boosters, urban renewal and redevelopment advocates, community activists, and low-income residents defined diversity on their own—often competing—terms. These dynamics manifested in architecture, working-class and middle-class leisure, radical activism, historic preservation, music, and film. In Uptown no conception of diversity ever completely prevailed and the conflict between ideals inscribed itself on the infrastructure of the neighborhood and the consciousness of its residents.

Detail from an unrealized massive urban renewal plan for Uptown (Meltzer Associates, "A Plan for Uptown," 1962).

Detail from an unrealized massive urban renewal plan for Uptown (Meltzer Associates, “A Plan for Uptown,” 1962).

Cities in America’s Northeast and Midwest struggled to retain economic, social, and cultural power throughout the second half of the twentieth century. One under-appreciated response to this ‘urban crisis’ has been the promotion of cities as incubators and havens of diversity. Those intent on community redevelopment and urban renewal promoted an idealized cultural diversity based on middle-class, market-friendly cosmopolitanism. This sanitized heterogeneity of the 1950s and 1960s sought to be a model for a ‘city within a city,’ yet had little appeal to Uptown’s growing low-income and working-class residents, particularly the thousands of whites who migrated from the south and Appalachia.

By 1965 shifts in cultural and political attitudes fueled a ‘discovery’ of urban poverty that found activists and social reformers trekking to Uptown. Those associated with the New Left, the War on Poverty, church-based social work, and dozens of other institutions crafted their own ideals of cultural diversity in the face of the ‘urban crisis.’ Meanwhile, local low-income residents influenced these activists and reformers in profound ways, as the urban renewal and activist forces clashed through the 1970s.

At the dawn of the 1980s, Uptown was more heterogeneous than every. But lingering poverty, gentrification, and the legacies of radical community organizing insured that no single conception of diversity’s role in the future on the community would prevail. As both crucible and case study, the history of diversity in Uptown holds powerful lessons for understanding the cultural, economic, and social tensions that defined American cities after World War II.

Exterior of JOIN (Jobs or Income Now) offices after police raid, September 1, 1966. (Chicago Sun-Times negative purchased by Devin Hunter)

Exterior of JOIN (Jobs or Income Now) offices after police raid, September 1, 1966. (Chicago Sun-Times negative purchased by Devin Hunter)

 

If you or anyone you know is interested in providing an oral history for my work, please contact me.

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