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 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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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.


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.