On a clear October evening, a full house gathered at the Newberry, Chicago’s world-renowned independent research library, to listen to a conversation between author, photographer and former Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey and visual artist Amanda Williams.
In his new book, Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side, Bey documents the physical attributes of significant architecture with striking photographic images portrayed at their best under the bright, blue skies of morning light. Throughout the book he thoughtfully weaves a cultural and social narrative elevating these environs to their rightful importance while criticizing forces and policies that have ignored the South Side’s rich architectural heritage. Echoing Bey’s visual cues, architecture-trained visual artist Amanda Williams’ foreword sets a joyful tone comparing the exuberance of Bey’s work to the happy crescendo of one of her favorite musical pieces: Native Chicagoan Donny Hathaway’s 1970 hit “This Christmas,” with its heartfelt message, “I’m gonna get to know you better,” resounds with the camaraderie and experiences both she and Bey have had with South Side culture.
To put the significance of this book project in perspective, Bey’s ascribed South Side represents an area that makes up more than half the city’s land mass. Approximately bounded by Cermak Road, 138th Street, Lake Michigan and Western Avenue, the area is vast and includes work by architecture and design luminaries, businesses run by notable black entrepreneurs, pioneering artists and a South Side community representing over thirty neighborhoods and a population of nearly 800,000.
Intermingling professional expertise with personal recollections, Bey and Williams’ conversation expressed support for each other as voices of change who can redirect the unpopular, media-fueled narrative of Chicago’s South Side as a violence-infested wasteland. Yet, they both acknowledged the challenges the South Side faces. An encompassing story with historical and cultural context needs to be told. Bey bluntly stated, “Architecture is a way to get at it.” Williams, who has received critical acclaim for her dual meanings of color and material use to underscore economic inequalities and social conditions, is proud to promote our city with a “Rep the Chi” attitude while engaging in discourse about her work. Both Bey’s and Williams’ cultural and architectural connections to the South Side are palpable. They are native Chicagoans who have been shaped by their South Side experiences and are keenly optimistic about the area’s future.
Framing the conversation, Williams shared her perspectives on some of her favorite architectural images from Bey’s book. Influenced and inspired by mid-century modernism, Williams described the unexpected edifices as “disruptive buildings,” noting the skyward angles of Pride Cleaners, built in 1959, at 79th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue and the elegant accordion folds of GN Bank (formally Illinois Service Federal, 1962) at 46th Street and South Martin Luther King Drive. Bey’s and Williams’ personal insights and cheery banter were infectious. Williams flashed back to childhood car rides filled with uncontained excitement awaiting the next curve in the road that would reveal another one of those cool places. Bey echoed sentiments with his critic’s eye and segued into impressionable insights as a young adult. He recalled neighborhood kids taking advantage of the extreme sloped-to-the-ground roof of Pride Cleaners for recreational antics.
Bey and Williams conveyed how their environs and cultural connections on the South Side shaped their upbringing. Similarly, adults who hail from neighborhoods in all parts of Chicago have nostalgic recollections of extraordinary places and structures that had an impact on their lives in much the same way. These places provided a sense of wonder, a feeling of community, a place where services were provided and fun could be had. However, where other neighborhoods have gotten more attention and funding for preservation and economic development, the South Side is one of the most overlooked and underserved areas of the city.
Lee Bey has been a tireless advocate for architectural preservation and the black cultural experience in Chicago since he began representing the voice of the Bronzeville community in the mid-nineties as the Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic. As he recalls in the book, his early newspaper experience reminded him of an eye-opening Saturday afternoon car ride with his father. Bey saw his father’s South Side from a different perspective where “soon, the two of us were gliding northward down Martin Luther King Drive in my father’s big Buick Electra 225… The more he talked, the more I could see the beauty in these decayed places. He told me about people from his youth—The people and places became one.” Inspired by his father’s outlook and honed as a beat reporter, Bey’s appreciation for South Side architecture grew into a passion for its recognition and preservation.
As Williams showcased a few more selections from Bey’s book, she was drawn to the sense of community that gives life to these structures, places and spaces. The concern that these special environs are endangered cultural sites was felt throughout both Bey’s and Williams’ message that preservation initiatives, equitable funding, historical documentation and simple awareness can help change the course of less-appreciated urban environs.
From Bey’s book, two notable structures continue to enliven the urban landscape while serving community needs: 1963’s Perkins + Will-designed Anthony Overton Elementary School in Bronzeville is on the National Register of Historic Places as a significant example of mid-century modern architecture. Although closed in 2014 as a teaching facility, the building has been repurposed for artists, designers and community programs by its new owner, who happens to be one of Williams’ close friends. Another wonderfully striking structure is the SOS Children’s Villages Lavezzorio Community Center in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Designed by Studio Gang in 2008, the construction employed an inventive use of donated materials to balance the concepts of transparency and protectiveness. Both community-centric hubs have a welcoming atmosphere, adaptability for learning, and openness in their expressive designs. These are exceptional places to continue collaborative conversations, like that of Bey and Williams, perhaps engaging adults and youth In preserving historic and cultural identity in their own neighborhoods.
Bey’s inaugural publication could be a walking-tour guidebook to allow readers to experience the South Side’s architectural heritage and marvel at the buildings he documents. His carry-along paperback is a joy to read and a love story meant to challenge, inspire and rediscover these neighborhood treasures. Imbued with optimism, Bey’s collection not only honors the South Side’s architectural past; it equally encourages us, in both local and global spheres, to preserve our cultures and identities for future generations.