The neighborhood sites for this edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial are installed on the city’s vacant lots, leaving me wondering about the long-term impact these installations will have on neighborhoods. Understanding that these are ephemeral installations, meant to enliven, inspire and provoke change, do they make a difference in many of the disinvested neighborhoods throughout Chicago, particularly on the South and West Sides of the city?
Coming on the heels of the city’s Invest South/West programs that Mayor Lightfoot’s Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox and Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi have initiated, these installations lend a dynamic shot in the arm—perhaps a vaccine—to the pandemic of blight that has infected these neighborhoods for decades.
When you look at the history of these neighborhoods, from Bronzeville to Roseland, from West Garfield Park to Austin, there is a dynamic and storied history of prosperity and growth, affluence and commerce that has gone missing since the white flight of the 1960s. What is left are blocks and blocks of vacant lots of rubble, boarded-up buildings waiting to crumble and streets with weeds growing through the cracks to make it to sunlight.
Over the years, there have been interventions across the South and West Sides of Chicago: Amanda Williams’ “Color(ed) Theory” painting houses bright colors for the 2015 Chicago Biennial; Theaster Gates redeveloping his own Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood a building at a time; Ghian Foreman taking over the Overton School and surrounding lots in Bronzeville and growing sunflowers as if they were a field of sunshine. Let’s not forget about Bernard Loyd creating Boxville Marketplace or Emmanuel Pratt and his Sweet Water Foundation snatching up swaths of vacant parcels and abandoned buildings and transforming them into community assets. These are examples of people taking back their land from ruin in their own neighborhoods and making a long-term investment in their future.
Investment is what’s most needed. The South and West Sides definitely have more vacant lots and boarded-up buildings than the North Side of Chicago. There’s more crime and hardship. So when real estate developers and investors need their return on investment in seven years or less, they’ll definitely take the easy path, with more expensive land where it can be developed and flipped easily. The banks like that too: less risk. The vacancies on the South and West Sides will require significantly longer-term investments to reach their potential. Fifteen years minimum, thirty years more likely. But find me a developer or bank who’s willing to go that route, and I’ll also find you a much higher interest rate on that loan. Unless you’re already vested in those areas, it’s a tough sell.
I once thought that it would take fewer than thirty years for land to return to its natural state. Possibly in Las Vegas if there was an apocalypse and the sand swept across the Strip! But these parcels of land in Chicago have been vacant for well over fifty years and it looks the same as it did when the buildings first came down.
This past year saw more interventions that brought brightness to the neighborhoods. Lamar Johnson Collaborative’s Pop Courts at Chicago Avenue and Lockwood opened up last month and has the Austin neighborhood sizzling with excitement. The 75th Street Boardwalk was a collaboration of our firm, Site Design Group, with Brook Architecture, Booth Hansen, Vladimir Radutny and Krueck Sexton Partners that took up parking spaces to help businesses in Chatham realize an increase of up to thirty percent in business revenue. Our collaboration with Studio Gang to create a roller-skating rink in West Garfield Park has folks at Madison and Pulaski groovin’ to the beat. Design Trust, an entity created by Katherine Darnstadt, Paola Aguirre and Elle Ramel is leading three different teams of architects to create sidewalk and street interventions in South Chicago, Humboldt Park and Back of the Yards. The vacancies in the neighborhoods are slowly getting filled. But it’s not enough. There has got to be a plan for longevity, building wealth and reinvestment. This Biennial is the beginning of that plan.
We now have a different challenge ahead. The pandemic of 2020 has decimated the office real estate market in downtown Chicago. It’s not coming back anytime soon. Folks have figured out how to work remotely. They don’t have to share space and germs with their co-workers. So what happens to all of that investment? Does it go back into the neighborhoods where everyone can have their live/work space? Can they grow their own food in the vacant lot next door? Does the value of the neighborhoods grow while the downtown, the Central Business District, reinvents itself? This is the beauty and the promise of the 2021 Chicago Biennial. It gives us pause to think: just how available is this city?