Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, looks tanned and rested. He has been running races, and preparing for the Chicago Triathlon. He also just completed a new book, “Who Is the City For? Architecture, Equity and the Public Realm in Chicago.”
Published by the University of Chicago and coming out in November, it is a collection of Kamin’s architecture columns from the last decade, ending with January 13, 2021, when he said goodbye to the paper after twenty-eight years. As with his first two books, this isn’t a chronological collection, but a thematic one. Columns are grouped into five sections—about Presidents Trump and Obama and their grand and controversial projects; urban design and who benefitted from a boom time for cities; what buildings make “good citizens;” who decides what historic buildings get saved; and the contrasting plans and philosophies of Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot.
Following each column is a postscript that tells what happened in the years since it was written. For example, a 2016 column about how Trump attacked Kamin for criticizing Trump’s garish and outsized sign that marks his eponymous tower is followed by commentary about Trump’s continuing verbal assaults on journalists and his distortion of “inconvenient facts” throughout his presidency. A column expressing “guarded optimism” about the city’s plans to invest money into redeveloping parts of the South and West Sides is followed by thoughts on the progress of the initiative as well as the bumps in the road ahead.
“The idea was just to tell the reader something new—that these weren’t just recycled columns but pieces of the puzzle,” Kamin says in an interview. “The idea was to fit the puzzle together in a way that was fresh and offered some fresh perspective.”
The book is framed around the idea of equity—what can architecture do to make cities like Chicago more equitable, serving all economic classes of people and not just the top one percent? Kamin asks the same question of the fields of transportation, urban planning and historic preservation. The book features striking black-and-white photographs of structures like “Cloud Gate” in Millennium Park and Lincoln Park’s “Nature Boardwalk” by Kamin’s friend and former competitor, Lee Bey. Bey is a member of the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, who had been the paper’s architecture critic and now writes a monthly column on the subject.
In the interview, Kamin stresses that when he says “equity,” he doesn’t mean just fair treatment for those who have suffered discrimination, but the shared environment.
“Equity is not simply ‘We’re going to help the South and West Sides.’ Equity is common ground, the spaces between the buildings that we all share, that promote common experience and common humanity,” Kamin says. “I think that’s really important, not only because Chicago is so Balkanized, but because the pandemic has separated us… At best, density and city life bring people together who are different in positive ways and show they aren’t completely different, that they share something, that they have common humanity.”
Kamin sees the Crown Fountain as a prime example of a structure that has promoted this sense of common ground. Spanish artist Jaume Plensa conceived it as a silent, transcendent piece, a place to quietly walk on water. But it has become a water park that brings together people from all neighborhoods. “It became this kind of interactive theater and people watch that and they can see these kids are shrieking with joy and they aren’t different from their own kids, and that’s city life,” Kamin says.
Every building and piece of infrastructure is a piece of that shared experience—the shared, common realm, Kamin says. It also has to do with our shared identity, so when we talk about historic preservation, we’re not just talking about saving Louis Sullivan buildings but also the former home of Emmett Till, the young Chicagoan whose lynching—and his mother’s decision to display his battered body—helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement. “When you talk about equity, it’s equity in what we build and what we say and whose history we notice, especially when that history has been overlooked,” says Kamin.
Kamin says he has never looked at architecture in a vacuum or seen buildings as isolated objects. “I’ve made aesthetic judgments, but it’s also about how does a building affect the people in it and around it,” says Kamin. “As I say in my last column, buildings are vessels of human possibility and architecture can open the door to entirely new experiences. I stress ‘open the door,’ because it isn’t a determinant. Architecture doesn’t determine how we live, but it can create possibilities or shut them down.”
The city can see this playing out now in Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox’s plans for redevelopment on the city’s South and West Sides, in parts of the city that have seen tragic violence, poverty and building loss—gloomy stretches of weedy vacant lots and shuttered stores. Kamin sees Cox’s approach as “very intelligent,” with plans that incorporate existing landmarks like the Art Deco Laramie State Bank building in the Austin neighborhood, along with new affordable housing and increased pedestrian safety. The proposals include the kind of thinking promoted by urban-planning critic Jane Jacobs, with mixed uses for buildings and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Kamin notes that this is in sharp contrast to the “slash-and-burn” urban renewal of the 1960s, which involved tearing down historic buildings and building giant public housing high-rises that warehoused the poor.
The Invest South/West initiative also highlights the contrast between the administrations of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who focused on downtown projects like the Riverwalk, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has turned to the neighborhoods. Kamin says Emanuel had some “hit or miss” neighborhood projects—a hit was the $280 million renovation of the 95th Street Red Line El station—a miss was the failed Englewood Whole Foods. “Maurice is following a much more systematic way of rebuilding this very torn-up urban fabric,” Kamin says.
But he cautions that it will be many years before Chicago sees the benefit of the Invest South/West plans. “It’s like turning the proverbial ocean liner—it really takes time… You can’t just snap your fingers and say that in my four-year term we’re going to fix this problem. Forget it. These problems have been gathering for generations. I think that the question is, can the tide be turned and the bleeding stopped?”
While praising efforts on the South and West Sides, Kamin says he also believes the administration should focus more on downtown. It’s hard to foresee the future success of Lightfoot’s efforts in the neighborhoods, which is now primarily on paper. “It’s kind of like Biden’s infrastructure program, you can’t see the results of it,” Kamin says. In comparison, Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley did a lot of big projects with readily apparent results—from Daley’s median planters and building of Millennium Park to Emanuel’s expansion of the Riverwalk and completion of the 606.
The book reveals how much influence a good architecture critic can have on a city in helping to shape opinions and to sound the alarm when something is going wrong. The lack of a full-time architecture critic in a city where architecture is so vital is a “gaping hole,” Kamin says. He had hoped in vain that the Tribune would hire someone to replace him.
“This is the most important architecture city in the country, and not to have a full-time architecture critic is, you can say, a dereliction of journalistic duty,” Kamin says. He says that while it’s encouraging that Bey has a monthly column in the Sun-Times, it’s not enough. “You need a constant voice to register with the public and give people information about what’s happening in the built environment that affects them every day. It’s also a matter of being able to hold people accountable.”
Bey agrees that architecture needs to be a focus for public attention. “Architecture is important in Chicago because it embodies virtually everything about Chicago—it’s about our politics, our people, how things get done, the inequities of our city, all those things. Architecture becomes the collecting point of all these things. It’s more than, ‘Is this building pretty?’”
Bey says “Who Is the City For?” asks a question at a critical time—“Do we want to be a city of the rich and only the rich, and wall off the West and South Sides, or do we want to be a democratic city? We have to answer this question now for the city’s future.”
The importance of architecture critics doesn’t mean they can affect every outcome—“You’d have to be an egomaniac or a fool to believe that,” Kamin says. One aesthetic catastrophe Kamin failed to help stop was the 2003 renovation of Soldier Field, which Kamin calls “the mistake by the Lake.”
“I tried really hard,” Kamin says with a laugh. “They were warned—you can’t stop everything.” The Chicago Bears have since found the stadium inadequate and want to move to Arlington Heights.
On the other hand, in the twenty-plus years since Kamin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the inequities at the Lakefront, the South Side has seen the construction of pedestrian bridges to Lake Michigan and other improvements.
Kamin says his time away from column writing has helped him to see the big picture. For example, the key talking point in the mayoral campaign is violence, but equity remains a primary issue, Kamin says. “You can’t have a good city, you can’t have a just city, if major areas of the South and West Side are resembling parts of Detroit, if they don’t have opportunities for people, if they’re breeding grounds for crime. People are going to leave. It would be wrong to say that lack of equity is causing violence, but it certainly isn’t helping… In the long term, good urban planning has to be part of the solution to many things—stemming violence, climate change, greater economic opportunity. It’s part of all those things.”
Kamin admits that people who think that if you change architecture, you can change people are “living in a dream world.”
“But good architecture can open possibilities for better things to happen in conjunction with other things—better policing, better schools… ” Kamin says. “The better aspects of Daley’s reign and Rahm’s reign have really proved that out, have really made a difference over time.”
Kamin cautions that urban planning is complex and can have unintended consequences. A case in point is the 606 string of parks along an old Northwest Side railroad line, which includes the Bloomingdale Trail for bicyclists and pedestrians. It was intended to create more green space in underserved areas. However, its popularity also created an explosion of gentrification, with poor and middle-class families getting priced out.
Poorly planned redevelopment can hurt the best aspects of city life, even in rising neighborhoods. Newcity’s interview with Kamin took place in the Avondale neighborhood, where real estate values are soaring. What used to be a vital, ethnic community of Polish and Mexican immigrants is now pockmarked with shuttered businesses along Milwaukee Avenue, while big new condo buildings with high rents but no retail have created “dead zones” which make people feel less safe, Kamin says. “It’s a three-dimensional chess game; it really has to be thought through.”
Complicating everything are the aftereffects of the pandemic, which cut the number of workers downtown and on El trains. Both downtown and the CTA are seeing worsening crime, which may be deterring people from coming back. Some of the urban density that helps make the city great has been damaged.
Back in March 2020, Kamin predicted that the “joys of density will return once this tragic chapter is over.” Things have definitely improved since the advent of the COVID vaccine—the tourists are back, though there are still record downtown vacancies. But Kamin says it’s “very hard to predict” the post-pandemic outcome. “When I wrote that, almost three years ago, nobody thought this would last so long.”
Kamin says that it’s important to keep perspective. After 9/11, it took a while for people to stop “cocooning,” but downtown office markets eventually rebounded. “Maybe the joys of density will be back, but it’s also possible they’ll be back in a different form.”
He looks forward to seeing how it all turns out—the neighborhood investments, the possibility of a 95th Street Red Line extension, the post-pandemic recovery. In the meantime, he’ll be lecturing on this book, and continuing to run and train. “It’s been great in some of these races to really be part of the Chicago lakefront, not just writing about it,” he says.
“Who Is the City For? Architecture, Equity, and the Public Realm in Chicago”
By Blair Kamin
University of Chicago Press, 312 pages