Blair Kamin on Reframing the Crucial Issue of Design Equity
The format for Blair Kamin’ latest book, Who Is the City For? is slightly different from typical compilations. Kamin groups his columns thematically (all 55 appeared in the Chicago Tribune, when he served as architecture critic), and then, more often than not, adds a postscript updating or reframing the story for our fraught new normal. One of the recurring themes, both in the stories and in the postscripts, is the issue of design equity. As income inequality, systemic racism, and climate change became central to the cultural and political debates, equity became the critical lens for much design criticism. In our recent conversation, Kamin advocated for a broader definition of the term.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
BK: Blair Kamin
One of the themes of the book that’s important is a reframing of the term “equity.” What do you mean by that?
“Equity” has become a buzzword—part of the progressive trinity of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s typically, and correctly, understood to mean a fair shake for people who have gotten the short end of the stick in the past. At the same time, I suggest that we expand the meaning of the word by borrowing from its financial meaning. We speak of private equity or equity investment, or equities as in stocks. My point is that we all have a stake, a civic stake, in equity. It isn’t just: let’s help the South and West sides. Instead it’s: let’s help the South and West sides for the betterment of the people there—and the betterment of the entire city of Chicago.
A good example: There’s a proposal to extend the main Chicago Transit Authority rapid-transit line, the Red Line, more than 5 miles south of its current terminus at 95th Street along the Dan Ryan Expressway. That would allow the line to provide vastly improved transit access for people on the Far South Side of Chicago. They now live in a transit desert. Instead, they’ll be able to get to jobs downtown a whole lot faster. Yet Mr. CEO, who runs a company in Willis Tower, also benefits. He’s facing a labor shortage. Better transit will expand his labor pool. The extension also benefits the city as a whole because the people from the Far South Side will be commuting not by car or SUV, spewing pollution into the air; they’ll be taking transit, and therefore that’s better for the environment. Property values in the area may rise because existing homes and businesses will be near transit. New homes, affordable homes, may be built near new stations along the extended Red Line. All that’s good for the tax base, even good for the cop who lives in a bungalow on the Northwest Side, because it lessens his tax burden. In that single example, you can see multiple benefits that accrue to the entire city. That’s what equity should be, in my book.
It’s not either/or, but both/and?
Yes, it’s about addressing the problems of neighborhoods that have historically been discriminated against and have suffered from disinvestment, but it’s also about providing benefits for the public realm that we share. One of the themes that runs throughout the book is: What kind of environment are we sharing? Are our buildings good citizens? Do they contribute to street life? Are they environmentally sensitive in terms of reducing energy use? Are historic-preservation projects geared to remembering multiple narratives as well as the buildings that are already in the history books? That’s why we put Emmett Till’s house, on the South Side, on the back cover of the book, and the Bean on the front. That pairing doesn’t just underscore the “tale of two cities” theme. It gives us two types of monuments: one, the Bean, monumental and glitzy; the other, the Till house, modest, but equally, if not more, gripping because of the story it tells.
Here’s the catch to the expanded understanding of equity: You’ve got to pay for it. You need to follow the money. If you want to rebuild infrastructure, if you want to rebuild neighborhoods, you have to have the funds—big funds—to do it. For the $3.6 billion extension of the Red Line, most of the cost would be covered by Biden’s infrastructure bill; the city’s more than $1 billion share would come through tax increment financing districts, which would essentially transfer funds from the downtown and nearby neighborhoods to the Far South Side.
Which, of course, is potentially a politically fraught move.
Right. So you’ve now got aldermen from the areas where the money would be harvested from saying, “Well, we don’t know if the funds should go to this project because the Chicago Transit Authority right now is in shambles. You’ve got ghost trains, you’ve got violence on the trains. Before the funds go to them, the CTA needs to get its act together.” That’s so short-sighted. This project isn’t going to be built for several years. The pandemic will be over. The CTA hopefully will have gotten its act together. Holding this critical piece of infrastructure hostage to the disingenuous concerns of these aldermen, who really want to keep the money for their wards, would be foolish. Yet we’re looking at the prospect that this much-needed piece of infrastructure, which has been promised to the Far South Side for decades, could be stalled by a fight over funding and the classic Chicago question: “Where’s mine?” That would be a travesty.
We need to go in a different direction, but I’m under no illusions that that direction is going to be everybody holding hands and singing Kumbaya. It will be fraught with tension and battles over who gets what. That’s the reality we’re confronting. As an architecture critic, my job is to try to paint a new vision of what the city could be, but also be cognizant of the realities that the new vision will be up against. That’s one of the underlying tensions that enlivens this book. These things aren’t easy. But nor were they easy in the past. What I hope is that the book puts these difficult choices into greater relief and perspective, so that, as we move through this new decade and this post-Covid era, we’ll make the right choices—we’ll turn our ocean liners in the right direction.
The problems, from systemic economic inequality to climate change, sometimes feel so far gone that it’s easy to lose hope. What gives you hope?
I take hope from a new generation of architects who are less concerned with fashioning spectacular objects than with formulating designs that are both beautiful and address crucial human needs. Even if I don’t believe that architecture and related design fields are capable of single-handedly solving pressing problems like climate change, I also believe that solutions to these problems are impossible without good design. It is inseparable from the multigenerational project of building a good city, a just city. One of the essential steps to achieving that seemingly unattainable goal is to expand and enrich what we mean when we use the word “equity.” It’s all about the spaces that we share, the public realm. From the survival of the planet to the survival of kids walking to school on the South Side of Chicago, the stakes could not be higher.
Featured image: Chicago’s South Side and Jackson Park.