Blair Kamin: ‘Who Is the City For?’
Blair Kamin stepped down as architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune in January 2021, after a nearly 30-year run in the post. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for a body of work highlighted by a series on Chicago’s lakefront, including a story that documented the race- and class-based disparity between the city’s north and south lakefronts. He has previously published two collections of his work: Why Architecture Matters (2001) and Terror and Wonder (2010), both from the University of Chicago Press. His third collection, Who is the City For? Architecture, Equity, and the Public Realm in Chicago, was released last week. Recently I talked to Kamin about the new book, the state of post-pandemic Chicago, and the need for more mainstream architecture criticism. I will post the second of our conversations tomorrow, in which the critic pushes the need for a redefinition of the phrase “design equity.”
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
BK: Blair Kamin
This is a collection of columns. You’ve done two others; each dealt with a 10-year period. What period does the new book cover?
The new one covers the teens. The Great Recession hangover dominates the beginning of the decade. Then you’ve got a development boom and mass urbanization, both in Chicago and around the world. Later, starchitecture falls out of fashion, perhaps because fewer institutions have the money to build spectacle buildings. Then the narrative arc moves to Covid, an abrupt halt to urbanization, and the final twist of terrorism returning—not from overseas, but from within, on January 6.
And there’s the big piece that’s in the subtitle itself: the matter of equity.
Exactly. In the first Chicago Architecture Biennial, held in 2015, the field shifts. Starchitecture recedes. Architecture’s impact on such pressing concerns as climate change and affordable housing moves to the foreground. Part of that change is a new emphasis on enabling equity through design. Yet, as the book illustrates, equity is desirable, but it’s not easy to achieve. Creating a more equitable city involves much more than blurting out a buzzword. I see city planning not as a two-dimensional game of checkers, but as a three-dimensional chess game.
The last 10 years in Chicago has very much been a tale of two cities. The North Side boomed, and the South Side contracted in rather dramatic fashion.
Yes. One of the big themes that unites this collection, this trilogy, is Chicago as the great American exaggeration. That phrase belongs to the late Perry Duis, a great University of Illinois at Chicago urban historian. What it means is that Chicago expresses in larger scale, and often in excruciating contrast, the best and worst of American cities. We see that again, in the teens, with the rise of Chicago’s glamorous downtown, with million-dollar condos and Michelin-star restaurants. But we also see the horrible, incessant gun violence that is largely centered in the South and West Sides of the city.
Recently, though, a lot of things have flipped. When Maurice Cox came to Chicago as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s planning commissioner, he said, “A city has a heart, the downtown, and a soul, the neighborhoods.” And the priority, clearly and correctly, was the soul. Cox’s idea was to promote equity through the redevelopment of 10 business districts on the South and West sides. No one could have imagined, when he said that, the heart of the city, its downtown, would be in need of resuscitation a few years later.
Has anything come of those redevelopment districts on the South and West Sides?
Yes, but not in concrete terms. The program is called Invest South/West, and it has gotten off to an impressive beginning. It has generated $1.4-billion in planned investment from public, private, and philanthropic sources. In addition, it has produced sophisticated urban design plans, which follow a New Urbanist template but include modern architecture. Also, in keeping with Jane Jacobs’ template for lively cities, the planned developments typically are mixed use. Most include housing and retail, which is highly desired by residents of the South and West sides, who don’t want to have to drive 10 miles to go to a decent restaurant. The plans also incorporate historic buildings. It is not slash and burn. Invest South/West couldn’t be more different from the block-busting modernist approach that held sway in the 1960s, and that resulted in utter failures like the now-demolished Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor housing projects.
And that is still being repeated in other cities.
Yes, exactly. To date, though, there have only been a couple of groundbreakings for the Invest South/West developments. Still, I want to add, the approach is significant because it is a public-private partnership. Yet unlike the public-private partnerships that produced much of Chicago’s lakefront, including Millennium Park, this public-private partnership is directed at the city’s poorest neighborhoods. That is a major turning of the ocean liner, the S.S. Chicago, coming after decades of discrimination and disinvestment. You’ve had deindustrialization on top of that, and this has devastated many of the once-healthy business districts in these areas.
The rate of population decline on the South Side is terrible for a city, and it’s really dramatic.
But completely understandable. Would you want your kids to grow up in a place where they had terrible public schools and faced the threat of being killed by gun violence at any time of the day, even if they were 6 years old? It’s insane and awful. This all raises fraught questions. What can architecture and urban design reasonably expect to accomplish when they are up against endemic problems like this, problems that are generations old?
Cox, to his credit, has come up with a systematic strategy and execution plan for starting to turn this around. Will it succeed? I don’t know. It’s too early to tell. It’s hard to know whether these projects will work urbanistically, economically, or socially. And even if they do work, it’s hard to know if they’ll achieve scale—and if they will lead other developers to come in and invest in these neighborhoods and transform them. Certainly, 7% mortgages and a possible recession do not bode well for another wave of development on top of the first one. But as Maurice said when I interviewed him early on about this, these problems may take a generation to be addressed, but we’re the generation that will get the ball rolling. That’s turning the ocean liner in the right direction.
Is Lightfoot politically strong enough to continue to push that through successive terms?
That’s why the book is timely. Chicago is about to have its mayoral primary in February 2023. Lightfoot will be up against a lot of people who want to replace her. She is polling poorly right now. Many people are dissatisfied with the state of the city and the job she’s doing. But until U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia announced on November 10, no strong candidates had emerged. (Garcia forced former Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff four years ago.) There’s an old saying in Chicago politics: “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” So it remains to be seen whether Lightfoot survives and Invest South/West survives with her. I argue in the book that whoever is the next mayor of Chicago, the program should continue. It would be incredibly foolish if it were dropped by the next mayor.
You obviously wrote many more columns than could fit into a book. How did you choose?
A book like this is like curating your own show. You want to pick your best stuff, but you also want to pick things that speak to larger themes, so the organization is critical. The pieces are organized thematically, not chronologically. I also use a method of comparative juxtaposition. The idea is to tell you something that you didn’t know before, even if you’d already read the columns. For example, in the section on Trump and Obama, I critique their big Chicago design projects, each a private development that has or will have an impact on the public realm. One is the giant sign that Trump appended to his building. The other is the very tall presidential center tower that Obama is inserting into Jackson Park.
It isn’t every day that Trump and Obama get paired in the same chapter. Doing that reinforced the title of the book: Who is the city for? Is it for the future President Trump, who at that point was still a developer/reality TV star? Is it for former President Obama? What is each figure doing to add to the city? Not much in Trump’s case, much more in Obama’s. Are there similarities between them? Yes. They both have substantial egos—Trump’s much more brittle than Obama’s.
All of which sets up a simple but essential question: When a developer wants to do something, or a politician floats a big design initiative, who benefits? You see that in the book’s last section, which compares and contrasts the approaches of Rahm Emanuel, who was mayor for most of the time the book covers, and his successor, Lori Lightfoot. There are sharp contrasts. Emanuel is often mischaracterized as a neoliberal. He wasn’t neoliberal, if that term means that the public sector doesn’t try to improve the public realm. In fact, Rahm was a champion of many significant public projects, from boat houses designed by Jeanne Gang to innovative public housing/public library combinations. But he lacked a systematic strategy for addressing the tale of two cities problem that was afflicting Chicago’s poorest, most violence-prone neighborhoods. That’s where Lightfoot and Cox are important, because they see the need for an urban Marshall Plan and something much more systematic. By comparing the two mayors, you see different urban strategies. The Lightfoot/Cox strategy is significant because it’s a public-private partnership. It’s not Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, let-the-market-decide. The market isn’t working for these neighborhoods. It would be foolish to let the market decide.
The market has decided. It decided to stay out.
Exactly. And the market helped give us redlining and all sorts of other discrimination that really wrecked a lot of lives. On the other hand, these are not Great Society/New Deal programs, either. Progressives rightly celebrate the beautiful post offices and other projects that came out of the New Deal, but they often forget the devastation wrought by ill-designed public housing projects built in the 1950s and 1960s. So the idea here is a mix between public and private, using New Urbanist planning that learns from Jane Jacobs, but with a more open attitude toward modern architecture and the signals it can send about struggling neighborhoods–that they’re on their way to becoming vibrant and alive. The program makes Chicago a significant urban laboratory, as the city always is. My only regret is that I didn’t have another 10 years to see how the Invest South/West plays out.
Lee Bey did the photographs for the book. Did he have them, or did he take the manuscript and shoot accompanying photos?
He took the manuscript and worked off of that. I asked Lee to take the images for the book because he’s an excellent photographer. He’s also a unique photographer because he’s an architecture critic. As a result, it required a lot less explanation on my part when he and I discussed photographing the book. Long before Iwan Baan drew acclaim for putting people in normally peopleless architectural photography, we were doing this at the Chicago Tribune. The idea was to show that architecture was an art that should be judged by its impact on people, not simply by its aesthetic merits. Lee and I followed this approach. We both realize that in Chicago, you have to be clued into politics and who the real architects of the urban environment are. I’m thrilled that his pictures are in the book and that this book continues to keep his profile high and to remind everybody that we need a full-time architecture critic.
Lee has been writing about once a month.
Yes. To his great credit, he’s been running an architectural column once a month. At the same time, he also writes unsigned editorials on urban issues. They’re Lee Bey essays without Lee Bey’s byline. He’s also done some news stories. However, it’s still not enough.
I agree, not nearly enough.
Chicago is such a great news town when it comes to architecture. There’s always something going on that’s significant, interesting, and provocative that deserves critical assessment. And I’m not done yet in fighting to ensure that there is more regular architecture criticism. I don’t mean that I would do it. I just mean that I would try to lead an effort, through foundations and others, to ensure that the funds are there to back something like that.
There’s some really good architecture writers right now in Chicago that could really do the job. Kate Wagner. Zach Mortice.
Yes. Elizabeth Blasius, she’s been writing a lot.
Anjulie Rao is really good. There’s others as well.
Ideally you have an ecosystem that promotes dialogue; an ideal ecosystem for architecture criticism existed here in the 1980s when Chicago had Inland Architect, bankrolled by Harry Weese and edited by Cynthia Davidson. You had really sophisticated people writing about Chicago and the Midwest. We also had two architecture critics, one at each of the big newspapers. That ecosystem, of course, is now practically dead. One of the things that’s really important in looking ahead is, what are sustainable models? What will reach people? Is it a website? Is it a TV show? I don’t know. But there’s clearly a hunger for it. The key is trying to create a popular discussion of architecture in a time when the media universe is very fragmented. That’s the challenge. The last part of the book is about the end of an era of architecture criticism and what comes next. And, I hope, there may be more to tell about that.
Featured image via Conde Nast Traveler.