gary comer center chicago

Lee Bey on Chicago’s South Side, Historic Preservation, and Race

By and large, architectural photo books hew to a paradigm: big, glossy images of big, glossy buildings, paired with minimal text, shorn of any and all polemics. Context, in this environment, can be a distraction. Fortunately, Lee Bey’s new book, Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side (Northwestern University Press), is a notable exception to this unwritten rule. It’s an intriguing hybrid: a photo book of the South Side, a neighborhood history, a mini-memoir, and a polemic about systemic racism and historic preservation in Chicago. 

Bey has a unique perspective. Not only was he born and raised on the South Side, where he continues to live, but he served for five years as architecture critic for the Chicago Sun Times. In 2001, he was named Deputy Chief of Staff for Planning and Design by Mayor Richard M. Daley. Today, in addition to his architectural photography work, he is a senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I recently talked with Bey about his book, the underlying racial forces that keep the South Side architecturally ignored, and his problems with the impending Obama Presidential Library. 


MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
LB: Lee Bey


Your book is a curious mix. Talk about how all those threads—the images, neighborhood history, personal history, the overlay of race—coalesced.



Initially, I thought it might just be a book of images and deep captions. But my editor, Jill Petty, said, “You have to put some context to this. You’ve got 20,000 words.” So I thought: Well, what do I want to say in 20,000 words? It quickly dawned on me that there’s a lot of history, a lot of context. 

People have this preconceived notion of the South Side: it’s flyover country; there’s nothing there; it’s all bombed out. That isn’t the case. So you have to tell that story. And in the cases where there has been disinvestment, the idea was to go beyond the simple story of poverty or ruin porn. I wanted to show how these neighborhoods were created, and then how they were robbed of wealth. 

I had no intention of putting any family history in the book. But a friend said, as she was reading an early draft, “I like it when you tell the stories about your father taking you around to see these buildings. You should include more of that.” I thought: No one wants to read that. Originally, I put some of that personal stuff in the middle of the book. I was going to begin with Pride Cleaners and use that building as an example of an overlooked piece of South Side architecture, and go into a bit of family history. Then the same friend made the suggestion to move it to the top. When I did, it made the whole book better. Eventually I had to figure out where to land: What do you say after you’ve presented all of this? The idea was to end the book with a call: Chicago isn’t sustainable with a hollowed-out South Side. What are we going to do about it? 


pride cleaners chicago

Pride Cleaners, 558 East Seventy-Ninth Street, Chicago


Let’s talk about the historic preservation strand in the book, because you circle back to it several times. You write about how a lot of the historic preservation in Chicago has an overlay of race. Explain.


Growing up on the South Side and living here, I see the wealth of architecture: churches, schools, houses. And then I see how little of it is covered in architectural media—with the exception of the AIA Guide to Chicago, which has been good, particularly in second and third editions, about getting in a healthy dose of South Side buildings. But beyond that, though, South Side buildings are demolished. They’re placed on the demolition list with impunity. These are quality buildings, and they’re almost never reported on, never written about by the mainstream papers. As an author, I thought: “Here’s overlooked architecture. I’m going to give it some attention.” But when you research the buildings, you realize they really are overlooked. There’s almost nothing written about Chicago Vocational High School, my high school, despite the fact that it’s the largest Art Deco non-skyscraper building in the city. I had to go back to Tribune stories from 1938 to get the architectural history.

Very few of these places are written about. So I was stitching together these histories. And I can’t help but think that the only reason why architecture tours don’t really come here—with the exception of Open House Chicago, by the Chicago Architecture Center—why architecture maps stop at Hyde Park, is because these other buildings just happen to be in areas of the city that are predominantly black and brown. It’s easy to make that connection. And of course you do hear the other narratives: crime, disinvestment, all that stuff. It begins to drown out anything else.

I’ve given lectures about how the historic preservation mechanism is a bit lacking when it comes to the South and West sides. I mention in the book that all of the grand movie palaces on 63rd Street were demolished in the ’80s and ’90s, while the city had a mature preservation movement. Nothing was said. No outcry. These are the kinds of things that convince me that there’s systemic racism in almost every aspect of how the South Side is seen. Even historic preservation, where the people are wearing the white hats. 


chicago vocational school

Chicago Vocational High School, 2100 East Eighty-Seventh Street


In recent years the South Side has been losing population at historic proportions. There’s been a mass exodus of African Americans from the city. What caused it? And where does the South Side go from here? 


There are two causes: one structural and the other emotional. The structural is: Here’s a part of the city under former Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel where schools were closed en masse, where what few mental-health facilities that existed were closed; a part of the city that historically, for all of my 53 years on this planet, has been treated pretty shabbily compared to the North Side. Then you layer onto that the demolitions, the disinvestment, and the lack of jobs. 

I give a lecture on this and show South Works, the US Steel plant at 79th and the lake. I show it in 1983, the year I graduated from high school. That was a place where, if you didn’t go to college, you could go there and work in the mill, as your father and grandfather may have, whether you were black or Mexican or Lithuanian. This was a good job that could put a Buick in the garage, and money into the collection plate, and send your kid to college. By 1993, just a decade later, it’s closed, demolished, gone. And that’s repeated throughout the South Side, where these good-paying blue-collar jobs that created the neighborhood are all erased. So with all of that, you see an exodus of black people. There are fewer jobs that can support the family, and they’re starting to move to northwest Indiana, back down South. That’s the structural piece. 

The emotional piece is this: Chicago’s South Side, for African Americans coming up from the South, was the promised land. We talk about people who are refugees from other countries, from persecution and bad economic times. They immigrate to America to become Americans. Black people left the Jim Crow South because of similar persecution, and they moved to Chicago. If that isn’t faith in what America is: “I’m not leaving America to go to South America. I’m staying here because I believe in this country.” We arrived here and had to put up with anywhere from 50 to 60 years of mistreatment. Now I think there’s some heartbreak. People are saying, “You know what, I’m done. I’m going to do what my grandparents did. I’m leaving.” I think those two things together are shaping the exodus that we see on the South Side. 


central manufacturing chicago

Central Manufacturing District Tower, 2000 West Pershing Road


You’ve got an architecture and planning background. What are some practical next steps for the South Side? 


The first step is a change in outlook about the South Side. For decades, over the course of several mayors, anything that was seen as a fix for the South Side was small: a shopping center redone, some infill, a handful of affordable housing projects. All that stuff is needed. But if you think of the South Side not just as a corner of the city, but 60% of the city’s land mass—it’s the size of Philadelphia—suddenly all of your ideas have to be at a city scale. And historically, they haven’t been. The mayor, city planners, people who move and shake the city have to look at the South Side holistically and ask: What do we do now? That’s the first step. 

If we agree, as a city, that the South and West Sides were robbed of their wealth by undervaluing houses, not insuring them adequately, redlining, contract buying, infrastructure disinvestment, then the best way to restore them is to put resources back into these communities. It’s going to be expensive. But we’re policing an area of the city that’s so huge and become so disinvested that crime has picked up. In a sense, the area is overpoliced to the point where lawsuits have kicked in. Over the years the city has spent hundreds of millions on police brutality lawsuits, so we’re spending the money anyway. We’re just spending it the wrong way. 


lee bey portrait

Photographer and author Lee Bey


What’s your sense about Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as far as having a vision for all those things? 


Since the book was completed, I’ve seen some wise moves. Bringing in Maurice Cox from Detroit as our planning commissioner is a fantastic move. He has the ability to do good work here. I’ve heard the mayor speak on a few occasions about how we have to look at the South and West sides in ways that we hadn’t looked at them before. The early intent seems good, the words seem good, but the question is always how the rubber meets the road. How do you make it happen? 



One of the things that’s happening on the South Side is the Obama Library, which you write about in the book. You have conflicted feelings about it. Why? 


I struggle with that one. As I mention in the book, I’m not fond of the look of it. I also think from an urban planning aspect, how it fits into the surrounding community, it’s troublesome. Construction hasn’t started yet, but to make it all work together they propose moving a road, Cornell Drive, which is east of the site, closing it off and turning it into parkland. That part is good. But then the traffic resulting from that is transferred to west of the site, to Stony Island Avenue, which then becomes a wall between the library and neighborhood. By widening Stony Island Avenue, you make it easier to get there by car, if you’re arriving from downtown, but you make the place more remote to the people who live there. You’re creating a barrier. I’m troubled by that. I think they should have asked the question: How do we knit this building into the neighborhood? Not: How do we make the roads around it function better?


southern exposure book jacket

Many people were critical about the library usurping park land. You weren’t critical about that. Why?


There are already a number of museums built in parks, and if done well, they’re an asset. In this case, I don’t think it’s done well. So although I don’t have a beef with it being in the park, if it’s going to be in the park, it better be damn good and at one with the park. I don’t see that here. 

There’s a proposed tower, and the Obama Foundation insists that it’s “democratic” because it gives everyone a view of the park. Well, [the park] was democratic before the tower was designed. Anyone could just go there and sit. I think if the building is going to be in a park—a public democratic place that belongs to us all—then it has to function like a park, and the design has to enhance it. In this case, because the function of the building, a presidential library, is so at odds with the idea of being in a park, the architecture has to somehow redeem it. It has to be organic and at one with the park. Instead, I see a monument that could be built anywhere. 



What does the neighborhood think about the arrival of the Obama Center? Are they happy, unhappy, indifferent? 


There’s a range of feelings about it. One view is: Having it there is a clear benefit, simply because of what it is and who it honors. It will bring attention to the neighborhood. It will attract scholars and visitors from all over the world. That alone should be good for the neighborhood. There’s also a contingent, though, that thinks there should be a community benefits agreement, to help lock in some things that they want preserved: jobs, some measure of affordability, in case housing prices begin to spike up because of it. There’s also a contingent that thinks: Maybe it’s a good thing, but if I can’t work there and it ends up displacing me, that’s not a good thing. 



I was surprised that Obama, the former community organizer from the South Side, didn’t enter into a community benefits agreement.



I was too, and so were quite a few other people. There was a sense from the foundation that: You know us, trust us. That might be fair enough. But, Obama, the community organizer in the 1990s, would have definitely gotten it down in writing. So it makes you wonder. It does make you wonder. 

Featured image: Gary Comer Youth Center, designed by John Ronan Architects. All photographs courtesy of Lee Bey. 



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