Thursday, November 8, 2012

Decay in South Chicago, Illinois

South Chicago is generally considered to be the area south of Hyde Park, or south of the Midway Plaisance. Technically, South Chicago is one of the city's 16 lakefront communities, but the term more broadly applies to many southern communities near Lake Michigan. This was a growing and dynamic area during the turn of the 20th century, and was home to various immigrant groups whose members worked in thriving steel, railroad, and other manufacturing industries. From the 1920s through the 1960s, African Americans, escaping oppression and segregation in the South, moved to Chicago in great numbers. A Wikipedia article on South Side provides a good background on demographics, culture, and institutions of this amazingly diverse area.

From the architecture, you can tell that the early 20th century developers took pride in their town. Buildings have decorative elements and skillfully applied trim, construction was robust, and materials were vastly better than what you see in new shoddy commercial buildings. Workmen, such as the stone carvers from Italy, often were highly-skilled.

After World War II, economic patterns changed, and today, much of South Chicago (except right along the lakefront) is run-down and grubby. Crime is endemic. Many storefronts are boarded up, and you see far too many liquor and pay-day loan stores, but almost no grocers.
This is the view south along South Cottage Grove Avenue taken from the 63rd Street Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) station. The train is elevated here (the "L"), so it was one of the only spots to get an elevated viewpoint. You can see that the buildings were sturdy and somber, built to last. I used a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera with Kodak Tri-X film and braced it on a railing. 
The CTA runs regular buses in this area. I assume many of the residents work downtown, but it is a long and inefficient ride to the central business district. I have taken the bus, and some rather sketchy characters get on and off.
Hair and cosmetics may be among the few business to thrive in this area now. These are on South Cottage Grove and East 65th.
This is the Emmanuel Outreach Deliverance Temple on East 65th Street. What was once plate-glass window is covered with plywood. Expansive windows imply a degree of security and confidence that whatever is displayed in the windows will be safe.
For residents closer to the lake, the Metra is an alternate way to go downtown or south to the Indiana lakeshore. This is the station on East 63rd. When I took the Amtrak to Mississippi, the train came along these tracks after it left Union Station downtown.
This is an example of the type of row house that was once common on residential streets. It was sturdy and built to last. Today, many blocks have open spaces without houses. The gaps are not as extensive as you see in Detroit, but still, it is obvious that the lots had once been developed. An architect told me that many of the now empty lots were burned in the race riots of the 1960s and never redeveloped.
A few blocks west, you see more evidence of early-20th century industry and prosperity. This terracotta exterior building was built in 1914 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It may now be the home of the Butternut Bread Company.
Crime is a real problem and probably accounts for the lack of restaurants in South Chicago. This is the famous Uncle John's BBQ on East 69th street. It is typical of the genre. You enter a vestibule and order your food through a grated opening or speaking tube. You pay through a small slot. Then your food is placed in a carousel, which the proprietor rotates around so you can pick up your order. I visited Uncle John's on a blazing hot August afternoon. The people in line were very friendly and seemed genuinely glad to see a visitor. It was un-air conditioned and the fans were loud, but the other patrons translated for me when I could not hear the serving people behind the glass panels. I asked someone why there were no picnic tables out on the grass lot next door so people could sit out and eat. A couple of gents laughed and said, "You don't live here, do you?" I ended up driving many miles west to a park in the Hispanic area and eating the BBQ there; the ribs really were delicious.
The University of Chicago in Hyde Park is one of the nation's premier research universities (87 faculty Nobel prize recipients). It has a famous physics program (remember Enrico Fermi and the first controlled nuclear chain reaction?), the internationally-regarded Booth School of Business, and economics program (the Chicago school of economics). The library system rivals any in the nation outside of the Library of Congress. The Gothic architecture is magnificent and worthy of its own blog article. These photographs show examples of campus architecture.
In the early 20th century, Hyde Park was the fashionable and wealthy South Side neighborhood, but the area took a nosedive after school integration in the 1960s. There was massive white flight to the suburbs and the area was plagued by racial conflict, crime, and property deterioration. Hyde Park has gentrified, but an architect told me that the turnaround had taken 50 years! Nevertheless, housing for students can be a challenge. Many of the commercial apartments are a bit rough, to put it mildly. This is the back courtyard of a unit on South Woodlawn. I was astonished that the fire stairs were wood. Some laundry on lines and a goat or two, and you could be in a New York tenement in the early 1900s.
Further west, off Central Avenue, another cosmetic supply store! I guess hair really is a big business.

The square black and white photographs were taken with a Rolleiflex 3.5E with Xenotar lens on Kodak Tri-X Profesional film, developed in Kodak HC-110 developer. I really like the square frame for urban photography. The color pictures are from a Sony DSC-W7 compact digital camera.

2 comments:

  1. Andy, I would've loved to see you wondering around that area taking photographs. A real fish out of water. Happy to see you survived without incident. Growing up in Chicago, those of us that weren't from that area were told at a very young age not to venture over there, especially on foot. Glad you shared your adventure with us... Great pictures of a significant slice of Chicago! -David

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  2. Andy, you've got the Hyde Park history rather misrepresented. It was the Supreme Court ruling on restrictive housing covenants in the late 1940s which opened the community up to integration. As to "racial strife", Hyde Park has long been a refuge for inter-racial couples/families.

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