The Jane Jacobs Walk 2014 happened in Chicago on Saturday, May 3rd.
The opportunity to conduct Jane’s Walk came to me when I was new to Chicago – the city was still recovering from the cold snap, and it didn’t look very hospitable to exploration. I did however, in the little time I had, put up fliers and contact friends – the response was pretty phenomenal. And so it happened that on 3rd May 2014, a group of about 16 people gathered outside a Starbucks to explore, understand, and photograph the neighbourhood of Lincoln Park.
It was a learning experience for me as much as anybody else. The choice of neighbourhood was easy enough – Lincoln Park is a lovely, walkable area that sees joggers, dog walkers and people taking public transport, even at the heights of Chicago’s brutal winter (and sometimes brutal Spring). The walk was a self-guided photo tour – which meant we all met up at the starting point and set out on our own on 3 possible routes. The routes had been chosen to show a mixture of typologies – commercial, residential & institutional; parks & walkways; roads and bike lanes. We were also lucky enough to have a longtime resident of area with us on the walk – he filled us in on the changing face of Lincoln Park over the years.
In the course of my research for the walk, I learnt a lot about the political and economic history of the city as well. Chicago has been witness to dramatic changes over the years – spatial, demographic, and typological – and policies sometimes struggled to keep up with them. The context of Jane Jacobs’ writing becomes particularly relevant in the context of the policies in the 60’s that tried desperately to slow down suburbanization and ‘White Flight’. As inner city neighbourhoods deteriorated, many so-called ‘Urban renewal’ programs were put in place that tore down older neighbourhoods and built new structures that were upto code. The city’s already fraught race relations were tested severely –these programs often targeted poorer ethnic neighbourhoods, moving their residents out into alternate housing. Where it was economically viable, Institutions moved into areas with the promise to improve it with their presence – the University of Chicago into Hyde Park in the late 50’s is one example. The tabula rasa approach that Jacobs so feared, was evident here.
Walking here in the 2014 however, you see scant traces of these policies in Lincoln Park, unless you know where to look. Our group had split into two, some walking in and around Oz park and others going further south towards the bustling streets around Armitage Ave. As people shared their stories about the city, we started to see the nuances of the area – visible only to those who knew where to look. When you know the history of a city, the plainest; more simple looking structure can have a hundred years of stories to tell you.
There are several beautiful catholic churches in the area- four of which are over a hundred years of age. They reveal the early history of the neighbourhood as a settlement of European Immigrants – Germans, Polish people, Slovakians and other European blue collar settlers. The Park itself and the Zoo, were established and grew in the late 19th century. Decay began to set in during the great depression and continued through WW2. Several areas were on the verge of being declared slums. Urban Renewal did happen around the area- the infamous Cabrini-Green Housing project was built near the southern border of Lincoln park.
By the 60’s and the 70’s, several portions of Lincoln Park were derelict and unsafe, and those that lived in the nicer portions eschewed the tag ‘Lincoln Park’ for various more desirable names – Old Town, DePaul Area, Sheffield Commons, Park West – the list goes on. This was especially amusing because Lincoln Park is now a trendy name to throw around. As part of a renewal scheme, the areas bordering the park were bought up by private companies and developed as highrises. Prices began rising in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and gentrification was soon complete.
The remnants of all these changes are still around. Traces of the dereliction that almost swept Lincoln park are visible – there are houses from the 60’s and 70’s, built with apathy bordering on distaste. They were likely constructed by landlords who wanted to spend as little as possible on the facade and materials of these properties, destined to be rentals in a poor neighbourhood. They sit oddly next to newer, prouder construction – a sign of the neighbourhood’s ascent. There are also several houses squeezed uncomfortably into irregular plots – a sign that they were bought by people who could afford less.
We had the luck of having with us a long-term Lincoln Park resident, who pointed out the slowly shifting grains of sand that changed the shape of a dune – a building going missing here, another added there; an institutional building in the place of a home, a big-chain pharma replacing an old ethnic church. One of the bigger changes that happened was the shifting of the McCormick seminary from here to Hyde Park, allowing DePaul University to expand. The row houses the seminary constructed for extra revenue still remain, and have been designated a landmark.
Looking around the neighbourhood now, visible immediately are young professionals, families, and college students. Gentrification has largely removed ethnic enclaves. We saw evidence of this change as well – the largely ethnic Greater Little Rock Church on Armitage Ave, has sold its premises and moved to a larger space to ‘better serve its congregation’. In its place is going to be a Walgreen, the ultimate big chain pharmacy.
The walk was an illuminating trip through the past and present of Chicago- we set out to see spaces with lively mixed use areas and vibrant streetscapes; and saw not just that but just what changes it took to get there. Stopping for ice cream at the end, we got yet another lesson – older stores were sometimes set into the first block of side streets leading off the main commercial spine, to save on rent and yet retain visibility. Sure enough, the Italian icecream store we were at was set in off of Armitage Ave – urban studies were particularly delicious that day.