Activism and Historic Preservation in Lakewood-Balmoral [Roundtable]

For the 10th Annual Loyola History Graduate Student Conference, the LUC Public History Committee will host a roundtable on “Social Justice, Sustainability and Activism in Public History.” This is a post that introduces a case study on the topic. The Committee welcomes participation both online and at the conference. If you have an example of Social Justice, Sustainability or Activism in Public History, please feel free to mention it as a comment on the blog, or contact the blog editors to request the opportunity to author a guest post. For more information on the Conference and the Roundtable–to be held November 9 at Loyola’s downtown Water Tower Campus – click here.

Activism is inherent in Historic Preservation. Whether the agent is a community group, a local government, or another interested party, the historic preservation process forces people to engage directly with the past and ask how it is relevant to the present and future. Additionally, preservationists actively shape built environments and public spaces which are shared and consumed by members of a more general public beyond those with a vested interest in the architecture of the past.

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Detail map of the Lakewood-Balmoral Historic District, Chicago, IL. (Mary Ann Smith Papers, Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago.)

This notion about activism was central to my master’s research, a case study of the Lakewood-Balmoral Historic District in northern Chicago. I stumbled onto the research topic while I was processing the papers of former Chicago 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith at Loyola’s Women and Leadership Archives. Buried amidst CDOT memos and aldermanic menu fund budget breakdowns, the collection included several passionate letters written in the late 1990s by community members to the alderman with regard to the proposed boundaries of a historic district in the area. The letters were juicy. Community members were agitated due to conflicting opinions of how their shared space should and would be used. I was fascinated by the idea of community identity being tied up with historic preservation, and the resulting emotional responses.

Upon further investigation, I found that Lakewood-Balmoral had a long history of community activism. Originally marketed to upper-middle class Chicagoans aspiring to higher social status, Lakewood-Balmoral contains large, stylistically distinct single-family homes. The developer included covenants on the deeds in the subdivision barring multi-unit buildings and stipulating that buyers spend at least a required minimum (which was not actually very minimal) on the homes they built. Following national trends, growth continued in the neighborhood until the Great Depression. However, in the post-WWII years while many homeowners in Chicago and other American urban centers sub-divided their single-family homes to cope with national housing shortages, residents of Lakewood-Balmoral formed a group called the Lakewood Balmoral Zonal Center and petitioned the city to reduce the zoning level in Lakewood-Balmoral from R4, which allowed for three-flats and multi-unit townhouses, to R3, which limited housing to single-family homes and two-flats. After their successful endeavor to shape their built environment, the group evolved into the Lakewood-Balmoral Residents Council, a group still active today. This group has been active for over 40 years, working to improve the Edgewater community, and led the charge for a National Historic District in the 1990s.

During this project, I realized that I was writing a history of community activism and that the Lakewood-Balmoral Historic District actually preserved the community’s activism itself, seeing as they worked for half a century to protect the built environment against shifting urban development trends and then enshrined the same built environment in a historic district. But I also realized, while immersed in the discourse of historic preservation, that I needed to take an activist approach myself in order to make my research meaningful.

When talking about historic districts, the discussion all too often revolves around economic, qualitative factors. Will the district “revitalize” an area? Will the real estate values go up? How many tourist dollars will it generate? In Lakewood-Balmoral, the residents were not looking to increase their real estate values. They wanted to preserve the residential landscape they grew up in, that they helped to shape. They were emotionally invested. And my research took a turn for the subversive. In order to determine the extent of these qualitative, intangible, and often ignored effects of historic preservation on community identity, I conducted oral interviews with people who reside in the district, people who worked to get the nomination approved, and people who lived in the areas just outside of the district boundary. I asked questions about how they view their community (and I left that term intentionally vague to see what they identified as “their community”), how they think the district has affected the surrounding neighborhood, and how they identify with the area’s past. In investigating these issues, I hope to provide preservationists with evidence that communities matter, that preservation is about more than architecture, proliferation of national narratives, or symbolic cultural memorialization. It is also about people’s emotional attachments to and the ways they identify with built environments and the histories that are inscribed therein. I hope to challenge the strictly-quantitative ways in which historic preservation is discussed and evaluated.

To learn more about Kristin’s project, all are also welcome to attend An Archive, an Alderman, and Activism: Perspectives on the Historic Lakewood-Balmoral Neighborhood presented by the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University Chicago.  The panel will include Kristin Emery and  Mary Ann Smith, Former 48th Ward Alderman and Lakewood-Balmoral resident, as they discuss the intersection of archives, politics, and historic preservation.  The program is Tuesday, November 12th from 4-5pm with a reception to follow, in Piper Hall, 1st. Floor, 970 W. Sheridan Rd.  Come hear two dynamic speakers discuss beautiful old homes, records, and politics! Contact Nancy Freeman at 773-508-842 or nfreeman1@luc.edu for questions. 

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