MIT professor of urban studies Larry Vale recently published a book that deals with what he terms, “twice-cleared” places. A prominent example he employs is the site of the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. There, a mixed race low-income and working-class community was cleared in the mid-20th century. After a generation of mass public housing, the iconic—if not infamous—Cabrini-Green towers were then razed as part of the city’s landmark demolition of concentrated projects. Upon this second clearance, officials directed the construction of lower-density mixed income housing, a Target, etc, etc.
As Vale shows, twice-cleared areas represent complicated, layered social and cultural productions of space. In Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—the city’s perpetual ‘next big thing’ neighborhood—there are an increasing number of twice (and thrice, and more) cleared spaces. The current iteration of ‘can’t miss’ redevelopment in Uptown centers around the $203 million renovation of the CTA Wilson Red Line station. After several years of planning, budgeting, and community feedback, demolition has finally begun. Among the first structures to meet the wrecking ball was a CTA viaduct wall that had borne witness to a contentious clearance of space one generation earlier. This wall hosted a mural painted in direct response to the clearance of a low-income area in favor of a city community college. The mural became faded and obscured by plant growth. Its sun-bleached, mournful, almost seething message could only be seen during the winter. Now demolished, the mural is only a memory, a fitting parallel to the challenge of preserving the history of displacement in Uptown.
By the late 1960s, those invested in ‘redeveloping’ Uptown were unabashed in their desire to reduce the number of low-income housing in the neighborhood. State and Federal urban renewal had proceeded haltingly throughout the decade, thanks to city indifference, redeveloper in-fighting, and activist resistance. The most persistent concentration of low-income housing, a dense four-block square section of four-flats and courtyard apartments in central Uptown, emerged as the foremost symbol of blight and desolation in the redevelopers’ minds. When the city announced plans to build a new community college on the north side, Uptown’s growth coalition pounced. Some liberal-progressives, like those at the Uptown Hull House, called on the city to locate the college nearer the lake on empty space. Undeterred, officials selected the central section of Uptown just west of the CTA tracks. A few months of resistance followed, not only by Hull House but also by a coalition of low-income activists. The coalition enlisted the efforts of advocacy planners Rodney and Sydney Wright, producing a counter-proposal for the space: a mixed retail and subsidized residential project dubbed “Hank Williams Village,” named so in a nod to the southern and Appalachian white majority of doomed area.
The anti-displacement coalition fought the good fight, with community organizer, part-time preacher, and “professional hillbilly” Charles Geary out front. Geary had achieved minor fame after appearing in Mike Gray’s timely 1968 documentary American Revolution II, and with his brief dramatic role in Haskell Wexler’s 1969 cinema verite classic Medium Cool. Geary was always good for a sound bite or quote, with his guitar-backed jeremiads against exploitation and calls for multiracial solidarity. He was, for a short while, something akin to a Rev. Jesse Jackson for Uptown (the two were associates, and appeared together at least a few times). With Geary, the anti-displacement protests gained media attention, but fell short of inciting a mass movement. (Geary ran for alderman in 1971. During his campaign he disclosed his net worth and belongings: a ’64 Pontiac, two hickory rocking chairs, a few steel F-strings for his Kingston guitar, and $3.75 in savings at the Bank of Chicago. Geary returned to Kentucky for good in the mid-70s. “Professional Hillbilly” was the appellation given to him by fellow Uptown organizer Peggy Terry.)
After cynically humoring the Hank Williams Village proposal (probably as a negotiating tactic for land procurement), the city went ahead with the clearance and displacement of up to 4,000 residents. The clearance resulted in a highly-visible CTA viaduct wall that faced the new community college to the due west. Activists used the wall as a canvas for a reply to the displacement. Artists painted a collage of faces that represented the racial diversity of Uptown’s low-income community: white, black, red, brown, and yellow. The visages stared straight towards the new college, and held in an outstretched arm a slip of paper that read only, “IOU.” The mural’s message related directly to the rhetorical promise by the city that the new community college would be open to low-income residents and thus—in the long-term—actually help those displaced by the construction.
The art appeared during a golden age of murals. In Uptown, gangs like the Latin Kings, Latin Eagles, and the Harrison Gents were taking advantage of the seemingly unlimited supply of underused and abandoned surfaces of Uptown’s urban landscape. The portfolio of Bob Rehak, who documented Uptown’s marginalized community in the mid-70s, has emerged as one of the most important historical records of these murals in Uptown (or anywhere). Rehak made many murals the feature subject of dozens of his most memorable photographs. While he does not remember specifically photographing the “IOU” mural, he did incidentally capture the freshly painted CTA viaduct wall in at least one of his images. In this 1974 photo, two mid-day drinkers stand in front or the under-construction Truman College. We’re treated to a rare glimpse of the mural over the shoulder of the Thunderbird-wielding Uptowner.
Now, over 40 years later, those anxious to see Uptown fulfill its ‘potential’ as a middle-class and elite lakefront neighborhood are once again looking towards a major public construction project to jump start a transformation. City officials and pro-gentrification forces are up-front about hopes that the CTA renovation will be a catalyst. The only notable resistance to the project has involved the design details of new track supports, and concern for the environmental impact of the relocated columns. That the Wilson Station sits in the midst of the Uptown Square National Historic District meant that the CTA had to negotiate National Park Service regulations on construction within a site listed on the National Register of Historical Places. The viaduct wall and the mural, needless to say, were not listed as ‘contributing factors’ in the original Register listing. So, with such a major construction project, the mural’s days were obviously numbered.
Uptown redevelopment also relies heavily upon history. But it is a circumscribed history. The neighborhood’s Jazz Age remains much more gentrification-friendly than its postwar low-income and working-class era. The golden ring of this dominant historical mindset is the Uptown Theatre, shuttered since 1983. Estimates for the 1929 movie palace run to $70 million. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has touted the importance of the renovation, and all-powerful Illinois state senator John Cullerton recently engineered a sweetheart $10 million handout for the theater owners. The history of displacement—and its discontents—have no place in this Gatsby-esque fantasy.
The clearances associated with the CTA renovation will not result in any direct displacement. Yet, the spirit behind “IOU” seems to now be twice-cleared, and I remain as skeptical as ever about the prospects of incorporating the entirety of Uptown history into the neighborhood’s latest round of ‘can’t miss’ redevelopment. If you, or someone you know, has information about the history of the “IOU” memorial, then please contact me or leave a comment!