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.

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.

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