The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side
That Chicago has a remarkable architectural history is news to none. Since the late nineteenth century, significant buildings across the city have defined its many neighborhoods and influenced architecture worldwide. However, while relevant architecture can be found in every neighborhood, buildings in some areas have been omitted from books, tours, and talks, and stripped from the recognition they deserve. Those omissions include the work of world-renowned architects and prominent African American architects from the city’s South Side whose significant contributions have been overlooked for decades. Writer and photographer Lee Bey has been documenting some of these buildings for years, highlighting their architectural and cultural importance and helping to expand the narrow narrative typically projected over the South Side. Following a 2017 exhibition of his architectural photographs, this fall Bey publishes the book Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side (Northwestern University Press, 2019). It is an important contribution to celebrate the rich and diverse architecture and community of the South Side of Chicago.
To celebrate the launch of the book, Iker Gil talked to Lee Bey about his book to learn about its origins and ambitions, some of his personal highlights, and the future of the South Side.
IG: Your book Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side comes after your exhibition Southern Exposure presented at the DuSable Museum of African American History as part of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial. What was the premise of the exhibition and what was the impetus to turn it into a book?
LB: The exhibition aimed to show biennial attendees—this potentially broad audience—that much of the city’s great architecture is located in a place their tourist maps and guides, and far too many architecture books and publications don’t even mention: the South Side of Chicago. I wanted the exhibit to essentially say to them, “You haven’t been getting the full story when it comes to this city’s architecture.” On the flipside, I wanted to push back against the prevailing narrative that the South Side is nothing more than a wasteland of abandoned buildings, crime, and disinvested neighborhoods.
The exhibition and the book grew up together. In spring of 2017, just as I started shooting the exhibition, Jill Petty, who was then an acquisitions editor for Northwestern University Press, met me for coffee to see if I had a book of some sort in me. I was essentially, “I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I don’t know. Right now, I’m kinda consumed shooting an exhibition on the architecture of the South Side. There’s a ton of fine architecture there that’s totally overlooked and barely documented, if documented at all.” And right there, she said, “That is your book right there. That’s it.” We basically shook on it and worked out the details over the next few months. The idea was to not make the book an exhibition book, but to use the exhibition as inspiration and to go beyond the show and showcase more buildings and places, and have the text delve deeply into the South Side’s—and Chicago’s—historic issues of race and racial prejudice against black people. That prejudice shapes the South Side and the city’s perceptions of it to this day. And I mean the South Side’s architecture and its people.
IG: The title of the book includes the word “overlooked” as it refers to the architecture of Chicago’s South Side. Can you talk about the meaning of the word for you, who is it overlooked by, and what are the consequences of that?
LB: That word and the very concept of categorizing these buildings as “overlooked” troubled the heck out of me as I thought about what direction the book should take. The places in the book are overlooked by white people, because the black and brown folks who live in these neighborhoods know these buildings, live in these buildings, and patronize these buildings. They are not the ones overlooking these places. But the issue isn’t that white hipsters have overlooked South Side neighborhoods. The trouble is, the largely white power structure in this city has actively overlooked and minimized the South Side for a century, devaluing majority black neighborhoods, and seeing them as places to disinvest or demolish. Elected officials, policy makers, banks, and insurance companies have done this damage and have helped form the troubling narrative about the South Side. And when you overlook a neighborhood, you can allow anything to be done to it. The book talks about how even intact black neighborhoods on the South Side are valued far less than white neighborhoods. That inequity over the course of years and decades has robbed the South Side of untold millions—if not billions—in real estate wealth over generations. That’s money that could send a kid to college or private school, fix up a house, fund a business—whatever. A leg-up into the middle class or upper middle class. The robbery was done neatly, cleanly, and with a balance sheet. Like I say in the book, “The South Siders would’ve stood a better chance against a stick-up man on the street.”
IG: The photographs included in the book can be placed in two groups: lesser-known architecture by globally recognized architects, and buildings by unknown but prominent African American architects. Can you talk about one project from each group that you find especially relevant?
LB: I think Eero Saarinen’s law school building at the University of Chicago leads that first category. Here is a beautiful building—that accordion-like glass façade over a Bedford limestone base—designed by one of the most famous architects of the post-war period, while he was at the top of his game, and surprisingly little has been written about it. Even the 2016 documentary on Saarinen, Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future, put together with the involvement of Saarinen’s son and covering a LOT of Saarinen’s collegiate work, completely omits this building. I couldn’t help but think, “it’s because it’s on the South Side. If this building was on the North Side, or even closer-in to downtown, say, on the IIT campus, it would be recognized.” Even when a big image of the building was on display during the Southern Exposure exhibition, people would ask me “Now, where is this building?”
With unknown but prominent black architects, it is probably a tie between John Moutoussamy and Walter T. Bailey. Moutoussamy, if he’s known by the larger public at all, was best known as the architect of the former Johnson Publications building at 820 South Michigan Avenue. But he designed a wealth of fine-looking modernist buildings across the city, especially the South Side, where he designed Olive-Harvey College, and the headquarters of the black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, which is mentioned in the book. He also designed his own house, a fine-looking minimalist beauty in the Chatham community on the South Side. The house was built in 1954 and looks like it could have been designed 15-20 years later. Bailey’s work includes First Church of Deliverance at 43rd Street and Wabash Avenue in the Bronzeville community. It is a streamline moderne building—kind of an unusual choice for a church. But it is a beauty.
IG: Having grown up on the South Side and living in Pullman, you have seen many of these buildings throughout your life. Was there any building or architect that you discovered while working on this book that surprised you?
LB: Yes! One of the biggest surprises for me was a small midcentury, brick and limestone church, at 84th and Stony Island. I grew up four blocks east of this church and never really noticed it until I passed it while on my way to photograph another building for the book. I thought, “actually, that church is pretty cool. I wonder who designed it?” Turns out it was designed by Ray Stuermer, an architect who had been Raymond Loewy’s chief of design. It makes me want to see more of this post-Loewy work.
IG: While many of the photos don’t include people in them, you sense that these buildings are actively used and play a role in shaping life on the South Side. They are part of active neighborhoods and they are used and loved places. In your photographs, how do you balance your exploration of the building itself versus the role that they play in the neighborhood?
LB: For me, the two went hand-in-hand. I wanted to show buildings that were in good condition and in-use. In service to their communities. Far too often, photographers come to the South and West Sides, and focus on the decay and ruin—giving the incorrect impression that these neighborhoods have nothing to offer but abandoned buildings and vacant lots. I wanted to show buildings that are intact and in-use, which is the case for the majority of South Side buildings. People are trying like hell to maintain their neighborhoods and buildings, despite, as I say in the book, a century of institutionally racist policies and practices that work against them.
IG: There are other great buildings on the South Side that are vacant such as the Anthony Overton Elementary School designed in 1963 by Perkins+Will and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Do you think a photography exhibition or publication has the power to tell the story of what the building can become and the role it can play in the neighborhood?
LB: I hope so. I hope at least it can raise awareness. My book is the latest in a recent line of artistic interventions, literature and even a TV comedy, that examines the South Side. I think people on the South Side and outside the South Side are ready for a different set of stories about this place. People—in this moment, at least—seem a bit more curious about the South Side. “What’s the history?” “What’s going on?” I’m hoping this leads to the South Side being treated better, more equitably. If it’s going to happen at all, the groundwork, I hope, is being done now.
IG: You studied journalism at Columbia College and, for three decades, you have written extensively about the city, with a focus on its architecture and urban planning. You have also taught about architecture and politics. Can you talk about those relationships in your photographic work?
LB: It’s funny. I’m 53, and while I started out in journalism young—I was 22—I didn’t get interested in photography until I was past 30. And even then, only as a way to photograph my daughters growing up. By the time I started pointing my camera at buildings, I was a mature writer who could see—and was writing and teaching about—the intersection between architecture, urban planning, and politics. As my photography developed, I wanted there to be a relationship between what I photographed and what I wrote about. I wanted the photography to be in service to the writing. Southern Exposure is an outgrowth of that.
IG: The South Side covers a very large section of the city, occupying over 50% of the land area. It is also very diverse, both racially and economically, as well as in its architecture. Why do you think that the narrative about the South Side is typically so narrow and does not represent its diversity and complexity?
LB: I think when a neighborhood becomes predominantly black, the narrative of crime and struggle begins to define the neighborhoods. Either that’s all you hear about a neighborhood like Roseland, South Shore, or Englewood—or whatever good happens there is always reported like some sort of surprise that the news reporter has found a story that isn’t about robbing, cutting, shooting, and murder. I saw a story recently in the Chicago Tribune about a job fair in Englewood. Even in writing about this good thing, the newspaper couldn’t help itself from calling the neighborhood “crime-ridden,” “blighted,” and part of the “inner-city”—which has been code for “black” since at least the 1950s. I live in Pullman. The neighborhood next door is Roseland, which, like Englewood, has its struggles. But it also has a place called Old Fashioned Donuts, a black-owned shop that has the best donuts in the city. On social media, almost every time I see someone white post that they have been there, almost immediately some asshole will comment,“Did you get shot?” Or “You’re so brave.” Not, “did you meet fellow donut lovers?” or “There is a great restaurant across the street” (which there is). Even if you present another narrative, another story, some people will tune it out, and ask if you wore your Kevlar when you went to buy some donuts.
IG: What excites you the most about the future of Chicago’s South Side?
LB: I like a lot of what new Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been saying about the need to really address the needs of the South Side and West Side. Acknowledging there is a problem and that the city has a role to play in fixing it is important. She seems to understand that Chicago isn’t successful if all we have is a glowing and successful downtown, North Side, and near West Side, while the South and West Sides continue to drift. And though the South Side is experiencing a historic population loss in black neighborhoods, I have been excited to see young black people speaking up and fighting for the needs of these neighborhoods, including the preservation of its buildings.
Lee Bey is a photographer, writer, lecturer, and consultant who documents and interprets the built environment—and the often complex political, social, and racial forces that shape spaces and places. His writing on architecture and urban design has been featured in Architect, Chicago magazine, Architectural Record, and many news outlets. His photography has appeared in Chicago Architect, Old-House Journal, CITE, and in international design publications including Bauwelt and Modulør. A former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic, Bey is also a senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and served as deputy chief of staff for urban planning under former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
www.leebey.com | @LEEBEY