While promoting his book “Southern Exposure” about architectural design on the South Side, former Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey questioned both the design of the Obama Presidential Center and its proposed placement in Jackson Park.
“The design of the library, I do not like. I think that that tower is foolishness. I think the design is foolishness,” Bey said. “It’s clad in limestone or granite; it's shoved in this park. If it’s going to be in a park, I think I say in the book, it needs to be a more organic and alive building.”
He further questioned the necessity of establishing it in a park at all, suggesting a site in Washington Park near the Garfield Green Line station would be a better option as a “vertical, modern, transit-oriented asset to the neighborhood,” spurring applause from attendees of his Nov. 26 talk at the Silver Room, 1506 E. 53rd St.
Furthermore, Bey fears the OPC “is being oversold as a catalyst.” Its $500 million price tag, he said, “is like pouring water into the ground,” comparing it to the economic benefits spurred by the 1999-completed resurfacing of the Dan Ryan Expressway and the construction of the new University of Chicago Medical Center, which opened in 2013.
“Does it change life of anybody in Washington Park right across the way? Not so much,” he said. “Yes, it’s a benefit to have (the OPC), but the Museum of Science and Industry is right there.”
He endorsed the idea of a community benefits agreement ordinance, currently being cobbled together by Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th), Jeanette Taylor (20th) and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, but he cautioned that agreements are “funny … particularly in a town like this: it’s only as solid as your ability to make me do it.”
Bey said he selected the buildings in “Southern Exposure,” published by Northwestern University Press, that had visual impact — those would upset people if they were ever gone. He deliberately avoided abandoned buildings but chose those that were not definitively tied to historic events. And he wanted a balance of new and old buildings.
“I wanted a sense of that, there is a continuum in terms of the history, the life and the use of this buildings that didn't just stop when the neighborhood racially changed,” he said.
Bey, who also served as an advisor to former Mayor Richard M. Daley and an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute and the University of Illinois at Chicago, recalled driving through the South Side with his father in 1980, when he pointed out buildings that would later help develop his critical tastes, saying, “It's funny the things that happen that are important to your soul later.”
He wrote the book for “a sister on a bus (and) a brother in a tavern, reading about his neighborhood.” South Siders are aware of their neighborhoods’ rich architectural heritage, he said, recalling how bystanders consistently informed his work through conversations as he was out taking photographs. Those people know themselves what good design is, he said.
“The idea being that the places and the references that I write about, they weren't going to show up in the Tribune,” he said. African Americans care about space, architecture and open space, he said, “and the places that we enjoy — our voice in this thing — is left out of the conversation.”
“To put it very frankly,” Bey said, “I grew up working class, and I wanted to write about architecture for me.”
He said Harlem’s condition in the mid-1990s was similar to that of Bronzeville. But 25 years later, New York has done a much better job preserving Black cultural heritage than Chicago.
While the architectural preservation movement began in the Windy City in the mid-1950s, around the time that supporters saved the Robie House, 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave., from destruction, other South Side structures such as the theaters that lined 63rd Street through Woodlawn were demolished, and preservation advocates said nothing about it in the press at the time.
Even surveyors working on the Chicago Historic Resources Survey of landmarks built before 1940 — drafted in the 1980s and still used today — skipped whole swaths of the South Side. Thousands of important buildings here face destruction as a result, Bey warned. And he blamed racism, noting that properties in Hyde Park and Beverly are listed.
“I want the city — for Bronzeville and the South Side as well — to really embrace these areas, keep the people who are there there and understand there’s enough room to grow without displacing,” Bey said. “I want better for those areas.” He said he tried to tie people and architecture together in the book. “Once you separate the people from the architecture, then you can be displaced,” he warned.
City policy under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not succeed in doing this, he said, but the case is still out about Lightfoot. He said he revised the manuscript thrice: once for to be read by Emanuel, second for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, whom he assumed would win the mayoral election, to read it, and a third time for Lightfoot, whom he sent a copy.
He likened the current situation to an encounter with a stickup man, observing the generational wealth that has been extracted from Black Chicago, noting the dissimilar investment appreciation between the home his parents bought in Avalon Park compared with same-priced homes in Oak Lawn.
“That’s theft by ledger,” he said. “The billions that were taken out of these neighborhoods through ledger, it’s going to active investment to put it back. As long as the mayor understands that, then we good, right? I want my wallet back, all of it, and that’s what we intend to do.”
Aldermen should micromanage development, he said, and Black property-owners need to hold onto their investments, not leave the city.
In addition to the Silver Room, “Southern Exposure” is available at Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Powell’s Books Chicago, 1501 E. 57th St., and 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St. — though retailers cautioned that copies are selling as soon as they go on the shelves.
Asked what his three favorite Hyde Park-Kenwood buildings are, Bey answered the Eero Saarinen-designed D'Angelo Law Library, 1121 E. 60th St. (which appears on the book’s cover); the International Style, Ralph Rapson-designed Gidwitz House, 4912 S. Woodlawn Ave.; and Helmut Jahn's Mansueto Library, 1100 E. 57th St.