Ghosts of Urban Renewal: The Chicago Department of Urban Renewal Records at Chicago Public Library Special Collections
By Meghan Courtney, Graduate Student Processor
For many, urban renewal in Chicago did exactly what it was designed to do. Prosperous areas populated by white residents were successfully insulated against increasing white flight to the suburbs. Areas of the “black belt,” plagued with overcrowding and outdated sanitation, were torn down to build housing with functional indoor toilets and access to sunlight.
Opponents of urban renewal argue that such large-scale land clearance and development projects served to remove less powerful Chicagoans from their homes while creating profit for more powerful residents. But the legacy of urban renewal as “negro removal” reveals a feeling of assault on identity and community stretching far deeper than land ownership rights.
Legitimacy lies at the heart of the issue. Urban renewal addressed some very real problems: urban planners knew it was unreasonable for poor Black Chicagoans to be crowded into subdivided apartments in the black belt without functional indoor plumbing. But leaders disagreed about the value of communities lost through land clearance.
In the end, urban renewal relied on a top-down approach that gave poor, mostly Black residents no voice in redevelopment plans meant to benefit them. Decisions made by federal, state, or city government failed to treat people living in dilapidated or inadequate residences as members of a legitimate community. Poor areas were labeled “blight,” treated as a cancer, and removed from the urban landscape.
This practice erased a number of communities with strong cultures and architectural limitations. The Mecca Flats, located between State and Dearborn on 34th Street, had a significant role in Black culture in Chicago during the first half of the Twentieth Century (see links below). Residents organized to protect their home, but could not succeed. The building was razed for Illinois Institute of Technology expansion in 1951 as land clearance and urban renewal gained legal support on national and local levels. Other neighborhoods were torn down because of their lack of sufficient alleys, excess of alleys, or poor distribution of housing, industry, and commercial buildings. It was easy for an area to fail standards: Chicago had only started a system of zoning in 1923, and many older neighborhoods would not meet new requirements without significant financial investment. Many of these razed neighborhoods were replaced by high-rise public housing projects.
The Chicago Department of Urban Renewal did conduct neighborhood meetings explaining redevelopment plans to area residents after they had already been approved. However, the majority of the collection documents pristine building models and forced smiles in before and after photographs. In most cases, buildings were photographed empty, isolated from each other and stark against cloudy skies. Where people came into the frame, they appear distant, detached, or staged.
The photographs in the DUR collection give insight into the attitudes of the institution as a whole. Documenting neighborhoods in a before and after format gave the organization proof that their goals had been accomplished: slums cleared, blights stopped, public housing built.
For the Chicago Department of Urban Renewal, that’s the end of the story. After the cleared land passed into the hands of private developers, universities, or the Chicago Housing Authority, the DUR’s job was done. There were no more pictures to create. Though the human communities altered by urban renewal were not the intended subjects for photographs, they haunt the collection’s photographs just the same.
More information on the Mecca Flats
Recording of the “Mecca Flat Blues”
Readings from In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks
A short informational film produced by the Department of Urban Renewal during the 1960s
Bey, Lee. “The Storied Mecca Apartments Live Again, Thanks to ‘Life’ Magazine Archives.” Lee Bey Blog, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio website. June 21, 2012.
McDonald, John F. and Daniel P. McMillen. “Land Values, Land Use and the First Chicago Zoning Ordinance.” Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics 16:2 (1998). 135-150.
Rast, Joel. “Regime Building, Institution Building: Urban Renewal Policy in Chicago,
1946–1962.” Journal of Urban Affairs. May, 2009.
Standley, Fred L. and Louis H. Pratt. Conversations with James Baldwin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.