Sunday, July 5, 2009

What is Gentrification and Did it Happen in the South Loop?

We recently had an email interview with the Chicago Journal in which we were asked a variety of questions. One of the questions we were asked was what do you see as the main issues that exist in the neighborhood? Our response:
Parking, Gentrification and Real Estate seem to be the main issues we hear about and read about.
Then we were called out by some readers of the interview in the comments section about our explanation of gentrification:
Gentrification is always a touchy subject. The South Loop has changed so much in the past 10-15 years with the real estate boom that many businesses and residents simply can’t afford to live in the area anymore. This seems to be a trend that will continue as it seems as if the city is committed to making the neighborhood increasingly desirable.
The people in the comments section had a gripe with our statement about gentrification. To be fair, it's a good point to clarify because we might have been overzealous with our statement that "many" businesses and residents simply can't afford to live and operate in the area anymore. However, we still contend that gentrification has happened and will continue to happen in the South Loop.

But let's take a step back...what is gentrification? According to the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, gentrification is:

the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents

To us (and people we've spoken with), this sounds very similar to what has happened and is happening in the Sloop. The first part of the definition is an absolute slam dunk, however the second part, "often displaces poorer residents" is a point of contention that can be debated.

The South Loop was a very desolate neighborhood in the past, so some people contend that gentrification didn't happen in the South Loop because people and businesses weren't displaced. They simply say that vacant property and buildings were taken over, converted and developed. This might be predominately true, but we still believe some people and businesses have been or will be displaced. Although we can't site hundreds of examples (and to be honest it's a good thing that the scale of displacement is relatively small) there are some recent things like the Harold Icke Homes potentially being demolished that wreak of displacement due to gentrification.

So with that said, please let us know your thoughts on this subject. Are we completely off base with our assessment of gentrification in the South Loop? Or do you think gentrification has happened in the Sloop, but maybe not in the 'typical' gentrification model? Or maybe you know of specific instances of people and/or businesses that have been displaced...

We're curious to hear your thoughts and thanks to 'Old Timer' for engaging with us (in a respectful manner) on the topic!

(South Loop Rising Image from Chicago Magazine)


Helen Kaplow said...

I followed the string of comments in the Journal on this subject. You definitely ruffled some feathers by mentioning the word "gentrification" in regards to the sloop. And in arguing the Meriam Webster technicalities to defend yourself, I think you are still missing the larger concept at play here. It is a point of pride to many South Loopers that we do not come from gentrification: We are not spoilers; we are pioneers. We didn't push anybody out. This area, with Printers Row at the heart, had been commercial and industrial, not residential. We came to an abandoned, desolate area of the city and rebuilt it, often with our own hands (converting empty and condemned warehouses into landmark residences). We are creaters not destroyers.

So, while prices have certainly risen in recent years as this area has become "hot," and while this now upscale community is currently experiencing growing pains that share some similarities with gentrified neighborhoods, the connotation of the term does not fit our history. And we take special pride in our history.

For what I think is a very good article about the history of this neighborhood, check out:

Sloopy said...

Thanks for the perspective Helen! I think you're right that South Loopers take pride in the fact that displacement hasn't happened (or if it has it's been pretty small in scale).

Thanks for the thoughts and adding to the debate.

Anonymous said...

Helen, I think you make a fair point, but it can be overstated.

The business community in the Loop has long sought a buffer between the CBD and the black belt, prompting (among other things) a 1960's proposal to build the UIC campus in the South Loop. The construction of Dearborn Park dovetailed nicely with that desire.

So while few people were displaced from South Loop proper, the development of the neighborhood as an upper-middle class stronghold--combined with demolition of Bronzeville public housing--definitely fits into the broader gentrification narrative. I don't mean this to be pejorative, because obviously the city is better off without a big vacant railyard adjacent to the loop. But let's not get too high and mighty. :)

stephen said...

Does it matter? Gentrification happened because a previously inhospitable post-industrial area has been remade into an urban oasis. The real frustration you'll hear from people in Bronzeville is that they have a date with destiny. Bronzeville is bordered by Kenwood, Lake Michigan, and the South Loop with Comiskey Park just to the west... gentrification is coming to that neighborhood whether they like it or not and gentrifying the South Loop had to happen first.

Anonymous said...

Bronzeville's "date with destiny" is more like an arranged marriage. First the city hemmed it in from the west with the Dan Ryan. Then the University and the city cut it off on the south by redeveloping Kenwood. Then from the north, the city presented it with the uninviting walls of Fort Park and started approving luxury highrises left and right. The CHA's bulldozers and the Olympic Village are about to administer the coup de grace.

Bronzeville post-deindustrialization shouldn't be glamorized, and the public housing on State Street was a mistake from day one. But if you look at the South Loop from Bronzeville's perspective rather than from the perspective of the Printer's Row "pioneers," it's a lot more obvious why some people's hackles are up.

Anonymous said...

You are trying to hard. You made a slight mistake, we forgive you :)

The South Loop represented real estate progress, but it did not constitute anything close to the definition or the real world impact of gentrification.

Not to be demeaning or disrespectful, but people live for free, are taking up free land, while also ensuring it stays crime infested, are not usually candidates for gentrification.
They had little stake in the game, nor was there was any sense of community or history to displaced. You have to understand, as late as 1995, the South Loop was a ghost town, other then when the Bears played and you needed a place to park.

First, the city and developers were afforded a blank slate to do anything they wanted (even creating pseudo community organizations to keep people out of the way)

Second, most of this area was abandoned or had light industrial or storage, much vacant. The inhabitants, (other than Dearborn Park I) consisted of a smattering of people living in SROs, squatters in vacant buildings, and a few residents from existing public housing to the far south that was already on the decline.

Elimination of people from temporary housing or SRO's, CHA or government housing, or homeless squatters constitutes economic and civic progress, and 99 out of 100people would tell you this does not fit the definition of gentrification.

The example of Bronzeville (with its coming battle over gentrification), Pilsen, and West Loop are prime examples of serious organic gentrification. Block by block growth, change, turnover, and angst in every decision that pits new tax paying resident vs. old tax paying resident, who ironically in some cases where on the other end of the gentrification cycle, when they moved in starting the displacement of some other previous ethnic holders of the neighborhood.

Unlike the South Loop and Near South, those other areas have local residents who own property, have jobs, contribute to society, pay taxes, and are impacted positively and negatively in gentrification. (Of course in all those locations, it's ok for them to be publicly quoted as saying they do not want whites or yuppies for fear of neighborhood improvement, and not be called out on their David Duke like quotes)

Coincidently, one of the many catalysts for South Loop progress, was the closing down operation of at least three SRO's; Roosevelt Hotel, St. James (where Jewel is now), and the units above South Loop Hotel. That was one of the many tea leaves that told people instinctively that the city was serious.

Jack said...

"even creating pseudo community organizations to keep people out of the way"

Would you please elaborate?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 4:55--Anonymous 4:28 here. (Not Sloopy--sorry, but it's hard to have these racially charged conversations without the cloak of anonymity. Weak, I know.)

My point wasn't that the South Loop is made up of evil gentrifiers (I'm here, and I'm not evil! :), or that what we have doesn't represent progress compared to the underutilized land that was here before. I just think that it's absurd to try to draw a bright line between the development of the South Loop on one hand, and gentrification on the other.

Because clearly the neighborhood is what it is partially because of the Daleys' desire to protect Bridgeport and the Loop from encroachment of the black ghetto. Bronzeville will only be gentrifying "organically" in the most superficial sense: city hall has played a massive role in ensuring that it happens. And the movement of the upper middle class into the South Loop is a key component of the strategy.

The effect we have on displacement in Bronzeville may be somewhat indirect, but it's real enough. It's gentrification in action, and to claim otherwise is to split hairs.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, protecting Bridgeport had zero to do with the plan for South Loop. The previous isolation of racial and economic groups actually let these guys get away with operating the status quo. The South Loop was built from the ground up with almost no holds barred or barriers up until the last 2 years.

I will grant you that it is absolutely 100% true that many of the Bridgeport 'friends' had much of the land in the South Loop when all this started. But you had some very simple things going on; you have proximity and access to downtown Chicago and Lake front, rising prices for North side home ownership for younger crowd, you had some initial planning for a 1992-93 Worlds Fair bid that opened some eyes to the potential of this area, you had the Mayor moving in, and you had some players behind the scenes who either owned a lot of land, or were the beneficiaries being the secondary holders of city acquired land when the Near South TIF plan was enacted.

As well, as Helen points out, you had many wise pioneers (of all races and sex), who could see that
without the issues that come with real gentrification, the scene of the guy pushing the shopping cart of recyclable steel was going to be short-lived and this place was a gold mine.

When all this started, Bronzeville was (and still is) in a different and lonely world all to it self, cut-off by I-55 and McCormick Place. Most residents do not get or need services from Bronzeville, but Bronzeville has benefited from the South Loop (I like Bronzeville, but just being honest about the economics of the situation). Is it gentrification because Bronzeville locals and professionals who frequented the Cotton Club, E2, and other places lost nigh clubs on the North side of I-55? I do not think so.

Sadly, South Loopers will hoof it to downtown, the North Side, or suburbs before they turn to Bronzeville for any dining, cultural, or shopping needs. Nor have most event been there.

More people should take the drive in Bronzeville though; without the fanfare, the development and start of gentrification there is amazing; when considering land amounts (and not density), the total construction of Bronzeville rivals the South Loop. The old and historic home stock affordability is, IMO, the best in the city, but I do not think many of the South Loopers who waited for the South Loop to fill, are as patient to wait the 10 to 20 years to feel the same about many parts of Bronzeville.

Anonymous said...

Okay, this is kind of devolving into a semantic dispute, so I swear this will be my last word on the subject (and it wasn't me making dumb comments over at the Journal, I swear!).

You claim that the buildup of the South Loop was organic and more-or-less inevitable because of larger forces at play. I contend that it only seems that way now because of a series of power plays by City Hall and its Bridgeport buddies, with the ultimate objective being the containment and eventual transformation of Bronzeville. My narrative is the more conspiratorial, but hey, that's Chicago. Probably the truth lies somewhere in between.

At least we can agree on the following:

- The city was under no obligation to maintain the decaying '70s-era Near South as some kind of museum piece, nor should it have. Some sort of transformation was inevitable.

- The evolution of the South Loop and, soon, Bronzeville into integrated middle class neighborhoods isn't a bad way for things to have turned out, regardless of how it happened. In fact, if you'd told me twenty years ago that it would, I'd have considered you a starry-eyed loon.

- The people who moved into the South Loop (myself included) did so with no ill intent, and managed to create a community where practically none had existed before. And that's unambiguously a positive thing for the city.

Anonymous said...

The Chicago Journal discussion reads like the attack of the Andy Rooney wannabes