By Susan Eleuterio.
As in many cities, urban renewal has been a mixed blessing in Chicago. On the positive side, one of the city’s main boulevards, State Street, has recovered from being turned into a pedestrian mall, a common practice in American towns and cities during the 1980s which had the optimistic goal of making cities more people friendly but which too often resulted in making the downtown feel deserted. Both State Street and Michigan Avenue have been planted with flowers, restored with a variety of parks (including Millennium Park- which features former railroad yards and parking lots converted into flower gardens, a skating rink, places for children to play and a public concert venue) and infused with art. All of this has been good for tourism and economic development.
Millennium Park Concert Shell Sculpture
At the same time, a movement to tear down enormous public housing structures on the city’s West and South Sides, including Cabrini Green which was originally built for Italian, Irish and Puerto Rican immigrants and became primarily home to impoverished African Americans in the 1960s, has displaced thousands of Chicagoans. To be sure, life in the projects included the too familiar story of many large-scale public housing projects-violence, drugs, and destruction of both people and property but the promise that was made to residents that mixed income housing would replace their homes has not been kept. 40,000 residents have been on a waiting list, in some cases, for years.
Bronzeville Community Market Mural
We The People Media publishes the Residents’ Journal which documents the history of this aspect of Chicago’s urban “renewal, “ or as the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Task Force’s new curriculum for high school students puts it ,” Urban Renewal or Urban Removal?”
This dichotomy of urban renewal: displacement of poor people with new amenities for wealthier residents has taken place all over the city, ironically being slowed down during the recent economic downturn so that in many neighborhoods you’ll see billboards advertising new developments, conversions of apartment buildings to condos, or shopping malls next to older small family run businesses or street vendors who are still hanging on. The trickiest aspect of urban renewal is figuring out how it can be done so that life for all is renewed and that the aspects of cultural communities (longstanding family ties, specialty foods and occupations, and traditions just to name a few) that make the city unique are not lost with the coming of the bulldozers.
To learn more about urban renewal from Chicago’s residents, check out The Neighborhood Writing Alliance, a group that provides weekly writing workshops for adults in disenfranchised communities and publishes their personal experiences in The Journal of Ordinary Thought.