Which Side Is The Other Side?

Natalie Y. Moore is a product of the South Side of Chicago. For those who do not know Chicago, “North Side” and “South Side” conjure up much more than a region. They embody a history, a mindset, and a way of life, separate and distinct from each other. They are often about race and ethnicity. Many who live in the city think of their home as a neighborhood, not the larger city. In all there are 77 of neighborhoods and together they make Chicago a fascinating and dynamic metropolis. Yet the sides of the city are not easily thought of as one, as expertly chronicled by Moore in her book, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. Racism and geography can create destiny.

south-sideMoore is a journalist. She reports on the South Side for WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station. She has covered other cities and other countries. Her writing is in newspapers and national publications. Her investigation into the South Side is in great part informed by her reporting skills. She brings history, politics, economics, and culture to bear explaining the who, what, where, when and how of the South Side of Chicago. Starting with a clear-eyed look at the terrible history of racism in the city, Moore examines housing policy and practice. She describes red-lining, economic exploitation based on race, and the myriad of failure of the Chicago Housing Authority. Moore anchors housing in the local histories of neighborhoods unable to shake free from poverty. It is a story of generations trapped.

Training her eyes on Chicago’s public schools, Moore paints an equally chilling picture of segregation. Chicago actively resisted calls and judgments to integrate its school system, despite marches and protests and well-meaning pressure from progressives of all stripes. Her chapter on CPS is titled “Separate and Still Unequal.” Class matters, too, and Moore is equally sharp when looking at grocery stores, food stores and restaurants across the city. On one level, her book is a study of the effects of systemic racism.

The South Side is more than a work of journalism, however. Moore is no embed reporting to a distant and curious public. She is fiercely proud of her city. She loves the South Side, warts and all, and wants readers to understand and appreciate it. A resentment to those that would demean it givers her prose attitude and passion.

Moore grew up in Chatham, an African-American neighborhood that had been an Italian, Hungarian and Irish neighborhood in earlier decades. After World War II the whites moved out and black families moved in. Chatham provided a solid foundation for Moore’s childhood and she found a home in Sutherland, an integrated CPS elementary school in nearby Beverly. For high school, she attended Morgan Park HS, which was known for its college preparatory program. When Moore was a student it was mostly black, with white and Hispanic students. (Today it is 97% black – segregation in schools for much of the city has significantly increased). Moore looks back on her high school education fondly and is proud to call herself a product of CPS.

She rails against the violence in the city – and is equally angered at those who label the city with a broad brush of little but racism, crime and despair. Fear is increasing, she writes, even as overall rates of homicide, measured not year to year but over the long-term, is down. Moore wants policy discussions about violence to be guided by facts, not emotion. She sees the underlying economic problems and high levels of unemployment as the real issue. Looking to leaders like Harold Washington, Moore believes that Chicago can build political coalitions to push back against racism and segregation.

Moore works to end her book on a positive note. She talks with activists, academics, artists and legislators, arguing that change is possible.

Don’t read The South Side to look for policy suggestions. Don’t study it expecting an agenda for future mayors and aldermen. Instead, Moore wants us to reconsider, reappraise and appreciate the South Side. She tackled the task with integrity and care.

David Potash

Brown in Chicago: A Different History

Popular culture can reduce race to a black-white issue. It is not. A thoughtful look makes clear that race in the US is complex with a complicated history. When I taught history and immigration, issues of race and racism were always part of the conversation. Students worked to identify similarities of experience across times and groups, but we tried to be vigilant noting importance of looking at the unique challenges and opportunities facing each grouping of people.

The history of Latinos/as calls out for special attention. Neither “black” nor “white,” the emerging Hispanic population in the United States has a unique history or, more properly, histories. For example, Mexican Americans were categorized as “white” through a nineteenth century treaty and only formally first identified through the Census bureau in 1980 with a question asking for “Spanish origin.” Inhabitants of Puerto Rico are citizens. The role of Latinos/as has not been stable and it has shifted through time and across areas.

Brown in the Windy CityLilia Fernandez, a professor at the Ohio State University, teaches this lesson very effectively in Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. It is closely researched, well-written, and an essential work to understanding the city and its racial dynamics. It sits at the intersection of many vibrant areas of research: immigration, labor history, identity politics, neighborhood activism, race studies, gender history, and urban history. Every library on Chicago history should contain this book.

Windy City opens by explaining Latino/a immigration to Chicago from an economic perspective. Fernandez sketches out the reasons that people from Mexico and Puerto Rico made the journey, emphasizing that the issue of citizenship and status made for different opportunities and different challenges. Depending upon their skin color, connections, and local environment, these immigrants to the city faced a range of responses and racial attitudes. Jobs with state sponsorship and support made immigration attractive. Mexican immigrants were often in the US through the bracero program, which was developed to help address labor shortages. Similarly, the government of Puerto Rico worked to sponsor labor leaving the island for jobs on the mainland. Opportunities were plentiful in the years after World War II, but by the 1960s jobs were starting to leave Chicago. The drop was 13% from 1960 t0 1970 and continued in further decades. Massive numbers of jobs were instead created in Chicago’s suburbs. The most noticeable shift was in the steady decline of Chicago manufacturing. Many of the Latino/a immigrants worked, or tried to work, in these sectors.

The book, though, is less about economics than about place considered broadly. Fernandez wants to understand what physical places the immigrants moved to and why. She examines how they established individual and group identity through building community. She also cleverly pivots the concept to study what place in the social and political order of the city that the Latino/a immigrants took. The hub of Latino/a immigration in the 1940s and 1950s was the Near West Side. Hull House, Jane Addams’ famous Progressive Era settlement house, was at the center of this rapidly changing community.

Demographic changes did not take place without human influence and intervention. The Latino/a communities were part of a larger racial redistribution of the city. City leaders were very conscious of who lived where. The Near West Side was in play in a larger game of power. Despite local neighborhood activism, the area was destroyed and redeveloped through highway construction, the siting of the University of Illinois Chicago, and local incentives for business and housing. Residents had to move. The impact of those decisions is evident today.

The Puerto Rican community resettled mostly to the Near North Side, then to West Town and Humboldt Park. From that context and history, it is easier to understand the evolution of the Young Lords Organization. Fernandez covers this well-known history of non-violent street gang to neighborhood activism very well. She also details the Mexican community movement to Pilsen, the area around 18th Street and then beyond. From these two intercity migrations the Puerto Rican community learned grassroots activism and gained political power, particularly through decades of strife with abusive police. In Pilsen, the Mexican community grew in tandem with a larger Chicano movement.

Fernandez provides some very interesting information on pan-Latino/a organization, with special attention to gender. Her work on women’s activism and the founding of Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Latina women in action) is fascinating.

Fernandez observes that some Latinos/as tried to address their role in the city through the lens of ethnicity, not race. It was a strategy that ultimately was not successful and did not have political clout. Latino/a neighborhoods were situated in buffer spaces between blacks and whites. This was an open secret in Chicago politics. Groups needed to organize in order to compete for resources. Once group identity was asserted – through voting, marches, and activism, the established power structure took notice. It is a pattern seen again and again in Chicago.

A political theorist might argue that in a pluralistic power structure, survival depends upon effective mobilization. The larger question, and one that Fernandez does not raise, is why Chicago’s default organizational pattern is pluralistic. Missing from her narrative as well as much of Chicago’s history is a sense of the shared or common good. I hope that greater understanding of the challenges that different groups face may help with that more idealistic goal.

David Potash

Second City Hometown Associations

Making sense of Chicago is no easy task. The city is an amazing jumble of neighborhoods and histories that are easy to misunderstand or miss. Chicago has the second largest population of Mexican immigrants in the US. However, the structure and social fabric of this community is not well-studied or well-known. Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan

Xochitl Bada, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, opens an important window into this world in her book, Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan: From Local to Transnational Civic Engagement. The title may be imposing but the read is informative. Grounded in scholarship and the product of Bada’s graduate studies, it is a thoughtful and carefully crafted work. It is also a correction on assumptions one might make about civic engagement and the Mexican immigrant community.

Drawn to the topic because of her interest immigrant rights and activism, Bada volunteered with the Federation of Michoacan Clubs in Illinois (FEDECMI). The Federation’s scope and history gave her a unique view to examine the HTAs and the people they affected. She saw the growing organizational prowess of the HTAs, in Mexico and across the Caribbean, and also the impact of a change in Mexican law that gave those living abroad the right to vote in state elections. All of this occurred against a backdrop of anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant laws and action in the United States.

Bada sketches out the broad conditions and history of Mexican immigration to Chicago. She focuses on the experiences of those who hailed from Michoacan, a state in western Mexico. Mostly driven be labor opportunities in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, Michoacan immigrants journeyed to the US and were supported by mutual aid societies. In 1964, the bracero program ended, meaning that laborers to the US were no longer “guests.” Consequently, the mutual aid societies became less relevant. For Mexican immigrants to Chicago, that spelled an increase in the importance and relevance of hometowns and hometown associations for the immigrant community. The HTAs range from social clubs to sporting groups to active political groups.

Using history, journalism, and first person interviews, Bada explores the Chicago – Michoacan HTAs. She maps their internal networks, the connections with church and state, and examines how they both recreate and challenge traditional social structures. Undergirding their importance to Mexico over the years are the consistent flow of remittances from Chicago. The HTAs are more than local Chicago organizations – they also have a powerful impact in their home towns and region.

By the 2000s, Mexican politicians would regularly visit Chicago HTAs to connect with the community and drum up support. Many members of the HTAs held dual citizenship and the organizations fostered a special kind of dual civic engagement. Bada digs deep into theory and practice to explain how. The HTA’s clout led to joint funding opportunities for economic development in Michoacan. While the projects did not meet financial expectations, the HTAs have maintained an active voice in local Mexican politics. When those living away from Mexico were granted voting rights in 2007, the importance of the HTAs increased significantly. They consistently press a democratic counter narrative to the plans of large-scale development as pushed by international organizations and states.

Pulling the pieces of these organizations and their history together, Bada explores what they mean in terms of identity, geography, and community. Organizations whose membership and focus spans countries face particular challenges just in terms of basic logistics, which also mean difficulties in terms of communication, trust and agency. Technology has been a powerful enabler. Bada does not write about this, but it clearly has an impact.

Bada does explore the consequences of transnational organization and advocacy. She rightly identifies the city as a key context for communication and interaction. Cities facilitate collaboration much more than nations. The democratic tendencies of the HTAs, which emerged in rural Mexico, have found support and meaning in Chicago’s urban environment. What happens in one area can resonate in the other, and the exchange is often mediated by the HTA.

The very nature of the book raises provocative questions. In an era of global travel, multiple identifies and instant communication, what does citizenship look like? How does one understand community? It is interesting work, indeed.

David Potash

Steel Barrio – Labor, Immigration, and Chicago

Getting a better understanding of Chicago – an endlessly fascinating city that never fails to engage, challenge, and surprise – is an ongoing project of mine. It’s also a project without an end. Chicago presents itself many different ways. As I have listened and learned more from many Chicagoans, I have increasingly turned to the past to try to get a better feel for the present. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Chicago is the second largest site of Mexican immigrants in the United States. (Los Angeles area is first and Houston is second). Why Chicago? How and when did this happen? Who were the first Mexican immigrants to Chicago? And what has life been for those who have journeyed from Mexico to Chicago over the years?Steel Barrio

Great insight into these and other questions are found in Michael Innis-Jimenez’s Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940. The book is thoroughly researched and carefully argued labor and immigration history of the best kind. Innis-Jimenez is a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. A study of the first-wave of immigrants to Chicago, Steel Barrio goes far in explaining the foundation of the Mexican community in the windy city. It adds much to the puzzle that is Chicago.

The pull for Mexican labor came from the steel mills of South Chicago. First recruited in large numbers to break the 1919 strike, Mexican workers found themselves in a cauldron of labor and racial strife. For these early immigrant workers, their hopes and experiences were different from many other groups who moved to Chicago for economic opportunity. History, geography and citizenship laws were part of the difference. Most Mexican laborers did not express a desire to make America their long-term home. Special immigration rules and status created a mobile network for Mexican labors, who could move from job to job in the United States. Even if they remained in Chicago for years, their overall tendency – as reported by Innis-Jimenez – was to see the arrangement as temporary. They had what Innis-Jimenez calls a “sojourner” attitude, engaging in civic and cultural life differently from immigrants who believed America would be their new home.

Innis-Jimenez explains how racism and power structures limited opportunities to Mexican immigrants. Chicago was less a melting pot for immigrant groups than a city where groups competed for resources. Racism ran in many directions and life was tough. Without governmental protection and support, Mexican immigrants had to help each other. They formed mutual aid associations and other systems, formal and informal. Innis-Jimenez highlights their efforts and how the contributed to a vibrant culture and shared identity.

Sports figures prominently in the community and in Steel Barrio. Neighborhoods took great pride in their athletes and teams. Baseball was very popular. Through baseball games and Mexican inspired fairs and events, the Mexican community made claims on public space.

Innis-Jimenez provides thoughtful analysis of how gender roles and expectations shaped daily life. The immigrant community reflected very traditional Mexican gender roles. Women tended to stay home and focus on the family. Men worked and were more active in public life, but only in certain arenas. The workers tended to stay away from unions. Language was both a community bond and a barrier. Overall, Innis-Jimenez effectively helps the reader understand the community’s path to activism and achieving a greater voice in economic, political, and cultural matters.

While the history covered in Steel Barrio ends with WWII, the legacy of these early immigrants remains. It is a very good book, one that I hope is regularly taught in college classrooms. It has a pride of place in my growing library of Chicago studies.

David Potash

Old School Chicago Politics and Journalism: Boss

Mike Royko is a Chicago legend. A giant in American journalism, he wrote thousands upon thousands of columns. Most were about Chicago – its neighborhoods, its characters, its perennial hapless Cubs. For those of us who read his syndicated work – he died in 1997 – Royko’s perspective shaped our understanding of America’s Second City.

BossI have lived in Chicago just under two years. Dipping into Royko now and then has been interesting. What has been truly informative, though, is reading Royko’s best seller, Boss, an unauthorized biography of long-term Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Written in 1971 and reflecting the political and social upheaval of the period, Boss is a brilliant work of history and commentary. Royko is an amazing writer.

A short read with punchy sentences and a master’s flair for capturing the feel of a group and the nature of a person, Boss captures the rise of Daley and Chicago. The first mayor Daley was brilliant, ambitious, anti-democractic, and relentless. A product of the neighborhoods with a keen understanding of power, he brought tremendous benefit to the city at tremendous cost. Daley defined much of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. Inspiring both admiration and hate, he was a fascinating figure whose priorities, values and vision are visible in Chicago today. Controversial does not begin to describe Daley.

Truly outstanding biographies do much more than explain an individual. Like Robert Caro’s four volumes on Lyndon Banes Johnson, Royko’s book sheds as much light on context as subject. The complexities of America’s post-wire economic boom, the prosperity and racism, the conflicted ways in which we thought about cities, are all part of Royko’s narrative. The very concept of “downtown” is best understood in a context of geography and time. Royko gets this – and also how Daley and his contemporaries thought about it.

Boss is still a relevant book, well worth your time and consideration. And it is particularly relevant as we ready for Chicago’s first “real” mayoral election in decades. We live in a much different Chicago today – yet the legacy of Daley still looms.

David Potash

Lost The Rink and Take The Ribbon

RibbonSkating rinks are, by definition, rinky. You skate in a circle and then, after the Zamboni, if you are lucky, you skate in the same circle in the other direction. Great rinks have great views; mediocre rinks have little or nothing to see. Good rinks make you feel fast and accomplished. Bad rinks are easily recognized by their bad ice, overpriced snacks, and loud distorted music, usually pop rock hits from two decades hence. I think “Slap Shot.” For those of us who are no great shakes on the ice – and I count myself among them – the pleasure derived from a skating trip often happens in spite of the rink.

Those dynamics have changed. I recently had a chance to enjoy the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Skating Ribbon, the new ice skating feature at Maggie Daley Park. It was a delightful skating experience, probably my favorite ever, save a time on a frozen lake in my teens. Planners have abandoned the rink in favor of a trail. The ribbon twists and turns for a quarter-mile through Maggie Daley Park in downtown Chicago. And even though the lockers are not all ready, the food vendors have yet to set up, and construction crews are still around, it is lovely. Chicago has moved beyond the rink. It is something special.

Circling the Ribbon was a good time to look around. Chicago may not be perfect, but it truly features a truly world-class downtown. Folks journey from all over the world, in great numbers, as any local can attest. Particularly in Millennium Park. Our downtown enjoys beautiful vistas, inspirational architecture, and public spaces that make you feel good to be alive. I am a sucker for a good downtown and Chicago’s makes me smile. Especially on the Ribbon, which is spectacular. I encourage you to give it a whirl – and most definitely bring your own skates.

David Potash

Modern Chicago – The Third Coast

Third CoastSometimes when feeling adventurous – particularly when time is not an issue – I will engage in a free-wheeling conversation with a stranger. The place where I start this matters – a bar, a library, waiting in line – and so does the stranger’s appearance. The likelihood that I will make an observation or ask a question increases if the person looks like they have opinions and something to say. These forays fall flat every now and then. But more often that not, asking the right question at the right moment opens up a vista. I listen and learn. People are interesting. And occasionally that chance encounter leads to an informed discussion that carries with it observation, nuance, and heft.

Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast reminds me of such a chance encounter. A novelist, playwright, and editor, Dyja has a way with words. They flow from his pen, building scenes and capturing moments. He is a long-time Chicagoan with a approach-avoidance relationship with the city. He loves it and it frustrates him terribly. Dyja’s book is a narrative history of the Windy City, covering 1932 – 1960, a period we historians think of “modern” America. He is deeply passionate about Chicago. Dyja now lives in New York City.

Dyja is no historian. He is unconcerned with large-scale continuities and movements. His story is disconnected from national economics, politics, and established historical analysis. What he brings to the table is an intimate familiarity with some key individuals, some critical conflicts and divisions, and a playwright’s understanding of drama, tension, and resolution. The key players in The Third Coast are Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Mahalia Jackson,László Moholy-Nagy, Nelson Algren, and Richard Daley. A cast of hundreds, though, vie for Dyja and our attention: Hugh Hefner, Studs Terkel, Ray Krok, Dave Garroway, Katherine Kuh, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muddy Waters, and many more. Dyja is free and funny with observations and opinions. His critical take on Robert Hutchins, for example, is withering and memorable.

The themes Dyja explores are about race, culture, and identity – played out in the development of centers of power in Chicago. North side versus south side, of course plays an important role. But so, too, does competing visions for downtown Chicago. Dyja is after an ever elusive zeitgeist, a sense of what forces were driving this extraordinarily dynamic city to be both the most American of all cities and also the most disappointing in not fulfilling its promise.

I learned much from The Third Coast. But like that lengthy discussion with a stranger, I left wondering just how much to believe – and why.

David Potash

Uncertain Terrain

My home is in an apartment in Chicago. Originally constructed in the late 1800s, our building was renovated in the 1980s and four units were created. When our building went up in the 19th century, a sister building was constructed next door. However, the sister building was never renovated. The two of them sat side by side on a tree-lined street.Our building and its sister.50 Our neighborhood is Lincoln Park, an area of the city becoming wealthier – or at least our small part of it is. Large-scale real estate development is taking place nearby. We also see smaller changes on a regular basis, from more places that sell lattes to expensive cars parked on the streets.

In the fall, we learned that the sister building next to us had been purchased. Renters in the building steadily moved out. In the spring, we learned that the structure was going to be demolished. A new, single-family structure would go up in its place. There was talk about profit, timing, and the changing nature of real estate in a big city.

The demolition was speedy.

One day a back hoe appeared and made quick work of the  garage at the back of the lot. Before it all goes

It sat silent for a few days.

Then the back hoe went to work, tapping here, tapping there. The bricks gave up relatively quickly. The noise during the day made conversation difficult. At night it calm. The air smelled of earth, dampness and dust.

Workers appeared and steadily bundled the bricks. The market for reclaimed bricks is brisk. Older bricks can give new construction “authenticity.”

With a few days of work, it was over. What used to be was no longer. A vacant lot sits by our home.GoneIt was not an important building. It was not architecturally significant. Its residents were transient and did not take great care of the property. There was no mourning and no one protested.

That said, the building’s disappearance troubled me. I found it unsettling.

I am not nostalgic. I completely understand and appreciate the developer’s actions. The vibrancy of a city rests on a foundation of change and growth.

Something is missing, though, when absences are created without reflection. In thinking it through, I realized was that it wasn’t the building’s demolition that bothered me – it was the lack of attention. A piece of Chicago’s history disappeared and no one took notice.

We need not archive and document all the time. And please, let’s not pass laws that make it impossible for cities to change or grow.

We can, though, pay attention and take notice. Doing so makes us more aware and more alive.

Here’s to being engaged and paying attention – and to a forgotten building.

David Potash

Chicago Pulp – Look But Not Too Closely

Stories of true crime have lurid appeal. We stop, we gawk, rubberneck, and then move on, usually feeling a little cheaper for doing it. It’s a guilty pleasure best enjoyed quickly. We can laugh about New York Post headlines without ever reading the articles.

Girls of Murder City

Occasionally a crime story – like the play/musical/movie Chicago – resonates.  A perverse curiosity pulls us in and something special in the telling and tone and the telling keeps us engaged and coming back. Exploring that tension is the critical thread that makes Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City an interesting read. Subtitled “Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago,” it recounts the real-life murders and trials of the women in the play Chicago. Perry gives the histories of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan, who murdered and walked away free thanks to their beauty and all male juries. We learn of Kitty Malm and Sabella Nitti, who were less attractive and less fortunate. The distinction continues to this day. The prettier women rate a Wikipedia page while their less attractive Cook County jail fellows do not.

Perry takes a clever approach to his real-life history of 1920s alcohol, guns, and violence, by focusing on focuses on Maurine Watkins, a young female reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Watkins was a budding actress and playwright who took the newspaper job to learn more about life. Her articles on the crimes were well-written and well-received. Her sojourn in Chicago was short, however, ending as the Leopold and Loeb trial dominated the headlines. This cold-blooded kidnapping and murder of a teenager marked a different kind of crime and a different kind of zeitgeist. Watkins returned to the east coast, contacted her old Harvard theater professor, and began crafting a play about the women murderers. The Brave Little Woman in early versions, the play became Chicago. Watkins’ satirical take on violence and celebrity was an instant hit. Realizing that the underlying story of the women was depressing, Watkins found the right tone to give an audience sufficient distance to enjoy themselves. Satire is an effective tool to deal with the dreadful. Done well, we can even laugh at horror. Later reworked into a musical and more recently a film, Chicago is a mainstream cultural artifact.

Gold Coast Madam

Alike but different in important ways, Rose Laws’ Gold Coast Madam is a first-person account of a life of Chicago crime. Born to poverty in rural Tennessee, Laws recounts her rise to becoming a very profitable agent for prostitutes in Chicago (she does not consider herself a madam – even with the book title). Laws is unapologetic about her choices. She tells her tale in a straightforward manner, from early childhood abuse to a young marriage marked by violence and cruelty. Laws lost custody of her five children to an orphanage for several years and struggled to earn enough money to keep her family together. She eventually found her niche selling sex. Laws accepts the world as it is. Her candor is appealing. Her autobiography is absent moral or critical reflection, save for a deep wish that she had continued her education and had insisted on more education for her children. Without narrative distance or a different perspective, Laws’s history is sad.

How a story is framed and told can matter more than the story itself – and it is particularly true when it comes to stories of violence and crime.

David Potash

Place – Unique or Ubiquitous

Where do you like to go? And when you think of your town’s center, where is it? A recent visit to two downtowns – each successful in its own way – started me thinking about different ways and places that we come together.

Woodfield Mall Interior  705563

Schaumburg, Illinois is a large Chicago suburb with about 75,000 inhabitants and no traditional downtown. Joel Garreau examined it in Edge City, a thought-provoking book he wrote in the 1990s about suburban development. Schaumburg has attractive single family homes, pleasant parks, some mid and large businesses, and a several large roads with all the standard franchises and dealerships one sees dotted around the country. If you were to locate the heart of Schaumburg, at least in terms of crowds of people in a shared space, it would be Woodfield Mall, now part of the Simon’s Corporation.

Woodfield Mall is the largest mall in Illinois and the tenth largest nationally. Last year there were more than 27 million visits to the mall. In 2000, visitors to Chicago named it the best suburban attraction. It as a hub of economic activity and has served as a foundation for other real estate development. Hotels, shops, and businesses have all located close to the mall. When I visited, Woodfield Mall was bustling with people – a hive of activity.

As I toured the mall the shops seemed very familiar. In fact, everything seemed familiar. I reviewed the directory and every single store in the mall (save one devoted to Chicago sports teams – a version of which I’ve seen in other malls with their local sport team) was a national brand. The mall’s content was extraordinarily similar to another popular Simon’s Corporation mall I also know, South Shore Plaza in Quincy, Massachusetts. There is nothing – absent the prevalence of sports team memorabilia – to differentiate the two malls. The popular malls are completely without any reference to any particular geographic, regional, or particular place. Mall is mall is mall. I could have walked in to a Nordstrom in one state and walked out an Apple store in another.

On the Chicago Architectural Boat Tour

Shortly after Woodfield I went on a Chicago Architectural Foundation boat tour (third time). A 90-minute hosted ride around the Chicago River, the tours always teaches me something new. Chicago’s architecture is among the best in the world and it is unique to the city. Buildings respond to each other, sometimes in complementary fashion and sometimes competitively. Collectively, they create a dense urban landscape that is fascinating, inspirational, challenging, and extremely popular. A tour helps to make sense of it, providing a larger context and a human history to the cityscape.

Chicago’s downtown population has grown in recent years, even as the city’s population as a whole has decreased. People want to visit and live in the heart of the city in an area that is, by its very history and development, unique. The streets and public spaces in downtown Chicago have shopping that is familiar, just like what is found in malls and the rest of the nation. However, downtown also has the unusual, the different, and the unique. More things take place in downtown, too. It is about many different kinds of activities in shared and contiguous spaces. The architecture of the city reflects this. It is a dynamic mixture of old and new that supports business, commerce, entertainment, industry, education, worship, services, home life, and more.

Imagining our future, I see more opportunities for urban downtowns than suburban malls. The experience is richer. That said, the popularity of the larger malls and the international retailers is undeniable. They know what consumers want and they deliver it.

One of the unexpected consequences of the internet may be a change in our understanding of space. We surf, click, and are able to see much of the world. In that mode, distance may not seem to matter. If I want to see what downtown Chicago is like, I have many options. The barriers of distance, time, and travel seem to be erased. At the same time, digital accessibility makes the particularity, the uniqueness, of particular places and spaces all the more valuable. The web version of a city can never be authentic. Being in the space, exploring the place, matters. With that in mind I doubt that future generations will take tour of shopping malls, no matter how popular today.

David Potash