With more than 750,000 residents, the South Side of Chicago has a population exceeding that of major cities like Boston, Detroit, and Atlanta. It accounts for more than half of the city’s land and is host to some of the most stunning buildings in the Midwest. Yet to some of Chicago’s gatekeepers of the architecture world, the South Side might as well be on another planet.
Seeking to rectify this blindspot is a new book from architecture critic and photographer Lee Bey, entitled Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side. In it, the lifelong South Sider, now a resident of Pullman, captures the architectural beauty of neighborhoods like Bronzeville, Auburn Gresham, and South Shore, as well as the history of political neglect that underlies it.
Curbed Chicago spoke to Bey about his new book, South Siders’ relationship to architecture, and what the city should do to reverse decades of marginalization.
Curbed: Why were you interested in documenting the South Side?
Lee Bey: The narrative of the South Side is crime and abandonment and disinvestment, and there’s no lie in that. But there’s also places like Pullman, like Chatham. As a South Sider, I wanted to tell a different story. I wanted to show that there are some magnificent buildings on the South Side—not just one or two or four or five, but a wealth of them. These buildings are in places historically ignored by the architectural press, books, and tours because [they’re] on the black and brown South Side of Chicago.
We are at a critical point in the city’s history in which we can’t let any corner of this city lie fallow any longer. It’s time to look at these buildings, these neighborhoods, the people who live here and make sure they’re part of the debate, whether on architecture, politics, or redevelopment—and give them the place they deserve.
What do you think have been the consequences of overlooking the South Side?
Once a city begins to turn its back on an area, that’s when bad things happen. It’s bigger than hipsters not knowing where Chatham is or where the coffee shop on 71st Street is. It’s been a civic decision in the city for the past 50, 60 years, that when a neighborhood becomes black or brown—particularly black—it becomes “over there.” And then we as a city deny it resources and investment. When a city makes urban planning decisions, it’s usually with a bulldozer, and not with an eye toward building a community.
You mention in the book how a lot of photographers depict the South Side using ruin porn—photographing abandoned buildings in this way that makes the whole neighborhood look abandoned. What steps did you take to combat that?
The first hard and fast rule was that I wasn’t going to put any abandoned buildings in the book. Now, I do put one in only because I was mad when I took the photograph. That’s the Lu Palmer house at 37th and King Drive. In that case, I’m not just saying, “Look at this beautiful ruin.” I’m making the argument for the house and saying that, given its history and its architecture, it should be a landmark.
It isn’t so much that the photography is offensive—some of it is beautiful—but without the narrative, without the discussion that we’re having, it leaves you with an impression of either “Look at this beautiful old church, too bad” or “Why don’t these people take care of their stuff?”
Sometimes when I give lectures, people ask honestly, “Do they know what they have?” Yes, they know! In every almost every neighborhood [I photographed], a neighbor or a passerby would come out, and they would know something about that building.
A thing that cracked me up was [when] I was photographing the modernist Ingram House over in Woodlawn at 65th and Eberhardt. A guy comes by from the neighborhood — you know, people would say he looks like a thug, right? He stops a minute and says, “I think Mies van der Rohe designed that house.” And I said, “Well, close! [It was] a student of his.” He said, “I knew, I knew!” And we laughed about it and he went on his way. The problem isn’t South Siders tearing up and not appreciating these buildings; it’s these forces that have put these places against a rock and a hard place.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
Where there is disinvestment, there’s a reason that happened. It isn’t because folks are lazy [or] don’t want to work. There has been a systematic response to black people coming to Chicago, and that is more of a factor in shaping the South Side than any of the stereotypes.
Wealth has been robbed from black neighborhoods by undervaluing houses and contract loans. The South Side would have stood a better chance against a stick-up man on the street. But [now], it’s time for the stick-up man to make us whole. So whatever was robbed—if it’s millions and billions in disinvestment, it’s going to take millions and billions in reinvestment to make this city the way it needs to be.
Who did you write this book for?
In a large way, it’s written for South Siders. It’s saying, “These buildings are alright. You are alright.” And it’s kind of a chastising hand to others who have chosen to ignore these buildings in the city. I really want to see policymakers or the descendants of the people who made the decisions that screwed up the South and West Side, to see this and say, “Now it’s time to do something else.”
And I also want to say this book doesn’t occur in a vacuum. There’s a growing suite of books and TV shows that examine the South Side of Chicago. So this kind of finds its way in the middle there with Natalie Moore’s work and Eve Ewing’s work. Somewhere in that universe, this book hopefully has its place there as well. And I think civically, people want to see a different story about the South Side—not to ignore the other parts, because if we ignore the crime and disinvestment, it’ll still stay there—but to say, but there’s more to the story than this.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.