Monday, January 22, 2007

Shiny and New

(Editor’s Note: The monk is back. Postings will now regularly occur on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Stay tuned for a redesign/upgrade guided by Mike Doyle of )

Living in Hyde Park and moving through the mid-South side brings concrete reality to lofty phrases like urban renewal and redevelopment. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been impressed with the architectural beauty of certain blocks out south and how many times I’ve seen a cookie cutter cement block condo complex rising next to an abandoned brick masterpiece. I just had the good fortune of reading Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. The beautiful buildings Nickel was unable to prevent from being reduced to photographic memories and rubble stunned Sarah and I. Somewhat fittingly, I was reading John Teafords, Rough Road to Renaissance, a book about the history of urban redevelopment from the 1940s on at the same time. I was struck by the cult of newness that seems to have shaped American urban society since at least the 1940s. Cities began their decline because folks were tired of the grey or brown bricks of Louis Sullivan masterpieces and longed for shiny new Mies van derRoe monstrosities. I know I’m not the first to point this out, but the drive for newness that has removed some of Chicago’s most beautiful and unique buildings from its skyline and neighborhoods is something of obsession in American life and public policy. Public housing having problems? Tear it down. Hurricane Katrina reveal problems of race and spacial segregation in American cities? Let’s tear it down and start over. Relationship not working out? Drop her like it’s hot.

Renovation, renewal and rehabilitation are harder, sometimes more expensive and lead to unpredictable results. And I certainly don’t want to give into the conservatism of the past. But there’s got to be some way to overcome this American obsession with newness and all its destructiveness.