Monday, June 28, 2010

Digging through the Archives.

Here is a classic piece on the issue of preservation within Old Town, from July 27th, 1989, in the Chicago Reader.  Interesting that the article mentions Vince Micheal by name. It is clear Mr. Micheal's connection to Old Town runs deep.  You can read his excellent blog, Time Tells, here.

Sneak development: Old Town preservationist fight the attack of the incredible expanding buildings 

"Old Town is being ambushed by sneak development. In 1978 the city designated the Old Town Triangle a Chicago Landmark District. But home owners and developers are still lifting up one- or two-story homes and tucking a garage or basement underneath. Whole floors are being added to the tops of buildings, and newly constructed rooms bulge from the sides and backs of homes. Rooftop patios abound. Front yards are being converted to parking lots. Only the facades remain the same. Sometimes. "

Even though the article is over 20 years old, it is still quite fresh and relevant.  

In my experience, many Old Town residents take pride in the culture, history, architecture and character of Old Town.  They enjoy the opportunity to name drop moderately famous former residents such as Don Herbert (Tv's Mr. Wizard) and Architect Harry Weese.  They can  barely contain themselves from talking about the once thriving artist colony, or the numerous comedy legends that have sprung from the neighborhoods Second City.  It is easy to see why the residents of Old Town take such pride in their neighborhood but a closer inspection reveals some interesting quirks.

On several occasions I've encountered an almost bitter negative attitude towards some of the more modern buildings located within the hallowed streets of Old Town.  These buildings, many constructed post World War II, are seen as intruders on the quaint Old Town streets of yesteryear by a certain class of old town 'traditionalist' (as I chose to call them).  In some cases the complaints are justified, as some of the buildings are simply eye sores, but in many cases, the few modern buildings peppered throughout Old Town add a the spice of wonderful diversity to the neighborhood's flavor.  These modern buildings typically match the scale and density of the existing neighborhood quite well.  To give you an idea of the buildings I am discussing, some examples are here and here.

On the other extreme, I've rarely heard these same rigid traditionalists complain about the other intruders of Old Town, the over developers, the gut rehabbers, the people who take a building, once home to three separate two flat units, and gut and 'rehab' it into a monstrous single family home.  The only preservation taking place here is superficial, certainly the facade has been maintained, but it is nothing but a false, hollow shell.  The change is more substantive, it is a loss of culture, or at the least, the potential for culture.  The density has been cut down, easily by 1/2 or even as low 1/4 of its previous level.  Clearly this trends towards both increasing the rent rates and great reducing the number of residents in the neighborhood.  Historically, one can imagine and see the artist colony alive and buzzing throughout the many small to midsized flats of Old Town, teaming with life.  In its current state, this is inconceivable, for how can the proverbial starving artist ever afford to rent such massive units? (as if they were even being placed on the market for rent in the first place).

When viewed in this light, the lose of a few buildings in the 1940s seems to pale when compared with the loss of culture and character that has occurred in more recent times.  It is all fun and games to tell the stories of the historic Old Town, but are we wholly content to leave these as nothing more than stories?  I do certainly enjoy living in a historic neighborhood, but I have to wonder if you will agree, wouldn't it be even more exciting to be part of a neighborhood still creating history for others to celebrate in the future?

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