A Template for Displacement Narratives: On Daniel Kay Hertz's "The Battle of Lincoln Park"

A Template for Displacement Narratives: On Daniel Kay Hertz's "The Battle of Lincoln Park"


The story of Chicago's Lincoln Park, located just a few miles north of downtown, is one that contains within itself many lessons about the city's changing fate. In Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project, the neighborhood represents the class of sturdy, upwardly-mobile middle class WASPs of the late 19th century, in stark contrast to the life of Lazarus Averbuch, an 18-year-old Jewish Russian immigrant who was murdered by the city's chief of police on his Lincoln Park doorstep. Though Lazarus lived just miles away in the working-class Jewish district of Maxwell Street, located on the Near West Side of Chicago, Lincoln Park “is a different world; these houses are like castles, the windows tall and wide; there are no peddlers on the streets; indeed, there is nobody on the street.” As Hemon recounts, it was this marked incongruity that led to Lazarus's death: taking the teenage boy to be a dangerous anarchist, Police Chief George Shippy killed him on sight on the morning of March 2, 1908, unable to recognize that the boy merely came in search of a letter of recommendation, a chance at starting anew after fleeing persecution back home in Russia.

Much of the rest of Hemon's novel aims to answer fundamental questions about what we call home, and the politics of placemaking in urban spaces. As the semi-autobiographical narrator Vladimir Brik searches for clues about Averbuch's death in Lincoln Park, he finds a community that on the surface looks quite similar to the one Averbuch encountered, but bears traces of a century of transformation. “The rich still lived there, but the address where Shippy's house used to be was no longer in existence,” Hemon states. “The streets were now named after German poets, presently not widely read in the neighborhood.”

In the present, the reader senses that Lincoln Park has maintained its distinct form of conspicuous wealth. But we don't know what happened to the community within the passage of an entire century, countless lifetimes spent in a neighborhood that continues to epitomize Chicago's changing fate today. To understand the fate of the neighborhood in the intervening century, we must turn to The Battle of Lincoln Park, a new nonfiction book from urbanist Daniel Kay Hertz. While the neighborhood now looks in many ways like it did generations ago, the book lives up to its name: Lincoln Park once more became the wealthy neighborhood it is today thanks to a contested, often violent process, as the early decades of the 20th century transformed Lincoln Park into something decidedly less elite than it was in Chief Shippy’s day.

Though it may seem improbable to those uninitiated with the neighborhood's history, Lincoln Park was, not so long ago, one of the city's poorest, with the fifteenth-lowest average income amongst 75 community areas at the 1950 census. Like many city neighborhoods that once stood for middle-class respectability at the turn of the 20th century, postwar Lincoln Park had transformed dramatically, particularly as more middle-class whites fled their ethnic urban communities for the comforts of the suburbs, a void filled by lower-income communities of color. The Battle of Lincoln Park brings to life the pivotal postwar decades that reshaped the community, arguably the first case of gentrification in the city, one whose impacts reverberated far beyond the community's borders.

In 1940, as the Home Owner Loan Company set out to assess the credit risks of entire cities, they gave much of Lincoln Park a D grade, the lowest, suggesting the area was “Hazardous” for investment. “Area is badly cut up,” they wrote. “Rooming house use...now predominates. Properties are obsolete, of poor appearance.” Though they could concede that the community's close proximity to the lake and downtown were advantageous, they still suggested the area's future “appears to be one of continuing decline.”

For other parts of the city, that 'D' grade, later known as 'redlining' for the red color drawn over these 'Hazardous' areas, was a death sentence. The lack of mortgage financing afforded to Black communities, concentrated on the South Side, but rapidly expanding on the city's West Side during the postwar period, meant that middle-class Blacks could not buy their own properties, creating a vacuum into which unscrupulous block busters and panic peddlers snapped up buildings and extorted Blacks for inflated rents.

In the immediate wake of World War II, as federal policy shifted resources towards single-family home construction in faraway suburbs, connected to cities by highways constructed on land dispossessed from existing working-class neighborhoods, there was a sense that practically no wealthy neighborhoods would remain. Sociologist Harvey Zorbaugh wrote in The Gold Coast and the Slum that “There’s at least a year in everybody’s life when he wants to do as he pleases,” believing that young whites might go “slumming” in the city for a spell without staking roots in the city. But he believed that the inexorable pull of the suburbs was just too strong for most whites, leaving wealthy and middle-class white urban neighborhoods a relic of the past.

But in Lincoln Park, Zorbaugh's prophesies would be proven wrong, staking the grounds for the kinds of urban transformations we continue to live through today. Unlike other neighborhoods that flipped demographically within the span of a few years in the Fifties and Sixties, Lincoln Park steered a different course, driven by willful, upwardly-mobile white residents, who rejected the suburbs and believed that the neighborhood could be 'saved' from its fate as the next ghetto. That vision, born first amongst artists and fixer-uppers looking for cheap real estate in the heart of the city, would in many ways create a blueprint for many familiar stories of gentrification we continue to experience today.

The battle that ensued played out against a backdrop of massive transformations across the entire city, changing circumstances driven by policies like segregated public housing and suburban-connecting highways that worked as an ongoing form of social engineering. On a smaller scale, some of these important decisions were hashed out within Lincoln Park, making it a living laboratory for legislation that became federal law within a few years. Hertz makes a compelling case for the significance of the policy decisions that were simultaneously crafted in response to, then later wielded by, wealthy residents in Lincoln Park to create a community in their image.

Hertz draws upon an incredible trove of original sources, produced by neighborhood organizations that were instrumental in the policy decisions that reshaped an entire neighborhood. In one particularly telling document, Hertz uncovers a Lincoln Park Conservation Association member's hypothetical neighborhood walking tour in the year 1975, projecting twenty years of transformation about to take place. After presenting a bucolic accounting of leafy, tree-lined streets and a thriving “antique shopping district known as 'Antiquarians' Mecca,” the author downplays the growing backlash to the changes in the community, saying the coming response “is now light-heartedly referred to as 'the Battle of Lincoln Park.'” It's a perfect cliffhanger for the rising conflict brewing in the neighborhood, and a fitting bit of hubris, revealing just how unaware the newer, middle-class residents were about how their actions were interpreted by the community's existing population.

The property-owning newcomers of Lincoln Park had two policy tools—slum clearance and neighborhood conservation—at their disposal, and lobbied fiercely to ensure that the government was willing to support their efforts when their vision required the displacement of “slum” elements within their community. Slum clearance and neighborhood conservation acts, passed in Illinois in 1947 and 1953, respectively, were pioneering legislative models, soon followed by federal legislation that substantially reinforced the financial support needed to make them successful.

So-called 'conservation' quickly became the guiding force within Lincoln Park, even if that meant demolishing large stretches of the neighborhood that supposedly threatened community members’ middle-class ambitions. With the community designated as a “conservation area,” politically-connected residents gained access to millions of dollars in federal funds to carry out targeted demolition campaigns, forces which directly contributed to the broader displacement being carried out by the private market. Significantly, this official recognition as a conservation neighborhood reversed the area's redlining status, opening homes to low-interest, government-backed mortgages crucial to their transformation.

As in so many subsequent gentrification struggles, white fragility played a predominant role in the tension between the white homeowners' self-professed liberalism and their discomfort living in a diverse urban community. It's the kind of racism and classism that Sarah Schulman identified in her book Gentrification of the Mind, in which she wrote, “Fearful of other people who did not have privileges that they enjoyed, gentrifiers—without awareness of what they were doing—sought a comfort in overpowering the natives, rather than becoming them.” It's here that Hertz's analysis is somewhat lacking: while the words and deeds of the white middle-class mark a direct form of white supremacy, couched in the language of fostering a diverse community that nevertheless treated people of color as merely a colorful urban backdrop, Hertz doesn't go far enough in  stating plainly the racist ideologies at play, instead letting their violent attitudes sit uncontested.

In one telling moment, white residents strategically embraced an integrated high school for the community. With the enrollment of Black and Latino students growing rapidly at nearby Waller High School, residents discussed a proposed second high school, one that would likely host primarily white students from wealthier parts of the area. Though the LPCA endorsed preserving an integrated school, their motives were far from altruistic. “If Waller becomes an all-Negro school it will be difficult to hold present white families or draw new white families,” a research committee argued. “The conservation program depends on maintaining a white majority in a bi-racial neighborhood.”

In their vision, diversity was an asset to be managed, the lives and experiences of the Puerto Rican and Black families viewed through the prism of enhancing home values their primary concern. Over time, even the veneer of self-conscious concern for residents of color would vanish, as activists began confronting property-owning whites with the consequences of their attempts at social change. Though the racism at play is evident in Hertz's account, even a small increase in heightened scrutiny would have bolstered his arguments and forced a clearer reckoning with the obvious parallels to the ongoing racism at play in today's gentrification struggles.

The property-owning whites of Lincoln Park were hardly the first white people to express discomfort sharing urban space with nonwhite populations, of course. But their actions played out precisely at the moment in which gentrification became recognizable globally, providing a crucial lens to understand forces that have only become clearer ever since. It was only in 1964 when British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification, recognizing how quickly poor London neighborhoods were becoming overrun with members of the 'gentry' that had previously steered clear of poor areas. The Battle of Lincoln Park dovetails with these events in Britain, and while the dispossession of Lincoln Park from the poor may now feel like ancient history, its legacy still lives uncomfortably close to us all, whether in Chicago or too many cities to count around the world today.

 

It's easy to understand why people analyze gentrification in a vacuum, stripping away valuable context as they try to explain why wealthier, whiter, college-educated people continue to flock to city neighborhoods that their suburban parents may have been deathly afraid of a generation ago. To confront the realities of gentrification would require observers to recognize ugly truths about structural neglect, racist housing policy, and the impact of generations of dispossession of urban communities of color, locked out of the greatest increase in wealth production in human history.

Instead, it's far less existentially painful to pretend gentrification is merely the culmination of countless individual actions, rather than something that's required ongoing violence against vulnerable populations that are now being removed from longstanding urban communities, shuttled to suburbs that have fewer resources capable of making life bearable. But directing the blame at individuals is not only ineffective at describing why gentrification happens. It actually makes gentrification easier, forcing gentrifiers to bend over backwards justifying their own actions, while obscuring the larger structural forces guiding these outcomes. As P.E. Moskowitz writes in their book How To Kill A City:Someone who learned about gentrification solely through newspaper articles might come away believing that gentrification is just the culmination of several hundred thousand people’s individual wills to open coffee shops and cute boutiques, grow mustaches and buy records. But those are the signs of gentrification, not its causes.”

Lincoln Park's transformation into an enclave of stately, palatial single-family homes, meant to serve only the city's well-to-do, was far from inevitable. The changes and choices residents faced in the middle of the 20th century were enmeshed in a period of massive structural transformation of U.S. housing and urban policy, forces that both threatened to sweep the neighborhood up with them, but ultimately became a powerful tool wielded by the neighborhood's most connected residents. In this way, The Battle of Lincoln Park was a vital microcosm of changes playing out across the nation during the postwar period, itself a testing ground upon which the community's property-owning class eventually succeeded in eliminating opposition to the dramatic changes they desired.

Though the homeowners' vision was far from preordained, they certainly had a finger on the scale throughout their campaign: city, state, and national policymakers, far from wanting to see every single urban community slip into chaos and disrepair, actively encouraged the process of “stabilization” and wealth accumulation pursued by those buying and renovating old properties in the area. Still, with many other formerly white ethnic middle-class communities rapidly becoming poor and Black in the span of a few years, it's a strange act of historical speculation to imagine a different course of history for Lincoln Park, one that did not require total displacement of its poor residents in order to be considered successful.

In the book's closing pages, Hertz correctly suggests that “displacement and disinvestment are not separate processes—they are two sides of the same coin,” suggesting that “limiting our imaginations to these two choices is a trap.” If Lincoln Park's wealthy newcomers were unaware of just how strong of a force the private market would be in expelling the poor, we no longer have that same luxury today, giving readers the critical, daunting task of confronting an ugly present with the contested legacy that gentrifiers of the past have left behind.

In one of the many moments in which The Battle of Lincoln Park reads like a blueprint for too many other displacement narratives carried out in the years to come, Hertz describes development money as a faucet, one that the middle-class families would ultimately decry as it destroyed the quaint neighborhood charm they once held dear. “[W]hen it became clear that the renovation of Lincoln Park was durable and profitable, the faucet opened even wider and threatened the rehabbers themselves,” Hertz writes.  

He describes an ever-present reality too many of us are unwilling to admit: even if capitalism produced the forces of disinvestment that allowed incoming property owners to extract value from resource-deprived urban communities, the market is endlessly dispassionate when the possibility of increasing profits is at stake. It will sweep anyone along when rent is due and the money has run out, so long as there's someone else there, ready to hand over more money for a home that once offered refuge, however ramshackle, to the poor, the queer, the undocumented.

If there's a central lesson we can take from the outcome of this narrative, it could be this: what would it mean to view gentrification not as an inevitability, but something that requires deliberate, sustained pressure from many different forces? In The Battle of Lincoln Park, Hertz lets us plunge back in time, into a moment when these questions did not have the seemingly inevitable outcomes we continue experiencing today. With the benefit of hindsight, and so many other examples that live all around us today, it's unsurprising that Lincoln Park became wealthy, just as it was in Police Chief Shippy's day. It's an area too beautiful and too convenient to not become swept up in a revitalization process that would push almost all of its former denizens to far-flung corners of the city.

But in the heat of the moment, as dedicated community activists forced property owners to confront their own hollow rhetoric, what would it have meant to steer an alternative course, one that didn't require all poor people to flee elsewhere in order for an urban neighborhood to be seen as a success?

A pivotal moment came in 1969, as the community contemplated a new apartment building to be constructed on land cleared by urban renewal. The Young Lords, the group of Puerto Rican teenagers that transformed themselves from a street gang to a community organization, aligned with the Black Panthers and others to form the Poor People's Coalition, put forth their own proposal for a 75-unit building. They envisioned a structure with at least 40 percent affordable units, constructed in a terraced, community-focused design, to better allow neighbors to interact with one another.

Though distressed by their militant activist tactics, the Young Lord's proposal earned the support of the Lincoln Park Conservation Community Council, the officially-sanctioned Department of Urban Renewal organization that was largely driven by the LPCA as it agitated for urban renewal funds. Though LPCA Executive Director Pat Feely argued the Young Lord's vision would introduce a “ghetto mentality” into the neighborhood, the LPCCC endorsed the Young Lord's proposal by a vote of 11-2, a decision which should have, in theory, resulted in the apartment’s construction.

But the government wouldn't have it. While they had previously rubber-stamped most of the LPCCC's decisions about the changes being made to Lincoln Park, the Department of Urban Renewal instead chose to proceed with a more traditional apartment building, containing far fewer affordable units than the Poor People's proposal. Chicago's City Council endorsed the decision unanimously, reversing the community's ability to self-determine its fate precisely at the moment in which Lincoln Park's non-white residents were able to resist their erasure from the boosterish visions promoted by white homeowners and urban renewal officials.

If it wasn't clear how threatened the powers-that-be were by these acts of radical coalition-building, attempting to enact change from within the existing power structures, the simultaneous police murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the firebombing of the Young Lord's daycare space on the morning of December 4th,, 1969, should remind us of just how threatened political leaders become when the poor try to take their destiny into their own hands.

Though it's unlikely the Poor People's Coalition could have stopped Lincoln Park's transformation entirely with the construction of a single apartment building, Hertz nevertheless calls it the “end of an era,” a losing battle that told activists “that they could neither beat the system from the outside, no co-opt it from the inside.” It's a painful legacy we continue to live with today, particularly as we lack the kind of government-sponsored community board that's allowed meaningful decision making powers within its borders.

 

In the city of Chicago, as in so many other places, every headline points to an untenable status quo. A sampling of recent reporting about the state of the city finds that Chicago lost more than 20,000 units of two- to four-flat buildings between 2010 and 2016, replaced primarily by larger, more expensive properties in increasingly-expensive neighborhoods. (This is precisely what happened in Lincoln Park, as the LPCA pressured officials to selectively enforce building code violations, allowing new owners to evict rooming-board residents and convert walk-up apartments into single-family homes.) Residents are now rent-burdened in more than half of the city's zip codes, but while the supply of expensive buildings is rapidly growing, there's less and less demand for those homes.

Everything happening makes it obvious that the market is incapable of creating the kinds of housing people truly need. It's fitting that a luxury development, the Lincoln Commons, will soon bring the first new low-income housing to Lincoln Park in more than 35 years, even if the compound's 55 affordable units are dwarfed by the 119,000 families in Chicago who can't find a low-rent apartment they need to survive. As a society, we've so completely abdicated our responsibility to create shelter, to care for the sick, and to educate all children, instead building cities that allow the wealthy to thrive while everyone else is left immiserated. As Joe Kraus and Walter Roth wrote in The Accidental Anarchist, the nonfiction book which inspired The Lazarus Project: “Chicago started the twentieth century as two different cities.” A century on, and we're slipping backwards into that same form of despairing inequality within our city once more.

It's in this climate that more than 75 percent of Chicago residents in nine wards supported a rent control referendum placed on this March's primary ballot. Residents in heavily-Latino communities like Pilsen, Logan Square, and Albany Park have witnessed their rents jump by hundreds of dollars in just a few years. In Jackson Park, community organizers are battling President Obama, who has thus far refused to allow a Community Benefits Agreement to be implemented at his presidential library, which is already helping to jack rents up in surrounding Black neighborhoods.

The mounting opposition to what's happening in the city, and many others around the world, is a heartening sign that people understand the real culprits behind ongoing displacement: politicians, developers, financial institutions, and property owners, whose primary interests are expanding the profitability of urban areas, rather than preserving community life. What we're witnessing today is a heightened version of the events that transpired in Lincoln Park more than 50 years ago, spreading to neighborhoods that became a refuge for those first displaced when the community finally became too pricey for them to remain.

The Battle of Lincoln Park is a painful reminder that we've been through all this shit before. You'd have to bury your head miles beneath the ground to believe that gentrification is merely a passing phenomenon – and yet, there's still plenty out there convinced that the natural course of action is for young, upwardly-mobile college grads to flee for the suburbs once the right time arrives. As Hertz writes in an essay accompanying the book's release, “Decade after decade, observers alternately wonder at the latest clique of young, middle-class white people to have chosen to live in a less privileged urban neighborhood, and then predict that clique’s imminent demise, a return to the “natural” order of things.”

There's nothing wrong with more people wanting to leave the suburbs and live in cities – in fact, I think the growing desire to live in cities is a healthy development for a culture in which suburbanism as a philosophy has created some of the most reactionary, regressive politics imaginable. But just because we've left the suburbs doesn't mean the suburbs have left us, and in too many cases we're witnessing once-vibrant neighborhoods reduced to the same fate, warping into chain store-filled, soulless shadows of themselves. Though it doesn't offer any clear solutions, The Battle of Lincoln Park is a reminder that we can still manage to wield power within our own communities, recognizing that every resident has a right to the city they inhabit. If nothing else, the fate of present-day Lincoln Park is a potent symbol of the stakes of these ongoing struggles in other communities: what will remain, in the neighborhoods currently facing the erasure and removal of people who have called a place their home for generations, if our only vision for urban change is predicated upon a complete refusal to admit the mistakes of the past?

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