CHICAGO — A historical two-flat in North Lawndale is now a vacant lot. So is a former check cashing store in Englewood. Three homes in Lincoln Park have combined into one mansion.
The contrast of then-and-now — and how location plays a leading role — is part of a photo project named “After Demolition,” which shows what became of 100 Chicago buildings 10 years after they were torn down. The project is from David Schalliol, a sociology professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
Schalliol found nearly every demolished North Side building he’d photographed had been replaced within 10 years, while most on the South and West sides were left as vacant lots.
Redevelopment was swift in predominantly white neighborhoods, while it was almost nonexistent in others, Schalliol said. Chicago’s infrastructure “continues to be defined by structural racism,” Schalliol said.
“Divestment, both public and private, have produced these outcomes and vacancies, which hurt neighborhoods of color,” Schalliol said. “On the North Side, we see buildings that were perfectly fine demolished to make way for new ones. On the West and South sides, buildings are demolished when it’s the last resort.”
Schalliol was a grad student at University of Chicago in 2012 when he became interested in demolition as the United States grappled with the aftermath of the housing crash. In the mornings, he’d checked the city’s emergency demolition records, hop in his Volvo and “race out to the building before it was too late” to take a photo, Schalliol said.
Most North Side buildings were sold before they were demolished, such as three homes at 1951, 1957 and 1959 N. Orchard St., which became a bigger home at 1951 N. Orchard St., Schalliol said. Many others were torn down to expand neighboring homeowners’ side yards. A former stone church at 834 W. Armitage Ave. was turned into a Walgreens with glass windows from top to bottom.
But there’s still no plans for the site of a rowhouse at 4313 S. Prairie Ave., even though it’s right by the Green Line in Bronzeville, Schalliol said. There’s only grass left on the holy ground of Shepherd’s Temple, 3411 W. Douglas Blvd., which was once the largest synagogue on the West Side.
“We’re losing history and the places that connect communities to their shared history,” Schalliol said. “One building gone doesn’t seem like much, but when you add it all up, it changes the neighborhoods. A home, a church, a store; it spirals. It would be important that the removal of a building led to investment in a new one.”
A similar dynamic has occurred as the city’s signature home, the two-flat, rapidly disappears from housing stock.
DePaul University researchers said in a study last year nearly half of the two-, three- and four-flats that have been eliminated were replaced with a single-family home through conversion or demolition and new construction. Most of that replacement is occurring in North Side neighborhoods with growing numbers of higher-income households and families with children.
But about one-third of Chicago’s demolished flats remain vacant land, according to the researchers. Those vacant lots are most prevalent in South and West side neighborhoods dealing with disinvestment, long-term population loss and a foreclosure crisis.
The vacant lots can create maintenance and safety issues for neighbors, be a detriment to their property values and perpetuate stereotypes about blight in “communities that are still vibrant with people living and creating meaningful lives,” Schalliol said.
Some neighbors have turned lots into community spaces and urban farms, Schalliol said. Others have chipped in to cut the grass together.
The Great Recession left many Chicago buildings in tough shape, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, Schalliol said. The city failed to “invest in preserving Chicago’s built heritage before it got to the point of demolition,” Schalliol said.
“We have to help people stay in their homes,” Schalliol said. “If nobody is there to see when a pipe are frozen, then there’s nobody to see when the pipe is exploded.”
Schalliol said he hopes the work will “make the city’s dynamic clearer.” He’s stood on many empty lots that were once historical and ornate Chicago homes.
“It’s a sinking feeling,” Schalliol said. “That was exasperated by having this experience again and again.”
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