Of Bank Vaults and Prescription Drugs
There is a place in Wicker Park, Chicago, where you can by condoms and pick up Prozac prescriptions in a room with a 30' stained glass and heavy timber ceiling.
Wicker Park is the model of an 'ideal' urban neighborhood for the early 21st century American city. The term 'gentrification' is often used as an adjective to describe its recent history. It is still in the cities short term memory that Wicker Park was an impoverished immigrant enclave, often dealing with gang violence and insurance fraud arsonists. By the 1990's a large influx of young artist and independent galleries filling numerous low rent loft spaces. In the “this begot that” evolution of the area, adaptive reuse underlaid a great deal of the development. In fact, the area has moved beyond the discussion of “where will the poor people go now that the neighborhood is too expensive?” to what is the appropriate adaptive reuse of a certain “now considered historic” buildings.
At the intersection of Division Ave, Ashland Ave, Milwaukee Ave, and the Blue Line El, a massive neo-classical revival limestone facade looks over the Polish Triangle. (Locally known as Bum/Pigeon Triangle.) The Home Bank and Trust Building, originally a Polish run lending bank, lay bricked up and empty. It was only a matter of time before the space would be filled or the building would be razed. Eventually the space was filled, but not by a bank. The main level was rehabbed by a chain drugstore, and the basement was converted to a trendy restaurant. This event made news. Man on the Street interviews were conducted, opinions about national chains were expressed, and in the end Wicker Park had one more restaurant and a new drugstore. Most where pleased the drugstore had rehabilitated the interior to a semi-original state, and opened the street level windows in the process. More where happy about the new conveniently located amenity. To the chagrin of “community activists”, the space was not used for some sort of “community development,” like a farmers market. As if the community could sustain another farmers market over the anemic iteration that already graces the park a few blocks away.
The conversation of such projects can easily degrade into a discussion of the appropriateness of Big Box companies in urban settings, or the authenticity of historic rehabilitation, or somehow spun into class distinction and relocation due to gentrification (drinks are quite expensive in the basement restaurant). But there is a more interesting aspect to all of this. Being, now you can browse for Doritos and Gaterade between massive Corinthian stone columns. You can also be served boutique cocktails by attractive waitresses while lounging in a brass safety deposit box clad vault, compete with a billion pound circular vault door. For good or for bad, these actions are only possible when mismatched programs are superimposed over one another with the help of generational gaps and perhaps a gentrification economy. It is only in these mash-ups of banal over banal that one can find anything interesting about adaptive reuse. Converting a big empty loft space used for light manufacturing to a big empty loft space used for a artist studio is not adaptive reuse, it is just reuse.
With this in mind, we can move past “What will happen to displaced people as neighborhoods change?” Neighborhoods will always change. That question can not be answered with stopping gentrification. We can also move past a moralistic argument of either moving buildings to the death-row that is Historic Landmark, or somehow hoping that completely dilapidated money-hole structures are somehow going to become self supporting community spaces. What we can start to speculate on, is what kind of events can happen in the spaces of the post-industrial/consumer based urban condition we have. I want abandon house restaurants, abandoned post office shooting ranges, abandoned grain silo deep sea diving schools, and abandoned church steeple hotel rooms. Leave the bell.
An in-depth look at the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois Chicago. The People, The Happenings, The Projects, and the Discussion.