University of Illinois Chicago (Matthew)

The Shape of Cool

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    Designing Criticism

    Matthew Messner
    Oct 11, '12 2:14 AM EST

    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.  



    matthew messner


    • ∑ π ∓ √ ∞

      big·ot (bgt) n.

      One who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.

      [French, from Old French.] Word History: Bigots may have more in common with God than one might think. Legend has it that Rollo, the first duke of Normandy, refused to kiss the foot of the French king Charles III, uttering the phrase bi got, his borrowing of the assumed Old English equivalent of our expression by God. Although this story is almost surely apocryphal, it is true that bigot was used by the French as a term of abuse for the Normans, but not in a religious sense. Later, however, the word, or very possibly a homonym, was used abusively in French for the Beguines, members of a Roman Catholic lay sisterhood. From the 15th century on Old French bigot meant "an excessively devoted or hypocritical person." Bigot is first recorded in English in 1598 with the sense "a superstitious hypocrite."

      Now, I won't let you off so easy as to suggest that 'bigot' was meant to be 'begot', why? Because I don't have too. Gentrification does not need to happen in order to have a sustainable community, what communities in disrepair or despair need is better organizations and organizing strategies, and better tactical alliances and tactics. Soho got 'gentrified' but in my mind only after a complete and utter disconnect from local government. The squatters/artists turned a portion of a city no one thought had value, into something of value, just through organizing. Harlem did not have the same for a long, long time, and when Harlem found their voice, and value as community, with a great history, then it turned as a community.

      I think most under served communities would find great benefit in having a pharmacy in their community, where EMT call times are high, hospitals and clinics are in poor demand, and healthcare coverage is sub standard, but at the same time, who needs another chic restaurant in their community, that winds up attracting those oh so boring suburban dilettantes and hipster douches, that puke all over, park up and down streets and generally could give a piss about the community they find themselves.

      I think the larger problem with the kind of gentrification you write about is that has nothing to do with a connected community, and everything to do with this simply idea of a freedom to concentrate wealth, at the expense of those without power. But then again, that's the American Dream right? And, why on gods green earth should we even question the American Dream?

      Oct 11, 12 7:52 pm  · 


      For the most part I would say that I totally agree with you.  Though, the purpose of this review was not to pass any judgement for or against Gentrification.  That is a conversation that happens a lot and has those that champion it and condemn it.   I am not really on either side of it.  

      I am interested in the architectural implications of how we use our cities, and the possibilities of the situations produced by the changing of architectural use.  I could written this article without mentioning the fact that it was in a gentrified neighborhood.  I did mention it because it was one of the causes of the transformation.  

      Anyway, thank you for the heads up on spelling.  One of my many weaknesses.

      Oct 12, 12 2:00 am  · 

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