Chicago's preservation blues

The image was almost too painful: aging blues singer Jimmie Lee Robinson walking to the middle of Maxwell Street to sing "Maxwell Street Blues" as demolition crews tore down a block of buildings that once framed one of the most vibrant places of cultural creativity in America. In the 1940s and '50s, Maxwell Street and its bustling market became, with the arrival of waves of African-American migrants from the South, the birthplace of the urban electric blues; a place where Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, Little Walter, Hound Dog Taylor, and many other musicians got started, and turned an African-American musical form into a foundation stone of modern popular music. Over the past three months, crews have demolished the heart of the Maxwell Street district, paving the way for commercial development.

In a time when Americans are embracing the vibrancy of our great cities, celebrating the contributions of all groups to American culture, and preserving our physical past as never before, how could we allow this bustling urban area where the Chicago blues was born to die an unnatural death?

Ironically, Maxwell Street fell victim to America's historic preservation movement and its failure to break free of its roots in aesthetic elitism. Obsessively focused on great works of architecture, the movement has been slow to broaden its scope to fight for places of cultural importance, even when those places are not perfect specimens of architecture. Despite some promising efforts at broadening the meaning of "preservation" - as in efforts to challenge sprawl as a threat to our national historical and environmental resources - it is the Victorian house, or the grand mansion, that continues to dominate our national, state, and local historic registers. In the face of the imminent destruction of Maxwell Street by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the wider preservation movement had virtually nothing to say. The National Trust was silent. The National Register dismissed an application for landmark status because, in its opinion, all the buildings didn't look enough like they did 60 years ago.

Of little importance was the cultural continuity of Maxwell Street, where blues musicians still play out on the street. At the very moment that UIC was demolishing Maxwell Street, the National Trust for Historic Preservation was giving its annual Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Policy to none other than Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, one of the prime supporters of Maxwell Street's destruction. The decision to give Mr. Daley the preservation stamp of approval is hardly surprising. Daley has supported the kinds of changes that preservation leaders like, such as offering tax incentives to developers to preserve landmarks, rehabilitating a few highly visible landmarks like the Reliance Building (which has become a luxury hotel). Preservationists seem to have entered into a dysfunctional marriage with developers, bending over backwards not to appear to be against development. They are promoting the very policies and forces that destroy the historic fabric of a city.

In praising this year's National Preservation Award winners, National Trust chief Richard Moe said, "Preservation isn't just about saving historic buildings. It's about saving historic neighborhood schools for our children, revitalizing downtowns, making historic homes affordable, and protecting our ethnic heritage." There is an obvious disconnect between what Mr. Moe says and Mr. Daley does. Daley serves and sets policy for the real estate developers, who have been tearing through the city's historic fabric with abandon, making a mockery of the National Trust's praise.

While real estate development and gentrification forces are also strong in other major cities, Daley stands out as a proponent of policies that accelerate the process rather than mitigate it. Even as he has helped preserve a few visible landmarks, Daley's policies have helped to empty the city not only of poor and working-class people but also of their legacies to the city.

The demolition of the Maxwell Street area is a crime against our cultural memory, and is teaching working-class people that their history doesn't really matter. We can only hope the farewell ode sung before the demolition crews will instead become a rallying cry for what's left of this and other cultural-heritage sites.

Max Page is the author of 'The Creative Destruction of Manhattan' (University of Chicago Press, 1999). Steve Balkin is vice president of the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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