What do we lose, when we lose our buildings?

Date: 
06/09/2011
WoodDemolBldg

This is 820 N. Wood before

We have not had to face this question for awhile, but with tentative signs of economic improvement, East Village, Wicker Park and Bucktown are beginning to see rampant tear downs again. In the last six weeks, on Wood Street between Chicago and Armitage alone, no fewer than six vintage brick and stone buildings have been lost. And these are by no means the only ones lost recently.

The 1880's and 1890's era red brick buildings that characterize East Village, Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park and Bucktown are part of our identity as Chicagoans. They are a tangible connection to the boom period that followed the Chicago Fire which Carl Sandburg captured in his famous poem: "...hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat...". Every morning, out of these buildings came those hog butchers, those tool makers and those stackers of wheat. Those men and women, who built the foundations of the world class city we know today, walked our streets, climbed our stairs, ate, slept, lived and died in our homes. What do we lose when we lose our buildings? We lose ourselves.

In the roman, medieval and renaissance towns of Europe, demolition of existing buildings is rarely seen. This is not because they are protected by law (though of course some are), but because their cultural value is universally recognized. Buildings connect people to their ancestors over the centuries and millennia; buildings give physical expression to culture; buildings, like other forms of art, grant us immortality. In Europe, destruction of the built environment is tantamount to cultural suicide.

There is no question that American culture is different. It is defined by individualism, self-expression and reinvention, and with a shorter history we tend to look forward more than back. These values make our culture unique and have propelled our country to a position of power and leadership unparalleled in world history. But these values can also be counterproductive; they have created a consumption-based society where "new" is always better, and a culture that too often forgets its history.

Conversations about the value of old buildings are often framed in terms of property rights, but we really need to view the issue in terms of social norms. This is perfectly sensible, since urban living is untenable if everyone insists on exercising their rights at the extremes. Urban dwellers implicitly understand the need for self-restraint, shared responsibility and concern for one-another's well being; it comes with living thirty inches away from one's neighbor.

Shifting the argument away from rights and toward responsibilities will require a sea change in attitudes, but it is not unprecedented. Less than two decades ago, smoking was widespread and seen as a personal right. Today, individuals still have the right to smoke but the framework of "rights" has been turned inside out. Non-smokers also have the right not to breath second-hand smoke. Similarly, we need to acknowledge that individual property rights do not exist in a vacuum; they are counterbalanced with the interests of neighbors and communities.

We can start by considering whether financial "ownership" of a building is a high enough bar to release a property owner from further responsibility to the community, or whether there are social and environmental debts that must be satisfied as well. Is it acceptable to replace a lovely building with a poorly constructed one of inferior design? Can we allow the bricks of an old building to be landfill without acknowledging the environmental damage done 130 years ago in producing them? Can we tolerate the waste of old-growth lumber cut more than a century ago from two hundred year old trees? Can anyone truly "own" the sentimental value of a home to its inhabitants and community over thirteen decades? The full historic, cultural and environmental value of a building is not captured by its purchase price, and until it is, a building cannot truly be "owned."

Demo820-814Wood

This is 820 N. Wood during demolition

People come to our historic West Town communities for the synergy of charming architecture, unique businesses, public transportation, lovely parks, and an interesting mix of workers, professionals and artists.  When any one of these elements is eroded too much, through gentrification, demolition, economic decline, service cuts or crime, they all suffer.  Each lost building pushes us closer to the four decades of neighborhood decline that we've only begun to reverse.

The buildings on Wood Street are gone, but the threat remains. As a community, we must send a clear message to our elected representatives and developers: We value our history, our culture and the environment, and we will not stand by and allow the fabric of our community to be exploited for profit while its very value is diminished.

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Comments

Great

Me encantó tu post, 100% recomendado. Me gustaría recomendar lo mejor de la historia de Ica

Scott, Thank you for

Scott, Thank you for addressing this issue again. New East Village architecture by and large (not always, of course, but often) reminds me of Soviet-style, monotonous, concrete monoliths. As my father would say, "Looks like Communist village!" Not built to last. To me, it's concerning that, aesthetics aside, some of these buildings are having structural problems even less than ten years out. I would also like to echo your sentiments about urban architecture, particularly as it applies to Chicago. Chicago does not have hills or mountains, but it still has a neighborhood feel and an interesting history deeply connected to its buildings. Take that away, and I'm not sure what Chicago really is. And while I agree that of course a sense of vitality is important to any neighborhood, I think that vibrancy constitutes much more than just real estate activity.

In any case, it's nice to see a polite and intelligent neighborhood discussion prompted by your article.

GREAT INFORMATION

Scott, Great information and key points. It's amazing how big cities are so quick to demolish history.

How does the zoning and

How does the zoning and building codes of the East Village incentivize new construction any more than any other neighborhood? The East Village - I believe - has done a much better job than, say, Bucktown or Lincoln Park about maintaining the existing zoning. The bulk and height is much more consistent throughout the neighborhood than most in the city.

Turning to the issue of tear downs, I think that the idea of barring and deincentivizing of construction is a poor one. Now, before there is too much clamor, I'll start by saying that I not only live in the Wicker Park Historic District, but am actually a preservation professional. I have to say, then, probably not every building in the area is worth saving. Small brick buildings are cute and have a lot of embedded history, but don't new buildings have architectural character worth supporting as well? Frankly, the East Village is one of my favorite parts of West Town simply because of the often stark contrast that a glass modernist structure has next to a typical brick or greystone structure. Further, as someone who has lived in Europe full-time for three years, I categorically deny the statement that teardowns simply do not happen in European cities. They do - often with amazing results, often with terrible ones - just like here.

The point is: are there buildings that need to be saved in West Town? Absolutely. Does new construction require regulation of not only bulk and height, but also design elements? Yes. Are tear downs always negative though? Unquestionably, the answer is no.

teardowns

ZTJ,

It is refreshing to see such logical commentary especially given your passion for preservation. While we as a company have a vested interest in the business of redevelopment, it is under similar logic that we are able to continue our mission and business model.

Our belief concurs with yours – in reality, not every building or home was built to last. Many were constructed during periods when supplies were scarce and/or technologies under developed. I think in many cases the original builders would agree.

Let’s also remember, what’s new now will be old one day and most likely these new buildings will be the subject of the same debate – save it or start over? There is room for preserving and new development.

Scott, we should be grateful that these great neighborhoods continue to attract property buyers, much less those that want to increase value through new development. The real problem will exist if this activity stops – just take a short trip to Detroit and see the other side of vibrancy.

Scott, Well put. It is not

Scott, Well put. It is not just about age of the building, it is about streetscapes and neighborhood character. The zoning and building codes applicable to the East Village incentivizes automobile focused new construction. It is time that our legislators incentivize preservation and rehabilitation over demolition and new construction.

Well said

Scott- As always, very well said. As with a lot of issues in our society, a realignment of our core values is not only preferred, but necessary for our success as a society. Joe Moreno

What standard would you propose for an appropriate teardown?

Scott - I imagine that you are not proposing that no "old" building may ever be torn down. If that's correct, what standard(s) would you propose for judging whether a tear down of an existing structure should be permitted?

Old is Green

Thanks for the great topic and article! "Embodied energy" is the term I like for all that's lost when we tear down. All the power and resources it took to cut down and mill, (or dig and mold, for bricks- or mine and cut, for stone), transport and erect our old buildings is lost. Then, the same energy is spent again, at today's prices and with increased environmental degradation- usually in the guise of a "green" building. A renovated building is ALWAYS greener.

History around us

I agree with Scott completely!. We are in a 99 year old brownstone storefront, that was originally built by Polish bakers, Zygmunt and Klara Jablonowski. I traced them back to their previous bakery building (published in "Polish Downtown") that was torn down to develop Pulaski park 100 years ago which was the catalyst for our Greenview building being built in 1912. I love the park and its landmark field house, but I also know that there were a lot of buildings and businesses torn down (some buildings were rolled to new locations) to create our little oasis; many merchants were located on Noble Street and fought to have the park located somewhere else so they could keep their businesses intact. They lost. In a way, although I love our park and swimming pool, so did we.

When we travel around the world, what we love about Paris, San Francisco, Cuzco or other cities is not the newly built modern residences, but the old historic areas, the flavor of another era, the beauty of the details and the patina that age has bestowed upon them. I am always saddened when I hear of so many brick buildings being torn down for new modern single family or condo developments. And when I send guests out to look at the architecture of the neighborhood, i send them to the "Beer Baron" mansions and other Victorian beauties; they are not really interested in the glass faced "file cabinet" condos that are popping up all around us.

Thank You for Writing This

Scott, Losing buildings like the six that have already been lost is beyond frustrating-- it is infuriating. As you asserted, these buildings are part of our city's identity, and the historicity inherent in them and link to ancestors is something that can never be replaced once the rubble is cleared away. A few weeks back I saw the EVA Twitter feed and linked to your blog on this, and glad you took the time to go more in-depth and write this piece. So sorry to hear of our collective loss. :(

Building Incentives Are Not Aligned

Chicago has a Green Building Permit Process with incentives for building green with features like high efficiency furnaces, low voc paint, bamboo floors, etc. These features are good for the environment but are relatively inconsequential in comparison to the environmental impact of rehabbing a building verse tearing one down. Until our city and federal governments understand that the greenest thing to do is simply rehab, there will not be proper incentives to encourage rehab. Ultimately, we should use both a carrot and stick to deter tearing down properties.

To expand the scope of your concern

Thank you for bringing attention to this largely overlooked crisis. I have to expand the scope of your concern. This condition is not only prevalent in the East Village, Wicker Park and Bucktown.

The current rate of foreclosure seems to have everyone running around reacting out of fear. No thought is being given to the long term impact of the rash decisions being rendered by banks, many of whom do not even have a local presence in the City. Even if they are local, the decisions are still mostly being made by lending staff with absolutely no qualification to determine the true value of an existing building. If they gather any information beyond a Google Earth image, it comes from an appraiser who is merely driving by and filling out a form. No regard is being given for the structural condition or true value of the building, weather it is a grey stone, bungalow, or a leaning frame structure is of little concern.

I have heard of the decision being made to tear down homes, simply because they are only 2 bedrooms, most Bungalows fall into this category. They were known as starter homes.

This is a reaction to a real estate market that no longer exists, one that says bigger is always better. This is not appropriate for our new economy, and with new trends in sustainability, smaller may well be the new bigger. Unfortunately, the starter home is disappearing due to the shortsightedness of an industry in shear panic.

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