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You Can't Please Everyone: The Dubious Relationship between Logan Square and it's Bohemian Inhabitants

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(Please note: this is rather long, props still need to be given and links need to be made.  I will make sure to do so ASAP… I just needed to get it up here before it’s totally outdated.)

I love living in Logan Square.  I love the tree-lined streets and the elote carts, with their awkward, honking horns. I love the lively Quince años parties in people’s yards in the summer.  I love the candy that’s left over after the piñatas have been broken and the kids have gotten sick from sugar.

 Most of all, I love that I can afford to have a bedroom, a painting studio, and an office.  My boyfriend has a bike shop and a wood shop.  My dog has his own bedroom.  I have more than enough space and I only have to travel an extra mile out of my way to get it.

 Often, though, my enjoyment is soured by subtle reminders that I am not entirely welcome here.   To some of my neighbors, I am a blonde-haired harbinger of doom and my freshly renovated apartment with its’ granite countertops and hardwood floors is the lair in which I conspire my fascist agenda.  Or something like that. 

 Although most of Logan Square has already been gentrified, the West end, where I live, is just beginning to turn.  And so somehow, although this is my home too and I only want what’s best, my being here is apparently an open invitation for self-involved yuppies and money-hungry developers to come suck the life out of the neighborhood. I realize that some of my queasiness about gentrification can probably just be chalked up to white guilt, but gentrification is a real and hotly debated issue and discussions about it are not only valid but important, so I will forge on.

 In a recent article titled, Gentrification: Can freak bohemians avoid becoming pawns in the capitalist ethnic cleansing game?, in the Berkeley-based anarchist ‘zine, Slingshot, an anonymous writer put it well when he/she wrote: “I am one small piece of the gentrification puzzle, one of the group of people the real estate analyzers call “risk oblivious”, willing to live in an area with little capital invested in it and high crime rates, eventually making the area palatable for other generally white people with higher incomes.”

 And then, as the story goes, the unique culture of the neighborhood is homogenized and bleached out little by little with the opening of every new Starbucks and doggie day care.

 I find myself stuck somewhere between the anarchists and the yuppies on this one. The anarchists with their, “Fight the capitalistic homogenization of culture!” and the yuppies with their spas and their organic vegetable gardens and insatiable appetite for Target stores.

And then, at another end of the spectrum, there are the occasional off the wall comments on online forums, like the one titled “Humboldt Park & Gentrification” on citynoise.org, which simply preach about banding together to stop whitey from taking away the homeland.  That argument immediately fails for me because the Latino community itself is a relatively recent transplant. Logan Square was built by and inhabited by mostly Eastern and Northern European immigrants until relatively recently.  And, of course, before them it was Native American turf.

 The Square’s Roots

4oldtimey2 According to an article on Logan Square’s history written for The Reader by Harold Henderson, The neighborhood now known as Logan Square (named after civil war general John A. Logan) was spawned in 1836 when a twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher named Martin Kimbell came to town from upstate New York.  He supposedly rejected land at Dearborn and Lake as “a damned mud hole” and instead staked his claim to 160 acres five miles northwest.

 Logan Square didn’t exist as a neighborhood or even a square in Kimbell’s day, though. Beginning in 1850, the relevant political unit was Jefferson Township, stretching west of Western and north of North Avenue. 

 The population in Logan Square peaked in 1930 at 114,000. Now, it hovers around 82,000.  The neighborhood emptied out with the Great Depression, World War II, and the rise of suburb-a-mania. Between 1950 and 1960 more than 22,000 people left the area and moved northwest. Vacant storefronts became common along Fullerton, Diversey, and Milwaukee. In 1941 Logan Square’s business district had been ranked fourth in the city in sale volume; by 1956 it was 15th.

 In 1958 the Chicago Human Relations Commission officially announced that lower-income groups in Logan Square were “replacing the older and more affluent residents.”

 Ever since that first influx of Yankees, most of its residents have been hardworking immigrants who cherish their native tongues. First there were Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes, then Poles and Russian Jews, and for the past few decades, Latinos. Beginning in the seventies, Logan Square became a haven for gangs and gang violence, and most of the retail shopping that held the community together disappeared.

 Slowly, over the past several years, artists and students have migrated northwest to Logan Square, attracted by the large apartments, low rent, and proximity to public transportation and downtown Chicago.

 The Role of the Artist

 15bookexchangeArtists seeking bigger spaces for lower rents are often the first “gentrifiers” of neglected urban neighborhoods.  A study by the National Endowment for the Arts has shown that downtown gentrification in cities all over the US increases in proportion to the number of artists in the area.  Students, artist, and other “bohemians” settle in depressed, low-rent districts and then complain about the influx of yuppies that follows them, driving them out as prices rise. In other words, artists are anxious that they will be priced out due to their own success in transforming the neighborhood.  Paradoxically, it is the artists and other bohemians themselves who set up the conditions for the gentrification process that unfolds.

 Rob Ray, proprietor and curator of Deadtech, a progressive art space that operated in Logan Square from 1998-2008, had a lot to say when I asked him about the correlation. “There is a relationship [between artists and gentrification,] but this is different than saying that the growth of an artistic community is the cause of gentrification or that gentrification is an inevitable result of that growth.  Artists are, in many ways, used by developers and landowners as the screwdriver to pry the lid off a neighborhood. I believe the burden of gentrification is often carried by many low-income support structures, such as restaurant workers. Artists, oftentimes, are those people filling those shoes. So we, inevitably, play a role.”

 Whether they like it or not, the pioneering inclinations of artists are often taken advantage of.  Artists are often used as pawns by city managers around the world, employed to carry out capitalistic agendas.  It is not uncommon to see adds on websites like the Chicago Artists Resource for cheap, fixed-rate artists studios in run down neighborhoods.

 Recently, Logan Square alderman Rey Colon rejected a plan to convert a vacant building at 2800 N. Milwaukee Ave. into more than forty “supportive housing units,” in favor of artists’ lofts.  The decision was somewhat unpopular because, according to an article by Lindsay Welbers for chicagotalks.org, the housing would have helped low income families and offered social services like healthcare, employment and mental health outreach for residents.   But, of course, in the end it is money that makes the decisions. About the decision, Colon said, “it amounted to about a $10 million difference; it was kind of a no-brainer.”

 “It’s easy to see why a mayor would love gentrification,” said Ilana Stanger in an article titled The Gentrification Game for New York Foundation for the Arts. “Soho, once a neighborhood of abandoned warehouses and loose-cobblestone streets, is today filled with cafes, expensive restaurants, and designer boutiques. But you’ll be hard pressed to find a real-live struggling artist living there. Once the studios open and the smell of cappuccino wafts through the air, price hikes are just around the corner. This leaves the artists, not to mention the original neighborhood residents, packing bags in search of the next, cheap frontier.”

Ironically, artists who seek out poor areas for an “anti-establishment” aesthetic become accomplices in the gentrification of an area and end up attracting the bourgeois culture they originally fled. 

 Instead of simply complaining about the influx of yuppies, which too many artists are guilty of, artists and art spaces need to acknowledge their role and their context in the neighborhood.  An article in October in 1984 titled The Fine Art of Gentrification explains, “It is of critical importance to understand the gentrification process – and the art world’s crucial role within it -if we are to avoid aligning ourselves with the forces behind this destruction.”

 Many artists and art-institutions in Logan Square are responsible and active members of the neighborhood, though, who acknowledge their effect on and potential to change the neighborhood, and actively contribute to the quality of the area for all who care to notice.  The building that houses the historic Congress Theater on Milwaukee Ave. is also home to various creative venues, most notably InCUBATE.  In their mission, they explain, “InCUBATE is a research institute dedicated to challenging current infrastructures, specifically how they affect artistic production. As art historians and arts administrators, our goal is to explore the possibility of developing financial models that could be relevant to contemporary art institutions, as well as collective or individual artist projects working outside an institution. Our goal is to continue to conceptualize new possible situations, document these innovations, and make this information available to everyone.”  One of their current projects involves a detailed mapping of the area directly surrounding the space.  Their website explains, “The goal of the aerial map is to visualize the space through social and economic data to begin to understand the demographics of the neighborhood and pinpoint possible areas of gentrification and socioeconomic divisions.”

 Real Estate

 7mansionsThe root cause of gentrification is real estate, the relationship between property and capital. With the exception of tenant protections like rent control and subsidized “affordable housing”, housing costs are determined by the market. Landlords charge what they can, based upon the demand for an area. They profit when a lot of people with money want to live in an area. When people with money aren’t interested in an area, landlords have little incentive to put money into their property. Buildings deteriorate and are sometimes even torched so landlords can collect insurance money. Lots lay fallow, buildings deteriorate, and social services slump.

 Gentrification happens because of this relationship between property and capital, because the landowner can make a profit off the fact that somebody is living on their land. It is this profit-motive that keeps poor people moving at the whim of the wealthier folks. Displacement of poor and working class people is built into the very structure of capitalism.

 In an article by Neil Smith titled, Gentrification in Brief: Enough Room for Space, it is explained: “The central mechanism behind gentrification can be thought of as a “rent gap.” When neighborhoods experience disinvestment, the ground rent that can be extracted from the area declines, which means lower land prices. As this disinvestment continues, the gap between the actual ground rent in the area and the ground rent that could be extracted were the area to undergo reinvestment becomes wide enough to allow that reinvestment to take place.”

 Cities encourage gentrification because it will generate more tax revenues, which city governments increasingly depend on as the federal government moves away from supporting local governments. Thus cities have an incentive to encourage reinvestment in an area through zoning concessions, tax structures, and reducing protection for affordable housing.

 

 And up until the recent real estate crash, it was working for Logan Square.  According to an article titled Logan Square: Small Town in the Big City by Mary Lu Laffey for the Chicago Tribune, In 2006, the median sale price for a single-family detached home in Logan Square was $603,250—a ninety-five percent price increase from five years earlier and a 385 percent price increase from 1996. Rehab permits that year were four times greater than new construction permits: 1,008 to 280.  The rehab I currently live in was one of them.

 The Problem

 The main problem with gentrification of an area has to do with displacement and homogenization.  The article I mentioned earlier for Slingshot magazine illustrates this colorfully.  “Gentrification is essentially apartheid by race and class. There are always multiple cultures coexisting in one area; the question is which cultures are officially recognized, and what political power these recognized cultures have. As an area gentrifies, the range of activities and people considered acceptable in the area shrinks. Formerly vibrant urban areas become suburban monocultures were human creativity is replaced by packaged experiences OK’d by the market. Neighborhood gentrification mirrors global homogenization where culture and life are governed by an increasingly small number of rich, powerful organizations with no relevance to the immediate local.”

5milwaukee1  The Logan Square Neighborhood Association’s website gives a compelling argument against gentrification.  On it, a local Catholic priest and housing activist, Father Mike, explains, “When the community begins to change, it is not just the houses. Suddenly “we” need more green space, more play space. Each time they go and tear something down, they say drug dealers lived there. There’s a feeling that now “we” deserve a park more than [someone] deserves a home. When the neighborhood begins to change, then the meaning of the neighborhood begins to change.”

An organizer for LSNA’s Parent Mentor program, which trains parents to work in Logan Square schools alongside the classroom teachers, described the sleazy behavior of developers and the impact that displacement is having on her school and community.

“I had 6 parent mentors living in one apartment building (it was a 17 unit building) and they got a 30 day notice and they were offered $2000 to be out in 5 days. These people started construction even before the 30 days were up. There were no permits issued, nothing. They were just told to leave. And not one of those families came back to Brentano. So we lost 17. I lost all those parent mentors. I lost a few friends. The fact they were able to do this; they weren’t issued any permits and when they were, they were backdated. I look at the parent mentors we lost, the children we have lost from the school, the rental units we lost, and the lack of aldermen caring about those people, and even back-dating the permits! That all ties into what we’re up against.” 

 Many skeptics of a changing Logan Square also question the extent to which new residents are invested in the community. 
 In an article titled The Split Personality of Logan Square, published in January 2008 in the Chicago Tribune, Major-Emanuel Seay, associate executive director at a YMCA street intervention program was quoted: “When you look at [Logan] Boulevard, ask yourself: How many of these people are raising families, young children who are going to Chicago Public Schools?  The mom and pop stores, the local churches, they’re starting to leave. Unless you’re of a certain socio-economic status, you’re pushed away.”

 The Tactics

chicago-gang-graffiti So how are people fighting gentrification?  So far it seems like many residents are cutting off their noses to spite their faces.  In other words, embracing ghetto behavior and low standards of living and neighborhood upkeep to ensure that developers won’t take interest in their real estate.

 An article titled Gentrification and it’s Contents, written by Charles Buki for The Next American City magazine, comments on this: “Impoverished cities are so dominated by the interests and legitimate needs of the many poor in their cities that they often disregard abysmal neighborhood conditions so long as repositories of affordable housing are maintained. In city after city, when it comes to local policy-making, concern about housing affordability masks the more central issue of neighborhood quality. Given the dynamics of neighborhood change outlined above, keeping a neighborhood unattractive often presents itself as the easiest way to keep a neighborhood affordable. But preventing gentrification and keeping neighborhoods affordable are not victories if those neighborhoods remain unsafe and unattractive places to live.”

 Others have taken more constructive action.  There are a handful of Chicago-based organizations fighting to keep gentrifying neighborhoods affordable like the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, Chicago Rehab Network, and Young Lords.  Young Lords was founded in Chicago in the sixties by a group of Puerto Rican gang members-turned activists, upset by being pushed out of Lincoln Park.  What started as a fight against displacement quickly expanded to other social issues such as affordable housing and day care.  Today though, Young Lords doesn’t appear to be as active or influential as the aforementioned organizations, it almost seems like more of the sort of throwback club that your hippie Puerto Rican grandma would be part of in than a contemporary organization with viable answers to new questions.

 The Improvements

logan1 After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that Gentrification doesn’t have to be a dirty word.  After all, the neighborhood certainly seems to be getting some positive attention from the city.

 A shiny new skate park has recently opened under the interstate on Logan Boulevard at Western Ave., an area that used to only be inhabited by homeless guys and dead pigeons.

 There has been talk of transforming the abandoned elevated railroad tracks that run between North Ave. and Armitage into a plant-lined path for peds and pedalers called “The Bloomingdale Trail.”

 

There have also been rumors about installing the controversial children’s museum, (originally intended for Grant Park, but not welcome there,) along13bloomingdaletrailMilwaukee Ave., just southeast of the square.  An article posted in the Chicago Tribune in May 2008, (the most recent word I can find about the potential project,) sells the idea: “Imagine the thrill for kids of O’Hare-bound CTA trains rolling through one transparent part of a multi-level building that combines the museum with art galleries, athletic facilities and performance homes for dance and drama troupes. The area is spacious enough to hold a large park above a parking ramp on Milwaukee Avenue, across a street from the historic green space of Logan Square and its eagle-topped monument. 

This Logan Square option allows remaking four-plus acres now occupied by a discount store and a CTA trench where the Blue Line slips underground. City Hall already wants the store site redeveloped.” 

 The discount store that would be torn down is the Megamall, basically a permanent and constant indoor flea market that is hated by developers because of the prime real estate it sits on.  It caught on fire at 2am on a Saturday night in September of 2007, a suspicious incident to say the least.  The fire destroyed many businesses and benefits were arranged to help the affected families.  So we must consider that the children’s museum being plopped on that land would put a lot of vendors out of work.  It is not a win-win proposition, but it sounds like a good deal to me.

8dibs Many residents of gentrified neighborhoods enjoy the changes they’ve seen around their homes.  I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lynn Stevens, an urban planner and longtime Logan Square resident who maintains a blog (called Peopling Places) detailing the goings-on in and around the neighborhood.  About the changes she’s noticed on her own block, she optimistically remarked, “This past winter only one person put junk in the street to save a parking space, and since my immediate neighbors moved away two or three years ago, no one has used a car horn as a doorbell.”

 An anonymous commenter, identified only by the initials ‘KLS’ in response to an article titled Humboldt Park and Gentrification on a blog at Citynoise.org wrote, “I love the cultural richness found on the Humboldt Park, but hate to see this cultural pride tied to dysfunctional American culture in the form of trash, anger, gangs and violence. All of my neighbors are happy to see the mellowing on our street. No one, no matter how long they have lived on the block, is unhappy to see the car burnings stop and the crack houses rehabbed. Everyone’s gardens, rich or poor, look brighter since the corner store turned into a flower shop. If this is gentrification, is it so bad?  Urban areas are fluid beings that ebb and flow over time. It is sad to see what we have known change, but also sad to waste so much energy on antagonism rather than embracing the positive.”

10tourdefat3Last Summer Forbes magazine identified Logan Square as one of America’s “Most Fuel Efficient Neighborhoods.”  The blurb doesn’t even mention that Logan Square is incredibly bicycle friendly.  We have four bike shops within the neighborhood limits and a boulevard system that was designed with bikes in mind.  Palmer Square, a park within the greater Logan Square neighborhood, is home to Tour de Fat, Fat Tires’ annual touring festival, celebrating the bicycle in all its’ glory. On Peopling Places, Lynn Stevens wrote, “Tour de Fat seems like an indescribable irreverent spectacle! A veritable cycling circus! With neighborhood bike ride, bike rodeo, costumes, slow race, live music and more. Proceeds from beer and merchandise (admission is free!) go to a worthy organization, West Town Bikes, a community bicycle learning workshop.”

 Local foodies boast that Logan Square is home to a great Farmers market, which was recently taken over by the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce.  Because of the takeover, it is the first farmer’s market the city to accept food stamps.  So who says eating right isn’t affordable?  Logan Square residents are also eagerly anticipating the opening of the new Dill Pickle Food Co-op on Fullerton Ave.  Their website proclaims, “The co-op, when fully operational, will be a consumer cooperative, a grocery store that is owned and democratically controlled by the members who shop at the store. Anyone can become a member, and the store will be open to members and non-members alike.  Dill Pickle’s commitment to local, organic and healthy food will go far beyond the commitment of chain stores. We will connect residents with local food producers and create a store whose major concern is quality and affordability, not corporate profits.”

 How to resolve your internal conflicts about gentrification

 It seems as though the first step toward being a responsible gentrifier is simply being aware of your impact in your community and taking responsibility for it.

 For those who want to take more progressive action, there are other options.  The Slingshot article posed some interesting suggestions for young white urbanites who want to fight unjust gentrification in their neighborhoods.  Admittedly, some seem more realistic than others:

 

  • Look around and talk to people about neighborhood change and anti-displacement work already being done. Do oral history projects of the neighborhood.

 

  • Expose development plans on the part of corporations and various branches of government. Snake your way into the ‘public’ meetings held by the inner workings of the government bureaucracy. Oppose corporate development scams with a range of tactics.

 

  • Support the foundation of neighborhood associations.

 

  • Help fight individual evictions.

 

  • Help with direct neighborhood improvement projects like kids projects, gardens, traffic slow-down devices (but be prepared to fight the yuppies who want to leach off this good work).

 

Charles Buki gives us direction: “Policymakers must acknowledge that neighborhoods are always changing, and that idealizing a static notion of communities is counter-productive. Community bonds and organizations maintain their central role in the life of a community, even as individuals come and go. In successful neighborhoods, marketability, a sense of community, and the choices of individuals do not conflict, but rather reinforce each other.”

 Last but not least, I was solaced by a conversation with Josh Deth, an eleven-year resident of Logan Square who served as the executive director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce for two years and is currently in the process of opening Revolution Brewing, a brewpub in the square on Milwaukee.  “Change is a constant in urban places like Logan Square.  It is one of the things I like about living in the city, and it contributes to vibrancy.  And to be super cynical, aren’t cities all about the continual process of destroying and creating over again?”  When I asked him how Logan Square can be developed in a less-invasive way to allow the neighborhood to evolve in a positive, natural way, he replied, “Getting people to interact together and create community together is a key to keeping it a stable community for everyone.  The important thing is that people organize and fight to get what they want and care about, instead of expecting others to do it for them.”

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