On Lincoln Yards and Displacement

not Lincoln Yards: the space where I grew up, before the Quonset hut was built on its rubble. Even the laboratory behind this is now gone. Photo from this project.

I was displaced when I was fourteen. It was a very elegant, bloodless displacement, the sort of thing done in the shadows; I suppose it barely counts as a displacement, but I certainly felt—feel—displaced. My family’s move from Hyde Park to the suburbs was less a matter of desire—does anyone actually want to go to the suburbs?—than of necessity: the University was doing a grand job of pushing its lower-paid professional staff (including the people who ran its labs) out of Hyde Park. Their suggestion was that we move south or west, helping expand their gentrification plan. We moved to the ‘burbs instead.

Hyde Park, I have been told, has changed immensely in the years since we left. I still want to go home, though there’s not really a home to which to return: the buildings in which I grew up have both been torn down, and the people I knew and loved have, in many cases, scattered to the winds. I have no idea if the University is happy with the destruction they have wrought. Certainly I am not. Even if the bulk of the neighborhood remains as vibrant and tight-knit as ever, my corner of it was destroyed years ago. I could say that we were too tight, too small, too cohesive, despite the transient students: that we, like Old Paris, had to go before we started another commune. (We were much more prone to writing petitions than blocking roads.) But I doubt the University ever really spared us a thought. We had no value, and neither did the buildings that made up our worlds.

grotesques, except not cute

My childhood displacement always looms large, but the plans for Lincoln Yards—just approved, and with more than twenty years of TIF funding to boot, because the plans alone just aren’t destructive enough—have brought it ever more sharply into focus. The plans for Lincoln Yards, as Blair Kamin has repeatedly discussed, verge on the grotesque. And, though the developers promise affordable housing in their megadevelopment, I doubt their visions of affordability have much in common with my own. (I’m looking at housing now that I have a job, and stumbled across one infuriating listing for affordable condos—at only $180,000.) The future Lincoln Yards might now be a morass, but there are neighborhoods surrounding it—communities like the one where I grew up, and from which I was pushed. What will those communities lose, as what Wicker Park businessman Robert Gomez describes as Schaumburg is dropped into their midst?

Lincoln Yards would drop in near a bar—the Hideout—that is described as the sort of neighborhood bar we had in our supposedly dry precinct when I was a kid. I never went to Jimmy’s—now Woodlawn Tap—but everybody knew it, whether or not they were regulars, and they knew all of us. Earlier iterations included changes to Hideout and other venues, and now that they’ve got the green light for the project itself, who is to say those prior iterations won’t find some way to pop up again? We’ve traditionally been called the city of neighborhoods, and while I suppose many other cities are also comprised of neighborhoods, we are very much a place of enclaves. Side of town (and baseball team) along with neighborhood and train line define our lives and our alliances, color my understanding of the city and of the world.

Lincoln Yards, as it lumbers right now, appears determined to create a monstrous void: a huge, towering span, to be sure, but a void all the same, one that teeters, as Kamin notes, on the verge of nothingness. It’s a vast sea of money into which Chicago taxpayers will be pouring their own money, at a time when the city could desperately use its funds for itself. Meanwhile, this gleeful trashing of neighborhood character—this lifeless suburban development plunked near Lincoln Park—comes at a time as urbanites are once again trying to lay claim to their own space.

David Harvey posits in Rebel Cities that urban spaces are, by their very nature, hotbeds of activity (and activism). Certainly we in Chicago have a long history of both activism and activity, one which we continue to this day. (There’s a reason we’re a certain person’s least favorite city ever.) Resistance is clearly brewing to developers and their lucrative deals in Chicago: residents continue to protest, while some new (and not-yet-sworn-in) alderpeople are, too. The liberal stalwart Chicago Sun-Times, which endorsed Lori Lightfoot, continues to write against the future Lincoln Yards, singling out that $1.6 billion in subsidies, among other (glaring) issues.

We’re a city of enclaves, of neighborhoods, all of them surprisingly small: we know our neighbors. It’s hard not to run into someone I know—or someone who knows my mother, or my father, or one of my brothers—when I head into the city. The city is ours, in the end: it will never belong to the developers, no matter how large their TIF districts, no matter how shining and glorious their promises. One would think the changes on Chicago’s City Council would be evidence enough of that. Lincoln Yards looks ghastly, from an architectural standpoint (do better, SOM! you’re our people!), and from a communal one. Lincoln Yards scares me, I’ll confess it, and it brings me back to the darkness of being pushed out, displaced from the only world I really knew. It is sure to cause displacement in its development. But Chicago’s a hell of a lot stronger than a developer, or a TIF district. Somehow, in the end, Lincoln Yards will turn into a neighborhood its developers never envisioned—and, I would guess, it too will march towards the right to the city.

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