Landmarks Can Kill You

October 17, 2005 Chicago Buildings, Economics Comments Off on Landmarks Can Kill You 1173

There was a Commission on Chicago Landmarks hearing last week on the designation of the East Village district, and I heard one of the best ones yet. In over two decades of landmarks hearings at the Commission and before the City Council I have heard some amazing arguments against landmark designation. People claim they need 2,000 square foot additions to their rowhouse in order to raise children without hardship and if the Commission denies it they are all but abusing the children (sometimes as yet unconceived) and hindering their education. I heard a woman argue against designation of her old house because it was too close to the street and the buses, a fact which she then implicated in the deaths of both of her parents. Don’t designate this house – it is a killer.

The aldermen always get the best lines. I will never forget the 1987 City Council hearing on the possible designation of the Chicago Building when one alderman asked “Haven’t we already designated a building with Chicago windows?” My internal reply was “Isn’t there already one pyramid at Giza?” They voted designation down that day, but it made it a few years later and now the Chicago Building is an SAIC dorm!

More recently, we had the tempest in Riverside where the Public Guardian of an Alzheimer’s patient who owned a Frank Lloyd Wright house tried to do a schlock repair of the roof and used the woman’s disability and economic straits as a justification. That curious attempt at politician PR was foiled when the preservation groups organized to help both house and owner and a buyer/repairer came forward.

The most common reason for tearing down solid old buildings in the inner city for the last forty years has been that they become abandoned and havens for drugs prostitution and crime. This is true, but the logical result of that argument should mean that every demolition has reduced the problems of crime, prostitution and drugs. Ooops.

Generally the tactic, as in many debates, is to find a more important or emotional aspect of life (the well-being of children, the isolation and deprivation of the elderly, crime, drugs, safety) and set it against preservation. It is often a false dichotomy, as it was recently in Riverside. Which brings me to East Village, where an anti-landmarks group from Lincoln Park stirred up realtors hoping to erect more mini-skyscrapers, those spanked new 4-story four-flats that come in four designs: Contemporary Vanilla, Georgian vanilla, Victorian vanilla and Romanesque vanilla. One person testified that since landmarking came up in East Village, “the gangs have come back.”

Wow. Landmarking causes gangs. I knew they caused death, dismemberment and retarded growth in children, but gangs?. I imagine the gangbangers all gathered in some lovely Victorian, leafing through Preservation magazine while kicking it with a 40 ounce, checking out the city’s website to target the next historic district. “Yo bro dig my bling Eastlake porch!”

I probably should have guessed, since old buildings produce drugs and crime – presumably by spontaneous generation. (Spontaneous generation might well join the list of discredited pre-Enlightenment ideas in science that are making a big comeback in the 2000s. ) The logic follows thusly: to get rid of gangs, drugs, crime and prostitution, you tear down old buildings; ergo, if you preserve old buildings, you preserve gangsdrugscrimeprostitution.

Well, the alderman didn’t buy it and he is toughing out a avian-flu-like disinformation campaign led by a couple of real estate brokers who only know how to make money by overdevelopment. Real estate “professionals” like these are sort of like filmmakers who only know how to blow things up. All Independence Day, never Sideways.

Come on, guys. Make room for the human drama, the romance, the psychological thriller, the mystery and even the modern morality play about the dear old lady and the Frank Lloyd Wright house that is trying to kill her.