Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side

Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side is the first book devoted to the South Side’s rich and unfairly ignored architectural heritage. With lively, insightful text and gallery-quality color photographs by noted Chicago architecture expert Lee Bey, Southern Exposure documents the remarkable and largely unsung architecture of the South Side. The book features an array of landmarks—from a Space Age dry cleaner to a nineteenth-century lagoon that meanders down the middle of a working-class neighborhood street—that are largely absent from arts discourse, in no small part because they sit in a predominantly African American and Latino section of town better known as a place of disinvestment, abandonment, and violence. Pushing against the popular narrative that depicts Chicago’s South Side as an architectural wasteland, Bey shows beautiful and intact buildings and neighborhoods that reflect the value—and potential—of the area.

Browse several of Bey’s photographs below, or scroll down to read an excerpt from the book!

An excerpt from Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side

The Old Man looked at me and said, “Let’s go.”

It was an overcast and chilly day in April of 1980. I was fourteen years old. And my father wanted to take me somewhere. Now this wasn’t a trip I had asked for. I was happy enough to spend that idle Saturday just sitting around the house. But the Old Man—a Korean War vet and factory worker who could be gruff, no nonsense, and direct—had different plans. Just looked at me, maybe on an impulse, and said, “Let’s go.” So we went.

And soon, the two of us were gliding northward down broad Martin Luther King Drive in my father’s big Buick Electra 225, rolling north past the blocks of Victorian-era graystones and large apartment buildings. The thoroughfare cuts a wide path through Chicago’s historic Grand Boulevard and Douglas neighborhoods, two communities that have been the heart of black Chicago since the 1920s. The Old Man grew up in Douglas. He wanted to show me the buildings, places, and haunts of his youth.

We drove down main streets, side streets, and alleys as he showed me things. Old churches. Stately brick buildings and apartment houses. When he saw a building he particularly liked, he’d suddenly pull over and bound out of the car, motioning me to come with. “Look at those bricks,” he said. “You see those windows?” Or, “There used to be a bar here when I was a kid.”

Grand Boulevard, Douglas, and the surrounding neighborhoods are on the relative upswing here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and are generally referred to as Bronzeville, or Black Metropolis, two names from the area’s pre-World War II time as an economically and culturally black city-within-a-city, not unlike New York’s Harlem.

The big buildings my father and I passed then can list for $600,000 or more now. But things were a lot different in 1980. Many of these great old structures were almost worthless and were vacant, or nearly falling apart. Good architecture at near fire-sale prices. The area was built for upper-class whites starting in the 1880s, when the community was essentially Chicago’s first Gold Coast. But those rich whites started leaving the area for what became the actual Gold Coast neighborhood just north of downtown after 1900. They packed their valises even faster beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. That’s when black folks from the South started moving to Chicago and into these neighborhoods.

Among those new arrivals from the South in the 1930s was the Johnson family, led by Claudis and his wife Ohnie, both in their thirties. Among their young children was Lee, my father and tour guide for the day.

My father eased the Electra down Drexel Boulevard and took a slow pass at Fortieth Street to look at New Testament Missionary Baptist Church. The late-nineteenth-century church was an eruption of rusticated stone, marked by a triumphant four-story, rounded-corner bell tower over its entrance. Architect George H. Edbrooke designed the place, built in 1886 as South Congregational Church when Drexel was among the city’s premier addresses. On that day in 1980, the church looked so old and weathered, I wondered if it was still open.

For that entire afternoon, my father introduced me to street after street, building after building. And the more he talked, the more I could see the beauty in these decayed places. He told me about the people from his youth—other black people just up from the South—who lived in the neighborhood when my father grew up there. Sam Cooke. Oscar Brown Jr. Lou Rawls and Lou Rawls’s foster father’s funeral home. The places and the people became one.

I’d grown up in the back seat of that Electra, riding with my mother and father, picking up details about the city from them as the South Side metropolis of bungalows, two-flats, and church buildings unfolded before me through the car windows’ light bluish-green tint. But in those cases, we were always going someplace—visiting family, picking someone up, taking my two sisters to some sort of destination. This spring day in 1980 was different. I had no idea then why he wanted me to know about these places, why it was important for him to show me. And I never asked. I just took in as much as I could and enjoyed the time we spent together.

My father died the next year. He was fifty-two.

In the decades since his death, I’ve come to believe that my father, with that car ride, was bequeathing to me a place he loved. Passing it on to me like an heirloom. This is yours now. Perhaps it had been happening little by little throughout my life as we saw places together across the greater South Side. He’d pointed out things and patiently answered my questions about the buildings I saw. Then, on that overcast and chilly spring afternoon in 1980, he took the time to give me the last piece: the buildings and neighborhoods that made him and shaped him. The last diamond being set in that heirloom just before he handed it off to me.

From Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side by Lee Bey. Text and photographs © 2019 by Lee Bey. Published 2019 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

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