In 2012, I photographed one hundred Chicago buildings destined to be demolished. This summer—ten years later—I returned to document what had changed at each of those building sites. Tragically, the results are as expected. In the past decade, nearly 90% of the buildings located around the Loop and on the North Side of the city have been replaced with another building, while approximately 90% of the buildings on the South and West Sides are now a derelict lot.
The idea behind this project, which was published in real time by the webzine Gapers Block as To be Demolished, was to highlight the literal erasure of the city’s built heritage and provide a framework to understand the consequences of the city’s policy-driven demolitions, the still spiraling effects of the Great Recession’s foreclosure crisis, and the demolition by neglect caused so many landlords. I would do so by drawing from public records, including demolition permits, inspection results, publicized developer plans, 311 call records, and other data. In practice, more than a third of the days in 2012, I would wake up, check the demolition permits, and then race to photograph a former home, church, or business before it was demolished. In the process, I also built relationships that resulted in the film The Area, which documented the intentional dismantling of an Englewood community to make way for the expansion of Norfolk Southern’s 47th Street intermodal terminal. Including the hundreds of families displaced and many homes demolished by the train company would increase this project by dozens. And, of course, there were hundreds more buildings I couldn’t reach in time.
While it was impossible to create a truly random sample because the demolition permits were inconsistently added to the city’s database, an irrefutable pattern quickly emerged: buildings on the North Side were largely being demolished to make way for another structure, while those on the South and West Sides were not. The immediate economic, social, and racial inequities were clear: whiter, wealthier neighborhoods were getting development, while poorer neighborhoods of color were not.
From the beginning, I planned to rephotograph these sites ten years later. After all, it is one thing if the demolition of a building leads to the construction of a family’s new house, high-quality affordable housing, or a community garden, but it is something else altogether if the building becomes just another gap in the city’s physical and social fabric, uninhabitable and unmaintained. Pulling together permits, funding, and more means that it may take a long time to create a new structure where one previously stood. Ten years should be enough time.
Clearly, the answer is “yes” in the city’s Loop and North Side neighborhoods. In fact, the answer was almost always “yes.” Of the forty-eight properties I photographed, only five didn’t have a building ten years later. For all but one of those five, the buildings were demolished so that an adjoining structure could have a side yard. The removal of density on the North Side was in service of private recreation space. Excluding the commercial redevelopment in the greater Loop, most demolished buildings were single family homes, and they were often replaced with single family homes. Of course, there are exceptions, with some examples of increasing density, like at 3549 N. Reta Ave., and others where multiple buildings were demolished to create massive single-family residences, like at 1951, 1957, and 1959 N. Orchard St. One building, Saint Boniface Church, was saved from the wrecking ball in the end. Each of these exceptions tells us something about the nuances of demolition in the city, but the story is clear: downtown and North Side buildings were replaced by another.
The story of the South and West Sides is almost exactly the opposite. Of the fifty-two buildings I photographed, six had structures in 2022. Instead, the vast majority of buildings had seemingly vanished following years of divestment, adding to the landscape of vacancy. In fact, there was only one house-for-house replacement, but it was in the historically white and comparatively well-to-do Bridgeport neighborhood. The scant other examples of redevelopment were by institutional actors, whether through the redevelopment of affordable housing at 6101-6125 S. Cottage Grove Ave. or the private development of a logistics center at 2445 S. Rockwell St.
Among the other trends include concerns about the long-term viability of religious structures in the city. Of the three religious sites included, Greater Little Rock–The Lord’s Church was replaced by a Walgreens, the Shepherd's Temple Baptist Church (once the Anshe Kanesses Israel synagogue) remains a derelict lot, and Saint Boniface Church stands as a preservation victory.
As for the other preservation success, the only threatened South Side building not demolished was a greystone recognized by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. There is clear evidence that the resources survey is inequitable and needs updating, but these two successes demonstrate that it is possible to protect buildings when activists have some institutional support.
The stark geographic differences clarified by this ten-year project are yet another reminder that racially, socially, and economically equitable development still doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and that the decision to demolish a structure has consequences that last for years to come. While some demolitions are done for good reasons, like protecting neighbors from fire risks, the fact that so many demolished buildings have not been rebuilt redoubles the protective importance of keeping residents in their homes and requiring landlords and lenders to maintain their buildings. Once a South or West Side building is demolished, it is gone. And, as with so many other elements of the city, the spatial patterns of demolition demonstrate that discussing averages or overall numbers about development in a city as starkly divided as Chicago obscures the persistent power of structural racial and other disadvantages.
In addition to the typical policymaker skirmishes, activists and artists continue to address these conflicts and their roots. Among them, Tonika Johnson emphasizes the consequences of racist predatory lending practices; Soren Spicknall tracks the continuing demolition crisis; Amanda Williams highlights the wealth of Black neighborhoods and the forces that undermine it; and Emmanuel Pratt demonstrates what can be done on sites where civic infrastructure has been removed. Elsewhere in the city, activists are working for increasing density and affordable housing instead of simply replacing a house for a house (or actually losing housing!), and preservationists are advocating for the maintenance of naturally occurring affordable housing.
May this series amplify all their work and call for more to be done.
Support for the original To be Demolished series was provided by the Driehaus Foundation and Gapers Block. A small-scale 2016 update to the project was supported by Mary Krinock through the Hyde Park Art Center.