Hertz, Daniel Kay. The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Chicago. Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2018.
Reviewed by David J. Goodwin
As COVID-19 swept across the United States, every news cycle seemed to carry stories of affluent residents fleeing big cities for rural hamlets. As many white-collar workers settled into working remotely, suburban real estate grew white-hot. Commentators prognosticated the death of the city.
Only a few short months ago, displacement and gentrification dominated much of the discourse on American urban life. Written before the pandemic, Daniel Kay Hertz’s The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification of Chicago presents a compelling case study of these linked topics by exploring one neighborhood’s struggle to determine its identity.
Many standard accounts point to the late 1980s and 1990s as the period when middle-class and upper-class Americans began to perceive cities as safe, desirable, and fun—the genesis of the gentrification phenomenon. Hertz challenges this timeframe, arguing that the gentrification process began percolating in Chicago and perhaps other cities much earlier. In the 1920s, a bohemian community—think New York’s Greenwich Village or Paris’s Montmartre—emerged in today’s Old Town neighborhood in Chicago’s Near North Side just above the Loop, the city’s business district. This marks the beginning of the “discovery” of Lincoln Park.
Although adjacent to the desirable Gold Coast, Lincoln Park was low-income and redlined. That is, the federal government would not underwrite loans and mortgages to improve or purchase the neighborhood’s aging Victorian-era housing stock. Lincoln Park was comparatively mixed for a majority white neighborhood, with Assyrian, Japanese, and Eastern European communities. By the late 1940s, the faded elegance of the neighborhood’s brick houses and apartment buildings attracted creatives and professionals hoping to fashion a new way of life—the comforts of a spacious home with access to the cultural riches of the city amid diverse neighbors. Building by building, block by block, these new residents—Hertz refers to them as “rehabbers”—relied on their own funds and sweat equity to restore Lincoln Park’s nineteenth-century grandeur and to stave off the disinvestment sweeping over many Chicago neighborhoods.
The rehabbers formed community organizations to fight against blight, slum clearance, and development inharmonious with the neighborhood’s physical scale and architectural character. The Lincoln Park Conservation Association (LPCA) emerged as the most visible and powerful of these groups. Eventually, the LPCA began to apply legal and political pressure against landlords and property owners whose multi-family apartments and boarding houses failed to resemble its vision of a historic neighborhood. The question began to arise: whom did the LPCA and its allies represent and whose values?
As Lincoln Park’s rents and home prices increased, development in areas bordering the neighborhood displaced low-income Black, Puerto Rican, and white residents and pushed these populations into the western portion of Lincoln Park. Meanwhile, urban renewal projects threatened to displace hundreds of households–primarily long-term renters–and numerous small businesses.
These tensions exploded during the fight over several urban renewal projects between 1965 and 1970. Increasingly militant activists, including the Puerto Rican Young Lords, demanded a voice in development decisions. Schisms erupted within the LPCA and other local groups over subsidized housing and maintaining residential diversity. Two aldermen’s offices were firebombed. A Methodist pastor and his wife were murdered. In June 1970, the City Council approved a controversial project that would result in mass evictions. The LPCA supported it. Hertz marks this event as the pivot point for the neighborhood and the death knell for its protest movement. Over the coming decades, Lincoln Park would continue to grow more affluent and less diverse, no longer reflecting the stated values and hopes of the original rehabbers. Today, Chicago counts Lincoln Park as one of its wealthiest neighborhoods.
A few practical notes: the book contains helpful maps for those unfamiliar with the geography of Lincoln Park and Chicago. Readers might have difficulty keeping track of the various organizations and individuals key to the narrative. A short glossary would have proven helpful. Scholars and readers might find the absence of notes, a full bibliography, and index frustrating. However, an extensive bibliography can be found on the book’s website.
Well-written, informative, and engaging, The Battle of Lincoln Park stands as perfect companion to Ben Austen’s Higher-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing and Richard Lloyd’s Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Post-Industrial City for understanding certain patterns shaping modern Chicago. Hertz’s postwar history of Lincoln Park illustrates the dynamics and contradictions inherent in gentrification and offers a thoughtful introduction to the subject.
David J. Goodwin is the Assistant Director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University and a Wertheim Study resident at the New York Public Library. Currently, he is working on a book on the author H. P. Lovecraft. He blogs at anothertownonthehudson.com and tweets @DavidJHudsonJC.
Featured image (at top): Thshriver, Bissell Street, Chicago, IL, 2013, Wikimedia Commons.