Lee Bey has long been a champion for architecture on Chicago’s south side. In 2017, the photographer, writer, consultant, and senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute organized an exhibition of his photographs capturing south-side architecture for that year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial. The exhibition, shown at the DuSable Museum, became the inspiration for Bey’s new book Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side (Northwestern University Press), out in October. It’s the first publication to highlight several important but often ignored buildings by a range of well-known architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen. The book’s focus on structures existing in neighborhoods many view as abandoned, blighted, and violent is an important step toward expanding the canon and encouraging Chicagoans to explore the city’s rich architectural history farther afield than the Loop.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you become interested in architecture on the south side?
In some respects, it goes back to my childhood, growing up on the south side in the 1970s, [taking] car trips with my parents when I was a kid. My father liked architecture and would point out interesting buildings, or I’d spot one on my own and ask him questions about it. After awhile I began to notice and appreciate south-side buildings like the Museum of Science and Industry, the movie theaters that used to be along 63rd Street, the bungalows and brick two-flats. But as I grew older, into my teens and 20s especially, I began to notice how vulnerable these beautiful places were. By the time the 1980s rolled around, decay and demolition had descended like a plague on that street. The difference was startling, and was playing out across the south side—in Englewood, Woodlawn, Roseland.
In Chicago, people tend to stay local, which means there are architectural gems that many people never see.
Where you’re from is very important here. I’m 53, and I bet I’ve been asked fewer than 20 times in my adult life “What college did you go to?” But “What neighborhood are you from?” and “What high school did you go to?”—those are the important questions. That’s a by-product of this long-Balkanized city, where every tribe has its spot and the marker separating “us” and “them”—economically, ethnically—is the width of a major street or railroad viaduct. And when you throw in race, it deepens just that much more.
And Black neighborhoods on the south and west sides are ignored the most by the city at large. The areas are treated as places to avoid because the crime narrative is so pervasive. For instance, I’ve lectured about architecture for years, and at the end of the talk someone white will ask, “What’s that big building I see whenever I’m leaving town on the Chicago Skyway, near 87th?” [And I say] “Well, it’s Chicago Vocational High School, probably the largest art-deco nonskyscraper building in the city, with decades of famous alumni like Bernie Mac, Dick Butkus, and more.” And I think: How can you not know this place? How can you pass this building and not at least be curious enough to double back later and see it?
You have a book coming out focused on south-side buildings. Can you talk about one of your favorites?
This is hard because the book—Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side—has so many places that I really like. I mentioned Chicago Vocational, but I’m also a big fan of Pride Cleaners, a postwar dry cleaner that is still in operation at 79th and Saint Lawrence. It has this huge, futuristic, self-supporting concrete roof built at a radical angle—no other like it in Chicago. Last year, I gave a presentation at Modernism Week in Palm Springs and showed Pride Cleaners. Palm Springs is famously filled with similar buildings of this vintage, but when I showed Pride and that roof, you could hear and feel the reaction from the audience: wow. That’s the kind of visual impact it has.
The vulnerability of buildings that you talked about earlier is really striking. There are many structures that are gone now, like ghosts haunting what are now vacant, overgrown lots on the street. How do you think those “ghosts” inform the way we understand how we live in this city?
I think they do inform [our understanding], but not in the ways I wish. I want city leaders to say, “We fucked up Woodlawn by allowing it to be disinvested to the point of demolition. We played a hand in that neighborhood’s economic and social downfall, and we won’t let that happen again there or anyplace else in Chicago.” Instead it’s more like: “Woodlawn is ripe for redevelopment now,” with no acknowledgment of the past.
You’ve alluded to this, but these issues are about notions of value. Modernist architecture across Latin America, for example, seems to consider people might inhabit a space and use a building, which not only implies functionality, but also beauty. Do you sense that in our local architecture?
The thing is, the beauty and functionality of buildings are evaluated differently if they are on the south and west sides. They are seen as unwanted, expendable, less valuable. My book shows a unique Frank Lloyd Wright house that sits on a ton of land and has a coach house that’s the size of a bungalow. It’s been for sale for $175,000 for more than two years. Cheapest Wright house in America on a tree-lined street—and nobody wants it or can finance it—because it’s in West Pullman on the far south side.
Fortunately, not all of the great south- and west-side architecture exists only in photographs or in memory. Do you see them having an effect on the look and feel of the city as new buildings go up?
I would want them to have such an effect. That when we, as a city, discuss, honor and lift up this town’s great architecture, we include the buildings in my book and the ones like them all around the south and west sides. I want these places—and the people who live in and around them—preserved and respected. v