The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
Today Carl Sandburg Village is a collection of ugly midcentury condo buildings that separate the Gold Coast from Old Town. There’s nothing especially remarkable about them; if you happen to be walking along that stretch of Clark and LaSalle, there are plenty of other things you would probably want to look at first.
But Sandburg Village has a fascinating history, retold by Denise DeClue in almost novelistic detail in her 1978 story “The Siege of Sandburg Village.” The development began as an urban renewal project to rescue the north side from “blight,” aka what city officials considered too many nonwhite people living in one area.
But in 1953, it was clear that the Frances Cabrini homes had failed to stem the spread of north side blight. The Gold Coast was still threatened, the shop owners on North Michigan Avenue were nervous, and the city planners were worried. [City planners John] Cordwell and [Ted] Aschman talked of other cities where famous architects had been commissioned to build fabulous buildings in hopes of revitalizing failing neighborhoods; as in Chicago, those efforts had failed. They studied other planners’ plans and looked at patterns in dying cities, and as they studied and talked John Cordwell became convinced that these failures were not failures of architecture or design; rather, he decided, they were failures of planning strategy.
“You don’t,” he told Aschman, “drop a parachute into an area completely surrounded by the enemy. You can’t survive in a wagon completely surrounded by angry Indians. And you can’t build an urban renewal project in an area completely surrounded by blight. You have to have easy access to the area, be able to get in and out of it. You have to do ‘missionary’ work in the community you’re renewing, and you have to have a strategy for the whole area, not just the project you’re building.”
Cordwell and Aschman agreed that military strategy was called for in city planning. If Chicago were to be saved from the onslaught of deterioration, force would have to be mustered and renewal marched systematically against the blight. There would have to be a stronghold in the renewal area, an anchor from which the offensive could be launched. The Cabrini Homes could not stop the spread of blight on the near north side—the area was surrounded by the same poor, dilapidated housing that had been cleared for the project. Cordwell and Aschman decided that they had to start from an area of strength and move systematically outward. They had to invade an area, capture it, and fortify it before moving on. They had to create something strong enough and vital enough to set the renewal urge spinning off on its own. They had to, in fact, choose an area—an objective—and destroy it, level it, and begin anew.
Thus began the siege of Sandburg Village.
Cordwell and Aschman, DeClue notes, were veterans of World War II and used to speaking in military strategy. (There’s a fascinating detour into Cordwell’s experiences in a German POW camp.) Their intention were to preserve Chicago as a liveable city instead of letting it fall into decay as Detroit had.
But DeClue makes it clear she doesn’t agree. She describes how entire blocks were demolished in order to create this stronghold, which would be occupied by young white professionals. The people who lived in those demolished buildings were banished farther north and west.
The people who live in Sandburg think of themselves as living in a village within a city. They can swim and play tennis and racquetball in their village; use the “hospitality” rooms for camera, bridge, and exercise clubs. They can attend Catholic mass there, shop for groceries there, visit the village’s dentist, barber, and florist. They can stroll along the well-tended malls, park their cars in convenient underground garages, park their bikes in locked rooms. And at night when they curl up in their Marimekko comforters, they can feel safe and secure, for the village spends nearly $500,000 a year for private security forces to protect the fortress.
That’s a lot of money for security, but security is very important to Sandburg residents. They know the blight is out there still, and that even if the siege of Sandburg Village is over, the war continues.
In the 80s, DeClue moved to Hollywood, where she became a screenwriter and producer. She’s probably best known for writing the screenplays for About Last Night . . . and the John Hughes movie For Keeps (that’s the one where Molly Ringwald gets pregnant). It’s a bit sad, though, that she never expanded this story into a book. As you should be able to tell by reading it, she’s one hell of a writer.