Lee Bey writes about architecture with an excitement that some might reserve for poetry, music, or visual art. Instead, he leans into artistry of buildings. That enthusiasm started years ago in a car ride with his father on Chicago’s South Side, and that story establishes the landscape that became his book Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side, a collection of photographs featuring select buildings in Bronzeville, Chatham, Washington Park, Avalon Park, and Pullman. However, the book is not just the photographs, it chronicles the history of these buildings and how they overlap with Chicago’s politics, the economic displacement of black communities, and personal memories of these buildings. The following exchange took place in Bey’s neighborhood at The Pullman Café, where we talked about his book, describing buildings and their interiors deeply, and the possibilities for some of the buildings on the South Side.
The book starts almost like a memoir, and it’s kind of a shame because you told me that you were glad that I read it because everyone looking at the photographs, but damn, part of the beauty of the book is why is someone attached to these buildings in such a personal way? So, I was wondering if you talk a little bit about how the book took shape.
Well, you know it’s interesting. Originally, the book was going to start with a sort of hypothetical, or perhaps archetypical ride down 79 th Street and the surprise that Pride Cleaners is, the modernist cleaners, is. I let a friend read an early copy. They thought “Well, it’s good, but it seems like it belongs further down in the book.” OK, I’ll try to move things around, and then this friend says, “You know, I like when you tell the stories about your father taking you around to see buildings. Why don’t you put that in the book?” And I said, “no, nobody one wants to read that.”
But that’s the beginning of the book!
It turned out to be the beginning of the book. I put it near the middle, just in case I had to snatch it out, in case the publisher didn’t like it. The Acquisitions Editor Jill Petty, she liked it, and the decision was made to move it to the top. I was terrified because it was personal to me. So, when I put it at the top, it just seems like it ordered the rest of the book in ways that I hadn’t considered.
It really did.
That’s how it worked. It’s legit because that day, the day that symbolizes... I mention that there were other days that my father would take me around and point out stuff, and I’d ask about stuff, but that literally is my introduction to architecture.
Speaking of Pride Cleaners, I love that story about the kids riding their bikes off the roof, and they had to fence it in to stop them riding down the slope of it.
My father was curious about the architecture and how does the roof hold up, but there was a guy who lived in the neighborhood, Peter Pullman. I found him on Facebook by accident. We’re Facebook friends, and I posted a picture. He said “You know, we used to ride our bikes off that thing.” I said “Let me get you quoted you saying that.” So, I called him up and inserted his quote around it. The fence is rusted, but it’s still there, so it’s still doing its job. That, in some respects, is another example of how the history of buildings and people run together. Typically, when we write about architecture, we keep it separate. We write about the building’s history, an architect, maybe the reason why it got built initially, but the fact that the people’s histories, the histories of neighborhoods, are written across the faces of these buildings and inside these buildings. That’s how I get introduced to them with my father telling me “Here’s where Lou Rawls’ foster father’s funeral home was. Check out this brick, but Sam Cooke and his boys used to run the streets.” So, for me, the two are always linked. Even when I covered architecture at The Sun-Times, the two are always linked. You can’t separate them, and I think too many architecture critics unfortunately do.
It’s so interesting because you talk about the preservation societies in the book. A lot of the time they’re talking about how it’s historically significant because of this, this, and that, but when it’s a black space, it always has to be about use. It has to be a practical space that people still use as a business or a center as opposed to some buildings that are on the North Side that exist as artifice in many ways. So, could you talk a little bit about some of spaces on the South Side that you didn’t include in the book that should be preserved just for their artifice alone.
The Regal Theater, which didn’t make it into the book because there were a lot of things happening with the Regal when I was writing the book, and I didn’t want to write anything that froze it in time. If I write a part two, I’ll put it in there, but the Regal Theater…so beautiful at 79 th and Stony Island there. Beautiful Moorish-inspired architecture. The interior is spectacular. One of the things from the time it turned to the new Regal back in the 80s, to the time when it went through a succession of owners in the late ’90s and early 2000s, is that one of the owners pretty much restored the interior. It’s a showstopper. People talk about the Uptown on the North Side, and this thing puts it to shame. But that’s an example where a building has to pay the freight. Nobody’s interested in saving that building unless that young brother who owns it can figure out a way to pay the freight. We can’t even take a step back and say this is a fine piece of architecture. You need an account from the city. Can’t we figure out a way to preserve it? There are countless churches. More than I could name, particularly ones that are in Bronzeville and the near South Side, and on the far South Side, where some of the populations have decreased, and there are fewer worshippers.
Like that one church in the Back of the Yards that you mentioned in the book.
Yeah, that’s one that made it, but there are others. Some in West Pullman. I think I lost one or two in Roseland right across the way while I was writing the book. I didn’t include them. Some of these buildings on the merit of architecture alone are worthy of standing, but because of where they are on the South Side, they gotta work.
That brings me to this other point that I kept considering throughout the book. One of them was the quote about black homeowners would’ve “had a better chance getting stuck up on the street” and you said that about how black real estate has been usurped so many times economically. We talk a lot about the emotional labor of what black people have paid psychologically to be in this country, but we don’t necessarily talk about how we pay twice, how you keep paying for the same things. You make it clear and accessible for a reader to understand, so how did you pin that thread into this book that’s obviously attached to something that you love and feel very deeply?
You keep taking a step back to look at the picture, right? At first, it’s a good look at architecture. You take a step back and see, you gotta put the people in, you can’t just leave them out. You take another step back and say, the condition of these neighborhoods, it can’t go unspoken. You gotta mention it, then you take another step back, and say how they got this way, and there it becomes interesting because there it becomes a way to strike against the conventional thoughts about why neighborhoods quote endquote turn bad when black folks move in. People think it’s because of the mere presence of black people. What we see when we look at other books, like Natalie Moore’s book The South Side, and others, certain systematic things happen. Just from jump, right? It’s 1959 and you’re in Bronzeville. You. Your mate. Your kids. And now, you want to move someplace you can finally afford. You find a good-looking house you can afford. It’s at 71 st and Honore or something like that on the southwest side, and if you can get on that block, and you can get over that barrier if that block is largely white. If you can get on that block, it’s likely because “real estate professionals” are panic pedaling the block. They’re block busting. They’re going block by block by block saying the negroes are coming to the white people, you better sell. So, they sell the houses that the white people left at fire sale prices, but they can make it up because there’s the suburbs, the G.I. Bill, the comfortable home loans for them, so they get out to Evergreen Park or Oak Lawn at a comfortable rate. Meanwhile, when you and your mate are ready to buy this house, it’s jacked back up to a certain price, if you can find a loan and insurance for it. Then, if you get in, it’s worth less. It’s harder to insure. It’s harder to get loans. So, systematically it’s going to take longer. Yeah, it’s gonna take longer to get the roof fixed, and if there’s a fire, god forbid, that house may never get put back together again in a timely fashion. All those things, and then of course the blight spreads. Not because black folks, by their presence, are blight manufacturers, but because of systems in this city have decided this is what we’re going to do when they move in, and that essentially wrecked the neighborhood. It was important for me to get that story in because that really shapes the South Side.
Absolutely. I think it says a lot about how a city doesn’t just do things where racially move andsegregate the city. It says a lot about what investments go into that neighborhood too. Or even just the resources, like how do people pick up the trash. That has nothing to do with who lives in the neighborhood. Everyone should get the trash picked up, but if they neglect doing it because it’s over there, that’s when things go downhill.
Exactly. I’m rolling through the northern end of Pullman a few weeks ago at 103 rd Street, and the trash can’s sitting there overflowing with garbage. Uber guy is complaining about the messy people in the neighborhood. I said, “Listen, brother. People are putting the trash in the garbage can, and the garbage can filled up. Somebody was supposed to pick up the garbage and empty it, and they didn’t do it. Decolonize your mind, man.” He goes “You right. You right.” Even now, in the 21 st century, we still struggle with city services being equitable.
You can even see that in terms of the development downtown. Like 15 or 20 years ago, downtown did not look how it looks now. I’m curious about what you think about development in certain parts of the South Side now as people seem to be reversing the flow from the suburbs back into the city. There are so many people here now who are not from Chicago or who have not lived here long term, that it’s almost unsettling.
It is. It is. The stereotypical white Chicago accent is disappearing because there are so many people who didn’t grow up with it because they were out in the suburbs.
Da Bears. That’s right. I remember when I was a cop reporter back in the late ’80s for the old City News Bureau. You know there were firemen, policemen. That’s how they talked. But to your question about the development, I’m curious about the near South Side, the parts in between Bronzeville and downtown. We tend to forget that these were black areas, and certainly black nightclub areas back when I was young and coming up. Chic Rick House, places all up and down Wabash and State, Sour’s… you know, all those places where house music was invented and perfected, comedy clubs, all that stuff is gone now. They disappeared. There’s something happening in that space around McCormick Place. In the next five years, the racial makeup around that place will be substantially different in terms of racial and economic makeup than it is now.
When I first moved back in 2015, I would periodically come back and visit the city before that, but one of the first things I noticed that let me know Bronzeville was changing was I was on Lake Shore Drive and I saw that big metal arch over King Drive that has Great Migration figures on it. I said to myself, “Oh, it’s not ours anymore. They just want to put up a little memorial that we were here.”
You’re right. When people who live there do it, they’re marking their presence. When government does it, it’s saying goodbye. It’s like when they started naming subdivisions after Native American tribes. They gone, so now we can name it Arrowhead Lane and Cherokee Avenue because there’s no way they’re coming back.
No one is gonna stop that.
There’s no way they’ll stop it. That is unsettling and 20 years after that you’ll see the population of the South Side diminishing, the population of Bronzeville diminishing, the black population.
It’s not a happy truth, but it’s very real.
It is unhappy, and it is real, and particularly in a city like Chicago, which for many folk, my folk, 800,000 other black folks, whose mama, grandfolks, great grandfolks who came up because this was the Promised Land for us. As I said in the book, imagine how transformative it must be that you could be on the end of a plow or taking care as a maid in some white person’s house and you could say “I’m done. I’m done with this” and you could board an Illinois Central train and in a day’s time, you’re in the eighth largest economy in the world. And there’s a place for you, and there’s a house for you. That was the promise, and in too many ways, it hasn’t lived up to it.
In so many ways, it’s like a lot of many great immigration narratives, but people don’t talk about it like that.
That’s right. Sure don’t.
But that’s our immigration narrative.
It’s amazing how people hear the phrase “Great Migration” and how people don’t know this was one of the major cites for that movement.
Sure is. As Bryan Stevenson says in the book, people were escaping an oppression, just as much as anybody escaping a problem in Europe, or poverty in parts of southern Italy and Ireland. They were escaping some hard stuff.
Sharecropping and Jim Crow, that ain’t no joke.
That ain’t no joke, but a faith in this country. They didn’t move to Barbados or South America. They stayed in the same country. They just moved to a different part of the country. They said I can’t be an American there, but I can be an American here, and that faith in what America is supposed to symbolize. People don’t talk about that faith in this country as much as they should. They don’t honor and respect as much as they should.
I was excited as a reader, and I was following your pictures online, and the pictures are beautiful. It’s this place that I care about, and I always see in the news in certain ways. I saw how this book unfolded, not just as memoir, but as history. It’s a black history book. There’s white people who come up, like Frank Lloyd Wright, of course. Even just the stories about Wright’s buildings where the values of his buildings are so astronomically low you wouldn’t believe it. If anyone had just randomly told me, I would’ve asked where is this place at? Did you think it was going to be as much of a history book as it turned out to be?
You know, not from the outset. It’s one of things where you get in in, and it becomes this other kind of thing because as a recovering journalist and reporter, you have to get to the nitty gritty of what this thing is about. You can’t tell this part if you don’t tell the other part of the story.
By the time you get to the book, it does something very similar to what I saw in Laurence Ralph’s book The Torture Letters. Have you heard of it?
I have not.
It’s a book where he talks about Jon Burge, the court case, the use of force continuum with police, and how they move through certain steps to determine how much force they use, and how do police end up not telling, what are the forces that braid together, develop roots, and branch until it becomes something that no one wants to touch, even if they occupy that space of policing. So, Ralph writes this book as letters to people who impacted by Burge’s practices, including the future mayor of Chicago. I think it’s interesting that you don’t do it that way, but towards the end you make note of “now that Lightfoot is in office” you make some suggestions of your own. Are there some points that you think are particularly important for people to understand so they can save some of the buildings that you’re talking about?
That was a hard part to write because Rahm (Emmanuel) hadn’t announced that he wasn’t going to run. I had to keep rewriting it, even after I submitted the manuscript. I had to keep recalling it before Lightfoot won, but there was a paragraph that I submitted in case (Toni) Preckwinkle won. The rap is still the same. I think that we’re seeing a bit of it now. I wish she would come out and be more honest it. The best way to make these communities whole again, the best way, is to get your wallet back from the stick-up man. You want him to be punished. You want him to go to jail. You want to hit him, but most importantly, you want that money back. When we see the taxes and other things that are happening in the city, and the debate over it, we’ve still got more miles to go on that thing. Some of that is to bill due for how they’ve treated the South and West sides of the city. The police wrongly beating up people and raiding wrong people’s houses and a $100 million dollars in lawsuits a year.
That’s such a waste of money.
Right. That’s the toll for how we treat these neighborhoods. I guess the point that I want to make, maybe even sharper in the book, is we’re gonna spend the money anyway. We’re gonna spend a billion dollars on policing. We’re gonna spend a billion dollars on foolishness, or we could spend it the right way a billion dollars on decent jobs and education. It made me mad when Rahm closed up those schools, and then he said it’s cost saving. How much are we gonna save, and then he said “I can’t tell you.” And then it’s gonna sit there, and as you know, as every Chicagoan knows every empty building is expensive. It isn’t that neutral on money. Now, you’re just messing with me, and the bill for that is coming due. My word to Lightfoot is, in the book and outside the book, that it’s fantastic that she’s looking at these other parts of the city. They have a thing now where her and Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox where they say the heart of Chicago is downtown, but the soul is the neighborhoods. We know it, but we’ve never heard that coming out of City Hall, not that passionately. Now, it’s time to put policy and money behind it.
So, we’ve talked about the people downtown and in City Hall, what if you’re just a regular person? What are some of the things that people can do to preserved architecture on the South Side that we care about?
Making noise when we see buildings that we care about that are under distress, particularly buildings that have a history. The problem is the preservation mechanism in the city. I’m not talking about the city agencies that focus on architecture, but the nonprofit preservation industrial complex around the city doesn’t pay attention to the south and west sides as much as they should. I’ve been saying to the preservation groups, open the doors and let us in. In that preservationists that come from these neighborhoods will be university people, master’s degree students, movers and shakers, teachers and professors, former judges, who will know how to move things in other ways, bringing them into the preservation fold, that’s your army. Part of me thinks there needs to be a black preservation group started with these individuals that can challenge and make noise for these buildings. If we wait, some of these buildings don’t have five years to wait anymore. Forming a group that looks specifically at the South and West sides of the city is important. Those who know how to get stuff done, who know who to call downtown to get the streetlight turned back on, the garbage cans put back, hopefully, having them play role in preservation, so when a building is open instead of boarded up. Those kind of radical interventions can help.
Are you thinking of a follow-up to Southern Exposure?
I am now. I wasn’t at first. I was downtown and a brother I didn’t even know passed me. He says, “I got my hands on the book.” I said “Thank you, man.” He said, “I hope you’re working on part two.” I just got part one out of me, man. I’ve been taking notes. I began a bit before the book came out, particularly more interiors.
Since you mentioned the interiors, I’m always interested in things that people put into a black interior? Like you enter, and say “This is a black space.” What type of things have you noticed?
In the book, there’s Mell and Angie’s Welcome Inn Bed and Breakfast in Bronzeville. There’s an exterior picture, but I specifically put a picture of them inside, kind of a casual picture of them sitting on the couch, like we are now. If you look real closely, there’s a history there on the wall. There’s pictures of Muhammad Ali. I think there’s one of Jackie Wilson. There’s regular people too. There’s history that plays off the eye there. That space, the comfortableness, the couch, that’s us, right? That’s us in ways that I can’t tell, but I just know that’s us. The First Church of Deliverance, which I purposely photographed when no one was there. I say that is the blackest space in the book because without a soul in there, you know that’s us. The green which is original, that’s us. The order, the symmetry, that’s us. You could almost hear the choir and people talking.
And everything is “co-or-dinated” as the late John Witherspoon would say.
Co-or-dinated! That’s right. (laughs) That’s us. That’s us. Interesting you would say that, last year in January or February of 2018, I spoke at Modernism Week in Palm Springs, and I showed some images from the book. Pride Cleaners was a hit. Palm Springs is a city filled with architecture like that. When I showed them that building on 79 th and St. Lawrence, there was a gasp from the audience.
They don’t think those buildings still exist.
They don’t. One of those images that I showed them was the interior of the Ebony/Jet Building. Some of the images that I took and images I got out of the magazine, and one of the of the women in the audience, a black woman, she says “I don’t know how to say this, but that space is home to me.” I said “Isn’t it?” I grew up in Avalon Park, but Chatham and Pill Hill were just across the way, and well into the 70s you could see those elements in people’s houses, the wallpaper, the color. So, to answer your question, I have been thinking about something in terms of interiors and black spaces, how to document it, something’s there.
One of the thing that’s interesting about the Ebony/Jet piece was that the interior designers who did the building also did their house, and Eunice Johnson talked to Architectural Digest about this in ’69 or ’70 about their house. She said they were very intentional about the interiors of their house matching their skin tones, which is great because John was about my complexion and Eunice was lighter, or wasn’t as dark, but to talk about at that spectrum to talk about skin tones, I thought was revolutionary. Since reading that, but it does seem like we tend to have houses in the color wheel in that range of skin tones.
What is one thing that no one wants to talk about, but you wish they would?
Two things. They never talk about why Amanda Williams wrote the foreword. And two is, with one exception, there’s only women speaking as experts in the book. Thirdly, how did I end up being a photographer when I’m originally a writer. That’s the one I thought people would ask the most, so far.
I’m interested in all of the above.
I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 33 years old, and that was originally to photograph my daughters. I was married at the time. Then because I spent time around buildings I was shooting on film just to do something. Then I started doing lectures and I would get slides made, not about photography, but talking about the history. I remember I was giving one, and I had a shot of Marina City, just before the Wilco album (namely Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from 2002), but I never told anyone when I gave the lectures that I took the pictures. So, this architect leans over to me and asks who took your pictures. I said, “Well, I took them.” She says they’re great. I started taking more pictures of buildings. Architects started asking me will you take a picture of my building. I didn’t tell anybody for years. Dawoud Bey is a friend of mine, and I didn’t tell him until relatively recently, until about two or three years ago.
I kept wondering if you two were cousins or something.
No, not related at all. Just have the same wonderful name. I didn’t tell anyone because I was ashamed, and then when digital cameras came out, everyone was a photographer, for at least a couple of years, right? So, I ended up getting good and better at it, and I began seeing buildings with a photographer’s eye, as well as a writer’s eye. I could somehow link the two together.
The thing that strikes me is how you capture the lines and the scope of the building, and the composition isn’t wonky or anything. Some people take a picture of a building and you ask why does this look lopsided? Or this picture looks like you should’ve taken it earlier in the day. It’ll be a good picture, but you don’t get to really see the building. In your pictures, it feels like you’re walking up to the buildings on a crisp day and you could almost walk into the pictures.
Thank you. That’s exactly the feeling that I wanted to get. Many of the photographs were part of a museum exhibit, so they were blown up even bigger. So, the idea was, I’m nearsighted and I always hated going to galleries and having to get right up on the picture, so is there some way to make a picture big enough so it’s like I’m in it, so I don’t have to put my nose up against the thing? So, that began to inform how I took photos. Also, there’s a little bit of trying to put a positive light on the South Side, or add to it, so I purposely took them on sunny days when there was clear blue sky or interesting cloud formations above. I would pick the times of the day when the sunlight was right. It’s funny because when I’m on the South Side, I can figure it out. I was telling a buddy, if I was doing it on the North Side, I’d be camped out all day long when the sun is coming, but here it’s 5:30 in August. That’s the time to get it.
Right, or you get that window on a cold day, when you know it’s going to come out for a little while, you better get it.
Exactly, for almost all of them, I used a perspective control lens, a tilt shift lens. It’s a wide angle lens. I’m using this crazy angle finder, so I’m not looking directly into the camera. I’m looking down into the thing, like one of the periscopes that you used to make as a kid, except it’s reverse and small, and I’m looking down into the camera and making sure that the angles are aligned. My idea was I was going to put some work into this. It wasn’t going to feel like a drive by. I was gonna spend some time with these buildings.
Now, tell me about Ms. Williams and the other women as experts in the book.
One of the things that I see, women, black women especially, were the unseen and unheard voices. So, you could read books, but unless a black woman writes it, like Mabel O. Wilson, a professor out East, unless someone like her writes it, black women are almost nonexistent in the commentary game, and you can’t do that. Two, being in this part of the city, you know there’s sisters in here who know what’s up, so the idea was make sure you get them in there. Before the writing started, when I was in the neighborhood, almost all the time, it’s a sister who comes out when I’m there at 5:30 in the morning or 7:25 in the evening. Who goes “Hey, what’s happening?” and wants to know what’s going on and says “Oh, oh, this building, let me tell you…” and they would say something about the building that was dead on right. So, I’m thinking of the preservation and the architecture game, and I’m thinking why aren’t these voices heard?
When I shot the Rosenwald Apartments, there was a woman who worked there who was my guide through the building. She opened the doors and showed me the interiors and stuff, andshe was an employee there. We started talking and she knew the history of the building. She even knew about the Marshall Field Garden Apartments built in Old Town in the same year in the same subsidized affordable rent housing with the courtyard in the middle, and we’re having this good conversation about architecture, and this is the coolest thing.
The publisher asked me who do you want to write the foreword, and I said it’s gotta be a black woman, and they didn’t buck, but I was adamant in case they did. Amanda and I have known each other for about five or six years. I’ve always admired her work. She’d never written a foreword before, so OK, so I’ll be the first. And the conversations that we’ve had about the South Side were very brief, were just the kind of thing. She’s about a decade younger than me, but she experienced the South Side much like I did back in the old man’s Oldsmobile or the Buick. So, we talked about it and I said just try it and see if you dig it. Although she was trained as an architect in architecture school, I knew that she saw the buildings in the same nontraditional ways that I did. I wasn’t going to get the academy, and Mies (Van Der Rohe) and (Daniel) Burnham. I was going to get the same sort of funk and grit and history that I was hoping the book would have. So, she wrote the foreword and just killed it. If there was a version of the book with her foreword and the pictures, it would still work. As for the people who are quoted in the book, Naomi Davis of Blacks in Green, who was great. I wanted her in there because you don’t hear black folks talking about parks, and open space, and greenery. So, why am I going to give this space to Professor X or this architect. I’m going to give this space to this black woman who knows the game. Her organization is on the South Side. I know she has something to say about greenery. and she gives this killer quote about Winneconna Parkway, the crazy street off Gresham and West Chatham. And there’s Paula Robinson who fought the battle to preserve Bronzeville in the ’80s and ’90s. Women’s voices are so significant, particularly if they become a part of academic research later. I hope that wasn’t too long.
No, it just has me thinking about the question that I least wanted to ask, which is as much as this book could be an argument to save things, I wonder if it could shift things in another direction? Would it make people go “Oh, there’s this lost treasure” and then suddenly people want to Columbus the whole South Side? My paranoid side is asking this question. (laughs)
You said you’ve been talking to a lot of white audiences, and I wonder how do black audiences receive that? Do they get a little nervous? Do white audience members start to ask “Maybe I should buy a house down there?” How does that work?
Yeah! Man, I was on Facebook a few days ago. I did screen cap that I had to send to my daughters. Someone had said I want to move close to this cleaners. It had a picture of Pride
Cleaners and a picture of one of the houses in the book. It was their pictures, not mine, and the post said “I want to live near here.” One person notes “Have you read Lee Bey’s book?” That’s not what I want. There is the risk, and I struggle with it. Even in the title, where I said “Overlooked.” I thought is that the word I want because I’m not overlooking them. We’re not overlooking them. Who is? And I don’t want the book to be set to that gaze. History and time will show how successful I am. That’s why it was important for me to put the history in there, to be as plainspoken about it, about race, racism being the cause of the South Side’s ills, and then at the end, telling South Siders that I’m talking to y’all.
One of my favorite singers is Sam Cooke, and I don’t care how pop he may have sung a song, at some point, he was putting that yodel in there. At that point, that was him telling you, I haven’t forgotten where I’ve come from. I haven’t forgotten that you’re there. And in writing this history, I never wanted people to lose track on the South Side that I’m talking to you. So far, it’s been good. I’ve been having these presentations, and they’re coming south, but the first ones were not south. They were downtown and the North Side, but my folks are coming to them, and asking questions and coming to me afterwards. One young sister told me at the Newberry (Library), and she got emotional. She said, “I just want to tell you that with your book, I feel seen.” I was like “Aw man, don’t have me up in here…”
That’s a hot compliment.
Isn’t it? And I thought, that’s what I want. I didn’t want it to be Lee’s “hipsters’ guide to the cool South Side buildings.” In some interviews, I was pointed about saying that the problem isn’t some hipster in Lincoln Park or Lakeview doesn’t know where Chatham is. I could give less than a fuck about that. It’s policies and city leaders who don’t know or don’t care. If there’s anybody I want to be looking at this, it’s them. I sent a copy to the Mayor and the Planning Commissioner. That’s whose gaze I want to no longer overlook this part of the city.
Who could be on that preservation dream team?
Maybe Common. Chance the Rapper. Vic Mensa. There is a fantastic crop of young black women who become a part of this game. Man, I wish y’all had been here twenty years ago when I got into this game. Tonika Johnson in Englewood. Whatever vineyard we’re all working, she’s definitely pulling up weeds in the same garden. Katanya Raby. She’s the granddaughter of Al Raby, who was this unseen but incredible luminary in 60s, 70s, and 80s Chicago. He got Martin Luther King Jr. to come here, helped with Harold Washington’s campaign, this unseen hand, like that documentary about that guy Clarence Avant who was behind everything and no one knew…
You mean The Black Godfather on Netflix?
Yeah, if there had been one in Chicago who was in the political and social circles, it would’ve been Al Raby. Katanya’s a planner, and if we could get a chunk of MacArthur money and give it to her, and say “y’all do some things…” Survey these buildings on the South Side. Help bring them into the canon of things that should be preserved and seen.
How would you define Beautiful People.
A beautiful person to me, is someone at some point in the conversation, there is a click. Not a romantic click, but somehow, your world views are aligned. Or even if they’re opposed, there’s room for them to share and talk and there’s a beauty in that. Too often, we talk at each other. A person is only stays quiet until it’s their turn to talk and that kind of thing. A beautiful person is one who can parlay, who can talk, and can meet you where you are, and you come out of the conversation somehow better than you were before, more enlightened than you were before. I know that’s kind of clumsy, but to me, that’s more beautiful than any physical object that you can see.