The Obama Presidential Library Should Be Designed With the Help of Chicago’s South Side Residents

Washington Park, one of the two South Side neighborhoods proposed for the Obama Presidential Library's site.

Washington Park, one of the two South Side neighborhoods proposed for the Obama Presidential Library’s site.

Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin reported that the Barack Obama Presidential Library that (according to multiple news reports) will be built on the South Side of Chicago in 2017 may be designed by London-based, Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye. Kamin discusses the possible controversy over not using a Chicago-based, or African-American, or American architect — for this iconic national building.

Adjaye would be the first non-American architect to design a presidential library. Boosting his already substantial profile, the Art Institute of Chicago in September will mount a solo exhibition of his work, which includes the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall and Denver’s cool, cubelike Museum of Contemporary Art.

Yet some are asking: Why the focus on Adjaye? Why not an African-American architect like North Carolina’s Philip Freelon, who designed a Washington, D.C., library that Obama visited last week? Or why not one of Chicago’s leading architects, like Jeanne Gang, Helmut Jahn, Ralph Johnson or John Ronan?

“Why aren’t we bringing up the names of African-American architects?” said Marshall Brown, an associate professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who is African-American. “Why aren’t we talking about younger architects, bringing someone new onto the national or international stage?”

As a sustainability scholar, I have further questions, though perhaps not ones one might suspect from a sustainability scholar. True, I could hope that the building be designed to adhere to LEED or Passive or Living Building Challenge specifications, all of which focus on the performance of the completed structure as it relates to environmental concerns. I do support those goals, but my question is simple. Shouldn’t this library that will reshape a large swath of the South Side of Chicago be designed with the help and approval of the oft-negelected South Siders who will live around it?

Before dismissing my question as silly, consider that what I propose is in keeping with the work MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow Rick Lowe has done for decades. His most famous achievement, Houston’s Project Row Houses (PRH), is lauded for its use of artistic expression in neighborhood revitalization. Central to that innovation is a careful, sustained dialogue with the members of the affected community about what a development may mean to them and how it may serve them.

The MacArthur Foundation recognized the value of Lowe’s work, stating:

Originally trained as a painter, Lowe shifted the focus of his artistic practice in the early 1990s in order to address more directly the pressing social, economic, and cultural needs of his community. With a group of fellow artists, he organized the purchase and restoration of a block and a half of derelict properties—twenty-two shotgun houses from the 1930s—in Houston’s predominantly African American Third Ward and turned them into Project Row Houses (PRH), an unusual amalgam of arts venue and community support center.

Since its founding in 1993, PRH has served as a vital anchor for what had been a fast-eroding neighborhood, providing arts education programs for youth, exhibition spaces and studio residencies for emerging and established artists, a residential mentorship program for young mothers, an organic gardening program, and an incubator for historically appropriate designs for low-income housing on land surrounding the original row houses. While inviting constant collaboration with local residents, artists, church groups, architects, and urban planners, Lowe continues to provide the guiding vision for PRH as he pursues his overarching goal of animating the assets of a place and the creativity of its people. He is not only bringing visibility and pride to the Third Ward by celebrating the beauty of its iconic shotgun houses; he is also changing the lives of many PRH program graduates and expanding the PRH campus to cover a six-block area in an effort to preserve the historic district’s character in the face of encroaching gentrification.

Why is this important? Barack Obama’s presidential library has strong symbolic value as one sited in an urban area with many social and economic challenges. Too often, the people who live near the proposed sites have suffered neglect or conscious abuse by those in power (such as the municipal government or, as Jane Jacobs illustrated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the University of Chicago). At a time when Chicago’s municipal government is criticized for not attending to the voices and needs of many of its citizens, planning a presidential library with the help of the working-class people who will be affected by its construction and operation strikes me as the most sustainable process possible. Giving these community members a stake it its design may lead to them creating ways to use and contribute to the library in the decades ahead. Allowing their voices to be heard in a meaningful way also strikes me as setting a tone for the legacy of community organizer-turned-President Obama in history.

Bringing the library’s neighbors into the planning process is more revolutionary than selecting a particular architect. It is consistent with the state of the art of sustainable building strategies (as this half-hour video from the Rocky Mountain Institute emphasizes). It runs counter to the decades of neglect and abuse heaped upon the communities surrounding the sites. It also would be a favorable part of the legacy of whichever architect gets her or his name attached to the project. I urge the Barack Obama Foundation to consider this approach when planning this important historic development.

BackStory Podcast on History of Waste

backstory-logoLast winter, Brian Balogh of the BackStory podcast interviewed me for an episode on the history of waste. Now, the episode (including that interview as well as ones with fellow waste scholars Robin Nagle, Catherine McNeur, Brett Mizelle, Bart Elmore, and David Sklansky as well as recycling logo designer Gary Anderson) is available to hear.

If you’re curious about my family’s story as it relates to this history (and also want to hear my voice decay), click the link, as the American History Guys chose to use the part where I discuss what prompted me to write Cash for Your Trash (and much of that book’s second and third chapters).

Brian Balogh also gets an egregious pun (and my reaction to said pun) onto the podcast.

Pratt Sustainability Studies Minor Resources

Registration for Fall 2015 is upon us at Pratt, and the Institute has updated its website. Students wanting to register for sections relevant to the Sustainability Studies minor can click on this link, scroll down to the bottom half, and click on each linked course to see scheduling and availability of sections. Next term, my classes include a Friday morning section of SUST 201 The Sustainable Core and a Tuesday afternoon section of SUST 405 Production, Consumption, and Waste.

Students interested in declaring the minor should speak to their advisor and also to me prior to declaring. The minor declaration form may be downloaded here.

Victory Auto Wreckers and the Long History of Junk as a Dirty Word

chinews-victory-auto-wreckers-launch-20150121Personal history frequently dovetails with broader historical trends. That was my experience this week after seeing news about a staple of my childhood.

Most kids who grew up in Chicago households with televisions over the past fifty years have probably seen ads for Victory Auto Wreckers. Most scrap and salvage businesses do not advertise on television, but rare was the White Sox game or Saturday afternoon movie of my youth that did not feature at least one Victory ad.

Most of the ones I saw are lost to history, but one 1985 Victory Auto Wreckers ad has aired on Chicago television for thirty years. Victory Auto Wreckers is in the news in 2015 because the business has decided to finally update its ad. Although the phone number, address, name, and type of business has remained unchanged, Victory wants to update its image. Owner Kyle Weisner, who took over the business from his father since the last ad was filmed, spoke with Wailin Wong of The Distance (which then provided the story to the Chicago Tribune website) about the image problem.

….change — and an all-new commercial — is finally coming to Victory, which was founded in 1945 by two World War II veterans and is located in Bensenville, Ill., just beyond the southern edge of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A place like Victory, where broken-down cars are stripped and flattened, seems like an unlikely candidate for a makeover. But the business has invested millions of dollars into upgrading its facilities and reshaping its image from a dirty junkyard to a modern recycling center, complete with its own mobile app.
“The commercial shows a shot of the yard, and you see it almost looks like it was filmed on a rainy day,” Kyle says. “It’s so muddy and disgusting, and everything is haphazard and all over the place. Now it’s paved. It’s beautiful. You can come in here after work with your suit on or your loafers or whatever, and not have to worry about getting dirty. …It’s something that we’ve never had before. We’ve entered the 21st century.”

CashforYourTrashWhat I love about this quote is how explicitly it uses the rhetoric scrap recycling businesses have used to distinguish their businesses from waste and filth for a century. This point is a continuity through the history of scrap recycling, as I noted in my 2005 book Cash for Your Trash. While popular perceptions of recycling in the 21st century link it to environmentally virtuous, ethical behavior, the acts of reclaiming and reprocessing post-consumer and post-industrial materials bore stigma in the early 20th century. Progressive reformers like Jane Addams railed against scrap businesses endangering the physical and moral health of urban children. Zoning ordinances after World War I sought to keep such businesses out of sight and out of mind of most residents.
In response, scrap and salvage businesses published trade magazines and founded trade associations to advocate for their work. As they did, they distinguished themselves as modern agents of material conservation far removed from “primitive junk dealing.”

Time and again, scrap recyclers have distanced themselves from the term “junk” and its dirty connotations. During the debates over what became the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, Scrap Age defended its constituents against potential regulations requiring yards not to provide visible blight on the nation’s highways. It also instructed readers to avoid using the work “junk” in their names and descriptions of their businesses, going so far as to say “the name of this game is ‘scrap.’ Anything else is a disservice to your firm, your industry, and your future.” (See p. 127 of Cash for Your Trash for the full citation.)

Half a century after the Highway Beautification Act debates, Victory Auto Wreckers continues the rhetorical attempt to define scrap as modern rather than dirty. I look forward to seeing the new ad and wonder whether any kids in 2015 will have any different idea of what goes on inside a salvage facility after watching it. If history is a guide, attempts at an image change will face challenges.

“A Gesture of Kindness”

In 1995, the Karl Hendricks Trio released their album “A Gesture of Kindness.” Artwork for the album was provided by Chris Ware.

Twenty years later, Karl faces medical bills after surgery for oral cancer. Chris Ware has generously donated his original artwork for auction to help Karl and his family. The auction is live until April 16. Here are a few photos of the artwork; the auction listing has more, as well as a full description of the pieces.



All proceeds go to benefit Karl Hendricks and his family. Thanks to Chris Ware for his gesture of kindness.

UPDATE: The auction has concluded, with the artwork selling for $2809.08. Thanks again to Chris, to Jon Solomon for running the auction, and to the bidders.