Modernizing Chicagoland: City of Necessity

This year marks the 53rd anniversary of the Robert Newman film portrait of urban progress and class in Chicago titled ‘City of Necessity‘ produced by the National Council of Protestant Episcopal Churches. In narration and audio clips, Newman presents a stark divide between political public relations of the time and the daily lived realities of Chicago’s laborers and poorer residents.

In one clip, then mayor Richard J. Daley says of his city, “we have no ghettos in Chicago at all, we have no negro ghetto.” Cut to a small girl swinging from a rope hung in a doorway that’s swaying with her, about to collapse. In another clip, the narrator sardonically references Chicago’s ‘culture’ while the camera hangs on a dismal 3-lane surface highway where a woman scurries to avoid an onslaught of deafening traffic.

The film’s contrasts and contradictions illuminate the segregation common in 1960s urban life. Periodically the film celebrates the city more like a promotional tourist film, but does do only to return to sobering realities of inequity. As you might imagine, half a century later, little has changed in that regard for Chicago.

Chicago In The Early 60’s “The City of Necessity”

Adding to Chicago’s list of nicknames is “The City of Necessity” the title of this filmed glimpse of Chicago from 1961. This low key film was co-produced by …

Today, the city is undertaking a massive new urbanization effort. Announced by now embattled mayor Rahm Emanuel in May 2012, ‘Building A New Chicago‘ is an undertaking projected to cost over $7 billion to “repair pipes, repave roads, rebuild rails, retrofit buildings, and revitalize bridges.”

This splurge on infrastructure comes at the same time as mass waves of new skyscraper development in a downtown already taller and denser than any in the US outside New York City. 2015 proved be record-breaking for towers, with total office sales volume topping $6.1 billion.


Chicago’s commercial and residential affordability relative to coastal cities has motivated companies to relocate their workforce from the suburbs. With this influx, of course, comes trendy new things, new cafes, artisanal bowls of cereal. The gritty graffiti part of town that used to be meatpacking plants is now getting flipped into posh condos for the techie class. The momentary surge towards affordable grit soon eradicates any sign of its former alluring self.

Literal signs of this change are everywhere: the city’s own Building a New Chicago placards seemingly on every block, lit billboards demanding to know if you’re ready to move, building-sized banners letting you know the Future of Urban is glass and concrete and damn tall.


The city’s Divvy bike share program has been a solid success since launching in 2013, boasting some 4,750 bikes at almost 500 stations, with over 3 million trips taken in 2015. You see them everywhere, darting between cars backed up at lights, racing down old gutter lanes, racing up shiny new green lanes.

Rahm wasn’t kidding when he said in 2012 he planned to steal the cycling creative class and the jobs that come with them. They’re here alright, and they’re definitely enjoying Divvy bikes. tumblr_o0ix25KGpW1ukisbbo2_1280tumblr_o0ktt4wcO21ukisbbo1_1280tumblr_o0ix25KGpW1ukisbbo3_1280 Outside of the towering downtown, the form and structures of Chicago change dramatically. Zoning restrictions limit the height of most new residential construction from overshadowing adjacent human-scaled 2 flat and 3 flat apartments. Beyond the height compliance, new forms appear highly varied, some mimicking classic designs, some totally rejecting them.

You’ll see jammed between two brownstones a green-glass post-modern cube. While certainly far less affordable than its cozy neighbors, aesthetically, there’s enough variety that most of it works. Only rarely will you see something that truly sticks out. If it does, it’s likely due to cheap construction rather than eyesore architecture. tumblr_o0iyoeK54R1ukisbbo2_1280tumblr_o0ixbpwE4i1ukisbbo1_1280tumblr_o0ixbpwE4i1ukisbbo2_1280tumblr_o0iyoeK54R1ukisbbo1_1280 Chicago’s street art seems geared more toward gallery crowds than it is a reflection of actual street life, but is modestly remarkable nonetheless. The city under Rahm has made efforts to stiffen penalties for graffiti via predictably regressive “zero tolerance” language.

Unironically, while the city claims unsanctioned street art is “vandalism that hurts property values and quality of life“, politicians know full well attracting hip young urbanites to justify rising rents requires not getting too tough on anyone besides basic taggers. Graffiti is a real estate asset these days. Nothing screams artistic authenticity like the back of a stop sign coated in punk stickers. tumblr_o0iyoeK54R1ukisbbo3_1280tumblr_o0ixyin1AN1ukisbbo4_1280tumblr_o0iyoeK54R1ukisbbo4_1280tumblr_o0ixyin1AN1ukisbbo2_1280tumblr_o0iyszTMJL1ukisbbo1_1280 While artistically ample and architecturally diverse, the demographic composition of Chicago’s neighborhoods doesn’t match this dynamic. Chicago is indeed diverse overall, but it is also the most segregated city in the nation.

From The Chicago Reader: “This wasn’t the choice of African-Americans; it was the product of the fear and prejudice of whites, abetted by a host of government-sanctioned policies—restrictive covenants, redlining, urban renewal, public housing situated almost exclusively in ghettos, generous federal spending that subsidized white flight to the suburbs. The African-Americans who migrated to Chicago from the south were largely poor. Job discrimination combined with segregation to concentrate their poverty.

It’s in these communities where the least new development is taking place, for now. As rents rise throughout the inner core, displacement will begin further out in black and Latino neighborhoods. It is inevitable. However, not all displacement is directly attributed to gentrification, just as not all development gentrifies.

Late in the last decade, rail freight carriers Norfolk Southern began buying home properties in Chicago’s northeast Englewood to expand their 47th street terminal. This continued quietly for years before their plan was publicly announced, of course, to prevent mass community backlash. In the video below, Norfolk Southern claimed 70% of the neighborhood was already purchased by the time of the announcement.

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Certain levels of infrastructure obviously need maintaining, and without any new development, cities die. The modernization of Chicago, like any other city, is sold as providing jobs, security, well-being. The rail yard expansion was pitched as progress for South Chicago, delivering all of the above. But these jobs won’t be offered to any of the displaced Englewood residents getting bought out of their homes.

What’s being masked here is the degree to which divestment and reinvestment are part of the same profit-driven cycles of capital real estate. These cycles are intentional, as are the displacement and segregation they produce. Like New York City, like Detroit, like Portland – Chicago’s modernization will further divide communities by wealth. We’ll continue to see ‘tales of two cities’ narratives long into this century, if not beyond.

We can go it alone, carve out a career to afford a condo, or we can organize with our neighbors to strengthen communities against political and economic forces designed to drive us apart.

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And yet this too is but a fraction of the city, a pleasant sign of hope perhaps. But still, a fragment. One cannot grasp a city’s beauty and warmth without also grasping the ugliness and sorrow. And the last barrier is personal; to break bread with someone different than yourself, to advocate a neighbor’s rights, to give yourself not to the safe pursuits, but to the living realities of the great city. The emerging metropolis is here, its problems will multiply. Whose problems? Are they only the those of the poor? Is not one man’s problem another’s? Or is the city to become a labyrinth of barriers, constricting human contact? A city of the up-and-outs and down-and-outs; a city of choice and a city of necessity.
~ Steven C. Rose, City of Necessity 1962


Still images copyright Rebel Metropolis.