In his debut book, The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Chicago, Daniel Kay Hertz traces the oft-forgotten, controversial history of one of Chicago’s most affluent neighborhoods. In the 1950s, the North Side was made of primarily working-class neighborhoods; the suburbs were where the real wealth was concentrated post-World War II. However, a growing contingent of white, professional-class homeowners became attracted to the cheap housing prices, independent art scenes, and proximity to downtown that neighborhoods like Old Town and Lincoln Park offered.
But this do-gooderism starts to backfire in the 1960s. A potent combination of rising rents, demolitions from the federal urban renewal program, and private renovations drive up the value and cultural cachet of Lincoln Park, but at the expense of thousands of long-time, lower-income members of the community. Most vulnerable to this wave of change were Lincoln Park’s black and Puerto Rican residents, whose voices went ignored by the neighborhood associations and City Council.
This ushers in a prolonged fight over “ownership” of the neighborhood, the so-called “Battle” of Lincoln Park. The displaced and soon-to-be-displaced Puerto Rican residents of Lincoln Park organized as the Young Lords Organization in an effort to stop the gentrification that had disproportionately driven them out of their homes. Activists and wealthy neighborhood gatekeepers clashed throughout the decade (sometimes to violent ends), calling into question who gets to have a say in what a neighborhood looks like and who gets to live there.
I spoke with the author, Daniel Kay Hertz, who works as an urban issues writer and city policy analyst, about his in-depth archival research into Lincoln Park’s history, why these types of stories matter, and what the implications of his research are for the Chicago of today.
What made you interested in writing about Lincoln Park?
It wasn’t about Lincoln Park itself necessarily, but the origins of gentrification in Chicago. I spent a lot of time reading about Chicago history and housing policy and how the neighborhood changed, and a lot of it was about the South and West Sides and the evolution of segregated black neighborhoods—which obviously is really, really valuable history—but I started thinking more about the flip side of the growing inequality over the last 50, 60, 70 years in Chicago, and part of that history is the growing, predominantly white affluent areas on the North Side, so I wanted to look at where that came from. Lincoln Park is the first example of a really gentrifying neighborhood.
What was the process like of digging into all of the archival research for this book and cobbling together this narrative from newspaper clippings and newsletters and meeting records?
It was a ton of fun—I’ve never done that kind of archival work before. Most of the original research comes from DePaul University Special Collections, which has an amazing Lincoln Park neighborhood archive of all of these neighborhood associations and other groups that donated their papers. I could read internal memos and minutes of every board meeting and all that stuff. At first it was like a million different individual data points, but eventually it shaped itself into a story—you start recognizing names, you start making a timeline of events and things come together. But for a long time, it was not clear what things were going to end up as.
Was the scope of the book always intended to be just Lincoln Park and Old Town? Were there times when you were tempted to expand the scope as you delved more into the research?
I was definitely tempted to expand it quite a bit. I mean, it’s a short book—it’s only 160-170 pages. There’s a ton of stuff just in Lincoln Park that I wanted to include that I couldn’t. Part of what I think is interesting about this story is the people in Lincoln Park were very aware of what was going on in the rest of Chicago, but also other parts of the country. They were in touch with organizations that were working in Hyde Park or on the West side and trying to learn from those organizations. They were also in touch with people who were in similarly gentrifying neighborhoods in New York or DC. And yeah, I would have loved to explore more of those connections to outside the neighborhood.
How have the narratives and discourse gentrification changed? Is it the same or different from what it was 50 years ago?
One of the interesting things for me was how similar it is—the psychology of it. Back in the 40s people were saying, “We’re moving to Old Town because we want to have a short commute, but we also want them to live within this diverse historic neighborhood and we’re going to have richer, fuller lives because of the diversity”—and by diversity, it was almost entirely a white neighborhood, but it had immigrants and working class people and a handful of non-white people, which, you know, they wouldn’t have had in Hinsdale. So in some ways, it’s extremely similar. The main way in which it’s different is today people understand gentrification as this powerful process that really can change neighborhoods. They expect it to change the neighborhood, but really through the 60s and even into the 70s, you could actually have a stably middle-class or upper middle-class neighborhood in the inner city, and people’s fears and ideas about what might happen to them were very different because of that disbelief in gentrification as a real process.
The Young Lords Organization played a pivotal role in trying to stave off the displacement of low-income black and Puerto Rican residents in Lincoln Park. Do you see the impact of their activism today in Lincoln Park and other neighborhoods as well?
Sort of both directly. Obviously, Lincoln Park gentrified and the Puerto Rican community was mostly displaced, but they did succeed in getting more affordable housing built in Lincoln Park than wouldn’t have been built without their activism. For a lot of people, it’s still a really important part of Chicago’s activist history and neighborhood history. Part of the hope with the book is that it does bring that history to more people who aren’t familiar with it.
Are there any communities in Chicago you think have managed to attract new residents while not displacing the current ones? And if so, what are they doing that the rest of Chicago could learn from?
Gentrification is a citywide or even region-wide process, so it’s really hard to stop it in one neighborhood. The places that have done the best are the ones that are not really part of the engine of gentrification. Lincoln Park started this process where these neighborhoods adjacent to other wealthy neighborhoods next to downtown—so in the case of Lincoln Park, it was adjacent to the Gold Coast—start growing out of already wealthy areas. So from the Gold Coast to Lincoln Park and then Lincoln Park to Lakeview. There are some examples of neighborhoods that have seen demographic change, like new groups moving in, but they’re not so much part of that split because they’re not adjacent to the wealthy area.
Some places like McKinley Park—where there’s been a fair amount of demographic change—it’s actually now a pretty diverse neighborhood and I don’t think there’s the kind of displacement pressure that you see him in places like Logan Square or Humboldt Park. But I really think that the dynamic that’s going on there on the North Side really has to be disrupted at the regional level by breaking this pattern where these very high public-service areas of the city that people with money are willing to pay whatever they need to get into and the rest of the city with relatively low prices and low public services that they just shun. I think that sort of inequality is the basic driver of gentrification.
At the crux of the book—the thesis statement—is this idea that displacement and disinvestment are not separate. They are processes that reinforce each other and compound and create this inequitable environment. What do you think the city can do at a policy level to avoid, what you call in the book, this “high-stakes bidding war”?
I think the thing that the city can do is invest in neighborhoods outside of the zone of affluence—and not just the ones right outside of it. Often the city’s public and private institutions focus investment on the edges of the affluent areas and that just encourages the next wave of people to move out and perpetuate the process. Spreading that [investment] all over the city to ensure a basic level of public services and amenities in every neighborhood of the city—I don’t think that you would completely see that gentrification process disappear, but I have to think that it would be blunted if people didn’t see their choice of neighborhood as this high-stakes tradeoff between high prices with high amenities—or not.
Do you think there is a way to lessen the impact of gentrification at a personal level? Is it even possible to opt out of that system?
Not really, I don’t think. You know, if you’re a person with social or economic power—by which I mean, if you’re middle class, upper-middle-class, or if you’re white—that would normally drive gentrification. I think if you move somewhere far outside of the zone [of affluence], you would probably be more indirectly contributing to those processes. Obviously, there’s a ton of things that you can do individually that make you a better neighbor or resident of the city of Chicago. If you’re moving into a neighborhood where there’s an established community culture that you’re not a part of, you can shop local and do all those things, but I don’t think that those things are going to ultimately stop the social and economic processes that are gentrification, but they can certainly make life a little easier for your neighbors. I think the real answer is no, it’s a systemic problem that needs to be changed. As an individual, you know, you can be less of a jerk, but you can’t really opt out of the role that the system has assigned you.
I imagine that most people would not be aware that Lincoln Park has such a controversial origin story. What do you think is the value of telling these types of stories?
It’s good to know the neighborhood you live in was not just created out of whole cloth without a history. The place that you live in is the way it is for reasons that often because people fought to make it like that. Segregation of the kind that you see them in Lincoln Park [with] upper-middle-class or wealthy white people—like segregation of black neighborhoods or lower-income neighborhoods—is often waved off as as, “That’s just the way it is. That’s the natural order of things, so it’s not worth thinking too hard about or pushing back against it all.” Knowing the history of how neighborhoods come to be segregated disabuses you of that idea. It wasn’t natural, it wasn’t always like this—it was created. It encourages you to think about ways that it could be reshaped again and maybe evolve in a direction is more just.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Daniel Kay Hertz is Research Director at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Chicago and writes about urban issues for publications like The Atlantic, the Chicago Reader, and South Side Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielKayHertz.