On April 12, 1947, Robert E - CAS Workshops

From Containment to Liberation: The Postwar University and the Architecture of Urban
Michael H. Carriere
The University of Chicago
History Department
On April 12, 1947, Robert E. Garrigan, Executive Director of Chicago’s South
Side Planning Board (SSPB), forwarded a draft of a speech he had been working on to
Dr. Henry Heald, President of Illinois Institute of Technology and Chairman of the SSPB.
It was clear from the attached memorandum that Garrigan was quite proud of the speech,
which Heald was to present at an upcoming event. “I will not brag about its
organization,” wrote Garrigan, “but I think it will make good newspaper copy.”
The speech laid out the mission statement of the newly organized SSPB, a group
that, concerned about urban blight in the area between 12th Street and 47th Street (east of
the Pennsylvania Railroad), had come together just one year earlier. “[T]he simple fact
remains,” wrote Garrigan, “that Chicago is rotting away.” Referencing a map
highlighting vacant land in the organization’s area of concern, Garrigan found that “It is
easy to see by looking at this map how rot is covering the entire South Side and growing
and spreading away from the center of the city leaving devastation, disorganization,
crime and lost lives and investments in its wake.” Yet even such visual aids could not
adequately represent the sheer horror of Chicago’s streets. Making an incredible
comparison, Garrigan found that
This picture of destroyed buildings and homes is worse than any picture of
London destruction by the German Air Raids of the last war. The lost
lives, human misery and financial loss caused by blight in Chicago in the
past 25 years has probably far surpassed the destruction caused by the
atom bomb on Hiroshima. Because blight doesn’t happen all in one day,
with a lot of drama, but instead creeps on us until it strangles us without
our knowing it, we give it no attention.”1
Despite the enormity of the problem, though, Garrigan did not feel that all hope
was lost. To Garrigan, the solution to urban blight could be found in the world of modern
urban planning, a world that would help lead to “a definite and sound policy for
replanning and rebuilding Chicago” (or, as Garrigan prophetically warned, “someday
there will be no Chicago.”). First and foremost, this was a project that would require
incredible skill and expertise, as “[t]here are very few laymen and in fact not many
technicians in the field of urban redevelopment who understand its full scope and
significance.” And such experts had to engage in large-scale planning, planning that dealt
with every aspect of the urban dweller’s life – and not just the immediate problem of
adequate housing for south side residents. “It is our position,” wrote Garrigan on this
subject, “that it is just as important to the welfare and future prosperity of this city to plan
where the people will work as it is to plan where they will live.” 2
Yet this would be a struggle. To drive this point home, Garrigan returned to his
war analogy. “It is without hesitation,” wrote Garrigan, “that I tell you that the invention
and manufacture of the atom bomb was as nothing compared to the solution of the
problem of urban redevelopment.” Garrigan, however, remained optimistic. “This is not
necessarily discouraging,”3 he proclaimed,
for we are much farther along in the problem of urban redevelopment than
were the physical scientists at the beginning of the Manhattan Project. All
that is needed now to make urban redevelopment a reality is a Chicago
size Manhattan Project and we intend to initiate that here today.”4
Memorandum and speech, Robert E. Garrigan to Henry Heald, April 12, 1947, Henry Heald Papers,
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, Illinois, Box 63, “SSPB” folder: 2, 3
Ibid., 1, 5, 8
Ibid., 1.
Ibid., 2.
“We hope,” concluded Garrigan, “that all the people of Chicago and all organizations of
Chicago will join with us in developing a movement, or let us say a crusade, to save
To SSPB leaders – which included representatives from many nearby institutions
and organizations – there was a clear need for a “crusade” to contain the spread of
creeping blight in Chicago, a crusade that could only be won through the implementation
of modern urban planning. And the driving force behind such efforts was IIT, whose
leaders and faculty members played vital roles within the SSPB, individuals who seemed
to represent the type of modernism that proved so attractive to urban renewal in Chicago.
This essay focuses upon this relationship between the school and the redevelopment
group, and hopes to show just how extensively postwar urban universities drew from the
language of modernism not only in the creation of new university buildings6, but also in
the way they attempted to recreate the urban environment surrounding such structures.
The clean (some might say sterile), abstract lines and carefully proportioned spaces
associated with modern urban planning provided both IIT and the SSPB the antidote for
the urban disorder that seemed to be surrounding them on all sides. The leaders of such
institutions wholeheartedly embraced modern urban planning as early as the 1940s, and
such a strategy played a crucial role in the urban renewal efforts that Chicago would
implement throughout the postwar era.
Yet there was more to this embrace of modern urban planning than such a clearcut contrast between perceived urban order and disorder. As in the case of the rise of
modernism within the design of campus buildings themselves, the turn to the modern
Ibid., 9.
This is the subject of Chapter 1 of my dissertation.
within urban planning came to serve as a physical representation of the values of postwar
American liberalism, values that liberal university leaders (and many within the
surrounding community) wholeheartedly endorsed and believed was their mission to
teach to the young people of the United States. Modern urban planning – with its
predilection for large-scale projects, its commitment to consensus and rationality, its
embrace of expertise and specialization, its distrust of history, its vision of an evolving
administrative state, and its deification of technology (among others) – proved a perfect
fit not only for the broader vision of American liberalism, but also for the way many
liberal leaders were coming to view the city within the postwar era. The push to
suburbanize urban space and have the city serve the automobile – popular thoughts
among many urban liberals – were key tenets of modern urban planning. The actual plan
of the urban university, just as in the aesthetics of the buildings that made up such a plan,
can be read as a concrete articulation of both the values of American liberalism – which
universities were seen as exemplifying – and the way that liberals pictured their ideal
urban landscape. Such a marriage between modernism and liberalism would have
tremendous repercussions for the broad arc of twentieth-century US history.
Of course, I am not the first to note this relationship between modernism and
modern urban planning and American liberalism. One is struck by the parallels between
Garrigan’s speech and the rhetoric of Cold War anti-communism, a comparison made all
the more vibrant by Garrigan’s wartime analogies. As historian Arnold R. Hirsch notes in
the foreword to the 1998 edition of his seminal work Making the Second Ghetto: Race
and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960 it was during the 1940s and 1950s – and not the
1960s7 – that the push for urban renewal truly got going. And it was during this same era
that the concept of “containment” became incredibly important to the realm of urban
planning. As he writes:
It is perhaps my greatest regret that the current plight of our cities remains
almost reflexively linked to the 1960s and the presumptive failure of wellintentioned but soft-headed social ‘reforms’ such as public housing. Much
of Making the Second Ghetto’s burden was to demonstrate that the
compounded shortcomings of slum clearance, urban renewal, and
segregated high-rise public housing resulted not from an unfettered
liberalism’s social experimentation during the civil rights era but, rather,
from a conservative reaction more emblematic of the 1950s and the Cold
War. Indeed, what we experienced was the ferocious application of a
domestic ‘containment’ policy – the word itself was frequently used by
contemporaries in this context – that complemented American foreign
policy in rhetoric and imagery.8
Hirsch is correct to note the presence of the concept of “containment” in both
foreign and domestic policy, a point he makes even more strongly in his recent article
“Containment on the Home Front: Race and Federal Housing Policy from the New Deal
to the Cold War.” To Hirsch, “‘Containment’ became as much a hallmark of racial
housing programs as it was of American foreign policy,” as federal housing initiatives
Historian Thomas Sugrue has built upon such a reconfiguring of American postwar history, and this
dissertation is clearly influenced by his work. In his The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality
in Postwar Detroit, Sugrue further counters this idea that the 1960s are the crucial decade in the narrative
of urban renewal, decline, and crisis. Instead, he “suggests that the origins of the urban crisis are much
earlier than social scientists have recognized, its roots deeper, more tangled, and perhaps more intractable”
than previously believed. Wishing to “complicate the conventional narratives of post-World War II
American history,” Sugrue illustrates that the United States at mid-century “was a far more complicated
and troubled place than emerges from most histories and popular accounts. The nation was at a peak of
economic and global strength in the 1940s and 1950s….Observers marveled – accurately – at an ‘affluent
society’….But the celebration of affluence masked significant regional variations and persistent inequality.
The remarkable growth of the postwar American economy was profoundly uneven.” One sees such an
example of this inequality in the example of Chicago outlined below, and well as the liberal response to
attempt to deal with such concerns. This notion of inequality did not go unnoticed by many postwar
liberals, and the anxiety created by this reality greatly contributed to the push for urban renewal. At the
same time, my work shows the necessity of looking back into the 1940s and 1950s – and perhaps even the
New Deal culture of the 1930s – to better understand the history of the 1960s and the proceeding decades.
See Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996): 5, 6.
Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960 (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1998), xi.
and urban renewal programs only served to reinforce existing patterns of segregation – a
fact that helped “contain” African-Americans in the worst neighborhoods in America. In
such accounts, urban renewal becomes something of a defensive strategy, a means to
maintain the status quo in urban life and its residential patterns.9
Such narratives of postwar urban planning dovetail nicely with other scholarly
accounts of the politics of space and urban planning during this historical era. Geographer
Matthew Farish, in his work on the relationship between disaster and American cities in
the postwar era, has found that Cold war concerns led many on the home front to
embrace this concept of containment in their daily lives as well. To Farish, such a project
allowed for “the internal manifestations of the ‘splitting’ caused by the doubling-back of
paranoid political projections – on the return of containment to haunt a second, domestic
space.” Put another way, the idea of containment didn’t only apply to America’s foreign
policy mission in such faraway places as Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. For urban
Americans who lived constantly under the threat of nuclear annihilation (as America’s
Cold War enemies would surely target the nation’s cities for attack), the notion of urban
containment – literally limiting the size of the cityscape – allowed them a way to
prepared for a myriad of dangers. “Containment, therefore,” concludes Farish, “was at
once a foreign policy and a narrative of the nation.”10
Cultural critic and American Studies professor Andrew Ross offers a similar
understanding of this conception of Cold War containment, as a means to protect the
Arnold R. Hirsch, “Containment on the Home Front: Race and Federal Housing Policy from the New
Deal to the Cold War,” Journal of Urban History, January 2000: 158-89, 170.
Matthew Farish, “Disaster and decentralization: American cities and the Cold War,” Cultural
Geographies 10 (2003): 125-48, 126.
American state from threats both external and internal. In an important essay on the
intellectual climate of Cold War America, Ross finds that
The first [conception of containment] speaks to a threat outside of the
social body, a threat that therefore has to be excluded, or isolated or
quarantined, and kept at bay fm the domestic body. The second meaning
of containment, which speaks to the domestic contents of the social body,
concerns a threat internal to the host which must then be neutralized by
being fully absorbed and thereby neutralized.”11
Ross’s deliberate use of the language of immunology highlights what he calls “the Cold
War culture of germophobia,” a concept that fits in rather nicely with George Kennan’s
postwar description of world communism as a “malignant parasite” threatening the well
being of America and its allies. On the international level, this culture of germophobia
found its expression in such Kennan-penned documents as the “Long Telegram” and
“The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” both of which argued for the need to contain Soviet
expansion. On the domestic scene, this push against malignant parasites manifested itself,
among other places, in the intense preoccupation with urban planning and its dreaded
enemy - blight.12
As the above example of Garrigan illustrates, there is much truth to such an
understanding of the urban landscape in postwar America. To Garrigan and his associates
in the SSPB, “creeping” urban blight did seem to take on the characteristics of disease,
and there is little doubt that such civic leaders saw the need to contain the spread of this
sickness. The rhetoric of Cold War liberalism had found an avenue through which to
speak to concerns on the home front, and the language of domestic liberalism found
much to draw from in the anti-communist understanding of containment. If nothing else,
Andrew Ross, “Containing Culture in the Cold War,” in No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture
(New York: Routledge, 1989), 46.
Ibid., 45.
the reliance upon wartime imagery and Cold War concepts allowed those concerned with
urban blight an urgency that it may not have achieved under different circumstances.
America could now be seen as fighting two wars, each vital to the survival of the nation:
a fight against global communism, and a fierce – and equally important – struggle for the
souls of American cities.
Yet, as the example of Garrigan also shows, there was more to such a struggle
than the need to contain the enemy. The concept of containment, in many ways, attempts
to merely maintain the status quo. What Garrigan truly envisioned was a world liberated
from the dangers of urban blight, where such decay was defeated once and for all.
Whereas the notion of containment reveals a rather conservative approach to urban
renewal (simply maintaining certain residential patterns, for example), this sense of
liberation entailed a dynamic approach to redevelopment, one in which structures would
be completely demolished and new buildings constructed in their wake. Such proponents
of urban renewal didn’t want to only contain blight; they wanted to create an entirely new
cityscape. Here one sees the more optimistic side of Cold War liberalism – historian
Samuel Taylor Zipp calls such early attempts at renewal examples of “benevolent
intervention” – where advocates firmly believed that they were in the process of freeing
the hearts and minds of urban dwellers across the United States. “Liberal sponsors” of
urban redevelopment, according to historian Allen J. Matusow, “had assumed that on
consequence of knocking down the housing of the poor would be to supply them with
better.” It is this more hopeful side of American liberalism and urban redevelopment – a
side that drew heavily from the liberal values discussed above – that I wish to explore in
this essay. Such an endeavor will hopefully provide the reader with a fuller account of
both, one that is not bound by an over-reliance on such ideas as containment.13
Tapping into such sentiment, Louis Wirth, a prominent liberal and University of
Chicago sociologist whose ideas would have a tremendous impact on the SSPB (and who
would serve as a consultant for the group) found in the immediate postwar period that
American cities were at a critical juncture in their evolution. As he wrote in 1946:
The Chinese have a way of writing the word crisis in two characters. One
is a character meaning ‘danger’ and the other a character meaning
‘opportunity.’ Every crisis presents a danger and an opportunity, if we
would only realize it. It is unnecessary to dwell on the dangers with which
peace presents us, for I am certain you are aware of them. I am going to
confine myself to the opportunities which peace will bring.14
Such a statement describes the mindset of postwar American liberalism and modern
urban planning perfectly: both camps were realistic enough to see the threats to their
efforts (and they worked hard to contain such threats), but both camps were also
ultimately confident that their activist approach would allow them to prevail. It is this
underlying belief that made the two such a perfect fit for each other.15
Samuel Taylor Zipp, “Manhattan Projects: Cold War Urbanism in the Age of Urban Renewal,” Ph.D.
dissertation, Yale University, 2006: 4. Zipp also reminds us that “We have to recall urban renewal’s early
idealism, its initial utopian and progressive vision to understand its eventual descent into discredit.” See
Zipp, 22; Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York:
Harper & Row, 1984), 102. Yet one should not be too quick to separate urban renewal’s later decline and
its earlier, nobler phase. Taken to its (perhaps logical) extreme, this approach to urban renewal could also
prove particularly destructive. Sticking with Cold War analogies, the early attempts at modern urban
planning and renewal as discussed in this essay can serve as examples of an infamous Vietnam-era concept:
Burning the village to save it.
Louis Wirth, “The Community in Transition from War to Peace,” in Community Planning for Peacetime
Living: Report of the 1945 Stanford Workshop on Community Leadership, Louis Wirth, Ernest R. Hilgard,
and I. James Quillen, eds. (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1946), 4.
It is these mindsets that I wish to explore in this essay. Most histories of urban redevelopment and
renewal focus almost exclusively on policy and the federal government’s role in these processes through
such legislation as Title I of the 1949 United States Housing Act. In such accounts, much attention is paid
on the nut-and-bolts of urban renewal, on the machinations through which urban renewal projects were
undertaken. Such historical developments are incredibly useful, but they are not the concern of this essay.
Instead, I hope to offer what can perhaps best be described as an intellectual history of urban
redevelopment. More than the details of such programs, I am interested in fleshing out the ideas and
passions that drove urban redevelopers and their allies.
Something More Than Containment: The Birth and Evolution of the South Side Planning
Board (SSPB)
In 1945, Michael Reese Hospital, centered on 29th Street and Ellis Avenue,
established a group called the South Side Redevelopment Agency and provided the
agency with a planning staff under the direction of Reginald R. Isaacs. The reasons for
such a strategy were highly based on the desire for self-preservation: The hospital didn’t
want to lose its $10,000,000 investment to the urban blight that seemed to be moving in
on its property. At the same time, the hospital knew that it would need to expand in the
near future. Understanding that such an endeavor could profit through partnership,
Michael Reese Hospital reached out to other area institutions, organizations, and
individuals also concerned with the viability of south side stability and development. 16
By the summer of 1946 the group had a new name – the South Side Planning Board – and
had been incorporated in the state of Illinois as a non-profit organization designed “To
aid in the planning and carrying out of a program of development of the Central South
Side area of the City of Chicago.”
And who made up the SSPB? According to a list of those present at a spring 1947
meeting, representatives from IIT, Michael Reese Hospital, NAACP, University of
Chicago, Chicago Memorial Hospital, Chicago Federation of Labor, American Society of
Planning Officials, Chicago Urban League, Chicago Building Congress, Inc., and the
Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago were in attendance. Members also came from
Carl W. Condit, Chicago: 1930-70: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1974), 205.
prominent railroad companies (New York Central, Pennsylvania, and Illinois Central, to
name a few), corporations (Hydrox, Walgreen Company, Marshall Field and Company,
Eastman Kodak Company, and Mentzer-Bush Company), and many other organizations,
both governmental and private. As the group grew in membership and influence, it was in
constant contact and partnership with many key Chicago governmental offices. The
group seemed to highlight the public/private blend of postwar liberalism perfectly:
members saw the need for governmental aid and assistance, but still believed that the
private sector had a vital role to play in tackling the crucial issues of the day. Yet there
was one group that was underrepresented during the early efforts of the SSPB: AfricanAmericans. Interestingly, this fact that did not go unnoticed by group’s leaders: In an
undated “Prospective Members” document the group noted that – in order for their efforts
to appear legitimate in the eyes of local community members – the organization must
include “Representatives of the Negro Community.” Such individuals as Earl Dickerson,
Oscar DePriest, Horace Cayton, Rep. William L. Dawson, and Metz Lochard (editor of
the Chicago Defender) were suggested as potential members.17
Yet internal documents from the group reveal the struggles that the organization
faced in convincing African Americans that they were on their side. In December 1947,
SSPB hired an African-American man named William Hill to work for the organization
as Director of Community Relations. Wilford G. Winholtz, then serving as Acting
Executive Director of SSPB, told Walter H. Blucher, Exective Director of the American
Society of Planning Officials and SSPB consultant, that he thought Hill might work out
because “He is a real dark Negro…” Such racial dynamics, present early in the group’s
“List of Those Present,” Central South Side Development Association, April 3, 1946, American Society
of Planning Officials records, University of Illinois-Chicago, Special Collections, Box 2, Folder 19;
“Prospective Members,” undated.
history, would foreshadow the problems that the SSPB would have concerning race as
their plans for the south side of Chicago continued to evolve. 18
The SSPB started off as a rather streamlined group, but quickly grew to become
more and more bureaucratic. By June 1947 the group featured the following committees:
Membership Committee, Forum Committee, Planning Committee (which had four subcommittees: Planning Coordination, Utilities, Use and Value Survey, Graphic
Representation), Committee on Industrial Development (three sub-committees), Local
Services Committee, Committee on Community Relations, Committee on Health,
Committee on Insurance Company Development, Committee on Public Housing
Development, Committee on Small Investors Development, Committee on the use of
Revenue Bonds for financing redevelopment, Committee on Integrated Community,
Committee on Redevelopment Authority, Committee on Land Distribution Procedures,
Committee on Relocation, Committee on zoning and legislative action. The push towards
specialization and expertise was alive and well in the SSPB, along with the layers of
bureaucracy necessary to make such a system function.19
Within such committees, there is little doubt that it was individuals from IIT that
held the most sway. Dr. Heald was appointed the first chairman of the organization, and
Executive Committee meetings were often held at the IIT student union. Raymond J.
Spaeth, Vice-President and Treasurer of IIT, played a vital role in the SSPB throughout
the group’s history, and took over the position of chairman after Heald left IIT to become
the chancellor of New York University in the winter of 1952. Heald’s successor, Dr. John
Letter from Wilford G. Winholtz to Walter H. Blucher, December 1, 1947, American Society of Planning
Officials records, University of Illinois-Chicago, Special Collections, Box 2, Folder 20.
“South Side Planning Board, Additional Statement to Program Committee by the Executive Director,”
June 5, 1947, Box 2, Folder 3.
T. Rettaliata, also often participated in the SSPB, speaking, for example, at the
organization’s annual meeting in May 1952 (He spoke on the topic of “Extending our
Planning Horizon”). Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer, two IIT faculty
members in the fields of architecture and urban planning, also had close relationships
with the SSPB. A 1946-1948 membership list for the organization marks Mies a member,
and both men participated on the SSPB Planning Committee. “We [IIT administrators
and faculty members] were the leaders and organizers,” according to Spaeth, “not just
participants. IIT put a tremendous amount of time, money, and talent into urban
development.” 20
As the examples of van der Rohe and Hilberseimer illustrate, architects and urban
planners with an affinity towards modernism were particularly welcome in the SSPB.
Individuals from the modern architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM)
claimed membership in the group, and architectural luminary Walter Gropius served as a
consultant for the SSPB. Planning Committee meetings were often held in the Chicago
offices of SOM, with architect John O. Merrill actually presiding. Correspondence from
Heald to Blucher in November 1947 gave note of the “increased personnel and assistance
of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to prepare the preliminary planning report for
publication at the earliest possible date”; not surprisingly, this document – along with, as
“Profile: Raymond J. Spaeth,” Technology and Human Affairs, Summer 1969: 16-17, 17. Within this
profile, Spaeth complains that the true role of IIT in the history of SSPB had never been adequately told. It
is my hope that this essay begins to fix this historical oversight; “Spaeth Elected New SSPB Chairman,”
South Side Planning Board News, January-February 1952, p.1. Spaeth was not a newcomer to SSPB. Since
its inception, he had served as technical consultant to the Board and had contributed to all of the Board’s
planning efforts. At IIT, he directed coordination of the school’s campus redevelopment program, including
management of land acquisition and construction of new buildings, as well as supervision of community
relations activities.
we will see, other products of the SSPB – relied heavily upon a modernistic
understanding of urban planning.21
The bogeyman in these early SSPB redevelopment/urban planning publications
and efforts was the idea of blight. “Blight,” according to a SSPB July 1946 prospectus,
“attacks and destroys industrial and commercial areas as well as residential areas.” In
language reminiscent of both Kennan and Ross, the SSPB found that “Blight is a
cancerous disease which afflicts and destroys cities and property and investment in
them.” And how did the SSPB plan to effectively deal with such a disease? Some,
according to the SSPB, have advocated the “Segregation of Blight” – cordon it off and
simply forget about it. “From time to time, business leaders have advanced the theory that
blight could be segregated, and its effect cut off from the rest of the community.”
However, the SSPB found that “The collected past experience of municipalities provides
clear, vivid and decisive proof that if the spread of blight is to be stopped, blight must be
eliminated.” The idea of containment was perhaps a start, but it was not enough.
Yet perhaps even more disturbing to the SSPB leadership was the “Run Away”
approach to the problem of urban blight. “There are those in this city and in all other
cities,” found the SSPB,
who take the view that blight does not concern them. They believe they
can run away when blight disturbs them too much….For some years now
people have been taking losses and running away from Chicago. These
people have thought of the total city as a total blight….It is the story of
disaster. Thousands of people and businesses have written off losses,
tremendous losses, and run away. They ran away to permit blight to spread
“South Side Planning Board, Minutes of Joint Meeting of Council and Planning Committee,” October
27, 1947, Box 2, Folder 20; “Membership List 1946-1948,” Box 3, Folder 22; “The South Side Planning
Board Announces its Annual Meeting,” flyer, May 7, 1952, Louis Wirth Papers, Box 36, folder 5,
University of Chicago Special Collections; “South Side Planning Board, Minutes of Meeting for SubCommittee on Planning Coordination (Planning Committee),” November 20, 1947; Correspondence from
Heald to Blucher, November 22, 1947, American Society of Planning Officials records, Box 2, Folder 20.
and be damned. It has spread and it has had a serious effect on all of
“The ‘run away theory,’” concluded the SSPB, “just isn’t any good. It is even costly to
those who run. It is cheaper to stay and fight the thing.” The SSPB had then to decide
exactly how to stand and fight this spread of blight.22
A Move towards the Modern: The Intellectual Underpinnings of the SSPB
In their articulations of strategies for fighting this blight and pushing for urban
redevelopment, the SSPB found useful intellectual allies in such individuals as Mies van
der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer, and their plans for the rebirth of Chicago’s south
side clearly drew from the work of both men. In fact, Mies’s IIT buildings often went
hand-in-hand with the urban renewal efforts of the SSPB, and his modernist designs put
on display the values – order, rationality, and a commitment to technological
advancement – that the group was attempting to inscribe on the south-side landscape. Not
surprisingly, Mie’s own thoughts on urban redevelopment proved a nice fit with the
ideology of the SSPB. One begins to see Mie’s ideas on such subjects in his introduction
to Hilberseimer’s work The New City: Principles of Planning (1944). “Reason,” began
Mies by way of quoting Sir Thomas Aquinas, “is the first principle of all human work.”
And it is reason that should guide all efforts to redevelop the urban landscape. Mies then
approvingly noted that Hilberseimer
examines the city with unwavering objectivity, investigates each part of it
and determines for each part its rightful place in the whole. Thus he brings
all the elements of the city into clear, logical order. He avoids imposing
upon them arbitrary ideas of any character whatsoever.
Central South Side Redevelopment Association, “Prospectus,” July 9, 1946, Henry T. Heald Papers,
Illinois Institute of Technology, Box 63, “SSPB” folder, 1,2, 5, 6.
Here, Mies found great comfort in the fact that Hilberseimer – much like himself –greatly
valued objectivity, order, and the rational thought: the very same values that postwar
liberalism had begun to champion. “City planning,” concluded van der Rohe, “is, in
essence, a work of order,” and this search for order led Mies to adopt the language of
value-neutral social science, at the precise moment that it was gaining ascendancy in
American culture.23
Hilberseimer himself saw the need to answer the prevailing trends of “wild
decentralization” and “planless disurbanization” with a call for “immediate constructive
action.”24 To Hilberseimer, what was needed was “comprehensive planning, in which all
of the many and different necessary undertakings are fitted together to establish a
framework for a better life.”25 One begins to see greater detail of such a philosophy in the
afore-mentioned The New City. Here, Hilberseimer envisioned a city where “all the
necessary elements of a city are segregated according to their function.” In such a plan,
the backbone of the settlement unit is the main traffic artery. On one side
of that artery are located the industrial areas; on the other side, first the
buildings for commerce and administration set within a green belt, and
beyond them the residential area surrounded by a park with schools,
playgrounds and community buildings in it.26
Within such segregated spaces, Hilberseimer saw the need to move beyond the
accepted understanding of block and street systems. “The city today,” he wrote, “is based
on a street and block system which was used in Egyptian cities four thousand years ago
and which is certainly older than Egypt. The function of the block has been the same at
Mies van der Rohe, “Introduction,” in L. Hilberseimer, The New City: Principles of Planning (Chicago:
Paul Theobald, 1944), xv.
Ludwig Hilberseimer, The New Regional Pattern: Industries and Gardens, Workshops and Farms
(Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1949), 187.
Ibid., 193.
Ludwig Hilberseimer, The New City: Principles of Planning (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1944), 71, 72.
Hilberseimer expanded on many of his ideas on urban planning in his The Nature of Cities: Origin,
Growth, and Decline (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1955).
all times.” To Hilberseimer, such a system had worked admirably throughout much of
human history. Yet modernity – and specifically the rise of the automobile – had
rendered such a system obsolete. As he concluded:
However our motor vehicles have rendered this once perfect system
questionable and even dangerous. We are beginning to consider and try
out modifications of, and even departure from, the block system. We are
trying especially to solve the problem created by the speeding automobile
– the dangerous intersection.27
By posing the problem in such terms, it was clear that Hilberseimer now saw the car is
perhaps the means of traveling throughout the city. They – and not pedestrians or other
forms of public transportation – must now be accommodated.
The answer to such a problem, according to Hilberseimer, lay in the creation of a
SUPERBLOCK (capitalization his), which sought to combine a number of city blocks for
up to two square miles. This new mega-space would be bounded by four highways
(instead of streets), with clover leaf intersections at the four corners to make sure that
traffic flowed smoothly. Residences, commercial buildings, and offices would all rise
high into the air within the superblock, and motor vehicles could drive underneath such
buildings and even park there. Such a design – besides bringing much needed order to the
chaos of the city – would also serve to open up recreational space. “The park space
within such an area,” wrote Hilberseimer, “could now be much larger. Schools and
playgrounds could be located within these parks.” And, importantly, such childrenfriendly areas would be located within confined, safe spaces. Little attention was paid to
what such spaces might be replacing. There was an explicit mistrust of history in the
Ibid., 100.
work of Hilberseimer, a feeling that all that came before (as in his example of the
changes wrought by the automobile) was now outdated.28
It is easy to recoil in horror at the thought of such mammoth structures from the
vantage-point of the twenty-first century (architect Dirk Lohan, who personally knew
Hilberseimer, recently recollected “How could ‘Hilbs’ – as he was known to all his
students – that gentle and caring man, have dreamed such abhorrent dreams?”). Yet
Hilberseimer was clearly trying to do what he thought was best for humanity. And he was
well within the current of modern city planning. A 1942 CIAM-sponsored publication by
acclaimed modern architect Jose Luis Sert, titled Can Our Cities Survive? An ABC of
Urban Problems, Their Analysis, Their Solutions, reached incredibly similar conclusions.
Sert’s report, which embraced “large-scale planning,” called for the separation of public
and private spheres (“Only Certain Small Industries Should Remain Near Dwellings”
read one section heading), the construction of high-rise housing units, and the
construction of a new urban street system. “The street system itself,” found Sert, “must be
modernized,” a process that, at least according to the photographs that accompanied
Sert’s text, was already underway in America. Sert cited the “great possibilities” of the
“Daring highway constructions” taking place on Northern Boulevard in Long Island, the
Triborough Bridge, and the East River Drive. Finally, Sert shared Hilberseimer’s
apparent disdain for urban history (along with the SSPB’s aversion to blight). In a section
titled “Slums Cannot be Remodeled,” Sert found that “it is impossible to make healthful
the houses situated in these islands[of blight]….The only remedy for this condition is the
demolition of the infected houses and the reconstruction, upon the reclaimed land, of
sanitary dwelling surrounded by open areas.” There was to be no effort at preservation,
Ibid., 104.
no attempt to rehabilitate older buildings and housing stock. The only viable option was
to demolish such structures and begin again. The SSPB, as we will see, couldn’t have
said it any better.29
In many ways, Sert’s somewhat polemical tract was a natural extension of the
document that had come to define CIAM’s modernist approach to urban planning, the
group’s 1933 (though not published until 1942) Athens Charter. The document, primarily
drafted by modern architect Le Corbusier, noted some of the same anxieties, particularly
surrounding changes to urban life. “The advent of the machinist era,” the report found,
“has provoked immense disturbances in the conduct of men, in the patterns of their
distribution over the earth’s surface and in their undertakings.” And what was the result
of the rise of the machinist era? “Chaos has entered the cities….The evil is universal,
expressed in the cities by an overcrowding that drives them into disorder.” Yet Le
Corbusier still saw cause for hope. While it was true that “The machinist era has
introduced new techniques which are one of the causes of the disorder and the upheaval
of the cities,” it was “those very techniques that we must look for a solution to the
problem.” To Le Corbusier, “Modern construction techniques have established new
methods, provided new facilities, made new dimensions possible. They have opened an
entirely new cycle in the history of architecture.” Advancements in technology, in other
words, could help modernism reclaim and reorder the urban.30
Lohan quoted in Richard Pommer, “‘More a Necropolis than a Metropolis’: Ludwig Hilberseimer’s
Highrise City and Modern City Planning,” in In the Shadow of Mies: Ludwig Hilberseimer, Architect,
Educator, and Urban Planner, Richard Pommer, David Spaeth, and Kevin Harrington (Chicago: Art
Institute of Chicago, 1988), 16-53; Jose Luis Sert, Can Our Cities Survive? An ABC of Urban Problems,
Their Analysis, Their Solutions (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942), 24, 152, 183, 192, 193.
Italics in original text.
Le Corbusier, The Athens Charter (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1973), 48, 49, 102.
Like Sert and Hilberseimer, Le Corbu had a problem with the streets of the city,
the design of which, in many urban areas, he saw as going back “sometimes even beyond
antiquity.” Such an antiquated system led to a situation where “The traditional alignment
of habitations on the edges of streets ensures sunlight only for a minimum of dwellings.”
Simply put, many urban dwellers were now living in the dark, as their windows were
often overshadowed by the built environment around them. At the same time, these very
streets – and even their adjacent sidewalks – had become too unsafe for pedestrians. “The
sidewalks,” noted Le Corbusier, “were created to avoid traffic accidents in the days of the
horse, and only after the introduction of the carriage; today they are absurdly ineffectual
now that mechanized speeds have introduced a real menace of death into the streets.” The
answer to such a dangerous situation, according to the Athens Charter, was that “The
alignment of dwellings along transportation routes must be prohibited.” Roads must stand
apart. Or, as Le Corbusier concluded: “As a rule, verdant zones must isolate the major
traffic channels.”31
Such a re-imagining of the street was meant to bring a sense of order back to the
urban landscape. “Confronted with mechanized speeds,” Le Corbusier found, “the street
network seems irrational, lacking in precision, in adaptability, in diversity, and in
conformity.” More specifically, the Athens Charter simply concluded that the “width of
the streets is inadequate.” Yet such a conclusion begs the question: Inadequate for what?
The answer to Le Corbusier was clearly the automobile, seemingly the only acceptable
method of transportation within the modern city. And the city should make every attempt
to accommodate these automobiles. Commenting further on the segregation of traffic
channels, the Charter finds that “The distances between street intersections are too
Ibid., 58, 64, 79, 85..
short.” At first, such a statement seems a bit puzzling, but Le Corbusier’s elaboration on
this statement is quite revealing. To Le Corbusier and other CIAM members, “Before
reaching their normal cruising speed, mechanized vehicles have to start up and gradually
accelerate. Sudden braking can only cause rapid wear and tear on major parts.” Here was
yet another reason for the call for the superblock: to save the vaunted automobile from
breaking down.32
Streets weren’t only thing that were to be isolated in the ideal city of the Athens
Charter. “The industrial areas,” wrote Le Corbusier, “must be independent of the
residential areas, and separated from one another by a zone of vegetation.” Explaining
further, Le Corbusier found that
The dwelling, which will thereafter stand in the open countryside, will be
completely protected from noise and pollution and yet will be close
enough to eliminate the long daily journeys to-and-fro; it will once again
become a normal family organism. Thus recovered, the ‘conditions of
nature’ will help put a stop to the nomadism of the working population.33
Here, city space becomes suburbanized through a strategy that attempts to answer a
number of sociological concerns (family cohesion and individual mobility, among
others). Modern architects and urban planners would continue to turn to the world of
sociology as the twentieth century progressed, particularly as the discipline began to
make a concerted effort to study – as well as remedy – the pathologies of urbanism.
Placed within the open countryside, the housing of the working population was to
take advantage of the latest in technology. “The resources offered by modern techniques
for the erection of high structures,” the Athens Charter noted, “must be taken into
account.” Le Corbusier himself was clearly in awe that “Structures now reach sixty-five
Ibid., 81.
Ibid. 76, 77.
stories or more,” and he began to articulate his design for the “tower in the park” model
of urban living: “High buildings, set far apart from one another, must free the ground for
broad verdant areas.”34 And anything that stood in the way of such a plan could be
removed through a type of urban renewal. To Le Corbusier, “Unsanitary blocks of
houses must be demolished and replaced by green areas: the adjacent housing quarters
will thus become more sanitary.” Blight must be contained and then destroyed, a process
that would serve to liberate the entire community from the disease of urban ruin.35
Perhaps well aware that such a strategy may have sounded rather severe to some
of his audience, Le Corbusier was quick to note that such a strategy for urban
redevelopment would be sensitive to issues of architectural history. Commenting on
historic works of architecture, Le Corbusier found that
They are precious witnesses of the past which will be respected, first for
their historical or sentimental value, and second, because certain of them
convey a plastic virtue in which the utmost intensity of human genius has
been incorporated.36
Yet Le Corbusier quickly qualified this pro-preservation tendency. “The whole of the
past,” he wrote, “is not, by definition, entitled to last forever; it is advisable to choose
wisely that which must be respected” (though Le Corbusier isn’t exactly clear on who
should be making such distinctions). Having made such a qualification, Le Corbusier
then seemed to truly put his cards on the table:
By no means can any narrow-minded cult of the past bring about a
disregard for the rules of social justice. Certain people, more concerned
for aestheticism than social solidarity, militate for the preservation of
certain picturesque old districts unmindful of the poverty, promiscuity,
and diseases that these districts harbor….under no circumstances should
the cult of the picturesque and the historical take precedence over the
Ibid., 64, 65
Ibid., 69.
Ibid., 86.
healthfulness of the dwelling, upon which the well-being and the moral
health of the individual so closely depend. 37
Here, history and historic buildings are equated with blight and squalor, detrimental to
the quest for social justice and the health – physical and mental – of the individual.
This rejection of history is carried over into what the new structures that are to
take the place of such old, decrepit buildings should look like. Not surprisingly, the
Athens Charter calls for a turn towards the language of architectural modernism. “The
practice of using styles of the past on aesthetic pretexts for new structures erected in
historic areas has harmful consequences,” wrote Le Corbusier. “Neither the continuation
of such practices nor the introduction of such initiatives will be tolerated in any form.”
One is struck by the totalizing nature of such a position: New buildings, even in historical
districts, should not make the attempt to fit into their surroundings. To Le Corbusier and
other CIAM members, such an accommodation would only serve to undermine their
progressive, linear narrative of modern society. “Never has a return to the past been
recorded,” Le Corbusier continued, “never has man retraced his own steps.” Perhaps
most importantly, Le Corbusier saw a dependence on history as squarely irrational. “To
imitate the past slavishly is to condemn ourselves to delusion,” he concluded, “to institute
the ‘false’ as a principle.” Aesthetical decisions based upon history spoke to the issues
and concerns of that past, and only that past. What was needed was a new, “true”
understanding of urban planning and architecture, one that took into account the realities
of modern urban life.38
To Le Corbusier and other CIAM members, such a modern vision of the urban
landscape could only be carried out through large-scale, comprehensive planning, with a
Ibid., 86
Ibid., 88.
serious dose of governmental aid. “It is a matter of the utmost urgent necessity that every
city draw up its program,” found Le Corbusier, “and enact the laws that will enable it to
be carried out.” Yet more than willing city officials and governmental assistance was
necessary for the birth of modern urban planning. What was also needed was a culture of
expertise. “The program must be based on rigorous analyses carried out by specialists.” A
certain training and understanding of the terrain of the city was now seen as necessary for
those wishing to bring order to the urban. And architects and urban planners were not the
only ones able to take a place in this culture of expertise. CIAM and other advocates of
modern urban planning also began to reach out to social scientists – a trend that only
intensified in the postwar United States. By the time of this era in American history,
urban renewal, according to historian Samuel Taylor Zipp, had become “the practical
branch of those order-obsessed social sciences. It turned its cold, unerring eye on the built
environment and replaced it with a new cityscape constructed according to the dictates of
its own rational strictures.”39
The Search for (Further) Order: The SSPB, Modern Urban Planning, and the Rise of the
Social Sciences
In the example of Chicago, prominent sociologists were among the social
scientists that the SSPB drew from and reached out to. As noted above, Louis Wirth –
who served as a consultant for the SSPB – clearly influenced the group as it attempted to
lay out its own ideas on urban redevelopment in the immediate postwar era. Other
important sociologists, particularly Frances E. Merrill, and Mabel A. Elliott (who we will
return to below), also had a direct impact on the intellectual underpinnings of the SSPB,
Ibid., 100, 102; Zipp, 14. Zipp also makes the point that such urban renewal efforts served as a kind of
domestic counterpart to the modernization theory that liberal American planners and social scientists
recommended for nations emerging from colonialism. See Zipp, 26.
but it was Wirth who perhaps looms largest, particularly because, as he once stated, "I
have also had a good deal of interest and experience in the field of housing and planning.
Because I believe that planning is one of the roads by which we may preserve a
democratic society, I have written and worked a good deal in this field." It is this
commitment to planning that makes Wirth such an important figure in the history of the
At the core of Wirth’s understanding of a well planned society was the notion that
consensus is the basis of social order or organization – a conviction that many postwar
liberals shared. He defined a society or social group by its ability to act together, or to
take collective action. Collective action, according to Wirth, had its roots in “a set of
common understandings, a system of reciprocally acknowledged claims and
expectations.” Wirth expounded on such ideas in an essay entitled “Consensus and Mass
Communications.” As he wrote:
I regard the study of consensus as the central task of sociology, which is to
understand the behavior of men in so far as that is influenced by group
life. Because the mark of any society is the capacity of its members to
understand one another and to act in concert toward common objectives
and under common norms, the analysis of consensus rightly constitutes the
focus of sociological investigation.41
Consensus is the goal of all societies, and it is up to individuals to adopt the common – or
all inclusive – norms necessary for the maintenance of social organization.
At the other end of the spectrum was social disorganization, which Wirth defined
in the following way:
Wirth quoted in an article commemorating Wirth’s life, written by Herbert Bloomer following Wirth’s
death in 1952. The article can be found at
Louis Wirth, “Consensus and Mass Communication,” American Sociological Review, February 1948: 115, 2.
The degree to which the members of a society lose their common
understandings, i.e., the degree to which consensus is undermined, is the
measure of a society’s state of disorganization. The degree to which there
is agreement as to the values and norms of a society expressed in its
explicit rules and in the preferences its members manifest with references
to these rules, furnishes us with criteria of the degree to which a society
may be said to be disorganized.42
The modern city, as Wirth noted in such classic works as “Urbanism as a Way of Life,”
had begun to move closer and closer towards this concept of social disorganization. The
challenge, therefore, was to find ways to create common ground, in an attempt to reach a
state of consensus. To Wirth, such a process could be achieved through comprehensive
planning. Before coming to the SSPB, Wirth served under Franklin D. Roosevelt as a
member of the Committee on Urbanism of the National Resources Planning Board,
served as Director of Planning for the Illinois Post-War Planning Commission, and
founded the Chicago Community Inventory, a group that gather information that could
prove helpful to government agencies and social scientists. A democratic liberal, Wirth
truly believed in the power of planning in the postwar era.43 And Wirth clearly believed
that such planning should be as large-scale as possible. At an April 1949 symposium on
American regionalism held at the University of Wisconsin, Wirth warned his audience
about the “Limitations of Regionalism”:
But it can also become a desperate and futile protest against the tides of
progress which, stimulated by the technology of mass communication and
mobility, make possible ever wider areas of integration of social life and
Louis Wirth, “Ideological Aspects of Social Disorganization,” American Sociological Review, August
1940: 472-82, 473.
Louis Wirth, “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” The American Journal of Sociology, July 1938, 1-24; For
biographical details of Wirth’s life, see Albert J. Reiss, Jr.’s “Introduction: Sociology as a Discipline,”
Louis Wirth, On Cities and Social Life: Selected Papers, Albert J. Reiss, Jr., ed. (Chicago: Phoenix Books,
1964). As a good liberal, Wirth also saw such planning as a means for racial minorities to improve their
status – to find a place in the postwar consensus – through better housing and schools. For more on Wirth
and matters of race, see his “Race and Public Policy,” Scientific Monthly, April 1944, 302-12.
thus have the potentiality of raising the level of human well-being by a
wider sharing in the fruits of civilization.44
Wirth certainly had his doubts that such large-scale planning could be achieved, but he
had a strong amount of faith that this approach would ultimately prove successful: any
other manner of planning would only be moving backwards. Wirth, like the SSPB itself,
was realistic, yet hopeful, about the possibilities of such planning. One sees further
evidence of this hopeful yet cautious attitude towards planning in Chicago in a speech
Wirth game to the Commercial Club of Chicago on September 22, 1944. Harkening back
to the earlier decades of the twentieth century, Wirth recalled when the city set out “upon
one of the most famous and successful enterprises for the rebuilding of the city in
accordance with modern design.” Yet by the early 1940s, Wirth was sad to admit that
“this vision of a greater Chicago has become blurred and that the vigor which went into
its realization has lagged.” To Wirth, it was the continued presence of “slum dwellings”
that served as the greatest affront to a modern vision of Chicago. As he stated:
We have lifted our face a little bit at the lake front, but back of this façade
stands one of the most dismal and inhuman and indecent collections of
slum dwellings that any great city can have to ashamed of, and we are
doing almost nothing in our physical planning to take resolute steps to
rebuild the dwellings of human beings and the character of the
communities in which they live.
It was this humane mission that Chicago must now undertake, and it success was a
distinct possibility. “We have new knowledge,” found Wirth, “new needs, new
Louis Wirth, “Limitations of Regionalism,” in Regionalism in America, Merrill Jensen, ed. (Madison:
The University of Wisconsin Press, 1965): 381-93, 392.
possibilities which they [earlier planners] did not have.” It would be a struggle, Wirth
concluded, but one that could we won.45
The SSPB was drawn to these ideas of social organization and disorganization, a
fact which also made the work of Merrill and Elliot, particularly their influential work
Social Disorganization (1941), quite appealing to the group (and, in fact, this book was
often cited in SSPB reports and other documents). Once again, the concept of consensus
becomes vital to the search for order in a modern society. According to Elliott and
As modern society becomes more complex and social change increases in
rapidity, the stresses and strains of social adjustment become more intense.
Unless these strains are abated or neutralized, we may expect cumulative
increases in social disorganization in the future. The task of social
reorganization, of bringing comparative order out of social disorder, of
introducing a new consensus into an individualized society, becomes
correspondingly greater.46
Social disorganization, on the other hand, came after “a breakdown of the social
structure, so that former patterns no longer apply and the accepted forms of social control
no longer function effectively.” Interestingly, the city is seen as one of the leading
contributors to the rise of social disorganization in twentieth-century America. “The
growth of the city itself,” write Merrill and Elliot, “with its constantly shifting residential
and industrial areas, inevitably entails a considerable degree of disorganization.”47 More
specifically, the two sociologists believed that
Industrial encroachment upon residential areas, the increasing mobility of
the population, the segregation of racial or immigrant population groups in
Address delivered to the Commercial Club of Chicago, September 22, 1944, in Community Life and
Social Policy: Selected Papers by Louis Wirth, Elizabeth Wirth Marvick and Albert J. Reiss, Jr., eds.
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956): 314-26, 315, 323, 325-6.
Mabel A. Elliott and Francis E. Merrill, Social Disorganization (New York: Harper & Brothers
Publishers, 1950), 5.
Ibid., 20, 480.
undesirable areas of the city…all of these disorganizing factors are to a
certain extent implicit in the growth of the city.48
This notion that the rise of the urban led to greater individual mobility was seen as
having tremendous repercussions for the modern city, particularly during the immediate
postwar years. In the period from August, 1945 to October, 1946, Merrill and Elliot
reported, “an unprecedented 10,700,000 persons (exclusive of soldiers returning from
separation centers) changed their county of residence at least once.”49 Commenting on
such mobility, the authors found that
Whatever the definition, it is clear that mobility is a symbol of a new kind
of society….Our traditional values have for the most part grown out of a
prescriptive and sacred social structure based upon physical and social
stability. Many of these values lose force when the original conditions no
longer apply. In that sense, the new mobility is both a cause of and an
index to social disorganization.50
The relationship between the urban and disorder is driven home here, as the mobility
afforded by the rise of the city has eroded the social structure that acted as the anchor for
American society’s collective value system. The physical and social stability that had
once anchored this value system was now gone. And while such a turn of events held
danger for much of the American population, Merrill and Elliot saw such a process as
extremely damaging for one section of the country’s population: African-Americans. The
mobility that marked African-American life during the first half of the twentieth century
had negatively impacted black political, economic, and familial life. The city had created
Ibid., 480-1.
Ibid., 572.
Ibid., 575.
a wealth of problems for such African-Americans, and it increasingly became the mission
of liberal academics and organizations to address such concerns.51
The influence of such ideas can be seen in numerous official SSPB publications.
In a section of a spring 1947 pre-planning report titled “Neighborhood – Basis of Social
Organization,” author Wilford G. Winholtz began with the assumption that “Social
organization, dealing with habits and relationships of people as individuals, as groups,
and as communities, is vital to the understanding and elimination of blight.” There is little
doubt that Winholtz’s understanding of social disorganization was clearly influenced by
the work of Wirth, Merrill, and Elliot. Taking a cue from such scholars, Winholtz saw
that in order to overcome social disorganization and its physical manifestation (urban
blight), one must work to change the urban environment. At the same time, however,
Winholtz began to put some of the blame on individual behavior. To show just how
intimate this relationship between individual behavior and urban deterioration truly is,
Winholtz approvingly quoted Walter Blucher, Executive Director of the American
Society of Planning Officials (and another consultant to the SSPB): “I sometimes wonder
whether it is the residences that are blighted or the residents. The real cause of blight goes
much deeper. It goes to the habits of the American people.” In language that would be
repeated in the “Moynihan Report” of the mid-1960s, Wilholtz’s report concluded that
Here, one can perhaps see the roots of the 1965 document The Negro Family: The Case for National
Action, or “The Moynihan Report.” To Moynihan, “the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly
unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown.” It was the process of
urbanization that was to blame here: “When this shift occurs suddenly, drastically, in one or two
generations, the effect is immensely disruptive of traditional social patterns….In our own time, the same
sudden transition has produced the Negro slum.” Such developments had “forced” the African-American
community into a “matriarchal structure,” a development that had tremendous repercussions for the next
generation of African-Americans: “In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the
tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped.” This concept of
urban pathology wasn’t only a product of the 1960s: its roots went back even further. And urban renewal,
as early as the 1940s, was seen as the solution to such disorder. See The Negro Family: The Case for
National Action (Washington, DC: Office of Planning and Research, United States Department of Labor,
1965): 5, 29, 30.
“The viscious (sic) circle of social disorganization is brought about by disorganized
individuals affecting other individuals and adding them to the process.”52
Crucial to such a development is the presence of the city, or the “expanding and
increasing complexities of the urban pattern of life.”53 Where an individual once had
“limited choice of moral codes of behavior,” he now has an almost infinite variety. In
light of such developments, the once-strong influence of the neighborhood and local
community and politics is now gone. According to Winholtz:
Municipal government of large urban centers has grown to such
proportions that the role of the citizen has shrunk to insignificance and
impotence. Past patterns of government and social control which have
evolved and served through hundreds of years are not meeting the
requirements of today.54
Yet Winholtz initially appeared apprehensive to fully give up on the power of the local,
or the strength of the small. “It would be presumptious (sic),” he concluded, “to say that
the small group or community is passing from the picture and-or that it is not wanted any
more or that it is something that is now antiquated.” Yet only lines later Winholtz found
that “Social disorganization within cities has progressed to the point that small groupings
or ‘natural’ neighborhoods have almost completely been obliterated from the social
patterns.” Social disorganization did indeed now trump social organization, and a new
approach to ordering the city was now needed – one that took into account both
individual behavior and the physical realities of large urban centers.55
Wilford G. Winholtz, “Neighborhood – Basis of Social Organization,” April 1947, Louis Wirth Papers,
The University of Chicago, Special Collections, Box 36, Folder 2, 1, 3, 4.
Ibid., 4.
Ibid., 19.
Ibid., 20, 21.
From Word to Deed: The SSPB and its Plans for the Remaking of Central South Side
Promotional material for the SSPB stressed that they saw themselves – at least in
Chicago – as the organization to begin this process. An early brochure for the group
stressed this proactive stance, along with the idea that such an undertaking wouldn’t be
easy. Here one begins to see the use of war metaphors that would become so predominant
in SSPB activities: the brochure collected copies of headlines and newspaper clippings on
the young group, headlines that included “Citizens Rally to Redevelop Blighted Area,”
“Funds to Attack Slum Area Assured,” and “Stand and Fight.” A reprinted editorial on
the organization, originally published in the Chicago Sun, found the newspaper
reiterating the SSPB’s message:
No section of the city or its suburbs, however remote it may seem from
blight today, is really safe from the contagion….The ‘good neighborhood’
of today may become the slum of tomorrow unless planned growth is
substituted for planlessness….As the South Side board points out, we now
possess the resources of technical knowledge and experience to make a
significant attack on redevelopment.56
Going hand-in-hand with this idea of contagion was an obsession with order and
cleanliness within the SSPB. The foreword to a draft of an SSPB redevelopment report
noted that the area that they wished to redevelop was “noisy and dirty. Its ancient
buildings are frequently the victims of poor maintenance.”57 Focus therefore shifted onto
how the group could create and maintain a “healthy” city. Indicative of this is an October
1946 report by Robert E. Garrigan and disseminated to members of the Executive
Committee on “the problem of refuse collection and street cleaning.” To Garrigan, the
“South Side Planning Board Launches Membership Drive,” promotional pamphlet, October 1946,
American Society of Planning Officials records, Box 2, Folder 19.
“Foreword,” South Side Redevelopment Report, Preliminary draft, April 25, 1947, Box 2, Folder 20, 3.
filth of Chicago served as a visible manifestation of the disorder plaguing the city. And
within 12 pages of mind-numbing detail, Garrigan’s report called for “the necessity for an
educational program designed to secure the cooperation of residents and merchants in
maintaining an efficient system of refuse collection and clean streets and alleys.” A clean
city, to Garrigan and other SSPB members, was the first step towards becoming an
ordered city.58
And IIT clearly saw itself as the fortress from which all activity should be
coordinated. If there was a “war against blight,” then IIT was to serve as a bulwark in the
struggle. One sees this quite vividly in a letter from Henry Heald to Mies van der Rohe in
1942, where the notion of domestic containment is on full display:
In connection with the development of our campus, I feel that it would
probably be desirable to have a fence or wall around the entire area.
Insasmuch as nearly all of the property is now acquired, I think we may be
able to proceed with closings of streets as soon as a few additional
buildings are wrecked….This would give us a chance to do a considerable
amount of work in improving the appearances of the landscape, and also
give a degree of security which could probably not be accomplished in any
other way in this district.59
As one might expect, much of this perceived need to contain and fight urban
decay came from the belief that blight would lead to declining property values and lost
business opportunities for all of the institutions involved with the group. As Heald’s
words to van der Rohe clearly indicate, it would be a folly to not note that much of the
impetus behind the founding of the SSPB was to protect the security of prominent south
side individuals and institutions. An early draft of a SSPB preliminary report, for
example, finds that, while the group is interested in creating a dialog with “the general
Robert E. Garrigan, “Refuse Collection and Street Cleaning,” October 17, 1946, Heald Papers, Box 63,
“SSPB” folder.
Memo from H.T. Heald to Mies van der Rohe, July 30, 1942, Heald Papers, Box 17, Folder 4,
“Department of Architecture, 1941-48.”
public,” it’s efforts are – more importantly – “specifically designed to point out to
housing investors the attractive possibilities of large scale urban redevelopment.”60
At the same time, the SSPB’s relationship with IIT helped to lift the group’s
mission above the merely economic. With the support of such educational institutions as
IIT, the group could portray its plans and policies in a more idealistic light. By 1947, the
IIT campus had grown from 7 acres to 65 acres,61 and promotional material for the
university from the late 1940s was quick to note that “One of the most dramatic aspects
of the Institute’s growth has been the acquisition, clearance, and rehabilitation of the
blighted area in which it is building a great center of technological education and
research.” Here, the school – with the support of the SSPB (Promotional materials for
both IIT and the SSPB were always quick to mention their working relationship with the
other) – portrayed itself as bringing a vital new set of buildings to the city, buildings that
would house programs that had the potential to benefit all of humanity. Returning to this
image of the university as a crucial piece of the struggle to contain and overcome blight,
the pamphlet continued:
In 1940 the seven acres which comprised the former Armour Institute area
was surrounded by encroaching blight and decay in a once proud section
of the city. In less than 10 years Illinois Tech has expanded to 85 acres and
plans to acquire another 25. Unsightly buildings have been razed and in
their stead have risen the inspiring glass and brick structures of Ludwig
Mies van der Rohe, distinguished modern architect who heads the
Institute’s department of architecture.”62
Such promotional material made one point abundantly clear: IIT believed that it was
helping to bring the benefits of modernism to Chicago’s south side. A similar point was
South Side Redevelopment Report – Preliminary Draft, April 25, 1947, Heald Papers, Box 63, “SSPB”
IIT Chronology of events, n.d., John T. Rettaliata Papers.
IIT Promotional materials, n.d., Heald Papers, Box 64, “Capital Gifts, Campaign Committee Foundations
– Ryerson Landscape Planning Proposal” folder, 2.
made in an announcement by President Heald in November 1947 that IIT was planning to
build three 10-story elevator apartment buildings for staff and married students, three 3story walk-up apartment buildings for additional staff members and married students, ten
4-story student dormitories to supplement two under construction, and 24 houses for
faculty members and their families. After tying this new construction to the goals of the
SSPB, Heald stated that the housing plans would help create “the world’s most modern
college campus in one of the nation’s most blighted areas.” Modernism is held in direct
opposition to the world of traditional city planning (which had led to the blight that had
come to envelop IIT’s surroundings) in Heald’s announcement, and there is little doubt
that Heald sees this turn toward the modern as the most effective way to overcome urban
SSPB leaders were quick to adopt this more humane and idealistic understanding
of urban redevelopment within the city of Chicago. The group saw itself as actively
working to save the city’s residents from the horrors of blight (as Garrigan noted in the
speech that begins this chapter), and such individuals saw it as their mission to win the
hearts and minds of all Chicago citizens in the war against urban decay. In a closer
examination of the SSPB, one begins to see an almost messianic faith in long-term, largescale modern urban planning. A letter from Wilford G. Winholtz, Director of Planning
for the SSPB, to Henry Heald begins to illustrate this phenomenon. Crediting Heald for a
moving speech before the Chicago Urban League, Winholtz wrote:
I was particularly happy to be an audience on an occassion [sic] where it
was both timely and appropriate to give some emphasis to the ‘moral and
spiritual rebuilding’ factors resultant from an urban redevelopment
“Illinois Tech Announces Extensive Housing Plan,” Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1947.
program. These to me are of paramount importance, although on most
occasions one has to emphasize the dollar values to be ‘practical.’64
IIT President Heald also often stressed these more humane aspects of SSPB
activities. According to Heald, social disorganization in the neighborhoods that bordered
his university had “shockingly manifested itself in the forms of unnecessary death,
disease, crime, and unspeakable filth.” To Heald, such a reality “actually comprises a
steady deterioration,” of life in the area. Yet Heald was quick to point out that he was not
referring to “property,” but to “human beings.” Bravely (and necessarily), SSPB had
stepped up and “undertaken the task of wiping out the infamous and costly slums in 7
square miles of Chicago’s Central South Side. Here, some 200,000 persons are jammed
together into a mass of misery and suffering.” It was up to the SSPB to liberate these
individuals from such wretched conditions, to create an urban landscape that brought
order to such a disorganized world.65
Reflecting back on the early days of the SSPB, Raymond J. Spaeth focused on the
moral side of urban renewal as well. When SSPB formed, according to Spaeth, the area
around IIT was “the worst possible slum, where houses had dirt floors, often no toilets,
and alleys where garbage was piled 10 feet high.” With a hint of liberal paternalism,
Spaeth then goes on to note that “IIT assumed much of the responsibility for the people in
the area,” taking on absentee landlords and wretched living conditions. Dangerous,
decrepit buildings were razed and “many people,” according to Spaeth, “were relocated at
Letter from Wilfred G. Winholtz to Henry T. Heald, February 25, 1948, Heald Papers, Box 62, “South
side” folder.
Letter from Henry Heald to Emmons Blaine, June 13, 1947, Heald Papers, Box 63, “SSPB” folder.
IIT expense.” All such efforts proved that IIT had “not merely paid lip service but proven
its dedication” to the redevelopment of all of the central south side.66
Yet the group never became too overly wide-eyed or utopian in its fight against
urban decay. The SSPB clearly spelled out this realistic approach to urban renewal in an
undated promotional brochure from the group. “The founders of the South Side Planning
Board,” according to the brochure, “have no illusions about their ability to create a
Utopia on the Central South Side. Their goal is not that high.” With perhaps the fear of
appearing too communistic in their approaches to urban poverty, blight, and
redevelopment, the SSPB adopted a brand of modern urban planning that – while
eschewing some of the reformist, socialistic flair of early twentieth-century modernists –
fit in nicely with the steely-eyed, postwar liberalism associated with Arthur Schlesinger,
Jr. and his allies. Government clearly had a role in the group’s endeavors, but it was
always in tandem with the efforts of the private sector. At the same time, there was very
little celebration of direct democracy or community involvement within the SSPB. The
community-at-large could be consulted, but they were not seen as leaders within
redevelopment projects. In fact, they were more often than not seen as impediments to
redevelopment, uninformed individuals who had neither the training nor the capacity to
fully grasp the details of the group’s plans. Here, one sees shades of the more general
relationship between postwar liberalism and “mass man,” as detailed by such scholars as
historian Gary Gerstle. It was often to experts – highly trained in specialized fields – to
educate a public that knew little about the forces impacting their lives.67
“Profile: Raymond J. Spaeth,” 17.
“Your Investment in the South Side Planning Board will Pay Dividends,” SSPB promotional brochure,
n.d., Box 2, Folder 3; Gary Gerstle, “The Protean Character of American Liberalism,” The American
Historical Review, October 1994: 1043-1073, 1071.
To address all of these issues and concerns, the SSPB thought big – incredibly
big. In the spring of 1947, the group began to work on what the press quickly dubbed the
“50 year blueprint,” a plan that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would demolish
“thousands of dilapidated structures” and reestablish “communities and neighborhoods in
accordance with modern planning standards.”68 Strikingly, such plans conformed
remarkably well to the ideas of such modernists as van der Rohe, Hilberseimer, and Le
Corbusier – and drew from the works of such sociologists as Wirth, Merrill, and Elliott.
Yet what is perhaps most fascinating about the SSPB’s efforts is how they began to
equate modern urban planning with the philosophy and goals of liberalism. Building
upon the realistic mindset detailed above, SSPB leaders thought that pluralism, racial
equality, and a suburbanized urban landscape could all be achieved through modern
urban planning, a strategy that exemplified the culture of expertise and relied highly upon
the latest technological innovations.
In April 1947, SSPB member (and Director of Planning for Michael Reese
Hospital) Reginald R. Isaacs drafted a document for the organization that saw the idea of
the small, self-contained “neighborhood” as “a basis for social disorganization.” The idea
that schools, shopping centers, playgrounds, churches, and housing facilities should all be
within walking distance was inherently faulty. “The formula,” insisted Isaacs, “appears
very simple and is derived from janus-headed planners’ nostalgic and sentimental view
backward to the days before good transportation, communication, industrial development
and growth of the large cities.” To Isaacs, such a model was not based on the modern
urban landscape, but rather on the “small colonial village,” where there were “few
differences of religion and none of race.” For a liberal society concerned with pluralism
“Plan Revealed for Rebuilding S. Central Area,” Chicago Tribune, November 9, 1947.
and racial and ethnic equality, “‘Neighborhoods’ are a fine device and frame-work for the
organization of covenants and deed restrictions against those whom the FHA terms
‘inharmonious people.’” In fact, such small, tight-knit neighborhoods may have actually
helped to breed intolerance, as “Many residential areas find their only bond is the fear of
Negro infiltration.”69
At the same time, such a “cellular concept of city structure tends to breed political
disorder, dividing the city politically, and “discouraging ‘at large’ representation.”
Psychologically, such a set-up would discourage any sort of great vision or
cosmopolitanism to develop. People would continue “to look introvertly inward to the
relatively narrow confines of their ‘neighborhood’ and not to the purpose and well-being
of the metropolitan area.” To Isaacs, the ideal city would therefore be one in which
“Residential areas would extend indefinitely without political or other divisions between
Such a location could only come into existence through the development of
“larger unbroken residential blocks with fewer traffic streets” The key to such a plan,
according to Isaacs, was the creation of superblocks, city blocks that built up rather than
out. “Rather then crowd the land with great numbers of monstrous detached houses,”
according to Isaacs,
greater use is made of taller apartment structures providing the same or
larger number of families with much more open space for recreation and
amenity. Planners and subdividers now realize that increased densities are
necessary in today’s city and that they can be planned for with satisfactory
Reginald R. Isaacs, “The Neighborhood Theory – A Basis for Social Disorganization,” preliminary draft,
April 20, 1947, Heald Papers, Box 63, “SSPB” folder, 1, 2, 3.
Ibid., 2, 3, 4.
Ibid., 5, 6.
Going even further than many modern urban planners, Isaacs went as far to suggest
“dormitory areas” for elderly couples, childless couples, and single younger persons.72
As Isaacs implicitly made clear in his tract, there was a definite need for the
planning expert in the creation of such ideal communities. Other SSPB publications
echoed this need for expertise in modern urban planning. An undated SSPB pamphlet, for
example, noted that “A definite need has, therefore, been created for specially trained
people to make a specialty of relating the human or community factors to large scale
physical construction.” And, as such a quote also illustrates, the SSPB did not shy away
from the idea of bigness. SSPB, as many of its promotional materials proudly proclaimed,
was committed to “Building Whole Communities.”73 When pressed for details on what
such whole communities might look like, the plans of the SSPB sounded like they based
on the principles of CIAM-inspired modernist city planning. According to a preliminary
draft of the group’s South Side Redevelopment Report:
In order to protect the desirability of the residential buildings, the street
pattern proposed will require all through traffic to by-pass the residential
areas, being concentrated on thoroughfares roughly a half-mile apart.
Within the super-blocks bounded by these thoroughfares, the residents will
be able to supply many of their needs at convenient shops.” 74
Within this superblock, the report continued, a large community shopping center was to
be placed at 35th Street and South Park Way, and a large community park was to be
located north of 39th Street and west of South Park Way. Here were the ideas of Mies van
Ibid., 7.
“Steam is On! We Need You – Pressure Gets Results!” SSPB pamphlet, n.d., Heald Papers, Box 62,
“South side” folder.
South Side Redevelopment Report – Preliminary Draft, April 25, 1947, Heald Papers, Box 63, “SSPB”
folder, 4..
der Rohe, Ludwig Hilberseimer, and Le Corbusier being adopted by a civic organization
on the near south side of Chicago. 75
The SSPB also toed the modernist line on the issue of urban housing. A SSPB
document on residential planning, for example, saw “Multi-Family Dwellings
(Apartments)” as “particularly satisfying.” High-rise buildings were seen as exemplary,
because such structures could leave the urban core “relatively free of congestion and with
more open space and thus many of the amenities people are seeking.” This was necessary
not only for the good of the area, but also because such a solution “requires that there be
sufficient space to adequately compete with suburban areas.” This notion that the urban
must begin to take on the perceived benefits of the suburban became a critical component
of the plans of the SSPB. The group believed in the statement that the “essential need
provided by a home as a place of refuge and isolation from noise and tension from tempo
of urban life,” while numerous SSPB documents stressed that the need “privacy” trumped
almost all other concerns in the planning of urban housing. These were the
“Psychological Needs” that the congested, unplanned city simply could not address.76
And how would one get around in such an environment? To SSPB, like many
modern urban planners, the answer was new highways. Such highways would help solve
the problem of urban “congestion,” which was often seen as directly leading to urban
blight.77 The SSPB advocated the construction of the South Expressway, which involved
the destruction of a large area of housing due west of IIT’s campus, and called for State
Street to become something of a dividing line within the neighborhood. On October 27,
Ibid., 4.
“Patterns and Standards of Residential Planning: Introduction,” November 1947, American Society of
Planning Officials records, University of Illinois-Chicago, Special Collections, Box 2, Folder 20.
“Patterns and Standards,” 11.
1947, the SSPB “reported the recommendation that the South Expressway location now
set by the City Council action, just west of State Street, be approved at its original
location as initially recommended by the Chicago Plan Commission with the
endorsement of the Department of Subways and Superhighways, just west of and parallel
to the Pennsylvania Railroad.”78
Members of SSPB were clearly aware of the racial implications of such highway
construction. Referencing the above-mentioned October 27th meeting, Wilford G.
Winholtz, in a letter to V.E. Gunlock, commissioner of the Department of Subways and
Superhighways, wrote:
As far as I have been able to determine, the main reason for placement of
the existing approved location is that certain interests west of the Penn.
R.R. wanted the ‘race barrier’ at State Street rather than so close to
Halsted Street. And for obvious reasons I did not mention this matter in
the meeting.
Winholtz realized that this “present location has value in helping clear slum land,” but
also noted to Gunlock that it removed many acres of residential land within “the Negro
community which is tightly hemmed in by restrictive covenants, and thus places land
available for Negro residential use at a much higher premium.”79 The expressway would
go on to be described as a road that helped strengthen – in literal concrete – “the
neighborhood’s traditional racial boundary.” The SSPB was clearly attuned to issues of
racial discrimination (and one could even argue they tried to take steps that they thought
“South Side Planning Board, Minutes of Joint Meeting of Council and Planning Committee,” October
27, 1947, Sherman Hotel, American Society of Planning Officials records, University of Illinois-Chicago,
Special Collections, Box 2, Folder 20.
Letter from Wilford G. Winholtz to V.E. Gunlock, October 28, 1947, Heald Papers, Box 62, “South
Side” folder. Across the top of this letter is written “copy to Heald.”
would alleviate such discrimination), but redevelopment trumped all other concerns at
this moment in American urban history.80
Adding to this aura of racial insensitivity was the manner in which the SSPB set
about acquiring land within the central south side. According to a preliminary draft of the
group’s plans for the area, such a process was remarkably simple and to the point. Here
were the five steps that the group sought to follow in its attempt to redevelop the
1. Acquisition of slum land by public agency, using the powers of condemnation.
2. The use of public funds to write off the difference between the cost of slum land
and its value for redevelopment purposes.
3. The offering of cleared slum land, at its use value, for private redevelopment and
for such public uses as are required by proper redevelopment.
4. Assistance to displaced families in finding adequate housing.
5. An increase in the number of dwellings available to low-income families living in
the redevelopment area, through an enlarged public housing program.
Or, as this SSPB document summed up the group’s strategy for urban renewal: “The only
successful method of assembling land in this area is by use of the power of eminent
Aiding the group in the acquisition of property was a series of laws that the state
of Illinois enacted during the 1940s and 50s – a fact that put the state way ahead of the
Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago
and the Nation (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000, 11. For more on the construction and
implications of South Expressway, see Carl W. Condit, Chicago, 1930-70: Building, Planning, and Urban
Technology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 242-3; Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, American
Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 19, 20,
“Foreword,” South Side Redevelopment Report, Preliminary draft, April 25, 1947, Box 2, Folder 20, 5.
curve in terms of legislation promoting urban renewal (the Federal Housing Act of 1949
was in fact modeled after these earlier efforts). Such legislation included the
Neighborhood Redevelopment Corporation Act of 1941 (amended in 1953), the Blighted
Areas Redevelopment Act of 1947, the Relocation Act of 1947, and the Urban
Community Conservation Act of 1953. These programs allowed the city to expand its
power of eminent domain and helped it to seize property for the new “public purposes” of
slum clearance or prevention. They also helped Chicago pioneer the “write-down”
formula which allowed the city to convey such property to private developers at its
incredibly reduced “use” value after the municipality subsidized its purchase and
preparation. Finally, the state provided assistance in relocating site residents. “The clear
intent” of such programs, according to historian Arnold R. Hirsch, “was to offer public
assistance to the private sector in the hope of heading off an urban crisis.” 82 At the same
time, they also highlighted the search for consensus that marked postwar liberalism. As
historian Samuel Taylor Zipp notes, such legislation enacted a “historic compromise,” a
compromise that created a coalition between
conservative realtors and downtown business interests and progressive
supporters of public housing, in the process solidifying a pro-growth
coalition of urban liberals, planners, developers, business interests, and
housing reformers to support reclaiming the central city.83
The public/private partnerships seen as vital to the success of postwar liberalism – as well
as the federal government’s newfound “marginal” role in economic affairs; it was now to
solely “promote the growth and expansion of private enterprise” (in the words of liberal
Arthur R. Hirsch, “Urban Renewal,” in The Encyclopedia of Chicago,
Samuel Taylor Zipp, “Manhattan Projects: Cold War Urbanism in the Age of Urban Renewal,” Ph.D.
dissertation, Yale University, 2006: 26.
economist Alvin H. Hansen) – were put on prominent display through such efforts at
urban renewal.84
The Federal Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, and their later amendments,
provided a national framework and greater financial resources for such renewal efforts,
allowing cities another avenue through which to write off the excess costs of urban
renewal. Title I of the 1949 Housing Act provided for a program of federal loans and
capital grants to cities and other political subdivisions, or their local public agencies, to
acquire and clear land for redevelopment in accordance with an urban renewal plan
approved by the governing body of the locality at the fair reuse value of the cleared land
for the use or uses required by such publicly approved urban renewal plan. According to
B.T. Fitzpatrick, consultant to the American Council on Education’s Committee on
Urban Renewal, this meant that
Under the various State enabling Acts, when the urban renewal plan is
approved, the local public agency had authority to acquire the land (with
the exercise of the power of eminent domain, if necessary), to clear the
land, to prepare the land for redevelopment in accordance with the
publicly approved urban renewal plan, and to dispose of such land, by sale
or lease, for redevelopment in accordance with such urban renewal plan. 85
Such redevelopment plans often led to a potential financial loss for those considering
construction in previously blighted areas. Title I provided that such a write-off – or loss –
was to be shared by the Federal Government and the locality undertaking the project. As
a general rule, the Federal Government, through cash capital grants, took on two-thirds of
Hansen quoted in Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New
York: Knopf, 1995): 233.
B.T. Fitzpatrick, “Assistance for Colleges and Universities Located in or Near Urban Renewal Areas,”
September, 1961, 3. Fitzpatrick prepared this report while serving as a consultant to the American Council
on Education’s Committee on Urban Renewal. 1998.30, Box 2, “Research Parks: Others, Misc.
Information, etc.” folder. In 1959, an amendment was added to the Housing Act that specifically dealt with
the role of colleges and universities in urban renewal plans.
this public cost, and the locality, through local grants-in-aid, absorbed one-third of such
The fact that the American Council on Education had its own committee devoted
to urban renewal shows just how important universities were to plans to conquer urban
blight. William L. Slayton, Commissioner of the Urban Renewal Administration in the
United States Housing and Home Finance Agency, noted – at perhaps the peak of urban
renewal efforts in the United States – how vital such schools had been for the postwar
successes of urban renewal. Citing the “remarkable growth in the interest and
participation of universities in urban renewal,” Slayton saw such support as a way for
urban universities to meet rising enrollments. These universities needed to physically
grow, according to Slayton,
But new facilities cannot be created unless there is land available, and
most of our urban universities are landlocked….The universities have
come to realize that urban renewal can assemble land needed for
expansion, when the land is blighted. Accordingly they have become
active redevelopers.87
Yet Slayton also saw another side to the urban university’s acceptance of urban
renewal, a side that revealed that such institutions were concerned with more than the
purely practical side of redevelopment. According to Slayton:
In addition to the need for expansion space, universities have begun to
recognize a need to create a desirable neighborhood environment
compatible with their functions. Many urban universities have found that
they are surrounded by blight and deterioration which, in some cases, is
detrimental to the safety of their students and faculty. Furthermore, these
Ibid., 4.
William L. Slayton, “The Operation and Achievements of the Urban Renewal Program,” in Urban
Renewal: The Record and the Controversy, James Q. Wilson, ed. (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1966):
189-229, 227, 228. Slayton’s essay was based on testimony given before the Subcommittee on Housing of
the House Banking and Currency Committee in November 1963.
blighted areas do not provide decent residential areas for the faculties
close to the universities.88
Of course, Slayton made it clear that universities are concerned with the safety of their
faculty and students. But also present was the desire to literally remake the surrounding
community, “to create a desirable neighborhood environment compatible with their
[urban universities] functions.” And as such universities took on increasingly
sophisticated roles and functions by the 1940s, the city of the early twentieth century was
seen as becoming increasingly obsolete; it could not meet the needs of the modern
university. What was needed was a new way to reorganize urban space.
The federal government agreed with this assessment. In 1959, an amendment was
added to the Federal Housing Act that specifically dealt with the role of colleges and
universities in urban renewal plans. This amendment added Section 112 to Title I, a
change that permitted federal loans and capital grants to be extended for urban renewal
projects involving areas that were not predominantly residential in character prior to
acquisition and clearance and which, under the approved urban renewal plan, were to be
developed for predominantly nonresidential uses. Urban universities –as the examples of
IIT and the SSPB illustrate – had been at the forefront of urban renewal efforts since
World War II, and such legislation, in addition to documenting such successes, helped
pave the way for a new wave of university expansion in the 1960s.89
It is cogent to note that the legislation relating to urban renewal did not seem to
consider issues of past use of blighted urban structures, or the potential preservation of
such buildings. As Fitzpatrick points out, the goal of Congress was to change “the entire
character of a slum or blighted area into a new community,” a transformation that seemed
Ibid., 228.
Much of Fitzpatrick’s report deals with this legislation.
to have little use for the history of the community to be changed. It appears that, at a time
when the federal government was embracing modernism in its design of overseas
embassies, the American state was also turning to the modern to help shape its approach
to domestic urban planning. In their attempt to almost create the urban landscape anew,
the federal government created what may best be described as a form of state-sanctioned
modern urban planning.90
It should therefore come as no surprise that the SSPB displayed very little interest
in preserving the history of the central south side. The buildings that the group sought to
demolish were seen as relics of an outdated era, reminders of the planning and
architectural aesthetic (or lack thereof) that had led to the urban blight that now ran
rampant. At the same time, the group embraced the forward-looking, progressive mindset
that often marked modernism. One sees evidence of such a mindset in a SSPB document
on residential planning:
It is not the intent to discard or abjectly doubt everything that has preceded
or carried-over from previous generations and traditionally taken for
granted, but to question all such practices and procedures for soundness to
present day application on the basis of existing facts. The scope is not
limited to today and ‘what is,’ but to the future and the possible.
To many within the SSPB, the conditions that marked the central south side
revealed the fact that “cities have not been planned (needless to add ‘on a sound base.’)
Cities ‘just grew’ into the congested hodge-podge that exists today.”91 Such a thoroughly
negative view of the history of the city (along with a tremendous faith in a progressive
understanding of physical and social change), made the issue of blight a black and white
one for the organization. SSPB’s brand of modern urban planning saw very little worth
Fitzpatrick, 4.
“Patterns and Standards of Residential Planning: Introduction,” November 1947, American Society of
Planning Officials records, Box 2, Folder 20, 10.
saving among the historic buildings that dotted the south side. To them, there was no
hope for the renovation or rehabilitation of the structures that they saw as contributing to
the decay of their neighborhood. The only solution on the table was demolition and
One begins to see evidence of this position in a draft of a statement that Wilford
G. Winholtz was to make at the City Council Planning Committee’s Public Hearing,
January 26, 1950. Winholtz was clearly upset that the Chicago Plan Commission had
recently reported that
taking cognizance of the special characteristics that apply to the area
bounded by Harrison Street, Halsted Street, Roosevelt Road, and Ashland
Avenue and of the initiative of its citizens; recommends that the subject
area no longer be designated as blight, but be reclassified with certain
exemptions as a proper area for rehabilitation of existing structures.92
To Winholtz, such a decision went against the objective standards of modern urban
planning. “Such re-classification,” argued Winholtz, “cannot be done as a matter of
arbitrary decision, but must be based upon objective factual data similar to the procedure
used in evaluating the conditions which resulted in the blighted area classification.”
Winholtz was incredibly concerned that the idea of preserving or rehabilitating buildings
might come to override all designated blighted areas, or, as he put it, “the suggestion of
‘rehabilitation’ might be so construed as to defeat the City’s slum clearance program
completely.” What was needed was a fresh start based upon objective social science, not
a nostalgic mindset that attempted to save outmoded and blighted structures.93
As in the case of Reginald R. Isaacs, Winholtz also saw the error in making urban
planning a distinctly local/community-based affair. Such an approach would lead to
First Draft of Suggested Statement to be presented by Wilford G. Winholtz at The City Council Planning
Committee’s Public Hearing, January 26, 1950, 1998.49, Box 62, “South Side…” folder, 1.
Ibid., 1.
differing standards of blight and confusion as to how redevelopment should begin. One
sees evidence of such an argument in Winholtz’s statement:
It is known that each square mile of blighted area is not necessarily as
blighted as another square mile. And although the degree of ‘blight’ varies
from one area to another, all are within the official range of deterioration
which require that they be designated as blighted, and therefore require
similar redevelopment measures in contrast to ‘rehabilitation’ measures.
Thus, such reclassification could be sought by local interests for each area
of blight within the City of Chicago. Thirty years of argument for sound
slum clearance measures have today culminated in a procedure necessary
for the sound redevelopment of blighted areas.”94
What was needed, according to Winholtz, was a unified, centralized approach to urban
redevelopment. At the same time, local conditions must not be allowed to trump largescale designs. Such an approach became the way that liberalism itself viewed urban
renewal throughout much of the postwar era.
Razing Mecca: IIT, the Destruction of the Mecca Building, and the End of History
“Sit where the light corrupts your face.
Mies Van der Rohe retires from grace.
And the fair fables fall.” - Gwendolyn Brooks, “In the Mecca”95
One can see evidence of the position taken by both IIT and the SSPB on matters
of history and preservation in their treatment of the once-regal Mecca Building, an
apartment building constructed in 1891 and described by journalist John Bartlow Martin
as “a splendid palace, a showplace of Chicago.” Built by the D.H. Burnam Company, the
Mecca Building was initially celebrated as an example of Chicago’s commitment to bold
and innovative architecture. It had once been described as a prototype for luxury urban
living, and featured atrium courtyard, skylights and ornamental iron grillwork, elaborate
fountains and flowers gardens. The building became a popular tourist destination during
Ibid., 1-2.
Gwendolyn Brooks, “In the Mecca,” in In The Mecca: Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks (New York: Harper
& Row, 1968), 5.
the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and, not surprisingly, catered to an exclusively white
clientele. But following the turn of the century, more and more African Americans began
to make their way to Chicago, and by 1912 the Mecca was home to a number of black
businessmen, lawyers, and doctors. Yet the building’s tenure as the home of the AfricanAmerican elite of Chicago was short lived. The Great Migration of World War I brought
thousands more African Americans to Chicago, and many of them found rooms in the
Mecca. The Great Depression was the final nail in the coffin for the Mecca, and, by the
post-World War II era, the building had become “one of the most remarkable Negro slum
exhibits in the world.” 96
Obviously, it was this squalor that both IIT and SSPB wanted to remove from the
community – a fact they made highly apparent in their nearly ten-year drive to raze the
building. Yet there was more to their collective disgust of the structure than its
contribution to the neighborhood’s problem with urban blight. At its core, the planning
and aesthetics of the Mecca Building clashed greatly with the values of modern urban
planning. One of the most striking features of the Mecca during its heyday, for example,
was its atria. The Mecca’s atria made a spectacle of the comings and goings of those that
lived there, of the events of day-to-day life. In the atria, on the balconies, at interior doors
and windows, the massing of the people in the Mecca clearly manifested itself. With their
“promenade balconies,” the atria developed as public places where people would see and
be seen. Privacy was sacrificed a bit as the action of the street – along with the actions of
the pedestrians themselves – became the main focus of the space. Yet it was these
features, which proved so popular to individuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century, which modern urban planners objected to. Such a design negated the privacy so
John Bartlow Martin, “The Strangest Place in Chicago,” Harper’s Magazine, December 1950: 86-97, 87.
important to modern urban planners and placed too much emphasis on the life of the
street (which was now seen as too dangerous for much human activity). The Mecca also
had twelve stores fronting State Street, which ran counter to single-use zoning and
specialized patterns advocated by modern planners, who seemed to live by the motto “a
place for everything, everything in its place.”
More broadly, the original plan for the Mecca was too urban, too intentionally
chaotic for leaders from IIT and the SSPB. Architectural historian Daniel Bluestone has
noted the building’s “unusually cosmopolitan combination of social and spatial
elements,” a design strategy that went against the urban planners of the mid-twentieth
century’s “intolerance for that openness intrinsic to some apartment-house designs.” At
the same time, the aesthetics of the building clearly clashed with the tastes of modern
architects and urban planners. To Bluestone, “The building [the Mecca] stood in stark
contrast to the palette of modern architecture envisioned as a key to a new urbanism and a
changed urbanism….Clean, abstract lines and carefully proportioned spaces resonated
with the broader agenda of ‘cleaning up’ the neighborhood.” There was no room within
this plan for such an ornate and grand building, let alone one that had fallen upon tough
times. Finally, the building stood in the way of the suburbanizing of urban space. One
sees evidence of this struggle within Martin’s 1950 essay on the Mecca Building. Martin,
in prose that would make the SSPB proud, looked with favor upon the “sleek brick-andglass buildings” of the IIT campus. More importantly, Martin was struck by the fact that
these clean, ordered structures were in fact “surrounded by new trees and grass,” thereby
creating a suburban oasis in the midst of urban squalor. Martin then contrasted this
somewhat suburbanized setting with the Mecca, a building that seemed to represent all of
the sins of the unplanned urban. It was “a great gray hulk of brick, four stories high,
topped by an ungainly smokestack, ancient and enormous, filling half the block north of
34th Street between State and Dearborn.” The Mecca, once a proud symbol of Chicago,
was now an example of wasted space, pollution, and aesthetic obsolescence.97
It was for these reasons that IIT, with the support of the SSPB, wanted to raze the
Mecca completely after the school acquired the building in 1941. And the university
showed no remorse in coming to this decision. To school leaders, the destruction of such
historic buildings was discussed coolly and without a great deal of sympathy. One sees
evidence of this attitude in the minutes of a meeting of the IIT Board of Directors held on
September 24, 1941, the same year the Institute took control of the building. As the
decision is made to demolish the building, there is no discussion of the building’s history
or importance to the African-American community. Instead, all that is discussed is the
minute details that go along with such a process:
Mr. Farr [Newton C. Farr] explained the general progress in completing
the acquisition of the property within the campus area and discussed the
Mecca Building. He explained that the City Fire Prevention Bureau
deemed this building to be a fire hazard and that suit had been brought to
require installation of a sprinkler system. This would be an expensive
operation and Mr. Farr recommended that the building be torn down. Mr.
Hardin [Louis S. Hardin] discussed the legal problems involved in moving
tenants and pointed out that there were some leases in the building which
had almost a year to run. Judge Barnes [John P. Barnes] moved that the
wrecking of the Mecca Building be authorized to take place after the
termination of these leases on September 30, 1942. The motion was
seconded by Mr. Koch [Raymond J. Koch] and carried.98
Yet IIT could not tear down the building into all 700 of its inhabitants were
removed, a process that did not end until 1952, when the Mecca was finally razed and
Daniel Bluestone, “Chicago’s Mecca Flat Blues,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians,
December 1998, 382-403, 382, 396; Martin, 86.
Illinois Institute of Technology, Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, Minutes of Meeting,
September 24, 1941, Heald Papers, Box 4, Folder 8, “Board of Trustees Exec. Comm.”
replaced by Crown Hall, perhaps the best example of Mies van der Rohe’s modern style
of campus architecture (Crown Hall even took over the Mecca’s street address). Yet
despite the demolishment of such a structure, IIT leaders firmly believed that they had
made a good faith effort to help the African-American community surrounding the
school. During the decade that IIT owned and operated the Mecca, they had allowed
community groups to continue to use the building’s storefronts – but only for activities
cleared by the IIT administration, a stipulation that struck many in the neighborhood as
overly paternal and rather unnecessary. In the fall of 1950, for example, the university
allowed a group called the Southside Community Committee to use a storefront for a
project called the Mecca Center, a program that sought to quell juvenile delinquency. On
November 7th, 1950, the group apparently allowed the space to be used as a polling place
for a political election. This did not sit well with IIT Vice President Spaeth who, on that
very day, drafted a letter to Golden B. Darby, Executive Director of the Southside
Community Committee, informing him that the agreement between IIT and his
organization had been terminated. “Accordingly,” Spaeth concluded, “we are demanding
possession of the property effective Monday, November 20th, 1950 at 8 am.” Darby was
given no opportunity to appeal the punishment.99
To many leaders of the African-American community, the example of the Mecca
Building therefore became a charged symbol of IIT’s control over their community. Not
only couldn’t community members use such university-owned spaces as the Mecca
Building as they liked, they also had no say in whether or not such structures should even
continue to exist. To such leaders, the razing of the Mecca and other buildings served as
Letter from Raymond J. Spaeth to Golden B. Darby, November 7, 1950, 1998.35, “Southside
Community Committee, Inc.,” folder.
an active reminder that the school sought to erase the history of their neighborhood. In
response, realtor Oscar C. Brown, president of the Chicago Negro Chamber of
Commerce, began to advocate a planning approach – by the early 1950s – that would
identify the numerous dwellings that should be “left standing and integrated into the
larger redevelopment program.” Others followed suit, arguing that the university, in
neglecting to view such buildings as the Mecca for campus expansion, missed a chance to
both preserve the community’s integrity and to cut development costs while providing
housing for more people. Instead, the university’s adoption of the high-rise model – seen
in such Mies’ designed structures as Gunsaulus Hall (which cost the university over one
million dollars to build) – led to a situation that accommodated many fewer residents than
had lived in the Mecca during the late nineteenth century. Yet the university, in the words
of Bluestone, was more concerned with “developing buffers between South Side
institutions and their neighbors.” Making matters worse was that IIT and the SSPB
historically only begrudgingly helped displaced renters find new homes. “The Planning
Board [of the SSPB],” announced Reginald R. Isaacs and Raymond J. Spaeth in March
1948, “does not have responsibility for relocating families.” Yet Isaacs and Spaeth didn’t
necessarily see this as detrimental to the futures of displaced renters. In fact, such a
strategy, they argued, may have provided them a much-needed push towards a move to
the suburbs. As they wrote: “The Planning Board fully recognizes that suburban
communities may be available into which families may voluntarily move.” In their own
way, the SSPB felt that it was helping to bring the suburban dream to Chicago’s AfricanAmerican population.100
Bluestone, 397; “The Community Relations Program Suggested by Isaacs and Spaeth,” March 1, 1948,
Heald Papers, Box 62, “South Side” folder.
Many contemporary observers of architecture and urban planning shared this rosy
assessment of the SSPB’s activities. Between June 24th to September 21st, 1947, the
Museum of Modern Art ran a show titled “Two Cities: Planning in North and South
America,” which ran from June 24 to September 21, 1947 and prominently featured the
efforts of the SSPB in Chicago. A publication of the same name, written by noted
architectural critic Ada Louis Huxtable (then with the Department of Architecture at
MOMA) came out that same year and saw within the group’s work the future of modern
urban planning. To Huxtable, ornate, nineteenth-century buildings – structures like the
Mecca Builing – were inherently elitist. Earlier architects and planners in Chicago were
the ‘cultured’ minority, uninterested in the ‘utilitarian,’ [who] drew
pictures of an ideal city of Renaissance vistas, Medici museums and
private palazzo, and the real city of the people began to decay behind their
magnificent facades. The classical renaissance so proudly presented to the
world by Chicago in the Fair of 1893 as the answer to architectural
planning only covered the chaos and blight that had already attacked and
was soon to engulf one third of the city.”101
Yet the efforts of such groups as the SSPB within Chicago showed that “The
grandiose architectural ambitions of its youth are forgotten and the emphasis is now
where it belongs – on the people.” Modern urban planning, according to Huxtable,
responded to the ways in which people within the city lived their lives, while at the same
time providing such citizens a sense of much-needed order. “The people have created the
city,” Huxtable continued, “the least they can expect from it is an adequate place to live
and work. To provide this in the confusion of present conditions calls for total redesign of
social, economic and physical factors.” And Huxtable clearly saw the SSPB, along with
IIT and the other nearby institutions, as providing the blueprint for such a total redesign.
Ada Louis Huxtable, Two Cities: Planning in North and South America (New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 1947): 12.
Huxtable applauded the group’s dismissal of the “neighborhood scheme,” as such a
design was “inflexible and fallacious for a large metropolitan area.” Echoing the words of
the SSPB, Huxtable found that any commitment to localism “would help divide the city
into political, racial, religious and economic groups” at a time when greater urban
cohesion was necessary. When it came to housing, Huxtable approved of the SSPB’s
greater density high-rise structures, while also agreeing with the group that the streets
should belong solely to the automobile. “The walking-distance regulation,” concluded
Huxtable, “ignored efficient modern transportation….A modified gridiron street plan is
retained only for express traffic; pedestrians walk through gardens and parks, separated
from main thoroughfares.” With this laudatory appraisal Huxtable, writing for the most
venerated institution of modernism, gave the SSPB an enthusiastic seal of approval.102
Closer to Chicago, other contemporary observers – and south side residents –
endorsed the urban redevelopment efforts of the SSPB and its members. In the early
1950s, Mr. Hubert E. Nutt, a Chicago public school teacher affiliated with the
VanderCook School of Music (a south-side neighbor of IIT; Nutt would assume the
presidency of VanderCook in 1966), presented a series of photographs under the title of
“The Amazing Story of Illinois Tech.” This collection of pictures attempted to tell, in
Nutt’s words, “the story of the creation of a modern campus out of the slums of the South
Side….If you did not see this fantastic growth unfold, you will be startled to see what has
been done for you!” Taking great pride in the overhaul of his community, Nutt ended his
promotional flyer with a rather persuasive sales pitch for the continued presence of the
SSPB and IIT in the Central South Side: “See for yourself how an attractive campus has
been – and is being – created where once squalor reigned – and you will be proud to be a
Ibid., 12, 16.
part of an effort and a vision that is rebuilding a great city.” To Nutt and others like him,
the messianic fervor of the SSPB had produced tangible results.103
By the mid-1950s, the SSPB – and especially IIT – had had a profound impact on
the built environment of Chicago’s south side. By 1956, as IIT President John T.
Rettaliata noted in a speech before prominent Oak Park citizens, twenty-two new
buildings had been completed on the new IIT campus since the beginning of the reign of
Mies, at a cost of approximately $13.5 million. More impressively, some 1,100 acres of
land hand been acquired at an additional cost of about $3.6 million, while more than 550
old buildings, “some of them in such bad state of repair that they were leaning against
each other for support,” had been demolished. In their place now stood an impressive
collection of monuments to modern architecture and urban planning. And the distinction
between this new environment and the old, pre-SSPB world couldn’t be clearer. “Instead
of slums,” Rettaliata concluded, “there are now modern residential apartment buildings,
research laboratories, and classroom buildings, all of a harmonious design by Ludwig
Mies van der Rohe.” The unplanned, chaotic Central South Side had been tamed, for the
apparent benefit of all its residents. The SSPB and its members had succeeded in making
the area ordered, clean, and safe. 104
Yet, as the counterexample of Oscar C. Brown suggests, not all south-side
residents approved of the SSPB’s goals and methods: The SSPB, in fact, was already
running into community opposition as early as 1948. An SSPB document from that year
“The Amazing Story of Illinois Tech,” undated flyer. The Art Institute of Chicago. Mies van der Rohe
was apparently invited to Nutt’s photo exhibit, as evident in a copy of the flyer housed in the collection
devoted to Mies at the Art Institute of Chicago. The flyer has he following message, written in pen, across
the bottom of the page: “Dear Dr. Mies van der Rohe: Since you had so large a part in this undertaking
being described here, I thought you might like to have a special motivation to attend this first showing of
Mr. Nutt’s interesting pictures.” It is unclear who invited Mies, as the signature cannot be made out.
John T. Rettaliata, Oak Park Community Lecture, October 29, 1956, 4. John T. Rettaliata Papers.
finds that many such south-side citizens were now referring to the group’s efforts at
“slum clearance” as “Negro clearance.”105 According to SSPB members Raymond J.
Spaeth and Reginald Isaacs, “The SSPB has not gained grassroots participation or even
any measurable degree of confidence from the community. Hostility is as frequently
expressed as interest.” Such sentiment was undoubtedly a result of the paternalistic feel
of the group, along with a sense that, at its core, the SSPB had very little interest in
viewing African Americans as potential leaders. One sees evidence of such beliefs in an
excerpt from the same document:
Though it was a fulfilled prerequisite that the organization by
representative of all people, and clearly identified with Negro aspirations
and leadership, it did not purport to be a professional ‘inter-racial’
organization basically concerned with solving the city’s complex social
But the group did try to build a working relationship with the community at large.
Spaeth and Isaacs – acting as technical consultants to the SSPB’s Executive Committee –
attempted to assess exactly why the community was not supporting the nascent group in a
March 1948 memorandum. Interestingly, the two saw the problem as resting almost
solely on the shoulders of the SSPB: they were not doing enough to educate the public on
the group’s mission. Writing to the members of the SSPB’s Community Relations
Committee, Spaeth and Isaacs found that “there is almost complete lack of knowledge on
the part of the community as to the purposes, objectives, and program of the SSPB.”
Commenting further on this phenomenon, the two authors find that this ignorance of
SSPB’s goals and methods is based largely upon the fact that the group has not
“Efforts to Develop a Community Relations Program for the South Side Planning Board,” November
12, 1948, Box 3, Folder 22.
“Report on Program of South Side Planning Board,” Raymond J. Spaeth and Reginald Isaacs, November
10, 1948, 2, Box 3, Folder 22..
adequately reached out to those it wished to educate and help. As Spaeth and Isaacs
Planning cannot and should not be ‘sold’ to the public – rather the public
must be educated to the point where it can not only intelligently criticize
the plans – but participate in their making. ‘Citizen planning’ means just
that. The planning education of the citizen must be the result of his
working participation in the planning process.
One is struck here by the apparent embrace of “citizen planning,” or the belief
that community members should have a say in the redevelopment of their neighborhood.
Yet immediately – and within the very same document – Spaeth and Isaacs temper this
commitment to citizen engagement. The SSPB must always maintain leadership on such
issues, with community members limited to making up the rank-and-file of renewal
projects. One key element of this “Community Action” plan called for the SSPB to
“Assume leadership in coordinating activities of all organizations in the area, and act as
spokesman for the community in planning, housing, redevelopment and civic matters.”
Direct democracy is thwarted as the community must allow the SSPB to speak for them.
More to the point, the SSPB firmly believed that African-American leaders should cede
all neighborhood power to them, the experts on matters of modern urban planning. The
memorandum drafted by Spaeth and Isaacs concluded with the observation that
“Organization is underway for a federation of some 1500 Negro organizations for
planning action.” Rather than welcome such potential allies, the two authors can only
write that “This, too, is unfortunate for the SSPB. Our program calls for SSPB to
coordinate all such activities and act as spokesmen. To lose this leadership will greatly
weaken SSPB’s position.” Such a statement sums up perfectly the postwar liberal
response to matters of race, urban planning, and urban renewal. As the 1950s became the
1960s, such a position would have tremendous repercussions for the SSPB, IIT, the city
of Chicago, and indeed numerous cities across the United States.107
Memo from Raymond J. Spaeth and Reginald R. Issacs to the Community Relations Committee, South
Side Planning Board, March 1, 1948, Louis Wirth Papers, Box 36, folder 2.