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The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Chicago

By Daniel Kay Hertz
October 2018 

In the years just after World War Two, a familiar story was just beginning: once-booming cities had started to shrink. Historic neighborhoods in Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Chicago were wiped off the map so that middle-class whites could flee for the suburbs on a highway. Deindustrialization, racism, and urban renewal were joining forces to send the Midwest’s proudest cities on a decades-long path of decline. 

But just north of Chicago’s Loop, the story was different. Artists and countercultural types — and increasingly young professional whites as well — were buying old homes and renovating them in a recently renamed neighborhood: “Old Town.” In 1958, the Chicago Tribune introduced the neighborhood to its readers as “Chicago’s Left Bank,” a bohemian paradise. Soon, affluent suburbanites were taking the train into the city to visit the cafes and bookstores on Wells Street. Some of them even moved in. 

But as Old Town’s popularity grew, so did its housing prices. Meanwhile, urban renewal projects under the name of “slum clearance” demolished much of the cheapest housing. By 1973, the paper reported that “skyrocketing rents” had chased the bohemians north, to a neighborhood they renamed “New Town,” where they told stories of what had been lost on Wells St. and swore they wouldn’t let it happen again.

Today, almost fifty years later, what happened on Chicago's North Side usually goes by the name “gentrification.” But though few changes to the urban environment get more attention, researchers and neighbors still debate exactly what changes when a neighborhood gentrifies, why, and what role both newcomers and established residents play in shaping that change.

This will be the first book to critically examine the history of Old Town as the beginning of a process that fundamentally transformed what kind of city Chicago is. It tells the stories of those who first began “upgrading” homes in Old Town, why they moved there, how they used both private activism and leveraged public policy to remake the neighborhood to their own tastes; and how both these newcomers and older residents struggled against competing forces to preserve what they valued in Old Town—and why so many of them felt that they lost.

 

Praise for The Battle of Lincoln Park:

"A brief, cogent analysis of gentrification in Chicago ... an incisive and useful narrative on the puzzle of urban development."-- Kirkus Reviews

"When it comes to matters of place, policy, and equity in Chicago, Daniel Kay Hertz is one of the most important and incisive commentators we've got. His careful and detailed analyses of how urban planning and the built environment can play an active role in envisioning a more just city are a necessary intervention for our times. He writes with curiosity, courage, and heart about the skeletal structures that make cities what they are-- architecture, transportation systems, and municipal finance. These elements of urban life are easily overlooked and they are also vitally important to consider closely if we have any hope of building a better place to live."  Eve L. Ewing, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration; author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side 
"The Battle of Lincoln Park is insightful, well-written, deeply researched and engaging, a fascinating tale of the century-long process of gentrification in one Chicago neighborhood." Leah Boustan, Professor of Economics, Princeton University, and author of Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets
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For media requests, contact Michelle at Michelle@blankenshippr.com.

Distributed by Publishers Group West

Daniel Kay Hertz is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, and writes about urban issues here and in several other publications, including City Observatory.