The New Old Town: Early Gentrification in Chicago
By Daniel Kay Hertz
The story was the same in Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago: once-booming cities had started to shrink. Historic neighborhoods were wiped off the map so that middle-class whites could leave for the suburbs on a highway. In the years after World War Two, 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 neighborhood they gave a new name: “Old Town.” 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. In 1958, the Chicago Tribune had been able to introduce the neighborhood to its readers as “Chicago’s Left Bank,” a bohemian paradise. 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 in Old Town usually goes by the name “gentrification.” In various forms, it has affected miles of Chicago’s North Side neighborhoods. 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.
Just as the history of segregation and disinvestment after World War Two sheds light on why many urban communities struggle with poverty today, the history of Old Town — the first Chicago neighborhood to go through what we might recognize as “gentrification” — helps us understand how many other urban communities have become more prosperous than ever.
The New Old Town: Early Gentrification in Chicago will be the first book to critically examine that history 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.
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.