Downtown Decentered

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]

The images and visuals used within this curriculum unit focus on Waukegan, Illinois, a city of 88,000 people located on the shores of Lake Michigan, 40 miles north of Chicago. However, it is hoped that area educators, activists, and artists will collaborate on similar visual sociologies within their own neighborhoods and communities in the Chicago area. Increased privatization of social services, the proliferation of lower-wage, no-benefit jobs, decreased affordability of home ownership, and booming gentrification: these are mere symptoms of the neoliberalization of the global economy. By critically studying the built environment, educators/students can find ways of understanding local change, while considering the influence the global economy has on those transitions.

Activity one: What We Notice Now

materials: Cameras (digital is preferred but not necessary; students can share cameras), sketchbooks/notebooks, a good pair of walking shoes, and your local neighborhood (a one or two mile walk will probably be sufficient).

purpose: To examine and document the current state of your neighborhood in terms of layout, access (to transportation, drugstore, grocery store, bank, post office, affordable eateries), and demographics.

It is essential that students walk the neighborhood to gain a realistic sense of how those without transportation maneuver around their built environment. Begin by having students take note of what they are observing as they walk. How long does it take for them to find basic amenities, for example? Are there basic amenities? Do you notice public transit being utilized? Is bus service frequent? Who is waiting for the bus? If you have students work in groups, one could be the note-taker while the others photograph and sketch what they see. A few brave students might be inclined to interview neighborhood residents about their thoughts on the built environment, related to what they have been noticing.

Activity two: Yahoo! Demographics

materials:’s real estate website where students can enter zip codes to obtain a demographic portrait of their neighborhood, including lifestyle expenditures. In addition to local demographics, the site compares these to national demographics.

purpose: To give students a broader sense of the economic forces that shape local communities.

Begin by having students find the Yahoo real estate website (type in and click on “real estate”) and entering the zip code for the neighborhood they explored in activity one. Other than gathering this data, discuss questions like:

—Does this data match your expectations of who lives here? Why or why not?
—Who can’t afford to live here?
—What kinds of jobs are available here? Are people working and living in the same neighborhood, or are they commuting to find work?
—Do you see any other connections between this data and what you found from activity one?

Now go back to Yahoo. This time, enter a zip code from a community that is as different from your own on as many factors as you can think of. Stick to distances of no more than 20 miles away. Have students compare and contrast the information from both zip codes. What do you notice now? Revisit your original questions. , ,

Activity assessment:

For more traditional projects, the information gathered from both activities one and two can be compiled in the form of a write-up, which could utilize photographs, sketches, and other forms of data. Alternative ways of presenting this information could include poster sessions/displays, Power Point presentations at local organizations, performance art, protest art, leaflet campaigns for local residents, or partnerships with other activist groups who could use the information your students find. It is hoped that community groups and educators will use these activities and submit their results to area.

Sample write-up: Traditional Research Style with Visual Sociology Documentation

For good or for ill (depending upon who one talks to), Waukegan has the reputation of being a multicultural, rust-belt town in the otherwise prestigious Lake County. Evans (2001) relates an interview with a real-estate broker who states, “A challenge—especially to residential developers accustomed to serving an image-conscious North Shore clientele—is Waukegan’s image as a blue-collar, post-industrial city”. What is interesting is that there remains hardly any active industry to speak of in Waukegan, forcing one to ask, “where’s the blue-collar city that’s creating this supposedly offensive image?”

Indeed, dramatic economic shifts commencing in the 1970s and continuing unabated in the 1980s ended the reign of manufacturing. Cities like Waukegan that were built around heavy industry were hit especially hard. Nationwide, families were forced to move from these cities in search of jobs, changing forever the makeup of the population who lived near downtowns. Currently, all that remains of Waukegan’s industrial past is a rather noisy gypsum plant and empty factory land that has been declared environmentally unusable.

Like many post-industrial cities, Waukegan has experienced a de-centering. New construction occurs mostly west of the old downtown. Most Waukegan residents have to drive 2 miles to find the nearest full-service pharmacy and 5 miles to the Gurnee Mills mall: some evidence of the decentralization of essential goods and services, not to mention employment. Unless one works in the hospital, City Hall, or one of the many law offices occupying converted older homes, one has to commute south to North Chicago or west to Gurnee in order to find white-collar jobs. As with most de-centered cities, one faces two choices for local employment: commuting to a nearby industry built around tourism (as neighbor-to-the-west Gur-nee’s Six Flags, restaurants, and cheap retail labor provide), or no jobs at all.

Ballengee-Morris (2002) reminds us that educators have to interrogate the detached, privileged stance that has, unfortunately, been a part of research dealing with visual culture. As with art education, when one is talking about the built environment, it is necessary to assert the primacy of race, gender, and social class and how these factors intersect (Freedman, 1989; Klein, 1992/1993). We begin to see this intersection more clearly upon examining hard, economic data.

In looking at the demographic and cost of living data in Table 1, Waukegan is not remarkably different than the national average when it comes to median household income, households with children, percentage of white-collar workers, and cost of living.

What does make Waukegan more unique is its location on Chicago’s prestigious North Shore. With the exception of Waukegan, North Chicago and the Great Lakes Naval Academy, all of the North Shore suburbs boast above-average real estate values and cost-of-living expenses. Table 2 illustrates the contrast between Waukegan and one neighbor to the south, Lake Forest. These two communities are roughly 15 miles apart.


All images: author’s collection

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