[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]
Observers who grow up in the suburbs are used to seeing green lots as the emblem of a city working towards public health. It takes more than a few bicycle trips past the empty lots in south-side Chicago for the newcomer to realize that the fields, nearly five miles of them, are not a park system at all.
In 1962, Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes were at the forefront of city experiments in government experiments in racial integration, housing 11,000 people on the edge of Chicago’s south side. Despite being a testing ground for radical programs such as Project Head Start, the neighborhood rapidly declined. High unemployment figures reflected the racial segregation and economic isolation that increasingly typified black inner-city neighborhoods after 1970. Graffiti and low-level drug trade in the 70s evolved during the 80s into gang wars, arson, and high murder rates. By the year 2000, Robert Taylor Homes were presented in urban planning textbooks as the icon of a geography of despair. When the homes were demolished between 2005 and 2007, their absence told a story about the scale of government hope, its breakdown, and reversal.
Here are some examples of invisible frontiers.
1) You drive from north-side Chicago to the South Side, staying on the I-95, looking out over church steeples and houses and trees. You are unaware of the twenty different ethnic cultures you are passing, the five different school boards and three different public health jurisdictions, the courts local and federal, or the thousand other divisions in the landscape. They are invisible to you.
2) Say you go from north to south by Lakeshore Drive. Here invisibility is in cahoots with landscape architecture. Between Northeastern University north in Evanston and the University of Chicago south in Hyde Park, you will drive between the gleaming lake and a cushion of trees and native grasses, especially beautifully landscaped to the south, where they hide some of the worst poverty in the nation. The nearest reason is development: cities that look rich lure more money. The consequence is invisibility: you can drive this road every day without having any idea where you are.
3) You bicycle instead from north to south past an unending series of empty storefronts on one side, five miles of field or wasteland or parkland on the other. You don’t think about it: this is a city in which there are a lot of parks. You bicycle every day, unaware that these fields were as recently as three years ago the site of Robert Taylor Homes, a project as utopian as it was notorious, the site of a dozen thriving churches, back-to-school programs, community farming initiatives, and childrens’ reading programs, most of which are now dispersed.
4) You’re an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and cultural habit, city planning, and weekly email crime alerts have convinced you never to explore the south of 61stStreet or north of 53rd. You rarely even visit the interracial bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and coffee shops that border on campus. Some reasons are pragmatic (fear of crime), while some are the unreflective habit. The consequence is that you inhabit an island, a bubble of affluence, whiteness, and consumable luxury goods, quarantined from the ocean of politics around you.
Plenty is invisible to us, always: the motivations of strangers. The unprocessed structures of kinship and talent that propel a teenager to musical stardom and her next-door neighbor to work the fast-food counter. Sociologists compile data to illuminate structures. We trust experts; we listen to them because they have done the work.
But the landscape encodes information of another sort: epics about modernity’s failures, about government abuses and neglect, about disintegrating markets. A drive through the wrong side of town shows the grocery stores that are closing their doors, the encampments of homeless, the empty factories. A drive through the rustbelt shows quick the devastation hidden from coastal enclaves: entire neighborhoods, demolished. Standing skyscrapers, vacant. New empty lots, cleared by arson. Closing schools. Closing hospitals. Abandoned old folks’ homes. No one can afford them. This information is frequently of a kind that is useful to those who care about the future: it shows how bad the economy is and how much worse it could get. The invisible frontiers show what happens in the breakdown of capitalism and government: they show the societies of hobos, the existence of spontaneous guilds in trailer parks, child-care co-ops, community gardens, and utopian storefronts. The invisible frontier is the location of experiments that rival capitalism.
Invisibility happens to landscape when capital leaves a place. Before the ghost towns of the west were celebrated, they surprised visitors, who wondered how many mining experiments had been planted and moved past. Americans living in New York and Boston and San Francisco are shocked to hear that there are abandoned skyscrapers in Detroit. There too, history becomes invisible; the story of out competition and white flight and arson only known to a few people who study it. It drifts out of the consciousness of Americans who live elsewhere.
Landscape invisibility compounds class invisibility. Stockton, a foreclosure capital, is home to Hispanic truck-drivers and factory-workers who have lost their houses in great numbers. They are no different than other, better-known working-class immigrants in San Diego, Chicago, and New York. However, Stockton is off the map. First, the poor lose their landscape; next, they become invisible. Whatever capital has forgotten about dissolves like the soft paper of midcentury paperbacks, crumbling in hand.
When the outside is invisible, the urge to explore dies in the bud. We all know this when we’ve eaten at a second-rate restaurant that we know rather than driving across town to explore the recommendation of a friend. We know that an outside is out there: but it’s too far, too unknown.