The New American Village, Foreword

My Place Your Place

I rarely went to the new Chicago suburbs until I became interested in making photographs of them. I would occasionally drive through Rosemont on the interstate going to O’Hare or through Hoffman Estates on the toll road to Wisconsin. I might go to an antique show in a hotel ballroom near the airport. I recall visiting Schaumburg only once, in 1989 or 1990, to see a close friend, Paul, with whom I had studied at the downtown Chicago branch of the University of Illinois. His business had prompted him to move from downtown to an apartment an hour or so to the northwest.

Paul had to give me detailed directions to his condo in the new ”edge city”: I-90 to 53, then to Higgins, then to Meacham, finally to a development called Lexington Green. The area where he lived, along Meacham Road near Higgins and Golf Roads, is the very epicenter of this book of photographs. It’s an area I now know well, but then I had absolutely no idea where I was going. Inside Lexington Green I drove down a curving Williamsburg Lane past Buckingham Court, past Scarsdale Court, past Brookston and Sandhurst Courts, and finally to his place. I couldn’t have found it at night.

Lexington Green comprises hundreds of identical two-story buildings. On the street side, the ground floor of each modest building consists of an entrance and four one-car garages. Like much of the housing in Schaumburg, the buildings look vaguely like single-family houses but are really small apartment buildings. There are a few young trees at generous intervals. I was stunned. Nobody I knew lived out here. Artists, intellectuals – anyone with any culture or style – lived in Chicago. Paul had studied art and architecture. He was hip. What was he doing making the move to Schaumburg?

Inevitably, our conversation developed into an argument about my place in the city versus his new place in the suburbs. It’s interesting that neither of us mentioned the most common objection to new suburban sprawl: the destruction of what was there before the developers arrived. John Szarkowski has written, in a foreword to Robert Adams’s The New West (1976), that in our hearts we still believe that the only beautiful landscape is an unpeopled one. Adams, in that book and in others, expresses great sadness and anger about damage done to landscapes that had seemed nearly perfect before the cancer of development and the arrival of new inhabitants. I’m afraid that Paul and I felt none of this. We were city people, thoroughly bored by flat featureless cornfields like ones these condos had replaced. We weren’t nostalgic for a farm life we had never known or understood. Nor were we sympathetic for the farmers (who, we imagined, had retired unexpectedly wealthy) or mournful for the original prairie, destroyed more than one hundred and fifty years ago.

Our discussion began with mundane concerns. I said that in the suburbs one has to rely on a car and drive everywhere. There is no pedestrian street life, and no areas mix work, shopping, and residential use, as do the livelier neighborhoods in the city. People are so similar within these huge new developments, I said, that the new suburbs have no diversity. These places have no old trees, used bookstores, idiosyncratic restaurants, ethnic areas, or history. Suburban architecture aims at the lowest common denominator of middle-class taste; it is banal, standardized, and impermanent.

Paul said that the point is he can drive everywhere here. The city is impossibly congested but here in the suburbs the traffic is easier to handle. Once he gets where he’s going he can find a parking space, a free space. He doesn’t circle a block endlessly or get $50 parking tickets. The city is dingy, dirty, and the air smells bad. Downtown is expensive. If diversity means homeless people and gangs, I could keep it. And I could keep the crime, too, from the murders and arson to the puddles of shattered car-window glass in the gutter. How could I be critical of the view from his kitchen, a pond and lawn surrounded by identical buildings, when my own kitchen and porch faced the back of an apartment building?

The discussion took a somewhat personal and angry turn. I said his suburb is ticky-tacky, lacking in individualism or soul. Schaumburg is a generic place for generic, unthinking people. Paul said that the city is out of control, a jungle. He attributed my preference for downtown to elitism and delusions of cultural superiority, pretensions that I paid for with a low quality of life. He paraphrased Robert Venturi’s famous question: If the suburbs are so bad, why is there so much of them?

The substance of the debate Paul and I had that afternoon is not terribly enlightening. We traded fairly predictable and simplistic generalizations. Since that visit I’ve often noticed the emotional edge that suburbanites display when talking about “the city.” On the other hand, people downtown, especially my colleagues and students, sneer at these new suburbs. Often, they seem shocked when I mention that I am photographing Schaumburg. “Schaumburg! Really? Why?” Some suspect I’m joking.

I think we should expect this antagonism. After all, a sense of opposition, of challenge, between the core city and the new suburbs is common – even between old friends. The older suburbs such as Evanston and Oak Park have a symbiotic relationship with the central city. The design of the new “edge city” is a rebuke to many of the values of city life, and the growth of these new places poses a serious economic threat to the vitality of the central city they surround. Joel Garreau, and observer of urban change, wrote that:

“Americans are creating the biggest change in a hundred years in how we build cities. Every single American city that is growing, is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles, with multiple urban cores.

These new hearths of our civilization – in which the majority of metropolitan Americans now work and around which we live – look not at all like our old downtowns. Buildings rarely rise shoulder to shoulder, as in Chicago’s Loop. Instead, their broad, low outlines dot the landscape like mushrooms, separated by greensward and parking lots. Their office towers, frequently guarded by trees, gaze at on another from respectful distances through bands of glass that mirror the sun in blue or silver or green or gold, like antique drawings of the ‘city of the future.'”

Paul and I settled little that afternoon. Paul would have been surprised, however, had he known that several years later he would move back downtown, again prompted by changing patterns in his work. He now lives in Lincoln Park, one of the most desirable of Chicago’s urban neighborhoods. He walks to the gym, to great bookstores, to any of forty or fifty ethnic restaurants within a mile of his loft. He says he hasn’t found a reason to drive out to Schaumburg for an entire year. I, in turn, would have been surprised had I known I would spend six years photographing in and around Schaumburg and come to regard it as the best example of the new “edge city” suburb in the Midwest and, perhaps, in the nation.

I had three reasons to photograph the new suburbs. Early in 1991 I completed twenty years of photographing downtown Chicago. That group of photographs became The Perfect City (1994). Because I think of my work as an inclusive, long-term investigation of this great American city, I thought it would be good to examine another part of the metropolitan area: the new American village.

Second, I was attracted to what I initially perceived to be the extreme banality of a place such as Schaumburg. To my downtown frame of mind, these new suburbs seemed functional, undifferentiated, ubiquitous, and prosaic. Whether we city folk like these places or not, we think we know what they are and, to some degree, we take them for granted. I agree with Frank Gohlke, who wrote that for the photographer of landscapes the highest goal is “to make the invisible visible, to see clearly and unsentimentally what has heretofore escaped our attention.” These new “edge cities” seemed to pose that type of challenge.

There was a third, more emotional reason for starting this project. While compiling the material that became The Perfect City, I looked at thousands of photographs I had made. I started with my earliest work and continued chronologically. It was a surprising exercise. I felt a wave of grief for old downtown Chicago, a landscape that had largely vanished during the building boom of the 1980s. My photographs showed a sweeping transformation, from what felt like a nineteenth-century city to a new place with the character of a sunbelt city such as Houston.

For many years I walked the several square miles of downtown Chicago. I would usually photograph very early in the morning, on weekends, and after six o’clock on summer evenings. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city was nearly empty at those times. I remember the quiet on those walks. At dawn on a Sunday morning, I felt as if downtown Chicago was my private city. It often seemed that certain streets and viewpoints were secrets only I knew. Each block had many small buildings built in different periods, providing clues to the city’s history.  The buildings showed layers of use, adaptation, and decay. If one looked closely, one could distinguish the work of individual craftsmen and discern the window signs of businesses that had failed long ago. Small empty lots, alleys, and different building heights created a maze of space and light which changed throughout the day. I never had the feeling that I had seen everything.

During the mid- and late 1980s, developers tore down clusters of nineteenth-century buildings and replaced them with new office buildings. These buildings have a larger “footprint,” consolidating city blocks into one or two huge structures that block and simplify the urban space. The lobbies of these new buildings are sanitary and controlled. More people work downtown now. They start earlier, stay later, and work weekends. The city seems busier, and at the same time it seems less of a place for the pedestrian. Central Chicago remains a fascinating landscape, but it is harder to find peaceful moments, and when one does look closely at the city it seems that the rewards are less generous.

Looking at my old photographs, I became angry about the changes to downtown Chicago. In a vague, irrational way, I thought of these changes as an infection, the spread of a “corporate” and “suburban” style of landscape. Where had this blight come from? In the fall of 1991 I decided to look at the new suburbs, where I thought this new aesthetic was already distilled and triumphant.

The drive to the suburbs from downtown Chicago is both fascinating and troubling. Like most American cities, Chicago radiated outward as it grew. One might expect, then, to find the oldest, most deteriorated neighborhoods close to the Loop and progressively newer areas as one travels outward. To an extent this is true, which suggests we can view the city as the cross-section of a tree trunk. However, cycles of economic rejuvenation and urban renewal, the routes of public transportation, the desirability of living near the lake, and especially, racial and ethnic factors all complicate this comfortable metaphor. Chicago is a diverse, segmented, and largely segregated city. Some neighborhoods of spectacular brownstones are rotting, while other areas of small, undistinguished frame buildings are teeming with gentrification, investment, and stunning displays of wealth. The extreme range of the city’s landscape can be shocking. While many areas of the city display that classic fastidiousness of the middle-class homeowner, much of Chicago’s landscape is appalling – scenes of stagnation, decay, and ruin.

Meanwhile, the view from the twelfth-floor windows at Columbia College, where I teach in the photography department, opens up on glorious urban scenes. To the west and north is the Loop, to the northeast Michigan Avenue and the Art Institute of Chicago, and to the east are Grant Park and Lake Michigan. On class breaks and during my office hours I stare out the window, watching the city and lake under changing light and weather. I park my car in a nearby fringe of downtown. Those several blocks, with odd older buildings and parking lots soon to become big new developments, are reminiscent of the Chicago I photographed twenty years ago. My route northwest to the suburbs takes me through the slick western edge of the Loop and then across the Chicago River into an older loft area, now the fashionable gallery district known as River North. The view back toward the Loop can be lovely: in the right light, especially with a slight haze, the high-rise office buildings blend into a dramatic cliff above the Chicago River.

The North Side was developed after the South and West Sides and, in comparison, can seem somewhat bland. The North Side lacks most of the elegant nineteenth-century architecture, but it also does not have the largest stretches of inner-city blight, the biggest public housing projects, or the unrepaired damage from the 1968 riots. Even so, there is much to look at and try to comprehend on the ride from downtown Chicago northwest to Schaumburg.

Between River North and gentrified Lincoln Park is an old and depressed area centered around Cabrini Green, the notorious Chicago Housing Authority development. In the early 1970s I photographed many of the old streets in this area, most of which the city bulldozed a few years later. The area still has a great deal of open space. Some townhouse developments have been built on the safer edges. Cabrini Green itself is a collection of seventeen grim apartment buildings, in which life is violent and dehumanizing, even by the standards of Chicago’s public housing. Past these high-rise public housing buildings parades a constant stream of BMWs, Infinitis, and Mercedes, as the owners travel from downtown and River North to their very expensive homes in Lincoln Park and DePaul. I once stopped at a red light on Clybourn Avenue in the middle of Cabrini Green and observed the people walking across glance at the eighty-thousand-dollar Mercedes that had stopped next to me. It was difficult to read their expression.

Up Halsted Street into Lincoln Park, I pass by many restaurants, bars, coffee places, an Internet café, bagel bakeries, unique shops, and great used bookstores. Generally, many people are on the sidewalks: yuppies, artists and intellectuals, students from nearby DePaul University. I drive past the slick loft that Paul moved into after having left the suburbs. At intervals in the city are nodes of commercial development from the 1930s. These areas such as Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland, Broadway in Uptown to the northeast, or “Six Corners” further northwest, had clothing, shoe, furniture, and department stores. Upstairs were the neighborhood doctors and dentists. Architectural historian Robert Bruegmann suggests that these outlying shopping centers in the city, most of which lost their vitality many years ago, were the precursors of the new regional shopping nodes of the suburbs. Today, some of the old department stores are being gutted and turned into lofts for young professionals. The terra cotta building on Lincoln Avenue that used to house a Goldblatt’s Department store is the most recent conversion. About two miles northwest of Lincoln Park is my neighborhood, sometimes called North Center or St. Ben’s. This is the current outer edge of gentrification.

I drive past my neighborhood into the great Northwest Side, the classic Chicago blue-collar neighborhood. This largely residential area extends for miles. There is little gentrification or noticeable clusters of restoration here. Yet, there isn’t the type of disinvestment and deterioration that one sees closer to downtown. Yuppies find this part of town uninteresting and unfashionable; these are the neighborhoods where white police officers and firefighters live. I usually merge here onto the Kennedy Expressway. The housing on either side of the road becomes newer and newer. Eventually, near O’Hare International Airport, the city rather seamlessly blends with the suburbs. Some of the suburbs in this area are older, traditional places, but this is where the new American village begins.

A cluster of high-rise buildings sits near the Chicago-Rosemont border. The highway interchange that splits traffic onto various toll roads and into the airport creates a huge bowl of space, surrounded by office and hotel towers. This short stretch of road is rather spectacular. It’s a dynamic visual experience that is difficult to capture in a photograph. Sometimes I stop to photograph in Rosemont, but usually I continue on I-90, past the edge of O’Hare toward Schaumburg. The exit at Route 53 gives a wonderful view: a pure scene of traffic on the ramps silhouetted against the office buildings and the sky.

In the Chicago area these new “fringe city” suburbs cluster near O’Hare and along some of the major interstate highways, particularly I-90, I-88, and I-355. Harbors, rivers, and railroads originally generated the growth of urban centers. The intersection of busy interstate highways, and, more importantly, the intersection of highways and major airports such as O’Hare now spawn new economic hubs and their residential areas. These new villages include corporate headquarters, technologically advanced businesses, distribution centers, and new standardized retail operations. Few of the businesses are local, unique enterprises. Rather, national corporations and franchise businesses, which show little architectural accommodation to their specific location, dominate the landscape. These towns still include residential enclaves, but such enclaves are not often made up of the single-family detached homes typical of the post-World War II suburb. Much of the population, single people and young couples without children, live in architecturally complicated row houses or in apartment buildings. Many of the apartment complexes have a pool and clubhouse, and new row houses feature amenities such as two-story living rooms and fan-shaped windows. Unlike in a traditional suburb, most of the people living in these areas don’t commute to work downtown. The population of this new suburb increases at nine o’clock on Monday morning.

Any attempt to describe a place is a complicated balancing act for a photographer. First are concerns of fairness, objectivity, and documentary completeness. If one goes too far in the direction of documentation, however, the project becomes an assemblage of raw visual facts, the photographs mere illustrations in a catalog of items. Doing this type of work, one tries to create photographs that have integrity, beauty, and resonance as new objects, not just records. Too much concern with form, though, risks losing the photographs’ connection with the real world. Furthermore, one wants to communicate personal insights. This type of photography, like all art, is most engaging as a statement of opinion, bias, and belief. On the other hand, the photographer must be concerned that too much of his or her opinion doesn’t cause the viewer to suspect that the photographs are unreliable, that the photographer has stacked the deck.

These contradictory concerns, even the very terms “art” and “documentary”, can drive a photographer to distraction. Over many years, I’ve learned to fight this confusion and get down to productive work by thinking of my job in a simple, reductive way. I select a place and spend as much time as possible there, even years, walking and driving and looking for photographs. Initially it’s a haphazard way to come to know an area, but slowly the place reveals itself and I begin to understand what I find most interesting and important. I then try to make pictures, straightforward and factual-looking photographs that distill and exaggerate those aspects.

Schaumburg and Rosemont were the most obvious starting points for this project. I later photographed in Itasca, Wheaton, Naperville, Aurora, Downers Grove, Lombard, Oak Brook, Elk Grove Village, Arlington Heights, Rolling Meadows, Hoffman Estates, South Barrington, Bartlett, Roselle, the northwest edge of Chicago, and other places. I paid little attention to municipal boundaries. These towns now form an uninterrupted metropolitan area, and city borders are often unclear.

Providing a balanced view of any particular suburb didn’t concern me much. (Some of these villages do have older, traditional, small-town cores, which I ignored.) Instead, I tried to photograph the landscape of the new type of suburb, the suburb that is a miniature city, a calculated alternative to the “real” metropolis and all of its problems and trappings.

Many of my early days photographing the suburban landscape ended in the basement of elegant high-rise buildings, facing irritated and puzzled directors of corporate security. I soon realized that rarely is there a clearly marked public space in the suburbs. Where do the backyards end and the public parks begin? Is a small, residential street public property, or is it the restricted driveway of a private development? Ponds, parking lots, and sidewalks within shopping malls can look public, but they are usually private properties. There are virtually no places in the edge cities where a stranger has the right to walk around with a camera on his or her shoulder or set up a tripod. Jane Jacobs, in her still important book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), argues that providing for the stranger on the street and a clear delineation of public and private space are essential ingredients for the vitality of city life. I discovered that the new American villages, reacting against the threat of inner-city crime, have opted for total control. I learned to call ahead, network, and check in with the security guards before I started to work.

I now have a more complicated understanding of the new suburbs than when I first argued about them with my friend Paul. As I expected, some appallingly flimsy new townhouses are being built. These new frame buildings use plywood only at the corners, while other outside walls consist merely of thin siding, insulation, and wallboard. One can usually see where workers have accidentally knocked holes right through the wall. Commercial buildings in strip malls display caricatures of classical pediments and column capitals sculpted in expanded polystyrene. These foam architectural forms are coated with fiberglass mesh and then sealed with a layer of material called DryVit. Designers place these fragile architectural gestures high on buildings, safe from the potential damage of shopping carts.

Paul was right, though, when he argued that there is some good, significant new architecture in these suburbs. I photographed several new corporate headquarters built with great style, architectural integrity, and a real concern for the quality of life of the inhabitants. I was also impressed by a new type of distribution center. Designed to provide a huge interior, some of these buildings have one undivided main space with as much as 500,000 square feet. Standing inside one of these new “big boxes,” regarding so much contained space, is a grand architectural experience. Before one laments the sterility of these new workplaces, one should compare them to traditional factories, mills, and foundries.

I was wrong to assume that these new American villages would not include minorities. The suburbs in this book are more socially diverse than I expected. Some African Americans and recent immigrants from the Pacific Rim do call this area home. Compared to the central city, however, these suburbs are remarkably homogenous: mostly white, young, and middle class. Often it was strange and disturbing to leave the social variety of Chicago and drive to such a nearby place where one finds few old people, few people of color, few poor or homeless people, and few new immigrants. The difference is startling. It’s difficult to not see these new places as symptoms of, and contributors to, the increasing social polarization in the United States.

I now understand how Paul could have found the clean, unbroken newness of these suburbs to be a relief from the older city. To be sure, the central city is full of decay, dinginess, failure, and struggle. Each empty storefront is the husk of some small business tragedy. The names on the tops of nineteenth-century buildings recall women and men dead for a hundred years. Glorious old movie theaters are now empty or used as evangelical churches and bowling alleys. Once famous nightclubs have been converted to convenience stores. Much of the city’s landscape now seems to be disappearing. Fresh suburbs provide an escape from that sort of melancholy. And these places are safer. I’ve always been very cautious as I photograph in downtown Chicago, trying to be aware of who is around me at every moment. In these suburbs, I relax. I can keep my head under the dark cloth and concentrate on the ground glass’s image without nervousness.

Out on the edge of the metropolitan area I found typical Illinois farmland transformed. Where once grew huge, flat fields of corn there are now hundreds of gentle depressions filled with water. Mainly for flood control, developers have created innumerable small lakes and ponds. One can see great blue herons wading in the center of industrial parks, and geese and ducks are everywhere. Flocks of geese have flown so close over me as I timed my exposures at dusk that I could feel the beat of their wings. The new landscape of these suburbs is, of course, far from a pristine, natural prairie, but the new American village may be an ecological improvement over the single-crop farms they replace.

Although Paul has returned to the “real city,” I think that he and I would still disagree about the emotional quality of these suburban landscapes. On hot and cloudless summer days I found photographing difficult. The main streets are four-lane roads busy with fast-moving traffic, and I was often swept along and had little chance to pull over and contemplate a scene. On those days, I would drive a hundred miles or more in huge, looping circles. I would pass the franchise businesses on Golf Road, Roselle Road, Butterfield Road, and Route 59. Everything, for hundreds of square miles, looked much the same to me. The recurring ponds and geese didn’t help much. The lack of trees, the cheap standardized construction, the ceaseless flow of cars, the acres of blacktop and concrete, and the unwalkable distances across open, flat land would leave me with an overwhelming and chilling sense of desolation.

The expensive corporate edifices may age well, but what about the rest of these suburbs, especially the flimsy domestic and commercial architecture? What will these places be like in thirty or even twenty years? Will vast expanses of homes all start disintegrating at once? Is it possible that these suburbs will become huge, low-density slums?

Jane Jacobs suggests several requirements for the “exuberant diversity” that can create a thriving, self-renewing city neighborhood or district. She calls for areas that have more than one primary use, encouraging people to be outside at different times throughout the day. The ideal neighborhood should have a good mix of buildings of different sizes, conditions, and ages, which can accommodate a wide range of users. Jacobs also argues for neighborhoods of high population density and for many short blocks with lots of intersections.

The neighborhood where Paul now lives is a good example of a district that fulfills all of Jane Jacobs’s requirements. Lincoln Park has a good mix of business, commercial, and residential buildings. Lincoln Avenue and Clark Street slice through the neighborhood at odd angles, generating many interesting corners and short blocks. The buildings range from slightly decrepit old storefronts with apartments up above to million-dollar townhouses. The mix of uses and the area’s high density ensure that many pedestrians are on the street throughout the day and into the evening. It is possibly the most desirable neighborhood in the city. Real estate values are soaring.

A neighborhood that goes against all of Jane Jacobs’s prescriptions is further north, on the border of Chicago and Evanston. This district, the north part of Rogers Park, is a homogenous area of brick courtyard buildings. The apartments are all one- and two-bedroom flats, built at the same time during the 1920s. The area, bordered by a subway-car facility and Calvary Cemetery, has some very long blocks and dead-end streets, discouraging pedestrian rambles. In the last twenty years, this entire area has become old and worn-down. From its inception the district lacked the diversity of buildings, uses, and population that could have sustained it through cycles of decay and regeneration. It has become one of the most dangerous and troubled areas on the North Side of Chicago.

The new suburbs in this book lack the kind of energetic diversity and density that Lincoln Park and other urban areas display. A few shopping centers have tried to recreate a small-town, “Main Street” sort of atmosphere, but these are small, isolated simulations of the city. Is diversity necessary for regeneration in the suburbs, as it appears to be in the city? If so, the future of these landscapes is not hopeful.

We will have to wait to see how the new suburbs age. Meanwhile, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new American village is its apparent success. In the city, the landscape is a mosaic of contradictory intentions, diverse needs, inescapable consequences, and seemingly out-of-control processes. City living is a matter of compromise and integration. What one sees in the central-city landscape is partly the intended design, but it is mostly an accommodation to existing circumstances, the passage of time, economic constraints, political antagonisms, infrastructure decay, and the changing social environment. These new suburbs started with a clean slate, a clear purpose, and political and financial power. It may be that the developers, residents, and corporate owners of the new American village have gotten exactly what they want. Like all such rare complete triumphs, the victors are left to consider not the limits of their effort but the quality of their original vision.