Seeing the Future Lee Bey on conservation, preservation, and how to get fed
For nearly a year, Lee Bey and I were neighbors in Pullman, living a few doors down from each other on the same stretch of workers’ cottages on St. Lawrence Avenue. We did not know each other at the time—except, of course, in the way that we all learn to recognize our unnamed neighbors with curiosity, apprehension, fondness brewed from familiarity. I can say that we definitely must have brushed elbows, standing on the 115th Street platform awaiting the forever-late inbound train; he can recall how he one day passed Cottage Grove Avenue to see me setting up the Pullman Free Library in the corner storefront. It was only after I moved out of Chicago altogether that we became Facebook friends and pieced together our neighborly past.
Lee Bey, I quickly realized, is a man in the know—whether in gaining access to the closed-and-condemned interiors of the terra-cotta-covered skeleton of the Schulze Building on Garfield Boulevard, or on the origins of a fossilized neon marquee sign circa the 1960s, reading “Speed Queen and Crown,” paying homage to a store now extinct, hanging proudly on 46th and Ashland. Bey has made a profession as the narrator of the architectural and urban spaces of Chicago. In his tenure, he has served the city as the Sun-Times’s first architectural critic, as Richard M. Daley’s deputy chief-of-staff, as a professor at SAIC, as the best writer of the WBEZ blog, as the Goodman Theatre’s designer and orator of the Lorraine Hansberry tour of Bronzeville—and now as the DuSable Museum’s first Vice President of Planning, Education, and Museum Experience. I spoke with Bey in his new museum digs on the opening day of “Chicago: A Southern Exposure,” his exhibition of architectural photography focusing on the South Side, on view at the DuSable through February 16 as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. The show offers architecture as a kind of testimony—a paying of witness—to provide a counter-narrative to the pervasive myth of a negative South Side.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Malvika Jolly: I know you informally as a man who knows the stories behind lots of different, random buildings—and to tell them well. Who knows a lot about a lot. So my first question is: How does a person become that way?
Lee Bey: It has to do with upbringing, right? I grew up on the South Side, blue collar. My mother was a homemaker and my father worked for Reynolds Metals Company. But there was a sense that you had to be curious about your goings-on when I was a kid. Current events were always talked about around the house. It seems like everything was a question.
My parents, they ate it up. They were like well, find out, read this, here’s what this is.Now…this is only in hindsight, over the last few years. But my late father was a thinker, but he could fix stuff, and he was funny—and I think all that stuff informs you in some way…. The curiosity fostered that allows you to come to all that stuff ultimately shapes it. Love of buildings came from him—directly and indirectly.
One thing about the South Side is—as you know—it’s vast. So you’re always driving to someplace, going to barbecues. I have like nine million cousins. So it’s like: What is that? Look at this. What is this. And, somehow, all that works to inform you.
My father was the kind of person who could see broad strokes of things. My mother could see a detail of things. Somehow, in there, something ignited.
I was born at 73rd and Kimbark, and when I was around ten, we moved to 84th and Constance in Avalon Park. It’s a bit different now. When I grew up there, particularly on Kimbark, we all were, without really knowing at the time, kids of the Great Migration. All our parents had come from the South, twenty or thirty years earlier, when we were all growing up in the seventies.
My father was a Korean War Veteran, so there was always someone he was in the army with coming by. Like: Where’s he live? He lives on Dorchester. He lives on University. Solid working-class neighborhood. Fathers worked; mothers worked or stayed at home.
The neighborhood was better [when we moved to Avalon Park]. It was more middle-class, but we were still working-class and so were many of my friends. Hardworking folk and people were doing really well. I remember one classmate of mine—her father was a liquor distributor. And it was like Niiiiiiice. Nice car. He would come pick her up in this beautiful Oldsmobile 98. But we all went to school together, all laughed and learned.
These neighborhoods that people don’t think exist unless you’re Black and you know they exist. Society makes us forget that when Black people came to Chicago, they came for opportunity—and expected it. What happened after that was a betrayal of that trust. Not that people came over here and decided: I’m going to come over here and start fucking up. The negative behaviors that you see are created by that trust being betrayed; “No, there are no jobs for you,” “We’re going to put you in a crappy school.” That, in turn, wrecks neighborhoods. When I go there now [to around 73rd and Kimbark], there’s a lot of vacancies, vacant lots, some houses that I grew up with either abandoned or burnt down…
And you think: This isn’t because people are evil. This was made this way.
It was Reagan.
Yeah, but before him—Nixon was no picnic either.
Tell me a little about “Southern Exposure.”
Conceptually, it comes out of a couple things: one is, being a South Sider, I was tired of the kind of ruin porn of the South Side and West Side that you see. And you get to a point where you can tell people are overlooking the kind of architecture you can see downstairs just to find the ruin porn, the vacant—
Exactly! Right. That—plus the crime narrative. It begins to shape what people actually think of the South Side. It isn’t just beautiful, evocative pictures; it’s actually a co-conspirator in this narrative of a negative South Side. I thought: I’m going to show something different.
I wanted to show people in those pictures. I wanted to show the buildings being in use whenever I could because I wanted to address the other side of it, which is that this isn’t like Frontierland where spectators can just come through or whatever. There are people living in houses; there are people using the dry cleaners. These are neighborhoods. The solution is to invest in these neighborhoods the way we invest in other neighborhoods. So the solution isn’t to let it bottom out. And the solution also isn’t to open up a Greyhound bus full of yuppies or hipsters. But the idea is to invest in what’s there. Because these are functioning places, where there’s great architecture and people. So that’s what I wanted to do—to the extent that photography can do anything.
When the Goodman was running the Lorraine Hansberry play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, they asked you to lead the tour of Bronzeville. Which is kind of like the rest of your work: Southern Exposure is a kind of tour. And what you do with your writing is a kind of architectural but also living tour. So what did you pick for the Hansberry tour and what was that like?
Bit of brief backstory: I typically didn’t want to give tours to people of non-color of Black neighborhoods—because I didn’t want it to be like “the Jungle Tour,” right? So typically I would say: No, nope, not doing it. But the Goodman, their director of civic engagement Willa Taylor is an aware Black woman.
So I said: For you I’ll do it.
And I said: Can I do it any way I want to?
She says: Any way you want to do it—as long as somehow you end up at 60th and Rhodes where the Hansberry House is.
I said: Done.
My route and story: I started with the old Central Station location—where the Black migrants from down South came and first saw Chicago. We went down Record Row. We saw Chess Records and also Vee-Jay Records, which was a Black-owned record label—first American record company that would sign the Beatles. Until—this is kind of a funny story—Capitol [Records] didn’t want the American release to the Beatles’ first album, so somehow Vee-Jay got it, and they introduced the Beatles. Capitol eventually figures out what they’ve lost, and agrees to meet the Beatles. So the album cover that you know—with the Black background and their faces [Meet the Beatles]—is mostly that album that Vee-Jay had made. We got a chance to talk about music. We go up Michigan Avenue and King Drive and talk about the history, and I show them the greystones and brownstones on King Drive. And I want the story to be a story of triumph. And this affects what we’re going to be doing here at the museum.
I tell the folks here: Don’t show me a slave chain—let me show you how I broke it.
That’s how I structured the Goodman tour. I want people to see victory. And Black people triumphing. Because we do. If you show the one thing, show the other too. So when we get to Hansberry’s house—and learn about restrictive covenants, and that these things put a pall on Black people’s ability to move and acquire wealth through real estate—and then we go to the house, and see, and talk about how it informed Raisin in the Sun in many ways. It’s a way of telling the story so that it looks forward.
The high school you went to is heavily photographed and featured in your show. Is it three different buildings, or is it three different sides of the facade?
Yeah, it’s three different locations in it.
It looks like three entirely different schools in the photographs!
It does, doesn’t it? It’s a huge school. It’s physically the second largest high school in Chicago. Most people see it when they’re on the Skyway and they’re leaving town, they see the side of it from forty feet up or whatever. It’s a really straight up fantastic piece of architecture, but no one picture can really capture it. So I wanted to show that not only is it cool, but that it has these different faces within the facade.
From memory, it’s late Art Deco—so it’s different than the Chrysler Building but it’s still within the family. It’s almost Art Moderne. And then the architecture reflects the function of the school, which is a school that taught you how to fix things and build things. So, the machine-age aesthetic of the architecture? It’s a nod to what’s going on inside.
So there is one picture where you see the columns, right. That’s the gym. The school is like a block or two long and, when you look at it on the 87th Street side, it’s flanked by these two monumental Greek temple-like pieces. One is the auditorium—named now after Bernie Mac—and the other is the gym. They’re at opposite ends, and the school itself fills in the middle. They’re just alike; they’re like bookends to each other. So, architecturally, they treated the gym and the place of assembly and culture the same.
Which is very Greek.
Very much so! And there’s the one photograph that has the odd vanishing point? So, there were these shop wings—wood-shop, auto-shop. They were built and designed sort of like warehouses—like a standalone factory would be—though these are not standalone, they are linked by the hallways of course. That photograph was one of them, and shooting it that way was a function of the sun shining on it. I was imitating the photography of the day when those places were built—the WPA [Works Progress Administration] aesthetic with its exaggerated angles.
How was it going to high school there? What did you study?
It’s kind of funny. My shop was a print shop. I learned how to operate a printing press. Until I saw a computerized printing press at a trade show at McCormick Place. And I’ll never forget this. There was still a strong printing industry in the South Side in the eighties. I remember going there and there was this curtain that said See the Future! I was like, “I wanna see the future,” so I saw the thing: this guy’s at a computer and he types a thing, and there is a series of connected spaces with the printing press at the end, and it comes out, a printed thing, and he did it in, like, a minute—which, now, I know is forever, but back then it was really fast. I remember telling this guy Anthony, like, look at this! This thing can do everything we learned in the last two years. So I was terrified!
Couldn’t have been more than a week later that I was in my English class—and I’m a senior, so I’m almost out the door—my English teacher (Thomas Doyle, we’re friends on FB ’til this day) says “You write well. Have you ever thought about journalism?” I go “Jooooooooournalism.” So, just like that, on a dime.
So when I see those pictures and think about CVS, it saved me. It put me on a road that otherwise I wouldn’t have been on.
How does one become a journalist? What was your next step?
I thought I gotta go to college—because in vocational school you really don’t have to. The guidance counselor was like Lee, what do you want to do? I was like, Well I want to be a journalist. She suggested Northwestern. I couldn’t afford it. She suggested Columbia College. At the time I couldn’t afford it. So I did my first two years at Chicago State University.
I wrote for the student newspaper. Decided I wanted to go to Columbia and really study journalism and figure out a way to pay for it—which was cheap back then! So I got on the student newspaper at Columbia because I had been on at Chicago State. Which got me a scholarship and that got me on my way. When I graduated in ’88, I didn’t even get to march with my class because I got a job at the City News Bureau—which was a great wire service where Kurt Vonnegut, all these great writers went through there—I ended up getting a job there and starting the day of my graduation ceremony. And I was like, aw hell!
I was there two years—and then from there to the Daily Southtown. I covered the Southwest Side and then the Southeast Side. They had a bureau in Lansing. So news, features, everything—which was great, had a ball, actually. The Southtown didn’t cover the Black areas of the Southwest or Southeast Sides—and I made them. It was my only bit of radicalness there. I said We gonna cover this stuff. And then we got an editor who was really supportive of it. So it was good. Two years, almost two years to the day: came in September of ’90 and left September of ’92, and then I took it to the Sun-Times.
And there you covered architecture?
Well, I was there nine years. First four or five years, I was general assignment and then ended up becoming investigative reporter. And then went to architecture, because we got a new news editor and I was tired of investigative reporting. I was married then, and we’d just had a baby… Took some time off and thought “Ugh… I want to do something else!” And when this architecture beat came up I remember—it was crazy—I asked for it thinking that the editor would say no and give me something else, because I knew beans about architecture. And he calls me into his office—Nigel Wade—I’ll never forget—from London—and he said: “Chicago is a city of great architecture. We need someone to cover it. You’re a writer. You write well—beat’s yours.” And that’s how I started.
So how did you get your beans?
How do I go from bean-less to bean-full?
Or how did you go from knowing beans to knowing more?
Luckily, there’s probably no better city to learn architecture in than Chicago. Firms opened their doors when the word got out that the Sun Times had an architecture critic, cats like Helmut Jahn and Adrian Smith were like Come on, let me show you what we’re doing. I could ask questions. I read books. I remember being up all night trying to figure out stuff. But also the politics of it—particularly preservation. What buildings get saved and which ones don’t. Especially the stuff in the South Side. There was a lot of demolition going on. Landmark-quality buildings. And all that gets swept up into the mix.
That’s something I wanted to touch upon—what is preservation and conservation and the politics of it like in the South Side right now? Because you have people like Theaster Gates, who does a lot of work based off of reuse of old buildings, like theStony Island Arts Bank. But what is not being conserved that should? And what is something that you wish had been preserved?
It becomes like what in law school is called Fruit of the Poisonous Tree, right? Which means that if you get evidence in a funky way, anything that comes from that evidence is tainted. So if I raided your house illegally to get that bag of heroin—and there I am trying to put you in jail for it—I can’t.
But you can.
I guess now you can—but I ought not to if the law works correctly, because I got it in the wrong way. So, even if I know the heroin is yours—if I can prove it’s yours—it screws everything in the chain. And the same thing happens in preservation in the South Side. The city’s preservation mechanism is both the city’s and the nonprofit ones, and when they decide what buildings in Chicago are worthy of preservation (and this goes way back to the sixties), they tend not to choose South Side buildings. Almost four to one. So, as a result, there were and still are fewer landmarks in the South Side and the West Side when all these catastrophic things begin to happen in urban life. Tearing up neighborhoods to build public housing. Tearing down public housing to build other neighborhoods. Widening the roads. All this kind of stuff. When this begins to happen, all this architecture is seen as expendable. It puts in the DNA of the city that these buildings are less than.
Then you lay on top of that the crazy role that finances play, that banks and insurance companies play. So, as I was telling one person earlier—that modernist house, the Ingram House—that house sells for [$150,000]. But if that house were in the North Side, North Suburbs—any other neighborhood where a house like that would be—you could put another zero behind that house. They devalue these houses and these places, so it makes it hard to get credit. It makes it hard to raise the alarm that a building is in trouble. If a building has a history that tracks with white history—Frank Lloyd Wright designed it, George Washington slept here… If the history is Black history—unless it’s jazz!—it gets ignored.
There’s this building that I posted on Facebook, on 76th and St. Lawrence. I shot it with my camera-phone as I was going someplace else. Circular crazy building from the early seventies. I forgot this crazy building existed and hadn’t seen it in a long time. I got tons and tons of likes and comments, people remembering this building, that kind of thing. And, given that this building is going to be fifty years pretty soon, you know, you could begin to think that maybe it belongs in a city registry—maybe it becomes a city landmark!
But because the history is not a white-connected history, it’s harder to get the preservation mechanisms to help you do that. And if it’s not an accepted Black-connected history—Quincy Jones wrote his first song here, Diana Washington sang here, whatever. All of that makes these buildings harder and harder to save.
If I can’t get private financing to fix these buildings, what do you do? Then the philanthropics come in—and that’s what Theaster does well—but the question there is: Is it sustainable? If it takes a load of foundation money to make these buildings work, how do you make money from it? How do you sustain it? Is the Lee Bey Foundation gonna come back in five years and bestow another x amount of dollars on it, or am I off to the next thing? So that’s the question.
These places are historically maltreated. But the other part of it is that when you see buildings in the exhibit that are taken care of, understand that, know that, that’s the hurdle they had to jump over—to get here.
If [someone] is fortunate enough he’s putting together enough private capital to make it work, which is a heck of a hurdle to leap. So that’s the situation here. The thing about it is that—if played the wrong way—as the South Side goes into its next chapter, the question of Well then, Who moves in? becomes the issue. And you have to be either really well off, which tends not to be—in the numbers it used to be—people who are Black and brown. And it tilts the favor onto the side of white people who have the capital to come in. And that’s a problem.
Word on the street is that you were doing this show and then what came out of that was that they offered you this job, and you kind of tripped into it.
That’s exactly what happened.
How is it so far?
Job, so far, is good. The idea is to improve the exhibits here, the shows that are here, and improve the discussion and programming around those shows. My president actually wants me to do a film series, because I like film. Some of it is playing traffic cop. I think a lot of people—no matter where they’re from—they kind of treat the DuSable as Well, I can always screen my film there. I get last-minute calls: “Well, can I screen my film tomorrow because we’ve got a screening downtown.” Essentially what they don’t want to say is: We were told we needed someplace Black to screen it, so how ’bout y’all?
So I just say: No, No.
I say: Unless I can structure a curriculum and programming around it, can’t do it.
So, call me with this next year.
And it’s not been popular—but it’s been working. You wouldn’t come to the MCA and do that. So the idea is really to lift the offerings and the stature of the place. And on the architecture side, I’ll be playing some kind of role in figuring out the Roundhouse Expansion. But, on the day-to-day, it’s looking for the kind of exhibits that make sense now. We were talking earlier about Fabiola Jean-Louis coming this November. Here’s a young Black woman who’s doing these exciting things—mix of Afrofuturism and garments.
My first impression when I walked through my first week is that the history here is really male. Really male. And if there is a women’s story here it’s almost as an adjunct to the male: Here the men fought in World War I, and by the way, here’s what the women were doing. But the clientele is almost seventy percent women, Black women. And I thought: there needs to be something here for y’all. So we’re going to have the pendulum almost swinging completely in that way to balance things out.
It takes money to make exhibits change, but things like discussions and programming and film series, these are things we can do right now. For instance, there was a queer women’s film series happening here once a month. And it was really good—and I didn’t know about it! Until the woman who organized it came and sat exactly where you are sitting, with one of my directors. And I was like: I didn’t know this was happening. So it’s coming to an end. And I say: Well, you start it back up, put it back in there, and let’s get some velocity around it! We’re working out things with Channel 11—talking about cool finds within the archives and collections, and we’ll be sharing things with them as well. So these are things we’re going to do right now.
Are you finding that there’s a kind of respectability politics that you are engaging or are pushing against?
Thankfully not. My job as Vice President—thank god I’m not President—is to push it until I find that wall. So we have talked a lot about bringing more challenging fare to the museum. Because, you know, we made a hire a couple weeks ago, and we were all talking, and I said:
I have a lot of knives in my drawer, even the dull ones.
But the dull ones I don’t use.
I don’t throw it away, but I don’t use it.
My fear is that museums, particularly Black museums, by trying to be respectable all the time, trying to be respectable places, go to that place. So you come here because you have to—like it’s Stations of the Cross, right—but do I want them to come in because they have to, or do I want them to come in to get fed? To get challenged. That’s really what I want.
Because the times really require it. Black people need safe spaces, yes, but also challenging spaces, but also spaces that are uniquely ours. It doesn’t mean it has to exclude anybody; the door is open, twist it for anyone who comes. So… I probably shouldn’t say this…
No, I’ve said it publicly. I’ll say it again. I have a thing against Madea movies—I hate ’em! I think they’re awful. And, oftentimes, they get shown. Not here, not inside, not as a part of educational programming—but they get shown through other means. Get outta here with that! There are so many films out there [and] filmmakers who challenge what’s happening. Let’s show that.
This is why the movie—and the discussion—is important, and I’m throwing out people who are just like Show My Movie, and don’t give me a chance to form a discussion around it. Because I need the two of them to be in concert.
Because that’s when you digest.
Exactly. [In 2014] I screened a movie at Black Cinema House—first time it’d been shown in Chicago for forty years—movie called Uptight. I want to show it here. It’s a remake of John Ford’s The Informer (1935), which was set in Northern Ireland. Jules Dassin, the director, takes that story of these cats trying to inform on the IRA and brings it to what was then modern-day Cleveland, and it becomes this story of the struggle of whose side are you on? Is it the We Shall Overcome side or is it the Black Radicals side? And it’s filmed at a time—1968, in fact the footage of Dr. King’s burial, his funeral, is in there. It’s that contemporary to the times that they’re watching it on television!—when that question was not easily answered. Now, if that movie was made—or even two years after it was originally made—it would not side with the radicals. It would not give them the voice. But this movie really does. And when I showed it at Black Cinema House, I remember thinking: No one is going to go see this except me and a couple of my buddies. We’ll drink some beers and we’ll see it. We packed that place out. And they all sat still on a February night.
I saw a movie with Billy Dee Williams from the seventies [The Final Comedown(1972)] where it’s almost the same thing. He’s kind of a go-along-get-along brother who joins the Black Panther Organization and although the ending is kind of crazy—they couldn’t figure out how to end it so they ended it with a gun battle—up until that point, it really says some interesting things about Black destiny, Black identity, Black belonging, Black love.
These are the kinds of things that are important to screen. They may be imperfect, but still masterpieces nonetheless. And, of course, modern-day films that touch upon the same themes—I definitely want to get at.
What is your favorite thing or place—just something you can tell me to go check out in the South Side?
A building—or just anything?
Anything. Something really juicy.
Let’s see… Do you eat meat?
I eat everything.
Well then Lem’s Bar-B-Q on 75th is [everyone laughs] it’s a Yes, yes. So it’s a yes to that.
You know, there’s a house I’m thinking about—it didn’t make this exhibit because I just ran out of space. There’s a house on 38th or 39th and King Drive [ed. note: 3656 S. King Dr.]. It’s where Lu Palmer—he was an activist and a journalist and helped fashion Harold Washington’s first campaign—it’s the house where he lived. You can’t miss it—it’s this great eruption of red brick house right on the Northwest corner of the block. See it from a block off, go to the next house, and you’ll still see it. And it’s in horrible condition—well, potentially horrible condition. It’s a masterpiece of architecture and history. It’s one of those things that should be a landmark, but isn’t. That might be something that… well, if preservation forces in the city don’t coalesce around this house, then I know what time it is.
When I go by the house and stop any longer than a few seconds, people come out and [ask]: Is anything happening? What’s happening? Did you buy it?
No, no. I’m just looking at it.
So, people in the neighborhood know what’s up. But if the people who can save this house and could raise the alarm don’t—then I know what’s up.
Malvika Jolly is from the South Side. She lives in New York and tweets @dinnertheatrics.