“Southern Exposure” Puts the Spotlight on the South Side’s Architecture

In 2017, photographer and architecture critic Lee Bey curated “Chicago: A Southern Exposure,” an exhibit of his photographs of architecture on the city’s south side. Those images, along with many others, can be found in his new book, “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side,” out this month.

For Bey, architecture on the south side has been both ignored and underappreciated for far too long. It is thanks to his father who “introduced me to many of the buildings and to the idea of the south side as a place of good architecture,” that drove him to recognize the aesthetics and value of the structures that lie south of Roosevelt Road.,

“Southern Exposure” is more than just a photographic collection; it also includes sociological and historical information about building origins, African American architects including Kenneth Childers and Roger Margerum, and others.

Here, Bey talks about his book and its focus on the culturally significant, yet overlooked, architecture on the south side.

Chicago Defender: The book has its genesis in your 2017 exhibit “Chicago: A Southern Exposure.” Once you conceptualized the book, what did the big picture look like for you?

Lee Bey: I wanted to showcase the great architecture of the south side that I think is overlooked by people who don’t live on the south side and that’s also overlooked by architecture journals, architectural tours and architectural history. I also wanted it to be a love note to the south side because on the south side, there is always the sense that you’re on the wrong side of everything and that really isn’t the case. There is disinvestment that leads to crime and other things not because there’s a moral failing of the people who live there but because these conditions were created on purpose. I wanted to keep all those things together as much as I could and allow it to tell a story.

CD: Most publicized tours and tour guides about Chicago seemingly relegate the city’s architecture to the skyline and maybe some museums and other buildings here and there, so your book indeed fills a void.

LB: I agree and what is often shown when we talk about the buildings of the south side are the abandoned buildings or the buildings under demolition. There is a genre of photography that examines abandoned structures and while it could be beautiful sometimes, it could also tell an incomplete if not incorrect story about how these places got that way. Unless there is something in the narrative with the photos that explains how the buildings got that way, it allows the reader an easy out to just assume it got that way because Negroes moved in. That’s the thing I want to push against.

CD: Although “Southern Exposure” is about architecture, in many ways, it also speaks indirectly to the south side’s place in arts and culture in general.

LB: It does, particularly the parts of the book that talk about Bronzeville and the national and international contributions it made to art and politics.

CD: Anyone who has scrolled through your social media or attended lectures you’ve given can see your excitement about the architecture of Chicago Vocational High School; besides being an alumnus, why is this structure such a standout for you?

LB: It is the largest art deco building in the city that’s not a skyscraper so it’s unique in that regard. It’s also a building that if you could drink it all in visually, it reads very well, but if you stand close to it and really begin to look at the details, it gets even better where you can see these bas-relief panels that show all the disciplines that were taught there. When you think of the magnificent entrance to the Bernie Mac auditorium, with its giant columns and how the gymnasium entrance on the other side of the building is just like it, the thought behind that is that art and athletics were given the same amount of prestige in the building’s design.

CD: Getting back to Bronzeville, in the book, you directly address the city’s neglect of this south side neighborhood. What has that impact been?

LB: The thing about Bronzeville is that things are better now than they were back in the 80’s and 90’s. But just think—if a city could ignore an area that rich in culture and history, what does it say for the rest of the south side? That was the galling thing about it: here is a place that is about entertainers, art and politics where black people are controlling and leading it as black history.

We [tend to] forget that these things have both national and international importance. There’s Nat King Cole who’s from Bronzeville, and then Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington and others. You don’t get a Harold Washington without a Bronzeville; and without a Harold Washington, you don’t get a Barack Obama. If that place can be overlooked and dismissed, what does that say for something like 79th and Drexel or 83rd and Yates? On the other hand, if you can preserve Bronzeville and its histories and the people who live there, then it simply bodes better for the rest of the south side.

CD: Of course, it would be impossible to include everything in the book; however, is there a structure that you really wish made it inside the pages?

LB: I wish I could’ve included Saint Benedict the African [church] located on 66th Street in Englewood. The architects are Italian-American and they gave this building an African set in terms of wood and natural materials. It is a beautiful building and I wish I could’ve gotten it in the book. That’s probably my biggest regret.

CD: This book is a fantastic step in the right direction for discussions about the lack of appreciation for architecture on the south side; however, do you think this will keep the conversation going?

 LB: I’m hoping it keeps going because fortunately, the book doesn’t occur in a vacuum thanks to authors like Natalie Moore and Isabel Wilkerson and then there is the work by photographer Tonika Johnson who documents the Englewood neighborhood. There is a lot of important work that’s coming through that all tell different stories about the south side other than the ones we’ve been forced to hear about [i.e., the shootings]. This isn’t to say these things don’t need to be talked about; however, they need to be put in the proper context. These books [and other cultural projects] are just the beginning of what I hope will be years of study and scholarship about what it’s like to live and be on the south side.

CD: What do you want readers take away from “Southern Exposure”?

LB: I can tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want it to be a hipster’s guide to the south side.  I want people to see these buildings and be impressed by them and be alarmed that they don’t know [about them].

I also want people to look beyond what they’ve been taught about the south side and how it got that way. We’re so programmed to think the south side is just crime, murder and misery. I want people who read this book to get a better sense of what it is and be upset and understand that a lot of what we as a city have blamed the residents for are these economically distressed conditions that we live under. These areas were robbed of their wealth through the devaluing of their real estate and the way to make those places whole again is to invest in those communities. Of course, that’s going to take a lot of money, but that’s what needs to be done.

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