Urban Renewal on the Northside of Chicago: Influence of Nonviolent and Violent Protest

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Emily Neis

Urban renewal is a process where properties within a neighborhood are bought or taken by a redevelopment project to be destroyed and reconveyed to selected developers. Urban renewal projects emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, changing the landscape of many American cities. The U.S. federal government provided cities with billions of dollars to bulldoze “blighted” or “slum” areas.[1] These areas were then intended to be replaced with affordable housing, however, a different story would begin to play out as these areas were met with constant challenges.[2] Urban renewal projects go hand in hand with gentrification and the displacement of thousands of minorities.[3] The process of urban renewal did not occur without community involvement or community backlash. Many of these projects across U.S. cities were met with both nonviolent and violent tactics to dissuade the destruction of city blocks.

The city of Chicago provides an all-encompassing tale of urban renewal projects in the United States. Because urban renewal occurred across the entire city of Chicago, focusing on the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the Northside of Chicago provides just one perspective of urban renewal. Additionally, as a fourth-generation Chicago resident, my family history further piqued my interest in exploring the impact of urban renewal on the Lincoln Park area. Being able to discuss the direct impact of urban renewal by talking to my grandmother provides a fascinating oral history of the Lincoln Park area.

Black and white photo of a street view of apartments with a car out front.
Photograph of rooming houses on Wisconsin Street and Lincoln Ave from the Chicago Department of Urban Renewal Records.[18]

However, it is important to note that other neighborhoods of Chicago faced even more detrimental effects of urban renewal projects. These include, but are not limited to, Cottage Grove, Englewood, and Hyde Park. Chicago is often considered one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. and has been impacted by years of redlining, white flight, racist violence, and gentrification. The twentieth century history of slumming, conservation movements, rehabbing, and redevelopment help to explain why Chicago has large, predominately white, areas of concentrated investment.[4] It is a well-known pattern that growing investment and wealth in certain parts of Chicago, often the Northside, cannot be separated from growing disinvestment and poverty in other neighborhoods.[5] The areas that faced this massive disinvestment were often made up of minority populations. Urban renewal and gentrification succeeded in Chicago because they utilized social, political, and economic systems to their advantage. For instance, efforts to segregate black Chicagoans on the Southside and Westside were accomplished through these systems.[6] The evolution of Lincoln Park into an affluent community cannot be understood without the context of disinvestment in the rest of Chicago, or a “tale of two cities.” Although these neighborhoods that faced disinvestment are not the focus of this story, they are extremely relevant and consequential. These community issues are significant and continue to impact millions of Chicagoans.

The history of urban renewal in Lincoln Park begins after the end of World War I. A surge of young artists began to discover the Lincoln Park area in the late 1920s and saw the potential for rehabbing. These individuals would become known as “rehabbers” and believed they were doing more than redeveloping homes; they were creating a new community.[7] Although almost all of the residents then were white, many were immigrants from Germany or elsewhere in Europe. When a rehabber bought these properties to convert, often the first step was to get rid of these residents. The neighborhood began to transform from an area “surrounded by run-down rooming houses and two-family cottages” to, in a few decades, “one of the richest inner city neighborhoods in America.”[8]

This is also where my own family history begins to collide with this story. My great-grandmother was five years old when she arrived in Chicago in 1927. Her father had left Germany after World War I because there was no work and headed to Chicago. He worked to buy boat fare for his wife and two daughters. They settled in Old Town, which at the time was a German immigrant neighborhood, and my great-great-grandmother began working at a bakery. The Great Depression hit soon after but my great-great-grandmother was able to buy a rooming house to bring in income. She eventually had three rooming houses, on Wisconsin Street and Lincoln Avenue. This area is what would become known as the Old Town Triangle. However, the start of meaningful neighborhood change would soon follow.

My grandmother recalls that

“[the] neighborhood began to change in the 1940s. My grandmother wanted out and the first building she sold was to a famous Chicago interior decorator. Artists like beautiful old low-cost buildings in sketchy neighborhoods. So one building is refurbished and attracts other buyers. There goes the neighborhood! It would have been fun to show my grandmother what happened on her block.”[10]

After listening to my grandmother talk about what she recalled I realized how much of her story lined up with the written accounts of urban renewal in Lincoln Park. The obstacles her immigrant parents faced on the Northside of Chicago were a common occurrence.

Looking at the 1940s, rehabbers were continuing with their efforts but government interference would change the trajectory of Lincoln Park. Federal inspectors who worked for a New Deal agency called the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation declared that the Lincoln Park neighborhood was in terminal decline. These officials implemented redlining in Chicago which would eventually be linked to decades of disinvestment. They also began an effort called “slum clearance,” which meant demolishing entire neighborhoods at a time by bulldozing city blocks and replacing it with public housing.[11] Some individuals saw the potential in slum clearance and sought to make it a profitable effort. This led officials to advocate for legislation that would allow government slum clearance to be followed by private for-profit re-development. In 1947, the Illinois legislature passed the Redevelopment and Relocation Acts, which gave Chicago the right to do so. President Truman would sign the Housing Act of 1949, which modeled Illinois’ slum clearance laws and enacted them federally.[12] This chain of events set the stage for urban renewal projects to be implemented, but this process would not begin without community backlash. With the end of World War II, durable organizations were founded to combat federal and private meddling in Lincoln Park. One of these was the Lincoln Park Conservation Association (LPCA), which believed that the current residents could restore their own neighborhood and advocated against slum clearance. This would become the start of the “Battle of Lincoln Park,” a phrase coined in a 1955 newsletter from the LPCA.[13]

The LPCA would soon discover that private investors had much more power and influence to change the neighborhood. Fears over the displacement of residents through urban renewal started to grow. In a 1959 survey, only 13% of LPCA cited their reason for living in Lincoln Park as them growing up in the area.[14] It was clear that changes were already underway in Lincoln Park without the official start of urban renewal programs. Many apartments and homes in Lincoln Park were rooming houses that made affordable housing available for workers, young people, the elderly, and immigrants. The elimination of these apartments, homes, and rooming houses were seen as collateral damage and helped rid the neighborhood of “blight.” An impressive number of older residents of Lincoln Park came to voice their concerns about these new changes and demolitions. However, their voices were overlooked and these concerns went unnoticed.

A plan for urban renewal in Lincoln Park would be reached in the late 1950s. The city agreed to evict around a thousand households by clearing every building along both sides of a half-mile stretch of Clark Street, in addition to some surrounding blocks.[15] The winning redevelopment bid from a private investor imaged new complexes of high-rise apartments and townhomes. The demolishing began in 1958 and displaced households were simply forced to move north to cheaper housing. These projects were met with greater community concern. Reverend James Reed, a white congregation leader at the center of civil rights organizing in Chicago, would join the LPCA. Reed’s efforts would agitate the current dynamic of the organization with more aggressive anti-displacement policies and eventually anti-urban renewal activism.[16]

By the 1960s, more urban renewal projects began to stretch across Lincoln Park. One prominent project became known as the General Neighborhood Renewal Plan (GNRP), which planned demolitions on Larrabee Street and North Avenue. These demolitions disproportionately affected lower-income Lincoln Park residents. Federal urban renewal officials formally accepted the GNRP in 1963. This included laying out borders for the first phase of renewal, named “Project One.” Federal requirements meant that public hearings had to be held over “Project One,” giving Lincoln Park residents the first opportunity to weigh in publicly on these neighborhood changes.[17] These public hearings marked the beginning of the “battle” against urban renewal which the LPCA had attempted to start earlier.

Map of Chicago annotated with various colors and captioned "Lincoln Park GNRP Area"
Proposed Urban Renewal Plan displayed in Lincoln Park neighborhood from the Chicago Department of Urban Renewal Records.[9]

With urban renewal in its full implementation in the 1960s, several different groups emerged to combat these changes. This battle against urban renewal can be described through both nonviolent and violent means. Many groups emerged in the 1960s to fight this battle. The first of these groups were the people whose homes were set up for demolition by Project One. Another group was the LPCA, which was mostly comprised of liberal rehabbers who had their own visions of redevelopment for the neighborhood. Lastly, radical members of LPCA joined a coalition of young Puerto Ricans to fight for a balance of power within Lincoln Park.[19] These groups that formed retaliation brought about different measures of nonviolent and violent tactics. At this moment, the importance of community action came front and center, often with bitter and sometimes violent fights over the future of Lincoln Park.

The first official draft of Project One was released in February 1964. The document proposed the demolishing of 2,100 homes, a level of destruction unseen in Old Town since the Great Chicago Fire.[20] This draft was met with immediate backlash from Lincoln Park residents. A meeting held by Chicago’s Department of Urban Renewal was followed with questions and accusations from residents about their homes. In many areas impacted by Project One, residents began organizing to halt the project. Unlike most of the rehabbers in the area, these were older longtime residents of the neighborhood. One of these groups represented small businesses that would be displaced and lose thousands of dollars. Greater opposition came from Larrabee Street, where it was set to demolish every home and business for almost a mile. Residents would soon gather to protest the project with one woman holding a sign stating: “Save Your Homes – Down With Urban Renewal.”[21] Despite protests, Project One received final approval in December 1965 and clearance would begin in the spring, proceeding slowly into 1966.

Once again my family history collided with the urban renewal efforts in Lincoln Park. My grandmother remembers the urban renewal projects occurring in the mid 1960s. Specifically, she remembers the city of Chicago vocalizing how they wanted to improve neighborhoods and parks with a program called urban renewal.

She recalls that

“the City approached every building owner and said this is what you get because we have a plan. My parents were given a low price established by the City for the picture framing business with our home above. There was no negotiating, you got what you got. This is the 2100 block of Lincoln Ave at Webster Ave. There were neighborhood meetings, presentations, and much selling of the idea. All the businesses and apartments across the street were forced to sell, too. Then Oz Park was created by going West onto Larrabee Street. I went to watch the wrecking ball demolish our building. It was sad because the colors of our bedroom walls were exposed on one interior side. There was my sister’s pink wall and my aqua wall all in rubble while bulldozers scooped it up.”[22]

Map of Chicago annotated with demolition areas and stars at prominent landmarks.
Map of the Project One demolition area for urban renewal in the Old Town Triangle.[23]

This was the second time they were affected by redevelopment projects and this time they were right in the middle of the Project One demolition area. It didn’t take long for the block to be demolished and rebuilt. The experience that they faced also impacted thousands of Chicago families who had been in the neighborhood for many years. Unfortunately, the battle was lost in the Old Town Triangle of Lincoln Park. Although there was nonviolent resistance to this project, it wasn’t enough to stop urban renewal from taking place.

Although this was the end of my family’s experiences with urban renewal, there is much more to history in other areas of Lincoln Park. The planning of a “Phase Two” of urban renewal began immediately after Project One was completed. The term “phase” was meant to replace the negativity that “project” had connected itself with. Phase Two was very similar in nature to Project One. This time the project targeted the demolition of eight blocks along North Ave with a high concentration of Black residents.[24] Reed of the LPCA, and his allies of anti-displacement policies, were furious and organized a caucus to bring public pressure. He was able to organize around sixty people to protest which resulted in a small compromise that promised adequate housing for those displaced. Although this appeared as finally a win for the community, Reed’s progress was soon defeated.

It soon began to appear that the LPCA couldn’t achieve much against urban renewal projects. Frustration with the organization and continued community backlash allowed a new group to emerge. Around the late 1960s, a young man named Cha Cha Jiménez became interested in the anti-urban renewal efforts in his neighborhood.[25] Jiménez was the child of migrant workers who raised him on the Near North Side until they were displaced by urban renewal and settled in Lincoln Park. As a teenager, he rose in the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang, and became its leader. While he was serving time for drug-related charges, he became fascinated with the political and philosophical writings of a Trappist monk, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X.[26] Jiménez wanted to shape the Young Lords into something more and imitated the model of the Black Panthers. Jiménez attended a meeting about urban renewal and was frustrated by the lack of change. It was here that Jiménez also became familiar with the Poor People’s Coalition (PPC), which advocated for lower-income residents facing displacement. The Young Lords Organization (YLO) would transform under Jiménez and it was unlike any previous anti-urban renewal group Lincoln Park had seen before.

In 1969, Jiménez and a few dozen YLO members attended a meeting to learn the details of renewal plans. However, when they saw their homes erased off maps on the Phase Two model, they flipped the model and threw chairs through the office of the Department of Urban Renewal.[27] The police were called but YLO had already shaken things up. This first direct act of violence in response to urban renewal in Lincoln Park marked an important moment. A few months later, YLO, PPC, and other anti-displacement organizers broke into an administration building near Project One and barricaded themselves in. They refused to leave peacefully until they received support for their anti-displacement campaign.[28] After five days of sitting in, their efforts paid off and they received their demands. A few weeks later, it was announced that one of the areas demolished in Project One was going towards a high-profile private bidder.[29] Opposition and chaos erupted after this announcement in a meeting of over 500 people. The YLO jumped on stage to take over and violence followed.

Black and white photo of a group of people in a court room.
Board meeting at the Department of Urban Renewal Lincoln Park Area in 1970.[30]

The YLO and PPC had successfully brought attention and power to urban renewal proceedings with violent disruption. But urban renewal officials wanted to show their own strength of power and brought 100 uniformed police officers to the next meeting. In response, a Lincoln Park alderman’s office was firebombed but the YLO denied involvement. A few days later, a Reverend who was supportive of the YLO’s anti-urban renewal efforts was found stabbed to death. Police insisted they had no leads in the case and his death wasn’t political. The violence and death that occurred in 1969 spurred further action and change.

Rather than directly fighting with the urban renewal officials to manage the neighborhood differently, YLO and PPC decided to take direct control of an area of Lincoln Park’s redevelopment. PPC submitted a bid to build on a cleared area under urban renewal development.[31] This bid marked an important moment because it represented much more than the fate of a single development project. If successful, this bid could prove that the power dynamic of urban renewal projects could in fact be shaken up. The PPC bid faced many obstacles, LPAC was weary of supporting them because of their violent past, other bids were proposed by private investors, and the Department of Urban Renewal ultimately needed to approve the bid. The Department of Urban Renewal announced publicly that they would reject the PPC bid and instead approved a private construction company. They reasoned that this was not political and the construction company was a more financially stable bidder. PPC was outraged and their cause attracted citywide attention. The Chicago Sun-Times took the side of the PPC bringing more attention to the issue. When the Department voted unanimously for the construction company’s bid in City hall, 300 angry spectators erupted.[32] One man charged the board while fifteen more people were arrested.

The failure of the PPC bid had become a political agenda for Chicago officials. According to one article from the Chicago Tribune, “a fear by the city administration that an award to the Poor People’s Coalition, with its history of disruptive tactics, would possibly set a precedent… forcing demands upon the city.”[33] If the PPC had been successful, perhaps other areas in Chicago could win the battle over urban renewal by not playing by the rules. The defeat of the PPC and YLO was not the end of opposition to urban renewal in Lincoln Park. However, it highlighted the end of an era. Further, it suggested that no one could beat the system from either the inside or outside. Years of activism, organizing, protesting, disrupted meetings, and sometimes violent tactics, had only earned small victories.

Urban renewal would continue in Chicago into the next decade. The greater effects of these projects were already visible in Lincoln Park. In 1950, 102,000 people lived in Lincoln Park, compared to just 68,000 in 1970.[34] Lincoln Park’s lakefront was now among the richest ten areas in Chicago. In the Old Town Triangle, about half of the adults were college graduates and the area was around 95% white.

The Lincoln Park neighborhood witnessed profound changes due to urban renewal from the 1940s to the 1970s. The “Battle of Lincoln Park” left the neighborhood further from the change that Reverend Reed, Cha Cha Jiméne, and other anti-urban renewal advocates sought out. The effects of urban renewal caused the most harm to the displaced lower-income residents of Lincoln Park. However, this was not an isolated incident and neighborhood change that occurred in Lincoln Park was being mimicked across the United States. By the 1990s, it was clear that what happened in Lincoln Park was also happening in many cities.

The significant influence of nonviolent and violent tactics in the “Battle of Lincoln Park” brings up important lessons and questions. The anti-urban renewal movement in Lincoln Park didn’t grab public attention or make significant changes until the YLO initiated more aggressive tactics. Jiménez utilized methods such as sit-ins, protests, and sometimes violent outbursts and retaliation, to draw attention to his cause. Jiménez was influenced by individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. These individuals’ political and philosophical ideas surrounding activism and nonviolence/violence clearly had an impact on how the anti-urban renewal movement played out. The impact of the more aggressive tactics utilized by certain groups in Lincoln Park highlights the complexity of violent activism. On one hand, these methods brought about action and change that had not been seen in the neighborhood before. However, many individuals were injured or even killed. In the end, these violent tactics produced little substantial change and urban renewal continued regardless of the community activism that tried to stop it. Nonviolence is an integral part of activism and can be an effective tactic. In the case of neighborhood redevelopment, it appears that the social and political systems that supported urban renewal could not be defeated through violent or nonviolent means.

[1] Colin Gordon, “Blighting the Way: Urban Renewal, Economic Development, and the Elusive Definition of Blight,” Fordham University, 2004.

[2]Renewing Inequality: Urban Renewal, Family Displacements, and Race 1950-1966,” University of Richmond, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Daniel Kay Hertz, The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Chicago (Cleveland, Belt Publishing: 2018), p. 13.

[5] Hertz, The Battle of Lincoln Park, p. 12.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] Ibid., p. 21.

[8] Ibid., p. 22.

[9] Rehabilitation, 305 W. Wisconsin Street PROJECT #1, Chicago Public Library, Chicago Department of Urban Renewal Records.

[10] Ilona Somogyi Neis in discussion with the author, January 2023.

[11] Hertz, The Battle of Lincoln Park, p. 39.

[12] Ibid., p. 41.

[13] Ibid., p. 52.

[14] Ibid., p. 62.

[15] Ibid., p. 69.

[16] Ibid., p. 79.

[17] Ibid., 90.

[18] DUR signs and maps at the Old Town Art Fair, 1962, Chicago Public Library, Chicago Department of Urban Renewal Records.

[19] Hertz, The Battle of Lincoln Park, p. 95.

[20] Ibid., p. 96.

[21] Ibid., p. 99.

[22] Ilona Somogyi Neis in discussion with the author, January 2023.

[23] Hertz, The Battle of Lincoln Park, p. 7

[24] Ibid., p. 110.

[25] Ibid., p. 126.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 129.

[28] Ibid., p. 132.

[29] Ibid., p. 136.

[30] Board Meeting – Department of Urban Renewal Lincoln Park Area, 1970, Chicago Public Library, Chicago Department of Urban Renewal Records.

[31] Hertz, The Battle of Lincoln Park, p. 146.

[32] Ibid., p. 148.

[33] Ibid., p. 149.

[34] Ibid., p. 150.