Lee Bey Illuminates the Neglected Architecture of Chicago's South Side
As a young boy, writer and photographer Lee Bey accompanied his father on a drive around his native South Side of Chicago. Together they absorbed the sights and sounds of the built environment, his father pointing out notable buildings and streets. Bey never forgot that drive, later working as an architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and an advisor on architecture, urban planning, preservation, and zoning to former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. Now, the places he saw are the subject of his first book, Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side, published in October by Northwestern University Press. We spoke recently with Bey.
Where did your idea for Southern Exposure come from?
In a way, it began as an exhibit for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial. I shot around 20 images and they were placed on display at the DuSable Museum of African American History on the South Side. The response was incredible. There are masters of architecture who practiced their work here, and that work largely gets ignored.
As I got into it, I began to think about the history of the South Side—how black people came to Chicago from the South to become Americans. I thought about how that shaped the South Side, and the book became something more significant. It makes it clear that these neighborhoods and buildings being overlooked is part of an ongoing injustice that’s been happening to African Americans in the city, almost from the jump.
Did you learn anything about the South Side you didn’t know before?
I didn’t really know how big the South Side is. It’s the size of Philadelphia. That was the biggest eye-opener for me, because it means that the solutions for the South Side have to be different. We’ve got to get out of this [mindset] where we think a new strip mall opening is helping the whole South Side. It doesn’t. Once you understand the size of the South Side, then you think larger about the fixes for it, as well.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
It’s easy to pretend the South Side is just a wasteland, or to blame the people who live in disinvested places for that disinvestment. But the text of the book pushes against that. People talk about the crime and poverty, and there are some magnificent neighborhoods that are overlooked because they get wrapped up in that story. I want people to think about the “South Sides” in their own cities, how policy and laws have created these places, and what can be done to fix them.
It doesn’t appear in the book, but what is the significance of the South Side Community Art Center?
I am a longtime fan. It embodies the arc of the South Side and typifies the state of art and culture [there]. Places like the South Side Community Art Center [a National Treasure of the National Trust] are vital and doing good things. It’s time for their histories and their work, both contemporary and past, to be fully brought into the fold and appreciated by this city.