Chicago: Reimagining what remains (part two)

In yesterday’s post I talked about the Uptown Theater project in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and how that stood as a symbol of the neighborhood’s illustrious past and current challenges (as well as future potential).

It’s amazing to me that such a grand building would sit empty – or that it was ever a candidate for demolition.

I feel the same about a building I’ve just discovered in the last few months. I’m finishing my coursework at my new college in the western suburbs, and I take the Metra West Line train every day to get to campus.

And as I’d come back into the city, I was mesmerized by a building I’d see from the train. It was clearly a building no longer in use, covered in graffiti and with most of its windows gone. But the shell of the building looked magnificent.

I was convinced it had been an old high school, until one day I saw the lettering near the top of the building: Brach’s. The building was, until a decade or so ago, the North American factory for Brach’s candy.

Here’s a YouTube video – it’s got some jerky camera action, but it gives you a good idea of what the inside is like.

This generates a number of questions in my head. How does a building decay so much in 12 years? Why hasn’t it been repurposed, or made into something…anything?

The reason is, more than likely, location and the people who live in this neighborhood. The area – where Garfield Park, Elmwood Park and the very eastern parts of Oak Park intersect – is a very poor neighborhood, with primarily Hispanic and African-American residents.

This West Side area was at one time a “factory row,” and when you take the Metra or adjacent CTA train through this area, you see block after block of big factory spaces sitting empty and decaying from neglect.

I’d love to see the Brach’s space save its exterior and be able to reuse and repurpose the inside space (affordable housing? condos? offices?) so that we don’t tear down a building that doesn’t need to disappear. I’d also love to find some way to take the ginormous flat parking lot and minimize the environmental damage and runoff that it’s likely generating.

And if that building was in the West Loop, instead of on the far West Side, the developers would have already started renovations.

But it’s rare to see investments, or money, or loans being made in poorer neighborhoods. And Chicago’s deep history of segregation and barriers between neighborhoods means it’s unlikely anyone will take an interest in investing in this space.

And that’s a shame, because not so long ago, this factory was making noise, generating goods and services, and creating its own investment for the neighborhood it served.

POSTCRIPT, MAY 2014:  In spring 2013, I presented an academic poster that included a mention of the Brach property and this post. I was told at that presentation that the owners intended to demolish the building.

That started happening earlier this year, and much of the campus has since been demolished. 

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