Fossil Records and (Former) Neighborhood Character
What Do You Think You're Looking At? #137
Look at this multifamily building in Lincoln Park, Chicago. (Credit for this idea to this guy on Twitter.)
It’s an old, and probably multiple-times expanded/remodeled building. It has a two-car garage that you can assume it didn’t have originally. According to the Cook County property record, the age of the building is 138 years. They give an age, not a build year, but that would be 1885. The record also contains this line for “Description”: “Two to six apartments, over 62 years.” (1961.) I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it might mean that prior to being fully residential, it was something else.
Which it was.
See that inset corner? It’s not a house designed to look like a corner store. It’s a former corner store turned into a unit of a multifamily house.
In other words, this used to be—in the late 1800s or early 1900s, maybe up to 1961—a mixed-use, semi-commercial block. Doubtless there were many of these scattered throughout what are now strictly residential-only neighborhoods. Economics and preferences may have changed, but so did zoning. This is generally not allowed anymore, even if the potential business owners and customers exist. As in many places they certainly do.
Many of the old buildings that once held these stores have probably been demolished or remodeled such that you can no longer glance at and tell what they used to be. But the handful that are still identifiable function as artifacts—fossils. They form a fossil record that allows us a glimpse of this landscape as it once was.
If you walk through old urban neighborhoods and old Main Streets you’ll see all sorts of interesting buildings that don’t resemble anything we build today. Many are small, low-intensity multifamily, and many do, or did, have storefronts appended onto the front. Sometimes you’ll even see small, older single-family houses with little storefronts, sometimes barely more than an enclosed porch. Here’s a piece about that.
These older buildings, and the streets and neighborhoods in which they were situated, had a sort of liminality. They could easily switch from house to informal apartment to boarding house to office to retail, often mixing or cycling through uses over the decades. They reflected and embodied the flexibility of people coming, going, and growing.
It’s impossible to say whether Americans still want that, because in the vast majority of our country, we’re not allowed to find out. But we can still search for fossils. For the old, maybe only dormant, version of ourselves.
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