Up on the Roof

The Anthony J. Overton Building is located at 3617 S. State Street directly across from Stateway Gardens. It is one of several historic buildings that anchor both the past and the future of the neighborhood that has come to be known as Bronzeville.

The Overton is being developed by the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission. (Visit Mid-South at www.midsouthplanning.org [site is down as of 3/06; see archived cache] to learn more about the organization, its programs, and its plans for the Overton.)

The following is an edited version of remarks made at a community meeting convened by Mid-South on November 1, 1997. At the time, a Neighborhood Conservation Corps crew composed largely of Stateway residents was engaged in the interior demolition of the Overton. Today the questions raised in this piece are immediate, as Mid-South seeks tenants for the building and in so doing shapes the character of the Overton as a neighborhood institution.

Picture of the Overton from the street.

My colleagues in the Neighborhood Conservation Corps and I have had the privilege of working in—and, in a sense, inhabiting—the Overton Building in the first phase of its rebirth.

I have a few things I want to say about the work we’ve been doing, about the men who have been doing that work, and about how it has affected us. But I want to start by describing the view from the roof of the Overton.

Chicagoans live close to the ground. It’s one of the things I love about this city. From the perspective of the neighborhoods, most Chicagoans look out at the skyline with our feet on the ground. I, too, live on the ground floor. So it’s always an adventure to ascend in a building and look out the window.

I have sometimes wondered why the view from a fifteenth floor office downtown is so different from the view from the fifteenth floor of one of the buildings at Stateway Gardens. When I go downtown to the offices of government officials, developers, and foundation officials, I’m unsettled. There is a hubris, a fatal pride, that the “commanding views” from those windows both engenders and expresses. It’s the social engineer’s view of the world. It’s a perspective that yields a certain kind of planning, a certain kind of “community development”—the kind that benefits the developer more than the community, the kind that treats the social ecology of a neighborhood as a blank slate on which developers impose their vision of “community.”

The perspective from the upper floors of one of the seventeen-story buildings at Stateway is otherwise. The view itself isn’t so different. It takes in the skyline. You see sailboats slicing through the Lake. But it doesn’t feel like a commanding view. It feels like a view from the edge, from the margin. I have sometimes wondered if this is the way the world looks to boat people offshore.

Now, let’s go up on the roof of the Overton. The building is only four stories tall. Yet from its roof you can see the entire Mid-South Side. Looking north, a great view of the skyline. Looking south, the State Street corridor of public housing, the largest concentration of poverty in the nation, stretching to 54th Street. Looking east, the streets and alleys of reawakening Bronzeville. Looking west, Stateway Gardens and beyond, like a space ship hovering in the air, so close yet so remote, White Sox Park.

Two men working in the Overton.

From the roof of the Overton, you look out in all directions on the scene of a great unfolding drama—the redevelopment, the recreation, the re-imagining of Bronzeville. At night the lights of the downtown skyline, once so distant, now look like the campfires of an approaching army. And to the south the public housing high-rises stretching to the horizon look like an armada of boat people offshore. The sight poses an inescapable question: what place will our fellow citizens who live in public housing have in the emerging neighborhood? Can we come up with a more creative and humane plan than simply sinking their boats?

The remarkable thing about the view from the roof of the Overton is not only that you can see so much of the South Side but that you can see the faces of people you know on the street and on the grounds of Stateway. It’s a perspective from which it’s hard to lose sight of the human consequences, for good and ill, of development—a perspective from which it’s possible to maintain a sense of the human measure.

Since we have been working in the Overton, my colleagues and I have had much occasion to think about such matters. Everyone in this room, I suspect, knows the history of the Overton as a beacon of black enterprise—the site of a bank, an insurance company, and assorted other businesses—during the heyday of Bronzeville. But there is a later chapter in the history of the building that has not been much talked about or documented. For much longer than it was a bank, the Overton was a flop house.

The 8′ x 5 ½’ stalls we have been removing with sledgehammers invite thoughts about the measure of things human. These stalls occupied every square foot of space on the second, third and fourth floors of the building. On each floor there were 125 stalls and a dormitory-style bathroom with six showers and six toilets—a total of 375 stalls. Although men slept in them, it would be indecent to call them rooms. They provide barely enough space for a man to lay down. And they provide no privacy. There is no ceiling overhead; only wire mesh and a bare light bulb.

Hallway inside the Overton.

This was the Palace Hotel: a flop house that accommodated laborers from the South who came north to Chicago in search of jobs, swelling the Black Belt. Working in the Overton from day to day, it took us a while to fully comprehend what we were looking at and then we became haunted by it. The stalls became a window on the past. Some of those who have seen them have immediately been reminded of pictures of slave ships. Several NCC members have spent time in penal institutions; they agree that the Overton stalls are “worse than jail.”

When we think of the exploitation of black bodies, we tend to think of the settings in which people labored—the cotton fields, the factory, and so on. What we have learned at the Overton is that it’s a powerful point of imaginative access to think about the places those laborers lay down at night to rest: the slave quarters, the sharecroppers cabin, the Palace Hotel, and indeed, the public housing high-rise.

The men who lay down at night in the stalls at the Overton had come to this place for jobs and in most instances had found jobs. The men swinging sledgehammers today, most of them residents of Stateway, have grown up in a society that has no jobs for them, a society that treats their intelligence, their strength, their appetite to live productive lives as superfluous. They have done what they have had to do to survive. They acknowledge that in the absence of a job, they would find it hard not to be drawn back into the criminal economy.

The purpose of the NCC is to provide an alternative. To enable men who have come through the gang life—the veterans—to move in another direction. To do constructive work. To put down weapons and pick up tools. To participate as workers and as citizens in the rebuilding of the place where they live. We are a small, humble organization. We create jobs one at a time. At this stage in our development, we are scarcely more than a ghetto business, but working at the Overton over the last few months we have glimpsed large possibilities—a vision of a distinctive style of development. It is this vision I want to leave you with today.

The location of the Overton directly across the street from Stateway dramatizes certain possibilities. NCC members are working across the street from the place where they live. They return home tired and dirty at the end of the day to their families and friends as working men. They are seen by others—and see themselves—in this role. The direct geographic link between work and home means that a single job serves multiple purposes. Imagine a process of development that was animated by this dynamic, that took its bearings from the human gifts and capacities residing in the neighborhood rather than from what those in downtown offices with commanding views say is possible or permitted.

Inside the Overton before the work.Inside the Overton after the work.

Such an alternative course is open to the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission, but it will take both vision and practical ingenuity to move down that path. For we operate within a powerful gravitational field dominated by those who control the capital for development and make up the rules—a gravitational field in which political and economic forces are so closely allied that it’s hard to see them as separate things. Unless we move with clarity of purpose and sustained vigor in our own chosen direction, we will be carried in predictable directions to predictable outcomes.

In closing, I want to go back up on the roof of the Overton—to that singular perspective from which it is possible to take in the sweep of Bronzeville and at the same time to see individual faces on the grounds of Stateway Gardens. If Mid-South’s stewardship of the Overton is informed by this combination of broad vision and fidelity to the human measure, it has a chance to make a splendid contribution, at a critical moment, to the history of the South Side.