Hank Williams Village: Chicago’s Best Urban Plan That Never Happened

In the 1960s, Uptown’s white Appalachian residents were displaced by Truman College—but it never would’ve happened if Hank Williams Village had been built.

Uptown Appalachians

Photo: Danny Lyon/U.S. National Archives

“Two Youths in Uptown, Chicago, Illinois, a Neighborhood of Poor White Southerners,” 1974.

One of the oldest fights over gentrification in Chicago has taken place in Uptown, where generations of activists have fought to preserve affordable housing, most recently focusing on the slow decline of the neighborhood’s SROs. It goes back decades, well back into the postwar period when Uptown was a stop on the Hillbilly Highway, a destination for the smaller Great Migration of Appalachians heading for the industrialized north.

According to Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago, Todd Gitlin and Nanci Hollander’s 1970 book—mostly a collection of oral histories, sort of like Studs Terkel’s Division Street: America but infused with the social-activist spirit of the late 1960s—some half of the 50,000-60,000 residents of it were southern-born. The influx of poor white migrants made the neighborhood notorious; a Tribune series on “Hillbilly Heaven” painted the neighborhood in aggressively stereotypical terms and caused a row among the new transplants.

Chicago was hostile to the Appalachians of Uptown, and many left. The remaining legacy is slight: Carol’s, last of the Chicago honky-tonks; the abysmal Patrick Swayze vehicle Next of Kin, about a Kentucky-raised police officer who moves to Chicago; Bloodshot Records’ wonderful Sundowners anthology.

But in the late ’60s, when the urban and post-civil-rights politics of the era came to the neighborhood, its residents fought to establish a permanent Appalachian legacy in Uptown: Hank Williams Village.

The roots of Hank Williams Village trace back to the establishment of Truman College; at the time, higher education was used as an aggressive tool of urban renewal in Chicago. In the 1950s, the University of Chicago used $50 million in state and federal funds to clear out thousands of housing units in Hyde Park and Kenwood; in the 1960s, Mayor Daley dropped the University of Illinois-Chicago (then the University of Illinois-Circle Campus, named after the circle interchange next door) on the Italian, black, and Mexican neighborhoods around Maxwell Street. While it’s still something of an institution, Maxwell Street never fully recovered, as Gitlin has documented.

Truman College, then, would serve as the catalyst for the age-old dream of Uptown’s renewal. In 1968, the neighborhood was targeted for the school: “The selection of a  junior college site in Uptown has been viewed by community leaders as a great asset in helping community groups receive federal funds for vast urban renewal projects,” the Tribune reported.

State senator Robert Cherry told the paper that “the college might also work for the upgrading of the community by causing the demolition of many of the taverns on Wilson”; Ald. Robert O’Rourke added that the destruction of the bars would “develop the community into an area which would attract stable income families." It was estimated that the $25 million project, which included six acres of parking, “would displace between 4,000 and 6,000 Southern white migrants.” Part of the campus would be constructed in the most Appalachian-dense census tract in the neighborhood.

But this was the summer of 1968 in Chicago, a couple months before the convention riots. Social mobilization was at its peak, and the SDS had laid a foundation in Uptown (the genesis of Gitlin and Hollander’s book):

Media exposure drew an unlikely new group to Uptown in the 1960s: the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As part of an attempt to forge alliances between student political activists and urban working-class communities around the country, the SDS sent representatives to Uptown to organize the local population under the banner of JOIN (Jobs or Income Now).[3] Soon after its arrival in 1964, JOIN began to shift focus from unemployment to more pressing issues facing neighborhood residents, including housing conditions, abusive landlords, and police brutality. The block-by-block nature of JOIN organizing effectively developed local leadership, and the group had modest success with rent strikes against slumlords. Soon local activists began organizing new groups that would form part of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton’s short-lived Rainbow Coalition.

Within a couple weeks, the community countered the college proposal with the plan for Hank Williams Village. The name might suggest something of a stunt, but the naming of institutions has long been a means for urban minorities to stake a claim: Malcom X College, renamed as such in 1968, was Theodore Herzl Junior College when North Lawndale was a Jewish neighborhood. Hank Williams was about as close as Appalachians had to an iconic cultural figure. And as described by Roger Guy, a sociologist at UNC-Pembroke and author of From Diversity to Unity: Southern and Appalachian Migrants in Uptown Chicago, 1950-1970 (and who is apparently working on a book about the plan), Hank Williams Village was a forward-looking piece of urbanism grounded in the Jane Jacobs-era planning vanguard of the time.

It was designed by Rodney Wright, “a self-taught architect, 1 of 19 children of a contractor from Valparaiso, Indiana,” and a model of 1960s advocacy planner Paul Davidoff’s "call for architects to be recruited from the lower class.” (Wright would go on to become a pioneer in energy-efficient architecture, “the grand old man of solar architecture in the Midwest,” who designed the country’s first “solar village” in Soldier’s Grove, Wisconsin. Wright and his wife, Sydney, his collaborator and an IIT-trained urban planner, later moved south down the Hillbilly Highway to Paducah, Kentucky.)

Wright believed in a community service-oriented model of architecture, and Hank Williams Village was intended as a simultaneously modest and ambitious mixed-use project, writes Guy:

Residents learned that neighborhoods could be pedestrian-centered with easy accessibility to services. Eventually the idea of cul-de-sacs, ‘‘people streets’’ parks, perpendicular parking, and basements used for day care centers and clinics were incorporated into the idea for Hank Williams Village. While working on Hank Williams Village, Wright justified his pedestrian-centered approach to a journalist. He was quoted as saying that ‘‘in Uptown less than 50 percent of land use is used for housing, for people space, with the rest given over to streets, to the private car, to commercial uses"…. Wright’s idea was to integrate all aspects of daily life through mixed land use in close proximity with pedestrian access while minimizing displacement (Rodney Wright and Associates 1971).

The end product, Hank Williams Village, was patterned after a southern town. The plan to rehabilitate buildings instead of razing them minimized displacement of neighborhood residents (Inland Architect 1969). The Village was designed as a cooperative community with a town hall for meetings, child care and recreational facilities, a medical clinic, and a hotel for migrants (Gaber 1968). There were wide pedestrian streets, low-income housing, communal spaces, and generous numbers of trees.

Wright intended to stabilize the neighborhood, its problems long attributed to the rootless nature of its Appalachian population, by connecting its residents to the area with his integrated plan. But according to Guy, it wasn’t the kind of stabilization the city wanted: “This put him in direct opposition with the members of the UCC who were determined to rid Uptown of southern whites through slum clearance, and who saw the community college as socially and economically invigorating.”

The architect and his allies got buy-in from the community: a Ford Foundation grant through the Community Renewal Society; $475,000 in money and services for pre-construction planning; the assitance of a developer, chairman of the board of the Realty Company of America, “for any residential development the coalition undertakes.” A mortgage bank “volunteered to arrange financing if it is correct in its belief that the federal housing administration will insure the loans.” In September of 1969, the board of the City Colleges appeared to back down, and looked to the site of the recently shuttered Riverview Park as an alternative. “We are no longer in the business of clearing land or people,” chancellor Oscar Shabat told the Tribune.

But the park’s landowners wanted to replace the amusement park with an industrial park, and the city was unable to get title to the 22 acres they sought. It was likely a “diversionary tactic” in the first place; according to Larry Bennett, during the lull Shabat “engaged three local landlords to buy properties in the Uptown area proposed for the community college.” The next year, the city-college board selected the Uptown site, promising residents that the buildings would be “vacated, humanely,” and promised to pay moving costs. Hank Williams Village was dead; the best activists could do was get the city to change the footprint of the college, displacing an estimated 1,800 residents instead of the previously planned 4,000-6,000.

In 1972, the city hired an anthropologist, at the cost of $24,000 (about $133,000 today) to move to Uptown “to see what kinds of programs the people want from the new city college that is being planned in the community… instead of an education expert because of the wide range of ethnic groups living in the area.” (Funds to actually build the college, $16.8 million from the state, didn’t come until 1973.) In 1974, a new Treasure Island grocery store suggested that “the selling of Uptown as a fun ‘n’ fashion center has already begun.”

Truman College finally opened in 1976, offering courses in country and western guitarn and Appalachian studies. The Appalachian population of Uptown collapsed. While writing From Diversity to Unity, Guy tried to find where they went. “The few buildings with southern migrants are located mostly by word of mouth,” Guy wrote. “Moreover, they are reluctant to discuss the past…. It seems that those who remain are the unlucky ones.”

 

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