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Lee Bey’s plea for South Side architecture

In his new book, a former Sun-Times architecture critic defends ignored South Side gems.

An accordion-pleated building front on a book cover.
In his new book, “Southern Exposure,” Lee Bey argues that the same racism that undercuts opportunities for black Americans has undervalued architecture on the South Side of Chicago.
Provided photo.

Lee Bey is a reporter.

Yes, he wears other hats — architecture expert, urban planner, lecturer at the School of the Art Institute, photographer of growing renown.

But a newspaperman is what he was when he joined the Sun-Times in 1992, and he remains true to the basic imperative of reporting: Tell people something they don’t already know.

This educational process began, for me, with the very first photograph in his new book, “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side.” (Northwestern University Press: $30). A simple, flat-faced building with a sloping roof. At first I thought it was some 1950s geometrical whimsy; the caption reveals it to be the Lavezzorio Community Center, 7600 S. Parnell Ave., designed in 2008 by Jeanne Gang — the most famous architect in Chicago today, whose Aqua Tower opened to raves in 2009.

A flat-faced building with a sloping roof.
The Lavezzorio Community Center, 7600 S. Parnell Ave., designed in 2008 by famed architect Jeanne Gang, is not as well known as it should be.
Provided photo.

”It’s a fine little building that should have ridden Aqua Tower’s slipstream to some modest fame, at least,” Bey notes.

That it didn’t — I had no idea Gang’s community center exists, and I pay attention to this kind of thing — is the point of Bey’s new book. Just as America still can’t seem to wrap its head around the fact that black lives carry the same weight as white ones, so Chicago’s architecture south of Cermak Road rarely shows up on our cultural radar, even though it should.

”For decades, most of the buildings in that vast area have been flat-out ignored by the architectural press, architectural tours, and lectures — and many Chicagoans,” Bey writes.

It’s telling that in trying to explain how vast an area he’s considering, Bey is obligated to refer to other cities.

”The South Side makes up more than half of Chicago’s landmass,” Bey writes. “In other words, most of the city is the South Side, a geographic area that’s the size of Philadelphia — twice the size of Brooklyn.”

The book is a tour of places many readers have never suspected exist, never mind visited, like the curving facade of the Chicago Vocational High School, 2100 E. 87th St. Just the names of some buildings are a treat: The National Pythian Temple. The Overton Hygienic Building. The Chicago Bee Building.

Bey proves his case most effectively when discussing James H. Bowen High School, 2710 E. 89th, designed by Dwight Perkins in 1910:

”Bowen High School would be a city landmark and on the National Register if it were located on the North Side. And that’s not empty talk. The North Side’s Carl Schurz High School ... was built the same year as Bowen, and the two schools are virtually identical twins, both having been designed by Perkins. Schurz has been a city landmark since 1978 and made the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 ... Bowen, which sits in the predominantly black and Latino neighborhood of South Chicago, was never given landmark status nor a National Register listing.”

When you read the book — and anyone who cares about Chicago should — savor the casual charm of Bey’s writing, illustrated in this sentence: “Once I started researching and photographing this book, I was astounded — and I mean, just plain shook — by the sheer amount of good to outright great architecture tucked away in various corners of the South Side.”

”I mean, just plain shook” is candor and confidence. The book is a joy to read, from artist Amanda Williams’ musical foreword to Bey’s use of people to enliven what otherwise could have been a collection of shells, beginning with his father — “The Old Man” — driving him around in his big Buick Electra 225.

The photographs possess a direct, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get quality that is very Chicago. From the cover shot of the accordion rectangle of the University of Chicago’s D’Angelo Law Library to the twin towers of the First Church of the Deliverance, the buildings fill the space, often framed by cerulean blue skies, serene. You can see why Lori Lightfoot hung a Bey photo in her City Hall office.

Yet, like the best journalism, this book is a call to action. Bey isn’t mourning the lost past but clanging a fire bell, demanding a better future.

”The South Side matters,” Bey writes. “And its architecture deserves to be seen and protected.”

Lee Bey is appearing in conversation with Amanda Williams, Wednesday, Oct. 23 at 6 p.m. followed by a book signing at 7 at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton.