Leave the Seat Empty: 1309 West 59th Street

 Leave the Seat Empty consists of photos taken of buildings in Chicago in between the time a demolition permit is issued and the time the wrecking crews come.

The vast majority of the city's demolitions are vernacular residential buildings in areas that are either seeing immense new investment or immense ongoing disinvestment. In most cases, the doomed buildings are not deemed architecturally or culturally notable enough for proactive preservation efforts to succeed, where such efforts exist. They are most frequently replaced by new single family homes, or by empty land. These patterns aren't universal among demolitions, but are common outcomes of Chicago's current legal and market environment around land use, building vacancy, and new construction.

Despite its international reputation as a destination for architecture tourism, Chicago's policies around building demolitions often fail to protect historic structures. There are no easy answers to the question of which buildings should remain standing under which circumstances, but residents lack easy access to information about upcoming demolitions, leaving them unable to campaign effectively against demolitions they might oppose. I seek to document many of Chicago's doomed buildings in their final days, often with green demo fencing already up, and be present to acknowledge their disappearance.

1309 West 59th Street

Permit issued 08/30/2022


Property neglect and demolition in Chicago often result from mechanisms linked to the financialization of housing.

This wood frame building sat at the back of a lot facing 59th Street until early September of 2022, where it stood without another building in front of it for possibly its entire existence. Likely dating from just before the turn of the 20th century, it's unclear exactly how many units the structure contained. A blurry photo I found from a 2008 sale shows two mailboxes on the front. The records relating to the building held by the Cook County Assessor and Chicago Department of Buildings are less detailed than is typical.

Until 2005, the home on 59th Street had been in the hands of one family dating back several decades - at least to the early '70s, and possibly much earlier. Publicly available records are somewhat incomplete. I don't know whether that family ever lived in the building, or if it was rented out during their period of ownership, but after it left their hands in 2005 for a sum of $103,000 it passed quickly through a series of new owners and fell into disrepair. The 2005 buyer was a resident of the neighborhood, likely seeking rental income, but was foreclosed upon in 2007. By the time the bank sold the structure to a family living even closer than the previous owner in 2008, for a Great Recession sum of just $4,000, it had been emptied and boarded up. It remained formally vacant from that point forward.

The 2008 buyer didn’t keep up with property taxes, and county government sold the taxes at one of its annual tax sales. These sales allow private parties to purchase a lien on a property - from there, tax buyers can seek repayment from the delinquent property owner (with a percentage on top), or eventually take possession of the property en lieu of repayment. In 2011, the family down the street forfeited their claim to the property, transferring it to a semi-anonymous legal entity called “AA Export”. Another company associated with AA Export had purchased a different property two doors down via tax lien forfeiture in 2007, containing a commercial building and another rear-of-lot apartment building. The neighboring property had similar recent history, occupied until shortly before the tax forfeiture. In 2012, five years after the associates of AA Export took possession of the neighboring property and left its two buildings empty, those buildings had become physically dangerous and the city demolished them. AA Export continues to receive fines for vacant lot conditions like uncut weeds on that now-empty parcel.


Back at 1309, an echo of that story played out in the years following. The building sat empty, attracting code violations and court cases, until it was finally scheduled for emergency demolition by the city. The people behind AA Export did not ever seek to renovate the building or return it to use, nor did they maintain the property in any visible way. In fact, it’s possible the proprietors of AA Export never set foot on the site at all. Absentee ownership is common in highly disinvested neighborhoods, and after locals lose control of a building through financial precarity, its fate is often worse in the hands of external actors whose only aim is to speculate on long-run land value, using the properties they own solely as an asset class.

Local governments that oversee significant vacant building stock often have mechanisms in place to try to prevent outcomes like this one. Municipal building codes encourage stable upkeep even of vacant properties, fines can be levied for violations, and under some circumstances a government can step in to perform work in the name of public safety and place a lien on a property for the costs of that work. These are all meant to make it costly to neglect a building and discourage absentee ownership, and as sociologist Robin Bartram discusses in her book Stacked Decks, these mechanisms are employed most frequently against actors that are seen by neighbors, building inspectors, and demo court judges as profit-seeking in their neglect.

However, seasoned land value speculators sometimes rely on convoluted tricks of the trade to avoid accountability for the dismal state of empty homes they own in neighborhoods they rarely visit. This is where the story of 1309 W 59th gets a little speculative:

The legal sole proprietor of AA Export, a northwest side resident, is an employee of a suburban company that controls a vast portfolio of rental housing, commercial buildings, and vacant properties through a series of shell organizations often set up in the names of associates of the company’s CEO. I identified a large number of companies and trusts that appear to exist solely as containers that subject properties are transferred between when they begin receiving violations. The goal seems to be to stymie easy connections both vertically and horizontally - properties move to and from different straw owners ultimately answerable to the same man, taking the heat off of open building court cases, and externally tracking the full portfolio borders on impossible. It’s not uncommon for large-scale owners to use separate legal entities for different buildings for tax or liability reasons, but this is a different animal, with each entity registered to a different associate at a different address with seeming intent to conceal a true source of control. Only occasional slipups reveal the connections, like when the CEO of the suburban company behind the scenes is listed on a building permit as the owner of a rental building that’s legally unconnected to him, or when his signature appears on both the “grantee” and “grantor” sides of a document transferring ownership between two business entities.


It’s not possible to say for certain from the outside, but it seems like the fate of 1309 W 59th is ultimately tied to the business practices of a man whose only major public presence consists of his recent ownership of the 27,000 square foot former mansion of White Sox star player Frank Thomas in Oak Brook. Somebody who has many suspiciously coincidental connections to business entities that repeatedly neglect properties in Chicago, business entities that never seem to be easily contactable when it comes time to repay the city for emergency demolition costs. Somebody who, like many land value speculators, may have decided that one piece of their diversified financial portfolio should consist of properties held solely for the purpose of financialization, fortified against efforts by neighbors or authorities to ascertain who’s to blame for their condition or how to reverse the course of neglect.

The thing about large absentee real estate empires, though, is that they require a great deal of inventory tracking in order to function. In 2011, AA Export listed its address at a location where its paper proprietor no longer lives today. The Cook County Property Tax Portal reveals that the ownership address on file with the county's Treasurer was never changed after the deed transfer, and still points to the earlier 2008 buyer down the street. It's possible that 1309 W 59th, and 1305 W 59th before it, were both totally forgotten by their new owners in a sea of other assets. Tax bills sent to places where they wouldn't be acted upon, demo court date notices piled into a P.O. box that nobody checks... Despite the apparent big money connected to this parcel, it's once again delinquent on taxes and under a city lien. Soon, the Cook County Land Bank Authority will take control and the tax sale process will likely start again. Maybe one day there will be a better outcome here, rather than further slide from responsible stewardship.