Leave the Seat Empty: 11412 South Calumet Avenue

 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.

11412 South Calumet Avenue

Demolition completed early December 2022, permit issued 01/09/2023


I delayed writing about this demolition several times, because the context around it is heavy.

On the morning of November 17th, 2022, two 13-year-old boys were shot and killed inside an abandoned house across the street from this one in the 11400 block of Calumet Avenue. Quentin and Mike were local - their families lived nearby, and both boys were students at Curtis Elementary School just a few blocks away. I live a short walk from where they were killed.

Neighbors don’t know what happened. A few who live close heard the shots, and then a car speeding away. Speculating about circumstances won’t bring Mike and Quentin back to their loved ones or their friends. It’s been nearly half a year since the shooting, but Mike’s family still has a fundraiser open if you’d like to show them some support.


That gruesome context is relevant to the demolition of a different building across the street because of a program called Fast-Track Demolition (FTD), which the City of Chicago uses to quickly demolish neglected buildings that are deemed to pose a public safety threat. For buildings already registered as vacant and in the midst of demo court, FTD expedites remaining court steps and bypasses the demolition backlog. For buildings that haven’t yet gone through demo court, it skips the process entirely. In either case, crews are sent out immediately to tear down a subject building on the city’s authority.

FTD was touted, especially during the mayoral administration of Rahm Emanuel, as a way of dealing with “problem” buildings that were formally vacant, unsecured, and being used for illegal activities like drug dealing and prostitution. When a revamped version of the program was launched in 2016, a joint press release from the Chicago Department of Buildings and the Chicago Police Department discussed the demolition of 228, 236, and 244 West 113th Street, three vacant homes not far from here that were situated on a block where a popular daycare operated. The core idea behind the program is that demolishing unsecured vacant buildings reduces the number of places where crimes can occur behind closed doors.

When a major act of violence occurs inside a legally vacant building, FTD is often used to immediately demolish the building in question. And sometimes, as is the case here, neighbors and members of city council can exert enough pressure that a whole series of nearby vacant buildings might be demolished at once. These photos portray 11412 South Calumet alone, but in addition to this building and the home where Mike and Quentin were killed, two others were torn down within the same one-week period. All four of the buildings had been vacant for more than a decade, working their way through city code violations and demo court cases.


It’s hard to say whether FTD has any impact on overall crime or violence in a given neighborhood. There isn’t strong evidence, in part because the program has not been thoroughly studied. But even where analyses have been conducted, they’ve largely focused on block-level effects, which can be misleading. A set of neighbors, rightfully horrified by what happened on their block, might feel a release of pressure from the demolition of one or more buildings where something similar could take place away from prying eyes.

But there are thousands of vacant homes in Chicago, and hundreds in the broader neighborhood surrounding the 11400 block of Calumet. Tearing down a subset of them (or hell, all of them) doesn’t solve the underlying factors that lead to violence in the first place - family poverty, lack of community social supports, easy access to guns... violence might be less likely to take place on this particular block when a vacant house is razed, but that doesn’t mean razing the house is an effective violence reduction tool when you zoom out.

At the time I captured photos of 11412 South Calumet, a memorial was present for Mike and Quentin across the street, next to the empty lot where the home they were murdered in had stood until the week before. Those two boys deserved better. The long abandonment of the home they were killed in, and many others nearby, was a symptom of the same deep disinvestment that often produces violent outcomes like this one. Resource abundance and resource starvation both exist in spades in Chicago, and more of our friends and neighbors and family members would still be with us if the resources of our city weren’t so deeply stratified. FTD and programs like it may be well intended, but the physical decay they act upon pales in comparison to the enormity of the precarity that underlies the sort of violence they seek to address.