Leave the Seat Empty: 6642 South Michigan 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.

6642 South Michigan Avenue

Permit issued 01/24/2023



Much of my work involves storytelling about the stewardship history of a given place, but sometimes that history is fuzzy or hard to access. This home, one of four demolished by the Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA) in the first months of 2023, was among the hardest to research so far among the group of properties included in my ongoing Leave the Seat Empty series.


A fairly typical workers' cottage constructed at the end of the 1800s as the neighborhood of Grand Crossing rapidly developed, 6642 South Michigan came under public ownership in recent years after at least a decade of vacancy. That vacancy was possibly significantly longer - related public records are sparse, and it's challenging to establish ground truth prior to 2007. But after unpaid back taxes on the property for the years of 2011 through 2013 were sold to the CCLBA in 2015, the agency took full possession of the empty home in early 2019.

The CCLBA, established in 2013, seeks to bring abandoned properties in Cook County back into use and onto the tax rolls by purchasing them or transferring them from other government bodies - in this case, from the Cook County Treasurer. Once under their ownership, the CCLBA secures subject properties, places them in a queue to be occasionally offered up in public sales, and sometimes partners with specific rehabbers to offload buildings for renovation outside the usual calendar-based sale cycle.

Success of CCLBA programs often depends on a combination of the agency's active investment in bringing a building back into use and its statutory authority to extinguish back taxes on a property. In a typical real estate transaction, unpaid back taxes convey to the buyer, and it is not uncommon for the taxes owed on a vacant property in Chicago to outpace the fair market value of the property. The operating idea behind the CCLBA and agencies like it in other jurisdictions is that if you eliminate the two major barriers to vacant property transfer - disinterested ownership and unpaid back taxes - that vacant property stands a much greater change of being renovated and inhabited once again.

The activities of the CCLBA are not without controversy. People in the know will tell you about allegations of preference for certain well-connected rehabbers, the agency sometimes lacks effective strategies to ensure that the properties it moves back into the private market are successfully renovated after leaving CCLBA care, and the mechanisms by which subject properties are sold are often inscrutable and inaccessible to non-professional buyers. But a decade of work has seen the CCLBA obtain more than 3,500 properties that otherwise would likely have been on a rapid demolition path and bring more than 1,600 of them back to habitability. It is rare for the CCLBA to demolish one of its properties, as they did here, with less than 5% of CCLBA-owned properties reaching a demolition outcome while under the agency's care.


So why did this home, and three others owned by CCLBA, get demolished early in 2023?

Though the county agency is often a better steward of vacant structures than the private or public owners who preceded them, the CCLBA is in a constant state of triage. They often install security doors, board up windows, and perform other work to forestall further damage to neglected buildings, but some buildings still decay to a point of unsalvageability under CCLBA ownership. Though the agency's track record is pretty good for a land bank, partially a result of them being selective with the physical condition of their acquisitions, more than 160 CCLBA-owned properties have been demolished in the last decade.

The buildings that CCLBA demolishes tend to have been vacant for longer than others, and to have faced a major structural failure of some sort. It is highly likely that 6642 South Michigan fell into both categories.

The unpaid property tax obligations sold to the agency for the tax years of 2011 through 2013 were in the name of a deceased former property owner who seemed to have owned the home for longer than the Cook County Recorder of Deeds has digitized records available, indicating that they purchased it sometime prior to 1970. That family lived inside the home and owned at least two other properties in the neighborhood in the '70s and '80s, but it's unclear when those other properties left their hands. It's also unclear whether the couple that owned this home lived there until they died, or even when their deaths occurred. There is very little easily accessible information about them or their descendants, and I have been unable to find contact information for any living family members of theirs to talk to.

In situations like these, it's often the case that a homeowner passes away and leaves behind an estate that can't be easily settled, and their former home becomes abandoned because trying to access ownership via the estate of the deceased would open up living family members to significant debt obligations. But without more available documents or a conversation with the people involved, I can't confidently tell you exactly how, why, or when this home became vacant.

The adjacent vacant lot, likely once owned by the same family judging by similar public records gaps, eventually found its way into a city-owned (rather than county-owned) land inventory, and Chicago's Department of Planning and Development included it in their recent launch of ChiBlockBuilder, a tool meant to make it easier for Chicagoans to access information about low-cost sale programs for vacant city-owned land in their neighborhoods. The lot failed to sell in this year's push. The now-empty land where this house used to be is currently up for offer by the CCLBA as part of a sale application period closing later this month, with a minimum offer of $5,000 required and a description that refers to a house on the lot that no longer exists. You can read more about that round of sales here.