Leave the Seat Empty: 1656 North Dayton 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.

1656 North Dayton Street

Permit Issued 04/05/2023


The previous and final owners of this two-flat in Lincoln Park's Ranch Triangle were representative of the changes that took place in the neighborhood around them during the time they were present. In 1976, they bought into this block of Dayton after answering a newspaper ad that began "attention pioneers", a common term for young white-collar workers choosing to move into dilapidated city neighborhoods at a time when their generational cohort was largely content in the suburbs.


Western Lincoln Park, historically a working class area, had been deeply scarred by urban renewal despite resistance from local residents. When Marcia bought her two-flat on Dayton (joined by her new husband Bruce a few years later), about a third of the buildings on the surrounding blocks had been demolished in the preceding decade alone. Most of that empty space would not fill in for another 15 years or more, on an upmarket path stewarded by organizations like the Ranch Triangle Association and the Lincoln Park Conservation Association, upon whose board Marcia eventually sat. Those organizations, often dominated by homeowner "pioneers" and often in tension with much of Lincoln Park's remaining Puerto Rican population, blended historic preservation and detail-oriented exercise of hyperlocal political power to substantially reshape Lincoln Park in collaboration with municipal and institutional stakeholders during the second half of the 20th Century. José Cha Cha Jiménez and other fierce neighborhood organizers had been pushed to the side by the city since the '60s in order to make space for exactly this kind of new engagement with the "pioneers" - a set of stakeholders who bought into city government's vision of a rekindled Lincoln Park, one which would see Puerto Rican residents largely forced out as a new wave of upper class white residents chose to move in.


Like many "pioneers", whose relations with the neighborhoods and cities they moved into are foundational to contemporary studies of what has come to be called gentrification, Bruce and Marcia were civic-minded even while their presence in Lincoln Park played a complicated part in the area's story. Bruce, for instance, was one of the founding members of the Chicago Architectural Assistance Center, a nonprofit that provided design services to social services organizations, poor homeowners, and others who couldn't afford to hire commercial architects for renovation and construction projects. Some of the activities the Lincoln Park Conservation Association pursued during the time of Marcia's board membership included a campaign to revamp the quality of programs at Lincoln Park's neighborhood high school and to push the Chicago Park District to better maintain public amenities at the neighborhood's namesake park. Often, even while serving a role that would widely retrospectively be seen as driving displacement, "pioneers" sought changes around them that they intended to benefit all of their neighbors. It is obvious, though, that the city was more responsive to the politically friendly, white newcomer-dominated member organizations that made up the Lincoln Park Conservation Association than they were to Cha Cha Jiménez's Young Lords and other Puerto Rican advocacy organizations in Lincoln Park.


Bruce, Marcia, and their children lived in one unit of their two-flat and rented the other for decades, eventually expanding both units in the late '90s with a three-story addition that angled around the corner onto the rear of their unusually shaped lot, emptying out onto nearby Bissell Street with a street-facing garage. As the efforts of the Ranch Triangle Association and other Lincoln Park property holder organizations succeeded with city help and big-money private investment during the '80s and '90s, the neighborhood soared substantially upmarket to become what it is today - one of the most in-demand parts of Chicago for wealthy families. The 1976 newspaper ad for the two-flat had asked $25,000, and when Bruce and Marcia sold the structure in 2023 they received $1.05 million from the developer buyer. Now, a three-unit condo building is getting its finishing touches on the unusually shaped site, with one three-bedroom unit seeking $1.375 million and two four-bedroom units seeking $1.8 million each. The "pioneers" themselves have largely been supplanted in Lincoln Park these days.