Shining light on hidden architectural gems

Former Oak Parker Lee Bey's 'Southern Exposure' explores Chicago's South Side

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Journalist, photographer, lecturer and consultant Lee Bey has worked as the architecture critic for the Sun-Times, served as the deputy chief of staff for urban planning under former Mayor Richard M. Daley and currently is a senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as well as an independent consultant. 

Journalism has been a focus since he was a student at Chicago Vocational High School, but the self-taught photographer has quickly become recognized for his skills with a camera as well. 

An exhibit for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial spiraled into a book project, and Bey's "Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago's South Side" will be release on Oct. 15.

Born on the South Side, Bey lived as a child with his parents and sisters in the Avalon Park neighborhood. As a senior at Chicago Vocational High School, he says a teacher told him he was a good writer and should consider a career in journalism. Bey did just that and majored in journalism at Columbia College.

After graduating, he worked for various Chicago-based publications before going to work for the Chicago Sun-Times. He had been there a few years when an editor created the architecture beat, and he applied for and won the job. He held the job from 1996 to 2001, a period during which he lived in Oak Park and River Forest. 

In 2001, he left the paper to work for Mayor Daley as deputy chief of staff. As he recalls, he fell into photography by accident. 

"I had no interest in photography until I was well into my thirties," Bey said. "At first, the camera was really a way to document my daughters growing up."

Bey's three daughters, Candace, Cassandra and Sara, were born in Oak Park from 1993 to 2000. While he began taking pictures to capture their childhood, he quickly parlayed his newfound interest to his professional life as well.

"I bought a used Argus C4 from the 1950s," Bey said. "I was really interested in mid-century design then, so it fit that aesthetic and I really liked it. I was covering architecture at the time, so I started carrying it with me."

Bey admits it took a while for him not to feel like an imposter among his photographer friends in the journalism world, but he continued to hone his craft when his career took him to the architectural firm Skidmore, Owing and Merrill, followed by a stint as the executive director of Chicago Central Area Committee, a civic group, while he also worked as a producer and host at WBEZ-FM.

After working for a time at the University of Chicago, he was asked to create an exhibit for the DuSable Museum of African-American History for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial. 

He decided to focus his photos on the South Side and says he had a wealth of material to consider. With that exhibit as a catalyst, he delved deeper into the richness of South Side architecture to create an entire book devoted to the subject.


Celebrating the South Side

Bey covers roughly 60 sites in the book, saying he wanted "to shed a truthful light on the South Side."

"The images get your attention, but the text is important too," he added. "There's a little bit of a memoir in there, but also a story of the South Side."

Beyond the personal, he says the book is an attempt to shine a light on the positive aspects of the neighborhood he loves as well as the policies that contributed to some of the area's problems.

"Disinvestment and government policies created this overall sense of the South Side as crime-ridden," Bey said. "It isn't all just a bombed-out area. There's great architecture there that deserves to be mentioned in talking about Chicago as a great architectural city.

"The areas where there is this disinvestment, it isn't just because of the moral failings of the people that live there. These areas were created by banks that wouldn't invest, by policies that created this. Chicago can't be a sustainable city if the South Side, which is 60 percent of its land mass, is in distress. It can't be a world-class city without addressing the needs of the South Side."

Bey says the South Side has a wealth of architecture to celebrate. 

"The hardest part of writing the book was figuring out what to include and what not to include," he said. "People have this picture of abandoned buildings, but the majority of the South Side is not abandoned and dilapidated."

A self-professed lover of the quirky building, Bey also sought out buildings whose beauty he thought would inspire people who were not familiar with the South Side to give it another look. One of his favorite buildings in the book is the Pride Cleaners at 79th and Lawrence. 

"It's a fantastic building from 1959 with a hyperbolic parabola roof that sort of shoots to the side," he said.

Another favorite is the little limestone and brick church at Stony Island Avenue and 84th Street. 

"I grew up four blocks from there and knew it, but didn't know it," Bey said. "I researched it, and it was designed by Ray Stuermer, who was the chief of design for Raymond Loewy, an industrial design firm.

"I'm hoping that people will find this sense of discovery that I had about these buildings and this area."

Closer to home

During his 12 years living in the Oak Park area, Bey says he developed a fondness for many areas in and around Oak Park. 

"One of my favorite places in the city is the block on Midway Park between Austin and Waller," Bey said. "It's a beautifully intact block with a variety of architectural styles."

Bey also cites the former Citizen's Bank at Laramie and Chicago avenues as a fascinating building with terra cotta details and says the blocks of Forest Avenue in Oak Park south of Chicago Avenue – rich in homes designed and renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright -- are also a favorite area.

He also has a few thoughts on the high rises in Oak Park. 

"Some of the high rises, I kind of like," he said. "Architecturally, they can be hit or miss, but I like the idea of density around transit areas. It's right from an urban planning perspective."

That said, he thinks attention should be given to the design of new construction in the village. 

"Oak Park is a very special place," Bey said. "What you don't want to do is design a building that looks like it could be anywhere." 

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