"A Material Collapse That Is Construction": History and Counter-Memory in Gwendolyn Brooks's in the Mecca

Article excerpt

From the Chicago Loop, where sunlight off the lakefront strikes the shining towers, State Street runs straight south, wide, busy with streetcars and heavy trucks. Quickly the buildings get shabby--little stores selling auto parts, a junkyard crammed with rusting wreckage. The city is harsh: concrete streets, brick building walls, black steel viaducts. Beyond 22nd Street the faces of the people are black. This is the South Side Negro section. Here the street is quieter, the sun is hazy and dirty and pale ...

--John Bartlow Martin, "The Strangest Place in Chicago"

So begins a 1950 journey in Harper's magazine to "one of the most remarkable Negro slum exhibits in the world" (87), the Mecca Building on Chicago's South Side. This journey from shining towers to shabby tenements, where even the sun is dirty, follows what was becoming a familiar rhetorical path for describing deteriorating urban neighborhoods, the racialized discourse of urban decline. Perhaps no other building symbolized post-World War II urban decline more starkly than the Mecca Building. Built by the D.H. Burnham Company in 1891, the Mecca was at first celebrated as a boldly innovative architectural prototype for luxury apartment living. With its atrium courtyards, its skylights and ornamental iron grillwork, its elaborate fountains and flower gardens, the Mecca was a major tourist attraction during the Columbian Exposition. Beginning with the movement of Chicago's wealthy to the North Side at the turn of the century, however, and culminating with the economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression, the Mecca gradually became an overcrowded tenement. By 1950, the Mecca Building had become notorious not because of its architectural magnificence, but because of the poverty of its remaining inhabitants.(1) It was demolished in 1952 so that its final owner, the Illinois Institute of Technology (I.I.T.), could expand its new campus, designed by the renowned Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Before the Mecca Building was obliterated, it had become the subject of national media attention as a monumental example of urban decline, an example depicted in racialized rhetoric that foreshadows the discourse of urban decline in the 1960s. It also became the subject of an important collection of poems that begins with an epigraph from Martin's "The Strangest Place in Chicago," but contests the dominant discourse of urban decline, Gwendolyn Brooks's In the Mecca. The title poem of this collection reconstructs the vanished city of the Mecca in a dialogical narrative of counter-memory that questions official historical accounts of the building. Rather than presenting a presumably disinterested "statistical report" on urban poverty, Brooks was interested in writing about the Mecca with "a certain detachment, but only as a means of reaching substance with some incisiveness." She aimed in her long poem to "present a large variety of personalities against a mosaic of daily affairs, recognizing that even the grimmest of these is likely to have a streak or two streaks of sun."(2) Brooks's representation of the Mecca resembles neither the utopian space its designers had envisioned nor the dystopian place its commemorators disparaged. Instead, "In the Mecca" interrogates the dystopian discourse of urban decline so often invoked to characterize postwar African American life; as such, it is an "incisive" intervention into the construction of African American historical memory. Robert Beauregard documents in Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of US Cities how the 1950s discourse of urban decline was becoming more racialized. The postwar years saw an increased migration of rural blacks to northern cities. Chicago continued to be a "mecca" for Southern blacks, but, as in other urban centers, the lack of housing and jobs for unskilled workers resulted in greater crowding in inner-city neighborhoods.(3) The demolition of deteriorating buildings and neighborhoods for redevelopment projects did not result in adequate new housing for the urban poor; slums instead grew larger and more concentrated with the absorption of people displaced by demolition, while dehumanizing large public housing projects themselves became slums. …