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Rebecca Graff’s work recognized in Chicago Tribune

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Rebecca Graff was recently quoted in a Chicago Tribune article about her archaeological work contributing to the discovery of the Mecca Flats, a residential building that formerly stood at 34th and State streets in Chicago.

Long-demolished World’s Fair building unearthed at IIT, tells story of Chicago’s racial divide

By Ese Olumhense

By the time Gwendolyn Brooks’ “In the Mecca,” a 1969 National Book Award finalist, was published, the iconic Bronzeville apartment building its title nodded to had been demolished for nearly 20 years.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s S.R. Crown Hall, home to the Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture, stands at 34th and State streets today, in the same place that development, Mecca Flats, commanded for nearly six decades.

Traces of the Mecca Flats apartments, once central to black Chicago, resurfaced last month, however, when a crew at IIT unearthed remnants of the building’s basement during construction at Crown Hall. The university has opted to preserve and permanently showcase some of the found artifacts at Crown Hall. This month, on Tuesday, the architecture school will also host a public viewing for the unearthed artifacts, featuring panel discussions with historians and urban archaeologists. New photographs taken of the items found, including vibrant floor tile and brick, are the first color images of Mecca Flats to ever be published, experts said.

Michelangelo Sabatino is one of those historians. Dean of the architecture school at IIT, he believes that although the find doesn’t reverse the school’s “painful” decision to tear down the building, it provides an opportunity for educators like him to teach their students to be increasingly mindful of the past.

“This unearthing brings some color,” Sabatino said. “It brings back some life to the black and white.”

Some of the artifacts will be donated to other institutions, Sabatino said. It’s a small gesture, he admits, but a powerful one that further strengthens the shared history of the school and the neighborhood. Others agree.

“It’s remarkable,” said Ward Miller, graduate of IIT’s architecture program and the executive director of Preservation Chicago. “This is one scenario where an amazingly important building was replaced by another first-class building.”

That shift was not seamless. In fact, black residents of Mecca Flats pushed back against plans to tear down the structure, which had been built in 1891 for visitors to the World’s Fair of 1893. A Tribune report from 1891 celebrated the Mecca’s opulence — it was to be the “largest apartment house west of New York.” Decadent rotundas would characterize the space, though none would offer entrance for servants, reports noted.

After the World’s Fair, building management chose to rent exclusively to white tenants. Two decades later that policy changed, however, and middle-class black families began moving to the Mecca, which became synonymous with the glamour and grandeur of the black metropolis. Residents worked as porters and peddlers, machinists and manicurists, tailors, tanners, clerks and cooks, historians say. At night, the area’s bustling nightlife, eventually immortalized by jazz musicians, took over.

Decades later, Mecca Flats had fallen into disrepair, its demise accelerated by the poverty and overcrowding Brooks details in “In the Mecca.” And though black residents and black state legislators fought for years to preserve the space, IIT, which acquired it in the early 1940s, ultimately demolished it in 1952 to expand its campus. Mies’ Crown Hall, now a national landmark and a Chicago landmark, would open in 1956.

“The students held a prom in its majestic open space,” a 1968 Los Angeles Times report said of the grand opening. Duke Ellington’s orchestra played, the piece continued. Ellington was reportedly “bowled over” by the acoustics.

“And no one sang then about Mecca Flats,” the reporter added.

So many decades later, no one may be singing about Mecca Flats, but the July discovery is helping urban archaeologists learn more about life there.

“We’re finding stuff that the people who lived in Mecca Flats left behind,” said Rebecca Graff, a historical archaeologist who is working as a consultant on the Mecca Flats excavation and preservation project.

Graff, also an assistant professor of anthropology and chair of both the urban studies and American studies departments at Lake Forest College, said artifacts have already been recovered from the site: glass bottles, white clay smoking pipes, ceramic plates. More analysis will need to be done on these shards of the past, she said, though she is sure they will contribute to a more robust understanding of Chicago’s history.

“If you just walk through IIT’s campus, you don’t see any remnants of that complex social life,” she said. “I’m sure there are things all over our city that are still just underneath our feet.”

—The Chicago Tribune, August 6, 2018