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GKAT Events – Winter Term 2019/20

January 16, 2020 | 6.15 P.M.

"Transatlantic Scripts for Postindustrial Urban Futures"

Barbara Buchenau

Chair of North American Cultural Studies, University of Duisburg-Essen

January 21, 2020 | 6.15 P.M.

"Das schwierige Ganze: Goethe, Emerson und die Literatur der offenen Gesellschaft"

Kai Sina

Chair of North American Cultural Studies, University of Duisburg-Essen

January 28, 2020 | 6.15 P.M.

"Chicago’s Redevelopment Machine and Blues Clubs"

David Wilson

Department of Geography and Geographic Information Services, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

To the sounds of Buddy Guy an interested audience convened in the HCA Atrium for a book launch to celebrate the publication of David Wilson’s Chicago’s Redevelopment Machine and Blues Clubs. Ulrike Gerhard of Heidelberg University’s Geography Department introduced the author as a long-time friend of the HCA. He holds a professorship at the Department of Geography and Geographic Information Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research centers on urban spaces and ranges from the study of cultural processes to economic and political aspects of U.S. cities and urban areas around the world. Apart from his 2018 monograph on Chicago’s blues clubs, David Wilson co-edited The Handbook on Spaces of Urban Politics (2018) and co-authored Urban Inequalities across the Globe (2015).

Professor Wilson’s talk focused on the urban process of gentrification, a phenomenon that cities around the world have been experiencing for the past decades. Gentrification refers to the physical and social restructuring of a city for the affluent, taking from the less affluent. With the Chicago South Side as his case study, David Wilson chose an unusual case study. The predominantly African American neighborhood rates as one of the poorest parts of Chicago and therefore not as an area prone to gentrification. However, to David Wilson the developments are not surprising; he evaluates the South Side as a logical next step of Chicago’s southward moving “gentrification frontier.” As a blues musician himself, the topic of researching South Side blues clubs felt dear to his heart, and his monograph is shaped by ethnographic accounts. Many nights he spent in the blues clubs talking to musicians, clients, and owners. This familiarity with the topic gives his research an authenticity that he could not have achieved with other standardized methods. Blues clubs reflect the South Side’s social composition and offer a vignette for understanding gentrification processes and the resistance against them in this particular part of town. The clubs epitomize the neighborhood’s heart, provide a gathering place for locals, and secure the survival of blues musicians who earn their living by performing at the clubs. Today, developers, builders, and the state, the parties Wilson refers to as the “redevelopment machine,” pose a threat to the livelihoods of the South Side community. Progressing gentrification can already be observed in the clubs with their changed aesthetics, higher cover charges, and modified menus that now offer craft beer and fine wines. South Side blues clubs have moved towards a “superficial authenticity”; tourists now come to watch “exotic” musicians but not, as they might expect, in their “natural” environment but in a gentrified one, constructed for the purpose of capital accumulation. Locals refer to the new South Side tourists as “damn outsiders.” They bring economic prosperity, but the negative consequences of their arrival are far too devastating to be compensated by economic advantages. With more and more capital flooding the neighborhood, club owners will soon no longer be able to pay their rent. The arrival of high-class stores forces locals to relocate to neighborhoods where they can afford to buy food and clothing. This situation poses particular challenges for musicians who find themselves in a dialectic of fear and hope. The clubs offer them food, shelter, and secure their survival; without them many musicians would be homeless and deprived of their status in society. Moreover, gentrification strains interpersonal relationships; band members sometimes spend weeks ignoring each other over a financial argument. Club owners become ambivalent figures, struggling between material survival and emotional investment. However, while fighting the same enemy, musicians and the public form powerful bonds, energized, faithful, and trusting, to resist the changes together. The question is how long these bonds will last. David Wilson concluded that political resistance at a low level can be powerful. When asked whether the developments on the Chicago South Side were inherently good or bad, he did not come up with a definite answer because the changes gentrification brings are too manifold. Gentrifiers bring capital and opportunity to the impoverished South Side and are accepted by musicians to some extent, while, on the other hand, they displace social groups that have lived there for decades.

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