Installation in MFA Thesis Show, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 29 - May 15, 2019
The land depicted in this body of work originally formed the village of Sauganakka, and was occupied by the Potawatomi people, prior to their forced displacement following the Black Hawk War of 1832.
Observing from a distance, the Wolf Road Prairie could be perceived as an unoccupied tract of land. But upon venturing into the 80-acre site, located in the Illinois suburb of Westchester, one faces stretches of sidewalks—paths that seemingly serve little purpose. These markers of halted process exist fifteen miles west of downtown Chicago, and are remnants of the area’s early formation as envisioned by one man.
Localized Disturbance traces the material history of development at this site, employing the sidewalks as an entry point. The Wolf Road Prairie’s preserved state of liminality provides a clear view of how capitalist endeavors have attempted to govern the site—but have ultimately been unsuccessful. This overlooked narrative is reconstructed to lend a perspective beyond the site’s perceived vacancy, while also critiquing its origins.
Present-day Westchester was established in 1924, when the land was purchased by utilities magnate Samuel Insull. Insull’s company also helped extend the Garfield Park Rapid Transit Line into the area , giving the once isolated and sparsely populated suburb a direct connection to Chicago’s downtown.
As Westchester’s chief financier, Insull also became responsible for its (temporary) downfall. After the financial crash of 1929, he lost everything and turned to morally and legally questionable extremes to regain his wealth. His suburban project lay in an unfinished state until the end of the second World War, when a renewed demand for housing revitalized the development (without its backer, who had since died).
The traces of early infrastructure at the Wolf Road Prairie are faint reminders of this brief historical era. But from this emerges a question: Why was this 80 acres never fully developed while its surroundings were? It is even more pertinent considering that much of it had been sold to prospective homeowners.
The answer to this lies in the decisions of the H.W. Elmore Company, which held the contract to sell the land. In 1935, the Chicago Tribune revealed company president Howard W. Elmore’s plummeting personal worth, disclosed during his indictment for income tax evasion after the 1929 financial crash. It is unclear when H.W. Elmore Company ceased business, though no reference to its operations can be found past March of 1931.
Because the site lacked water and sewage systems, no building permits could be issued for owners to develop the land themselves. From an environmental perspective, this had only positive consequences: The land is categorized as Black Soil Prairie—an incredibly rare and ecologically diverse type of prairie. From the 1970’s to the 1990’s the State of Illinois, and Save The Prairie Society, a volunteer organization, bought back the land from their respective owners, lot by lot. They have since been maintaining the site—efforts that not only aim to preserve the land but also save it from threats of future development.