Vacancy Study

This is an exploration of space in the north Champaign, Illinois area.   I walked the area noticing buildings, people, and spaces.  I talked with local business owners and residents.  On another occasion I took these photographs and focused on spaces I interpreted to be vacant.  I concurrently began researching the history of north Champaign at the Champaign County Archives: looking at old maps, newspaper articles and Historic Property Inventories.

One of the events that had a large effect on the area is the development and re-development of the railroad.   Passenger trains began in Champaign in 1854.  The location of the train station and the Cattle Bank were instrumental in where the downtown Champaign was developed. Areas directly to the east and west of the train station were central to Champaign commerce and industry.  In 1924 however the train tracks were raised 20 feet above street level causing a barrier in the middle of the downtown and consequently the businesses to the east side of the tracks to die out.  In 1945 after the end of World War II solders returned and settled down with their families.  The North First Street area attracted an African American community and businesses were started in response to this community.  The area became known as the “Black Downtown”.  It consisted of barbershops, soul food restaurants, jazz clubs and hotels.  Positive things were happening at this time like the communities created in the barbershops.  Discussions of the importance of governmental involvement was common at the barbershops.  The area was also known to have bootleggers and brothels.  In the 70’s and 80’s this area experienced a decline, businesses closed up leaving unused spaces behind.

A lot of uncertainty surrounds the area to the east of the train tracks today; neighborhood revitalization efforts are underway, and potential developments are being proposed.  Valid concerns are being raised about the encroachment of the University and gentrification.  What development the should look like or if development should happen is a complicated issue with various consequences.  The images are of the North First Street area on the east side of the tracks, the train system in the middle and downtown Champaign on the west side of the tracks.