By Geneva Morris
“The kitchenette is the funnel through which our pulverized lives flow to ruin and death on the city pavements, at a profit…”
–Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices
A small room at the end of the hall with room for a bed, perhaps a dresser, and a chair; this is the typical living space allotted to each “guest” at a boarding house in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In later iterations, the single-room occupancy unit would add a sink, then a full bathroom, and finally a kitchen to become the version of small space living seen today, the micro-apartment. However, in-between the boarding house and the micro-apartment is an often-overlooked housing typology: the kitchenette apartment. The kitchenette, which on the surface appears very similar to the micro-apartment, boomed in Chicago’s Black Belt where over 80,000 of these units were created between 1940-1960.1 More than a simple living space, the kitchenette embodied the continued oppression of a marginalized group seeking new opportunities.
Resembling other small space living typologies like the lodging and boarding house, the kitchenette apartment was a hybrid typology. The “kitchenette” unit initially described a newly constructed small apartment in Chicago, first appearing around 1916, at a time when apartment construction in the city increased dramatically. The designed kitchenette apartment often featured “Pullman kitchens” and a “murphy in-a-door bed” to conserve space. This concept was later co-opted and corrupted as a way for developers and landlords to capitalize on the spatial and economic restrictions imposed by government-sanctioned policies of segregation on black families.
Stark contrasts existed between the “designed” kitchenettes first seen in 1916 and the haphazardly retrofitted kitchenette units found in ghettos that I focus on here. Presented at the President’s Conference on Home Building and Ownership in 1932, the “Report on Negro Housing” discussed the design differences in kitchenette apartments for white and black residents. Notably, the report states that in kitchenette apartments for white residents each unit had a toilet and running water and were designed “so as to allow natural light and air, and privacy.” Kitchenettes with primarily black residents, on the other hand, had few windows, one bathroom per floor, and often a kitchen with a small gas stove and ice box converted from a clothes closet. The building form varied in size and style, though most were generally multi-unit apartment buildings as seen in Figure 2. These kitchenette units provided 100 square feet or less of living space to residents. In this space entire families — and even extended families — would live in a space better suited for a single person. Severe overcrowding and inadequate access to basic amenities underscore the disparity in the design and the conditions within that led to serious health and safety concerns.
The Evolution of the Kitchenette Apartment
Between 1940 and 1960, Chicago’s black population grew from 278,000 to 813,000. This established the foundation of Chicago’s African American industrial working class and substantially increased the need for housing in the city. Government officials could no longer overlook the housing shortage, yet the newly constructed public housing could not even begin to house the growing black population in the city, many of whom were constrained in their choices by restrictive covenants and segregation. With waiting lists for public-housing units full, newly arriving migrants to the city had to turn to the private market to secure housing.
Once converted to kitchenette apartments, there was little incentive for landlords/owners to maintain the units.2 Overcrowding, little to no building maintenance, and issues of garbage collection compounded to create a serious rat problem in kitchenette apartments. Other concerns included the threat of fire, as the kitchenette apartment’s partitions were often flammable and made it difficult for residents to escape. One Chicago alderman went so far as to call the Black Belt area a “gigantic fire trap.” Between November 1946 and November 1947 there were at least 751 fires that occurred in the area. Survivors of apartment fires were again confronted with the same housing shortages, and some would return to their previous units. As the Council noted, “they moved their smoke-weighted and water-soaked possessions back into rooms with charred walls, without roofs, and without plumbing.”
Even if charges were brought for conditions and code violations in the building, it was more cost-effective for the owner to go to court and pay the fine imposed by the City than to perform basic repairs. Additionally, building owners would evade the building’s taxes, because they knew the amount of the accumulated taxes would eventually exceed the actual value of the buildings. The owners would acquire as much profit as possible from the converted buildings, then allow the City to assume control of the dilapidated property under the Neighborhood Redevelopment Corporation Law, and condemn the building. This further diminished the available housing stock in the area.
Richard Wright’s depiction of kitchenette apartments in 12 Million Black Voices is a violent rendering of a home that requires inhabitants to consider, is it worth it? As Wright states, “sometimes five or six of us live in a one-room kitchenette… [in this place] a war sets up in our emotions: one part of our feelings tells us that is good to be in the city…another part of our feelings tells us that, the cost of living in kitchenettes is too high, that the city heaps too much responsibility upon us and gives too little security in return.” With this passage, Wright captures the desolation and psychological ruin of the kitchenette apartment paired with images of women, children, and single men crammed into these dismal living spaces. Following this passage, Wright speaks of the physical conditions and health dangers of living in this space, stating that “[t]he kitchenette, with its filth and foul air, with its one toilet for thirty or more tenants, kills our black babies so fast that in many cities twice as many of them die as white babies.” He couples this sentiment with an image of a seat-less toilet, where shards of wood splinters and plaster scraps litter the floor next to the removed seat.
Most disturbing, as Elizabeth Schlabach has pointed out, this passage appears above a photograph of three small children sharing a bed. The mattress is sheet-less, pillow-less, and in a room with a concrete floor and battered walls. Emphasizing the impact of this restricted lifestyle, Wright evokes a sense of hopelessness in the next verse, “…we black folks who dwell in northern cities would die out entirely over the course of a few years…” Paired with this text, the photograph identifies the victims (the inhabitants) of the crimes of a kitchenette apartment.
Chicago’s kitchenette apartments were brutal environments that bounded opportunities and contributed to adverse health outcomes and mortality among black families. They were a grim symbol of the social inequalities that American capitalism and racial discrimination wrought. Yet, the history of the kitchenette apartments and the constricting of its black residents can also be traced forward through waves of housing development seen nationwide. For example, the former kitchenette building at 6211 S. Vernon Ave (see Figure 6) was built originally in 1913. Built near South Parkway (now called King Drive), this kitchenette apartment was one of many like it in Chicago’s Black Belt area. The apartment building was the site of a major fire that was accelerated by the fact that the apartment building had no water. Today, it is vacant, but at last time of occupancy in 2007, it had 18 units, substantially less than it had when it was kitchenette apartments (likely closer to 90). According to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, in 2007 the building was converted to condominium units. As the foreclosure crisis hit in 2008, many owners defaulted on their mortgages and their units were lost to foreclosure – leading to the vacant status seen today.
This story is not unique to this building, but is part of a housing and affordability crisis that has resulted from rising rent rates that increasingly exceed the cost of home ownership, stagnating household income, and a shortage of affordable housing units. As Chicago’s Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing found, over 60,000 rental units in Chicago were affected by foreclosure from 2008-2011- resulting in significant displacement and its associated human cost to affected families– persistent housing shortages, increased rental price and disruption of school attendance. As was seen with the former kitchenette building near South Parkway, foreclosures lead to vacant and boarded-up buildings, thus diminishing the desirability (and value) of neighboring properties and triggering additional foreclosures and bank-owned properties. Chicago’s Woodstock institute found that 64 percent of Chicago’s bank-owned (REO) properties are in African-American communities. These buildings take 25 percent longer to return to productive use than properties in predominantly white communities. The disproportionate impact of foreclosure in low-income community areas rapidly transformed the concept of home-ownership while forever impacting residents’ ability to reside in the communities they grew up in – forcing many to move outside of the city.
Wright’s own conclusion emphasizes the consciousness and memory engrained in the history of the kitchenette apartments and reminds readers that,
We black folk, our history and our present being, are a mirror of all the manifold experiences of America. What we want, what we represent what we endure is what America is. If America has forgotten her past, then let her look into the mirror of our consciousness and she will see the living past living in the present, for our memories go back, through our black folk of today, through the recollection of our black parents, and through the tales of slavery told by our black grandparents, to the time when none of us black or white.
By asking participants to learn how to see the living past living in the present, Wright illuminates the too-often overlooked social issues impacting black Americans and his photobook continues to prompt viewers to remember the realities faced by the people who had no choice but to live in the kitchenette apartments. When families are crowded into the barest minimum space required for sleeping, cooking, and eating, it is a failure that relegates the black family into a placeless existence that becomes, as Wright stated, a “death sentence.”
The architectural design and implementation of the kitchenette apartment maximized profit for white landlords and neglected the human needs of Chicago’s black community. Its spatially-lived realities existed at the apex of larger social movements, including urbanization and racial segregation, and exposed capitalist forces at work in housing. The kitchenette apartment emphasizes inadequacies in building management and maintenance, but also in its design principle to provide the smallest space possible for a person, a family, and a community. Thus, the domestic spaces of the kitchenette apartment from 1940-1960 in Chicago’s Black Belt were less modern and efficient, and were instead rightly-perceived by their largely black residents as the material embodiment of segregation’s oppressive power in the mid-twentieth century American city.
1. [Population influx to this part of Chicago was fueled by the Great Migration of Southern blacks at the end of World War II. Chicago’s Black Belt was originally a narrow corridor extending from 22nd to 31st Streets along State Street. Chicago’s South Side African American community expanded over the century until it stretched from 39th to 95th streets, the Dan Ryan Expressway to Lake Michigan as racial housing restrictions abated after the civil rights era. Source: Edith Abbott. From The Tenements of Chicago, 1908-1935, 1936.]↩
2. [This makeshift process of conversion to kitchenette apartment was not well documented. The important distinguishing factor of the kitchenette apartment is inherent in its name – the presence of a kitchen – or the ability for a family to cook independently of the other residents. Alternatives like boarding houses and residential hotels were legally defined by the “absence of a private kitchen [as separating] it from hotels and apartments.” Another departure from the boarding house was the lack of an on-site landlord, or landlady as was common with boarding houses. This lack of on-site management contributed to buildings’ overall state of disrepair.]↩
Gries John, M, et al. “Report of the Committee on Negro Housing.” Presented at the Presidents’ Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership 1932. p. 260-271. http://archive.org/stream/negrohousingrepo00presrich/negrohousingrepo00presrich_djvu.txt
Groth, Paul Earling. Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. Berkley: University of California, 1994.
Hirsch, Arnold. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, “Three Year Impact Assessment: Apartment Building Foreclosures and the Depletion of Rental Housing in Chicago,” June 2012. Available at: http://lcbh.org/reports/foreclosure/2011
Left Behind: Troubled Foreclosed Properties and Servicer Accountability in Chicago, Woodstock Institute, January 2011. Available at: http://www.woodstockinst.org/ research/
Plotkin, Wendy. “Hemmed in: The Struggle against Racial Restrictive Covenants and Deed restrictions in post WWII Chicago.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Chicago: University of Illinois Press 94:1, 2001, pp. 39-69.
Schlabach, Elizabeth. Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
Wright, Richard. “Death on the City Pavement,” in 12 Million Black Voices. New York, 1941.