Chicago has been called the most American city. Perhaps it is. For much of its history Chicago has played out an American ritual of neighborhood settlement followed by waves of new immigrant invasion and succession. In responding to these pressures, members of its vanguard developed the modern city planning movement while simultaneously perfecting the garden suburb. H. L. Mencken dubbed the city “the Middle Empire” because of its commercial strength. But the city also represents something of a middlepassage — an adolescence, perhaps — in the development of the American metropolis. With the enclave-scale of a New York neighborhood and the unfettered, automobile scale of Los Angeles, the city of Chicago is both. The constant mobility of people in both locational and socio-economic terms helped to make Chicago the veritable melting pot as much as New York, and perhaps more so because it amalgamated newcomers with optimism of the midwest pioneers. “Make no little plans…” warned Daniel Burnham, the Zeus in Chicago’s pantheon of architects. Chicago never did. For a century or more, this city was the quintessential core-oriented Industrial City, with the constant pace of a cutting edge boomtown.
Viewed as such, Chicago was to the nineteenth century what Los Angeles has become in this century: a culture identified by its tremendous infusion of mobility and sense of progress. The Chicago “Loop” –which refers to the elevated railway lines encircling the central business district — is the central business district of the city. As such, it is both the commercial as well as psychological epicenter of the city. The Loop today has remained as the central focal point of the region; where most of Chicago’s important institutions — its financial and securities world, government offices, theaters, museums, and department stores, and its prized architecture — are located and for which the city is known. But this role is constantly threatened by the city’s burgeoning edge city economies which offer competitive employment and retail opportunities, and by the popular perception that the Loop is unsafe after working hours.
True to its rapid growth, modern Chicago is a vast place. Covering 227 square miles not including its suburbs, the city spans 33 miles along the coast of Lake Michigan. Considering that this is almost three-and-a-half times larger than all of Washington DC. (69 sq. miles), and more than five times the size of Boston (43 sq. miles). The city’s population in 1990 was 2.8 million and it’s metropolitan population was nearly 6.1 million. In the ranking of the largest U.S. cities after New York and it recent nemesis, Los Angeles, Chicago places third. But it has also lost much of its family population to the suburbs, and there are areas in Chicago that resemble an evacuated war zone: empty lots and the remains of neighborhoods that have crumbled through years of use and current neglect and the poverty of its remaining residents.
To its credit, Chicago has maintained a strong tradition of residential neighborhoods close to downtown. But the locations of these neighborhoods, as well as their salient demographic characteristics, became firmly fixed in the city’s formative years. As the quintessential core-dominated, industrial city of the nineteenth century, Chicago was shaped first by the location patterns of railroad and industry which could outbid all other uses for selection. Residential areas, which at first located west of downtown, and then to the south, faced repeated pressures to relocate as the city’s population and industrial activities increased. Eventually the patterns prevailed so that north of the Loop became the most desirable and most expensive residential area, an arrangement which continued northward along Lake Michigan to the most desirable suburbs. Only the Far South and the western suburbs such as Riverside and Oak Park offered anything comparable in other directions, and to the east lay Lake Michigan
In early Chicago – a frontier town utterly without historical and social topology – there were no hills to contest, no ancestral areas to claim. Nor did the ubiquitous street-grid offer importance to any particular area in itself. Instead, the places Chicagoans chose to live were a function first of wherever could be afforded in what industry and business did not choose, and second of where a handful of elite families had set the residential pattern for their own convenience. For one thing, the early Chicagoans — pioneers and self-improvers as they were — wanted free-standing houses with space. In the flat prairie, this was not impossible: “Chicago developed at a time when the detached suburban house was the new mecca of the middle classes. There was none of New York’s pressure from lack of space….to the north, west and south, flat open space stretched as far as the eye could see.” 1 Originally, this type of house could be had in the central city. Proximity to the Loop for business or social reasons was the only requirement made of those with the most choice. On Prairie Avenue, no more than 10 blocks south of the center of the Loop, the families of wealthy merchants and capitalists built what was considered in the mid- to late nineteenth century to be the residential Fifth Avenue of the midwest. But what was good for residence was frequently favored too by commerce. In the new industrial city, whenever competition ensued over an urban location, industry was sure to prevail. Accordingly, as the Loop grew in size and importance, the West Side, the River North side, and the South Side were transformed into peripheral support districts to serve the central district’s activities.2 This was intensified by the railroad network. Chicago’s first railroad entered the city in 1850, and by 1856, the areas surrounding the Loop had become the focus of ten separate rail trunks which stretched in every direction out through the midwest. Grain arrived from the plains for conveyance and processing. Lumber arrived for transport and for Chicago’s new furniture-making industries. Cattle and hogs arrived from everywhere and by 1856, the Union Stockyards at the city’s southern border were surrounded by scores of packing houses.
The home of the Illinois Central Railroad was directly south of the Loop. From 1860 until 1930, it had acquired much of the land between the Chicago river to the west and the lakefront to the east. Similarly, industrial support plants and printing factories had edged up to downtown and formed an entire Printing District. The South Loop, as it now was known, became dominated by the massive rail yards and passenger depots at Dearborn Station and Central Station. The once prestigious avenues and residential areas along its edges became support areas for warehouses. As the railroads declined, the area between it and the stockyards to the south, became the territory of prostitutes, gamblers, and the general vices of the downtown racketeers. The proximity of such activities grew intolerable to the Prairie Avenue elites. Before the turn of the century, the families of the Near South abandoned their Prairie Avenue homes one by one, and left to build new mansions along the lakefront of the near North side in what was to become the Gold Coast. The social geography of Chicago changed from that point on for most of this century. The North side became the favored residential area. To the North developed the Gold Coast for the elite families. Lincoln Park, which had been the former city cemetery, farther out along the rail lines and up the shore of the Lake: the suburban towns of Evanston, Winnetka, and Lake Forest. To the west there were the towns of Riverside and Oak Park. And in the far south, miles away from the activities of the Loop, the suburbs of Kennwood and Hyde Park. Between 1895 and 1930, deluxe apartment buildings in the manner of New York began appearing along Lake Shore Drive and near Lincoln Park. With them came a new acceptance of the luxury high-rise, which predominates on the North Side today. Near the turn of the century, the social geography of Chicago had been changed permanently.
The North side became the favored residential area; the South Side quickly slipped into decline. The result was “a shift away from the business center away from the fashionable neighborhoods north along the lakefront and at the edges of the city. “3 Around the same time, the Commercial Club – a group of Chicago business leaders — commissioned the urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham to find ways to re-organize the city. In his Plan for Chicago of 1907, Burnham suggested that the city open up with broad tree-lined boulevards radiating from a central civic space. He also stressed the importance of the lakefront as a cultural amenity for the city. More important, he called for Congress Street to be the main axis leading from Lake Michigan out through the city and for the central area to surround and lead into it by radiating avenues. The Plan was officially adopted by the City in 1907, but except for a good deal of street widening and the creation of recreational park system between the city and the lakefront, most of the Plan was never carried out. Fifty years later, the Chicago Central Area Committee (CCAC), an independent civic organization formed to serve as a catalyst for defining a vision for the Central Area. In its mission statement, was the pledge of “translating the vision into physical plans, and ensuring that the necessary actions are taken to implement those plans.” One of the first projects undertaken by CCAC and its planning consultants was to reconsider the Burnham Plan again as a starting point for future development. In 1973, the CCAC working in conjunction with the City of Chicago’s first comprehensive plan since Burnham released Chicago 21: A Plan for the Central Area. In it was a set of strategies designed “to reverse the decline of the Loop as a retail and entertainment center.” Among many suggestions made, the most unique was a call for the creation of a South Loop New Town to be developed on vacant railyards. This turned out to be the consummate achievement of Chicago 21 and it lead to the creation of Deerborn Park: an entirely new residential community built on land formerly occupied by rail yards which sought to bring resident families back into the Central Area. According to William Martin of the CCAC, the Chicago 21 Plan came about because, “at the time, there was a lot of suburban flight…
With everyone moving to the suburbs and forgetting that downtown ever existed… there was a need not only to bring not only singles but families back to the Central Business District”4 The ambitious plan drawn up for the “South Loop New Town” on 650 acres of unused railroad property south of the Loop, projected that its would support a resident population of 120,000 persons. The CCAC created a separate limited dividend development corporation. They sold shares and raised money for the initial planning and design. Later they took the name of the Dearborn Park Corporation and acquired 51 acres for development for 7.3 million, and were given a commitment from the city to provide millions of dollars of infrastructure. Described again and again in the popular press as the “suburb in the city” Dearborn Park is only one of several developments in the South Loop area, which hybridize the physical form of the suburbs for family neighborhoods. It is perhaps the most notable, however, because it is earliest and has consistently purposeful embodiments of what was called for in the Chicago 21 Plan: the creation of moderately-priced, family-oriented neighborhoods set along the edges surrounding the center of the Loop. Just as Burnham had called for in his plan, the center of the city would be bolstered by its residents, close by, and on all sides. Two separated sections comprise the single neighborhood of Dearborn Park, although at first glance they would appear to be from separate developments due to their phasing almost a decade apart from one another. Dearborn One, as it is called, shows the signs of 1970s planning in its flatroofed, contemporary houses and in its walled-in separation from city streets beyond its edges. Dearborn Two, in contrast, is far more open and less densely-built.