This Chicago street is no dead end Life: Madison Street provides a slice of Chicago life as it runs from the upscale Loop, through a revitalized Skid Row to the struggling black neighborhoods near the site of the Democratic National Convention.

Sun Journal

August 21, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- Begin at the green of Grant Park, where Lake Michigan shimmers, and drive about two miles west along Madison Street.

Before you arrive at the United Center, where the Democrats will convene Monday, you drive past the gracious old commercial buildings in the Loop, past the shiny new towers near the Chicago River. You cover blocks that were leveled by the urban renewal programs of the '60s and by the fires that burned after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Within sight of the center, you find some of Chicago's infamous public housing. And you end up in a neighborhood on its way back, its residents say, from despair.

In other words: Drive along Madison Street and you see a pretty good sample of Chicago, its problems and its successes.

"The thing about Chicago," says Christopher R. Reed, a history professor at Chicago's Roosevelt University, "is that something is always being created new and something is always being restored in the old."

You could trisect the street as it runs from downtown to the arena: The Loop, busy and prosperous and noisy; a mid-section that once was Skid Row and now is home to Oprah Winfrey's studios and trendy restaurants; and the struggling black neighborhoods that surround the arena.

The United Center, where Chicago's Bulls play basketball and its Blackhawks play hockey, rises like a concrete-and-silver spaceship from vast parking lots. It gleams. The blocks around it don't.

Alderman Walter Burnett says the arena has brought hope. "It's a humongous influence on the community -- the way it looks, the landscaping," he says. And the Bulls and the Blackhawks have donated money for neighborhood projects.

The teams' partnership with the community happened largely because the residents fought for it. From the United Center, looking due east, residents can see the spires of downtown. The people wanted a piece of that prosperity.

The wealthy Loop

There's always been money in the Loop, the old downtown, where elevated train tracks shadow the street. On summer lunch hours, people fill outdoor cafes and bask in the slivers of sunlight that sneak between tall buildings.

The Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are nearby. The Civic Opera House is right on Madison. The 1899 Carson Pirie Scott department store, lavish fretwork decorating its entrances, sits just up the block from gleaming metal-skinned towers of the 1980s. The small stores are busy. The restaurants are filled.

"It's very healthy," says Alderman Burton Natarus. "It's probably one of the most dynamic up-and-coming areas in the world. We do have our share of auto break-ins and purse snatchings. For the most part, though, people can walk at night without fear."

But continue a few blocks west.

Across the Chicago River is a stretch that into the '70s was notorious: the old Skid Row, where flophouses charged 80 cents a night for a cot and where missions competed with saloons for the souls of the men who milled around the streets.

In 1961, 92 bars occupied a 10-block stretch. Bandits robbed winos in open daylight. Broken bottles covered the sidewalks. Sociologists and psychologists used Skid Row as a laboratory of human misery.

In the late 1960s, after gentler clean-up efforts failed, the city targeted the area for urban renewal. "Bum removal," Chicagoans called it. Then the 1968 riots finished the job, burning out most of the businesses.

For years, entire blocks stayed vacant. But as developers ran out of space closer to downtown, their projects spilled out of the Loop and into the midsection of Madison.

Ten years ago, Lewis and Annie Kostiner were among the investors who began buying old industrial buildings and renting them as loft apartments. Professionals, attracted by the spacious old structures and the short walk downtown, began moving in. Oprah Winfrey put her studios a block off Madison. Restaurants began to appear.

The area is "the success story of the United States," Lewis Kostiner says. (Reed, the historian, notes that Chicago was dubbed the Windy City not because of its meteorological conditions but because of its citizens' boastfulness.)

The city has repaved streets, poured new sidewalks, installed black iron lamp poles.

An improvement association raises money to pay for street sweeping and plantings.

"If we hadn't had this private development in the last seven or eight years," Lewis Kostiner says, "we wouldn't have this convention at the United Center. Because the city wouldn't have wanted you to see this area the way it looked seven or eight years ago."

"It was a wreck," says Robert Bonesteel, spokesman for the Salvation Army, which ran missions on Skid Row. "It became almost a war zone, a no-man's land. You wouldn't walk there at night, certainly not unescorted."

Clean-up for convention

The improvements give hope to the communities farther west, close to the United Center. If Skid Row could be reclaimed, why not the poorer, adjoining blocks?

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