How things have changed in the South Loop
11/24/2010 10:00 PM
When I moved to my house at Roosevelt and State more than 16 years ago, we used to say, “Things will be great around here when it’s safe enough to walk to Chinatown.”
After we started walking to Chinatown years ago (in fact, I walked there and back a few days ago for dinner with a big group of South Loopers at Phoenix), they started saying, “Things will be perfect around here when we can walk to Pilsen.”
I’ve been doing that for years now, too — often with a stopover on Maxwell Street.
Then the mantra extended to Bridgeport: “It’ll be like Lake Forest around here when we can walk to Bridgeport,” people said.
And now I love to walk down Cermak, over to Halsted, and then over to 35th and Morgan to visit art galleries and go to dinner. It’s not exactly like walking through Lake Forest, but who’d want it to be?
We South Loopers used to envy life on the North Side, where residents could walk from one neighborhood to the next without worrying. Now we can do the same. Or at least take the Red, Green, Pink and Orange lines to points south if walking isn’t an option.
What’s happened in the neighborhood is this: Deteriorated public housing has been torn down, or renovated and opened to the middle class. In turn, middle-class housing has opened its doors to the poor via vouchers.
As empty lots and abandoned buildings change into zippy new housing, McCormick Place extensions and new restaurants and businesses all over the Near South Side, waves of foot and vehicular traffic increased.
The bad guys are now simply outnumbered by the good guys.
For those up to no good, far more people in the neighborhood and beyond are now doing the right thing, and restaurants outnumber drug corners. Cars traveling to Target and Café Bionda outnumber cars full of gangbangers looking for prey.
It’s now a good neighborhood. The days when there was an abundance of down-and-outers in the South Loop, living in rundown hotels and roaming the streets looking for a handout or a way to get some booze or blow, are gone.
Most South Loop residents were happy a dozen years ago to see many of those rundown, single-room occupancy hotels torn down or renovated. The stories of what went on in those places were legion. But when we subsequently found out back then that they were to be replaced by new single-room occupancy buildings, we were nervous, even though the new ones were going to be run by decent organizations, not greedy slumlords.
One of my neighborhood friends was so upset when she heard new places were being built in the neighborhood to replace buildings like the infamous St. James Hotel on Wabash (which was torn down to provide land to build Jewel), she called the builders behind the new single-room occupancy buildings and demanded an audience. She was happy the old and notorious SROs were going, but she couldn’t understand why the new places couldn’t be built somewhere else.
This friend dragged me with her to see some buildings that these groups had built on the North Side. We were welcomed with open arms, and shown tidy apartments and community rooms where people thrived, and where they were busy with teachers and therapists. We were impressed.
Some new and attractive SRO buildings were ultimately built on South Wabash in the heart of the South Loop — complete with counseling services, drug treatment programs, educational opportunities and other ways to help the residents kick drugs, recover from various illnesses, find employment and reunite with their families.
And now, years later, people who were once scary have been assumed into the fabric of the middle-class South Loop.
The transition is now part of South Loop history. In fact, I was invited to the 10-year anniversary party of the South Loop Apartments (run by Mercy Housing Lakefront) not long ago at 1521 S. Wabash, where a lobby mural depicts proudly — and for posterity — even the most seedy of the old South Loop SROs, along with a number of statistics about the SRO population in the South Loop.
Testimonials of the residents during the meet and greet were peppered with phrases like “back on track,” “getting myself together,” “kicking drugs,” “thank God,” and “90 percent of us residents vote.”
Bottom line: There’s been a happy ending and there’s still diversity on our streets. Everything in the South Loop has turned out OK.