24: A day in Chicago's Loop

New condo towers at home in the Loop
Why live in the Loop?

Chicago Loop at night

New Homes tests the mettle of Chicago’s touted “24-hour downtown”

Story by Kate HawleyÂ

Photography by chiphoto@gmail.com

When I moved back to Chicago this summer after living for two years in New York City, I was happy to come home to familiar streets and astronomically cheaper rent. Still, I sometimes missed New York’s vast, teeming cityscape, where the streets were crowded into the early morning hours.

So when news emerged in January about Looptopia, an arts and culture festival slated to start at dusk on May 11 and continue unabated until daybreak, I saw it as a hopeful sign. The all-night melee of performances and events – there’s even a dodgeball game – is intended to showcase the Loop, Chicago’s business district and historic core, as a round-the-clock entertainment mecca. As Mayor Richard Daley pronounced in a news release for Looptopia, “The Loop has clearly become a 24 / 7 destination.

This was news to me. I remembered the Loop as a commuter hub that emptied out when the workday ended – stripped-down, functional, a bit grimy around the edges. But there’s long been talk of a resurgence downtown. The Loop’s population grew from just under 12,000 in 1990 to more than 18,000 in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. Had the Loop transformed into a bona-fide 24-hour downtown in my absence?

I decided to find out.

Pedestrians brave the cold in Millennium Park, which has spurred a residential building boom in the Loop.

On a frigid Friday in January, I conducted my own private Looptopia, spending 24 hours eating, drinking, shopping and being entertained within the Loop’s boundaries: Roosevelt on the south, Lake Michigan on the east and the Chicago River on the north and west. While I knew there was a chance I’d wander around freezing and bored into the wee hours, I hoped that time would pass with the urgency of the bleeping digital clock from the Fox series “24.”

08:30

My day began on the CTA Red Line, on a train that got progressively steamier and more crowded as it made its way towards the Monroe stop in the heart of the Loop. I emerged onto a sidewalk coursing with office workers, a vision of the downtown my grandfather describes from his days at Harris bank at 111 W. Monroe St.

Shortly after 9 a.m. the crowds began to subside, a sign the workday was underway. I went in search of a place to have breakfast and stepped into the smoky peach-and-beige interior of the Marquette Inn Restaurant, at 60 W. Adams St. – another vestige of the city’s Old School – housed in the historic Marquette Building, which was constructed in 1895. Businesspeople huddled in booths as waitresses trundled to and fro with plates of hash browns and scrambled eggs in a scene that could have been lifted from an Edward Hopper painting.

On Washington Street, Keller Williams agent Mary Vallender struggles with balloons advertising an open house at The Heritage at Millennium Park, 130 N Garland Ct.

But plenty of change is stirring downtown, and I also wanted to see the New School Рor schools. I paid my bill and walked down State Street toward the glossy fa̤ade of University Center, the new 18-story, multi-institutional dorm building at Congress Parkway.

Columbia College Chicago, DePaul University and Roosevelt University share the facility, which houses more than 1,700 students. The Loop’s student housing provides 2,800 dorm beds, according to the Chicago Loop Alliance.

Students, those coffee-drinking, book-buying, beer-swilling, movie-going, street-exploring creatures of the night, might be considered the foot soldiers in Daley’s battle for a 24-hour downtown. He has worked with schools to encourage more of the roughly 53,000 students who study on the Loop’s 20 campuses to live where they learn, but aside from two young women stepping out of the Panera Bread at the base of University Center, I didn’t see many.

Seeking signs of student life, I wandered through an exhibit called “Ethnic Dress: Art & Culture” at one of Columbia College Chicago’s academic buildings. The students were on winter break, a guide explained, so I set off on the next leg of my mission: to drink in as much culture as possible. I headed for a free lunchtime concert to be broadcast live by classical radio station WFMT.

11:15

On my way I spotted a clump of people holding signs outside the Congress Plaza Hotel at Michigan and Congress. They were members of UNITE HERE, a hotel workers union, on strike against wage and benefit cuts. They had been picketing for three and a half years, said a sad-eyed man named Jose Sanchez, and during that time many of his fellow strikers had been forced to take jobs in other hotels, forfeiting their seniority at the Congress.

Construction progresses on The Chandler, a 35-story condo tower under construction at the massive Lakeshore East development, which sits directly north of Millennium Park.

“There’s no end in sight,” he said, staring down at several fellow strikers who were rifling through a coupon book. I thought of asking him what he thought of the rash of hotel condo projects going up downtown (among them the Solis Chicago, Waterview Tower and Mandarin Oriental Tower), but given how glum he looked I decided let the subject drop.

12:15

The concert was in the storied Fine Arts Building, 412 S. Michigan Ave., home to artists and their endeavors since 1898. I rode a creaking elevator operated wordlessly by a man in an oversized raglan sweater to the showroom of PianoForte Chicago, a dealer of Fazioli pianos. About 30 of us sat in a reverent hush as pianist Stefan Litwin played selections from Hanns Eisler, Richard Wagner and his own startling, atonal compositions. A man in a gray suit leaned forward in the stillness, his enormous ears glowing pink in the sunlight, and jumped just slightly when Litwin banged the piano with a rubber mallet.

Diners deliberate over the menu at Yolk, a new brunch restaurant at 1120 S. Michigan Ave.

Back on Michigan Ave., I could see that despite the cold (a high of 24 degrees that day), people were streaming through Millennium Park. At the park’s eastern edge, a line of skaters waited for a machine to smooth the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink.

Millennium Park is expected to spur $1.4 billion in residential development in the eastern part of the Loop during a 10-year span, according to a 2005 study prepared for the city of Chicago. Over my head, on the block bounded by Michigan, Monroe, Madison and Wabash, construction was progressing on The Legacy at Millennium Park, a 70-story luxury condo tower. Its sister project, The Heritage at Millennium Park, at 130 N. Garland Court, proved that well-heeled buyers would move south of the Chicago River into an area most considered a business district, lured in no small part by that new civic jewel, Millennium Park.

Since then, condo buyers have flocked to new residential developments around Millennium Park and throughout the Loop [see “New condo towers at home in the Loop“]. The new projects are adding thousands of condo owners to the Loop’s population, though services and amenities generally lag residential development.

Culture abounds in the Loop, and I was hungry for more. I ducked into the Chicago Cultural Center at 78 E. Washington St. for a few minutes to see an exhibit of bejeweled walking staffs by the folk artist David Philpot. As spectators drifted past, I started to feel a little sleepy. Enough art – it was time for some shopping. I headed for Randolph Street.

Vendors set up shop at the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St.

14:00

So far the city seemed alive, if not bursting with the kind of chaos you find in parts of Manhattan or London. But if the foot traffic I’d seen on the Loop’s streets up to this point flowed in a steady stream, when I reached the corner of Randolph and State I hit whitewater. Here was Chicago future, the consumer playground city officials have been scheming to create for decades.

In 1984, Harold Washington’s administration created a tax-increment financing district, or TIF, for the Loop, which capped property taxes for a 23-year period and funneled the additional revenue (or increment) into a fund that has bankrolled the restoration of historic buildings, new development and the creation of a theater district.

The Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a Chicago nonprofit that until its demise in February tracked the use of public resources, in 2004 pegged the Loop’s accumulated TIF money at nearly $650 million. Opponents say TIFs can rob schools, parks and other city amenities of badly needed revenue, but Daley is undeterred. He recently proposed another downtown TIF, the LaSalle Central. And the original Central Loop TIF is up for renewal this year, prompting speculation about whether the rapid pace of growth will continue without it.

Standing at the corner of State and Randolph, the Loop seemed to be growing with irreversible momentum. Signs for the Ford Center / Oriental, the Cadillac Palace and the Chicago theaters glittered overhead. Cops conducted pedestrians across the jammed intersection over the din of car horns and jackhammers. On the southwest corner construction was underway on the city’s infamous Block 37 for 108 N. State, a mixed-use development that will be home to a CBS 2 broadcast center. On the northeast corner, the 33-story Modern Momentum condominium tower, designed by Booth Hansen, had nearly reached its full height. A homeless man – one of the few I saw all day – slept on the sidewalk.

Ticketholders for Wicked, a Broadway in Chicago production, line up outside the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.

I opened the doors of Borders, on the northwest corner, and was instantly awash in a rank human smell – the sign that a big-city store is popular. A line wound across the ground floor, and on the second level the café was packed, with people improvising seats on the floor and windowsills.

I gave Macy’s, on the southeast corner, a quick once-over – I’m one of those people still bitter about the departure of Marshall Field’s last September – before stepping into Carson Pirie Scott, at 1 S. State St., then in its death rattle (a grocery store is moving in, the Sun-Times reported recently). In the last several years a new crop of stores aimed at younger women, among them H&M, Nordstrom Rack and Urban Outfitters, has come to the State Street corridor. At H&M I saw a bag I liked for a mere $19.90 but restrained myself, knowing how long I’d have to tote it around.

Patrons at Argo Tea, 16 W. Randolph St., sip and converse as pedestrians pass and pause.

17:00

The hour ticked past 5, and I drifted for a while through the quieter streets west of Dearborn until I got cold – really cold. I decided to warm up for a couple of hours at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., at a 6 p.m. showing of a documentary called “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” while I waited for my boyfriend to join me downtown. The movie drew a young, intellectual set (lots of black-framed glasses) who laughed ironically at Jones’ excesses – until the end, when some 900 members of his cult drank the deadly Kool-Aid.

Coming out of the Siskel Center, I saw something I’d never seen before: night had fallen, and the Loop was packed. And not just with people leaving work. I had to fight my way around the corner through a long line for “Wicked,” at the Oriental, one of a handful of downtown shows imported from New York by Broadway in Chicago. I was headed for The Goodman, the Loop’s only indigenous theater company, where my boyfriend and I had tickets to see “Radio Golf,” the final installment in playwright August Wilson’s decade-by-decade examination of the African-American experience.

Out-of-towners share a smoke and a laugh at Kitty O'Shea's, 702 S. Michigan Ave.

20:00

In the play, mayoral candidate Harmond Wilks takes on the redevelopment of Philadelphia’s blighted Hill District. The audience gasped and mmmed as Wilks struggled to balance his ambition to forge a slick new neighborhood with a desire to stay true to his identity. I thought of the thousands of SRO units the Loop has lost during the last several decades as new condos sprang up to replace them.

I also thought of the Pacific Garden Mission, at 646 S. State St., which after more than 80 years is moving out of the Loop to 14th Place and Canal Street. I’d been by the mission a week before and talked to some of the men living there. They didn’t mind the move, they said, since most of the places that hire day laborers have also moved south and west.

22:30

We were starving after the show. I’d been so caught up in the action downtown that with the exception of a cookie at about 3 p.m., I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Although Petterino’s, the restaurant adjoining the Goodman, serves post-theater crowds until 11 p.m., it looked a tad fancy for us, so we headed for Sidebar Grille, at 221 N. LaSalle St. A host told us it was closing shortly so we set off through quickly emptying streets for Midtown Kitchen and Bar, 203 N. LaSalle St., which is open until 11 p.m. The minute we cracked the door a phalanx of black-shirted waiters said, “Closed.”

Skaters navigate The McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millennium Park.

Now it was past 11 p.m. and there was no one on Lake Street except a woman who asked me for change. Hungry and cranky, I made the first aberration from my experiment, taking a cab to the Wabash Tap, just south of Roosevelt Road; a friend of mine works there, so I knew there was a late night menu. Noshing on fries and chugging Coronas, we watched the mostly young, well-dressed patrons crowd among tables and dance to the jukebox. The place began to clear out by midnight – unlike the Jewel across the street. The parking lot was full of cars, and a good number of people strolled the aisles, many of them toting six packs.

Lina Farina plays with her English Setter Meghan in the park at Lakeshore East.

The lack of grocery stores in the city center was a major complaint of pioneering residents, but major new supermarkets, including two on Roosevelt Road and one just north of the Chicago River, in Streeterville, have eased the problem. The Treasure Island coming to Lakeshore East and the grocery store and food emporium reportedly planned for the closing Carson Pirie Scott store on State all will be welcome additions.

24:00

After the snack, our journey north on Wabash was so dark and so empty that my boyfriend kept casting nervous glances over his shoulder. The few places that were open were oases in the blackness. People lingered outside Buddy Guy’s Legends, at 754 S. Wabash Ave., which is open until 2 a.m. on Fridays, and there were a few hard-bitten drinkers inside George’s Cocktail Lounge, 646 S. Wabash Ave.

01:00

We were on Balbo, on our way over to Tantrum, a cocktail lounge open until 2 a.m. at 1023 S. State St., when we heard the faint thump of music coming from the HotHouse. We tramped through the empty lobby, up a set of stairs, and found ourselves in a whooping, shrieking explosion of spoken-word and jazz. Trumpet player Corey Wilkes had come down off the stage and was dancing with a bevy of admirers, waving his instrument over his head. We had hardly finished our glasses of wine when the set wrapped up a little before 2 a.m.

Now almost nothing was open. We chose to wait out the late-night hours at Miller’s Pub, 134 S. Wabash Ave., which is open until 4 a.m. Everyone seemed to be there – businessmen, girls with bleached hair tipping drunkenly off their barstools, a large group of people carrying musical instruments and speaking what sounded like Russian, gray-haired men drinking coffee alone – the secret night culture of the Loop, shrunken into one bright microcosm.

Store closing signs festoon Carson Pirie Scott, the soon-to-be-defunct department store at 1 S. State St.

As 4 a.m. neared, our heads started to nod. The Loop may not be a 24-hour downtown yet, but it still whupped us. And if the prediction of Ty Tabing, the executive director of the Chicago Loop Alliance, holds water, it’ll whup us even harder in the years to come. As the Loop becomes more residential there will be many more bars and restaurants, especially those catering to students, he told me recently.

03:45

We stumbled over to the Chicago Athletic Association, where I’d reserved a room earlier in the day. It was a fitting end to a mission gauging change in the Loop; just a week before, the Sun-Times reported that the 114-year-old-club is slated to close in May and reopen after renovations as a new hotel. I slept a dead, un-dreaming sleep until eight the next morning.

08:45

We were too exhausted to make it down to Yolk, the hip new brunch spot at 1120 S. Michigan Ave., so we found a busy Corner Bakery by the Palmer House Hilton and ordered enormous, hangover-absorbing breakfasts. Around us, people were checking Blackberrys and plunging their hands into shopping bags. Another day had begun.

A model for The Lofts at Roosevelt Collection, a major development underway along Roosevelt Road, between Wells Street and the Metra tracks, shows a pedestrian boulevard lined with shops.

The Loop is no Manhattan – it’s too uncongested, too sane and too clean for that. Nor is it Nelson Algren’sCity on the Make” anymore – the grit and hustle of its older days has given way to something more upscale and consumer-friendly. Algren wrote of Chicago in 1951, “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.”

On our cab ride home, I got the sense as we passed construction cranes and well-heeled shoppers that the Loop’s broken nose is slowly getting fixed. I’m still getting used to its shiny new face.

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