Dearborn Park – did they have to blight the South Loop to save it?

Travel back in time to the 1970s with Lois Wille’s At Home in the Loop: How Clout and Community Built Dearborn Park:

The only residents of the South Loop lived in tiny cubicles in the flophouses and cheap hotels near those empty railroad tracks. Some of them, in fact, lived on the empty railroad tracks.

There was another matter. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the Loop,” the enormously successful and famously outspoken real estate developer Arthur Rubloff told the Chicago Daily News. “It’s people’s conception of it. And the conception they have about it is one word – black. B-L-A-C-K. Black. We have a racial problem we haven’t been able to solve. The ghetto areas have nothing but rotten slum buildings, nothing at all, and businessmen are afraid to move in, so the blacks come downtown for stores and restaurants.”

To save the Loop, a group of prominent businessmen set out to redevelop the South Loop, which was viewed as “the borderland of hell.” One of them reportedly described the objective as building “a wall of white people between the South Side and the Loop.”

The first stretch of that wall was Dearborn Park I, which spans the area from State St (0 W ) west to Clark St (100 W), from Roosevelt Rd (1200 S) north to Polk St (800 S). Dearborn Park II later extended the development south to 18th St. Wille describes the result:

This is Dearborn Park, one of the most successful urban renewal efforts in the country, home to a multiracial, multi-ethnic community of 3,500. Its residents talk as if they’ve discovered a secret village, their own private sanctuary that gives them special entrée to what is good and exhilarating about life in a big city, while shielding them from its dangers and disorders.

As you’ll see in the video, the shield designed to keep the city’s dangers away from Dearborn Park I was a wall of brick and wrought iron that’s become a permanent blight on the State Street streetscape. Dearborn Park II, with the exception of the single-family homes built by MCL Companies at its northern end, also ignored the lessons about building safe spaces taught by Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman.

Travel back in time again, and ask whether the market would have reacted as positively to a community that wasn’t walled off from the devastation surrounding it.

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