West Loop: Once industrial alley, now restaurant row

Walking through West Loop, you can feel the ghosts of industry lingering on the warehouse-lined side streets. What was once known as a manufacturer’s and meat-packing town is now starkly residential with leafy boulevards, long lines of shops, and a famed Restaurant Row. Its high-ceiling, loft-style buildings have been augmented with sky-scraping condos, complete with roof-deck pools and movie theater community rooms. In history books, West Loop is a commercial gateway to downtown Chicago. For those on the inside, it’s where young professionals, budding families, and thriving businesses blend together like a fine cocktail.

Carla Agostinelli, executive director of the West Loop Community Organization, believes the identity of West Loop is “ever-evolving.” She’s got just one request: Don’t call it “hipster,” a label mainly defining millennials’ favoritism for beards, skinny jeans, lattes, and trend-claiming.

“We are not flashy. We are not hipster,” she said. “We’re a very individual neighborhood with our own style. I don’t know what it’s called yet. We’re not pretentious, and we’re not super fancy, either. We kind of have our own feel.”

In Chicago’s Daniel Burnham days, the city’s elite flocked to West Loop. It was known as an island amidst an urban metropolis. When the elevated train made it possible for West Loop to stream business to downtown Chicago in 1892, its industrial age kicked off. Workers flocked to the warehouses that cropped up on Lake Street with hope in their calloused hands. It was a neighborhood Carl Sandburg would have written about with grit, relishing in the clash of iron and steel, and chop of a butcher’s cleaver against the block.

The Great Depression would soon decelerate that industrial boom until it stood still. Warehouses were abandoned, and developers started thinking creatively. Could West Loop come full circle and swing back to residential? By the 1960s, warehouses were transformed into loft-style condominiums, and families trickled back in on the promise of large spaces and low prices. Where workers once sweat, wallpaper now enveloped. Safety, however, was far from guaranteed. West Loop was known colloquially as Chicago’s “Skid Row.” Decrepit hotels and boarded-up buildings were its trademark.

The West Loop was an industrial haven until modern business started revitalizing the area in the 1990s.

The West Loop was an industrial haven until modern business started revitalizing the area in the 1990s.

Brian Ferber, who worked in West Loop starting in 1997 and has lived in the community for nine years, said he remembers when West Loop had no grocery stores, and you couldn’t even get a cab outside the United Center. “When it came to just living there, there weren’t really accommodations,” he said. “It was still predominantly industrial before 2000.”
The pioneers of West Loop formed a community to build it up. There was something about this neighborhood that felt like home. It would just take a financial push for the dream to be realized.

Enter Oprah Winfrey.

In 1990, Oprah’s empire took root in West Loop with Harpo Studios, the one-hundred-seventy-thousand-square-foot campus for her talk show enterprise. It put West Loop on the map as an up-and-coming corridor ready for revitalization. Winfrey advocated for issues in the neighborhood on behalf of residents and drew tourists to the once-abandoned blocks. The United Center helped, too. In August 1994, the Chicago Bulls dynasty would find its new home, followed by the Blackhawks in 1995. When former Mayor Richard Daley hosted the Democratic National Convention there in 1996, West Loop basked in a national spotlight.

In December 2015, four years after Oprah’s final show, Harpo Studios was vacated and moved to California. That absence is felt, but the legacy not forgotten. Its next legacy just might be that of the tech companies. Google moved into a five-hundred-fifty-thousand-square-foot facility at 1000 W. Fulton St.; Twitter has joined the ranks at 111 N. Canal St.; and LinkedIn has had a West Loop office since 2008.

Ferber said that Oprah’s presence and the increased use of the United Center were certainly part of West Loop’s growth, but that a lot of other factors, which came slowly and over time, were also deeply influential. “As more developers came in and a lot of the buildings were being converted into loft spaces, you started seeing the grocery stores and the 7-Elevens popping up,” he said. “The location has always been fantastic. Public transportation is right there, and I can ride my bike one mile east and be downtown. Now, we’re at a point where it’s a great location, and there’s a nice base of serviceable accommodations to get what you need to live there.”

In 2010, another female icon, this time from the restaurant world, chose West Loop as the starting point for her dynasty. Stephanie Izard, winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef” 2008, opened Girl & The Goat on the far east side of Randolph Street. Other restaurateurs took note, and the street is now home to a twelve-block strip aptly named “Restaurant Row.”
On the strip, Chicago restaurant tycoon Brendan Sodikoff has opened Maude’s Liquor Bar, Au Cheval, and Green Street Smoked Meats. Boka Restaurant Group and Izard have opened a second, more casual dining option in Little Goat Diner, and Duck Duck Goat, a Chinese-inspired restaurant two blocks north of Randolph on Fulton, is slated to open in early 2016. Also expected soon is Robert De Niro’s Nobu restaurant and boutique hotel, planned for a 2016 opening at Peoria and Randolph streets.

A more casual addition to the restaurant scene in West Loop has been Lou Malnati’s Pizza, at the west end of Randolph. Marc and Jeanne Malnati have lived and worked in West Loop since 2012.

“It’s a down-to-earth neighborhood,” Jeanne said. “There’s been so much growth in the area, and that’s something that we’ve personally seen and seen with the new Malnati’s location.”

Jeanne, who had a direct hand in making Lou Malnati’s one of the top-rated places to work in Chicago for five consecutive years as of 2014, is also a licensed clinical social worker with an office on Sangamon Street in West Loop. Jeanne’s office is across from the beloved Mary Bartelme Park, which she said is “a must-visit.” The park features a 1.4-acre play area with a dog park and viewing hill. “I love that I can walk from my house through the park and into my office,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m part of one, complete community.”

Sean McGuire, a West Loop resident of nearly ten years, moved from Ireland to Chicago in 1992. He bounced between Lakeview and the South Side for nearly twenty years until he decided to call West Loop home in 2009. “I finally came to a place I couldn’t see myself moving from. The only thing West Loop was missing was an ice cream place. So, I took care of that,” he said with a laugh. McGuire is the founder of Cone Gourmet Ice Cream on Madison Street, and a partner in McVan Development, which worked on West Loop hotspots Parlor Pizza Bar and Kaiser Tiger.

“It’s an up-and-coming neighborhood, and that happened overnight,” McGuire said. “You can go to the hustle and bustle on Madison, and then nice restaurants on Randolph. That makes for a good mix of families and single people.”

That mix does bring challenges with it. Through public meetings from the West Loop Community Organization, Agostinelli has seen tensions rise between old and new residents. “We understand the demographics have changed in the last few years,” she said. “We’ve got a lot more families now and need to strengthen our relationships with local schools and parks.”

A debate of rental and home ownership has also been a divisive issue. At a July 2015 community meeting, residents clashed over the eighty-unit Lake Street Lofts development proposal. Many longtime residents expressed opinions that inviting more renters into the neighborhood would destabilize their investment in their community. Ferber, one of the longtime residents, said that the neighborhood is particularly attractive to renters because of its nightlife and entertainment venues. What the homeowners would like to see are amenities for families, like park space and a library. “Restaurant Row, venues like City Winery that have entertainment every night, all of those things are great,” he said. “But we need those other elements that make up total quality of life. We want people who live in West Loop to be in a position to grow with their families.”

As these issues evolve, each solution turns a new page in West Loop’s story. Maybe that’s its cornerstone to claim. It’s not about whether, currently, the residents are renters or homeowners, which restaurateur has called it home, or how high the buildings reach toward the sky. For West Loop, time has shown it’s about the journey, how long it has taken for it to become the neighborhood it is today, and the people who have propelled it forward. West Loop has fought hard not to just be an artery to downtown, but to be its own entity. A gateway to, like Ferber said, “total quality of life.”

About the author

Jamie Lynn Ferguson has lived on the west side of Chicago for nearly a decade. She serves as an advocate for anti-poverty nonprofits throughout the city, writes full-time for Catholic Charities Chicago, and is a freelance community reporter for DNAinfo-Chicago.

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