Chicago is the home of many planned communities. Some are but a block or two in length, and other are quite ambitious and expansive, such as Pullman — now a National Monument (Chicago's first). Many communities are studied by architects, aspiring planning students, curious community organizers, and those with a general curiosity about the city around them. One of my favorite planned communities is Dearborn Park which stretches from Polk Street in the South Loop all the way south over Roosevelt Road to around 16th Street.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Forty years ago it was just a cacophony of obsolete rail yards surrounded by tired retail establishments and the pitter patter of the downtrodden.
What was to become of the site? This was not our own time, when people are returning to the city in droves to ditch their cars, take advantage of proximity to cultural amenities, and take in a tasting menu. Times were tough in this corner of the city and urban renewal fatigue still lingered in the air like an unwelcome pest.
Eventually a plan emerged for transformation, reinvention, and rehabilitation and some of the players might surprise you. One of these individuals was none other than George "Papa Bear" Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears football team. He had an option for this rail yard that he hoped to build a new stadium on for the beloved Monsters of the Midway. After much debate and discussion, he was persuaded to release the land for a truly master plan.
Stepping into the fray was Ferd Kramer, a real estate icon in the city and well-known for his residential construction as part of the Hyde Park urban renewal plan. He and his colleagues, working in consort with the architecture firm Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill would create a city-within-a-city on the site, complete with tidy row homes, a collection of apartment towers, dedicated green space, and more. And the kicker? It would be reasonably priced to encourage a socio-economically diverse mix of residents.
Amazingly, the plan worked. The first section of this brave new Dearborn Park adventure opened in 1979, and subsequent additions to the site opened in 1985 and the early 1990s. Today, the area includes a park, an elementary school, and other civic institutions.
PLAN A VISIT
I invite you to wander around and see this truly unique corner of the city. And don't forget to peek at the jewel in the crown here: the wonderful Dearborn Station, which once saw hundreds of trains come and go every day. Fortunately it was preserved as part of the plan and it remains an architectural icon for visitors and locals to the area.
After your wanderings through Dearborn Park, you'd do well to catch a show at the venerable Jazz Showcase in Dearborn Station. If you're feeling hoppy, I'd also suggest wandering down Michigan Avenue a few blocks to Vice District Brewing.
This is part of an ongoing series exploring Chicago from A to Z, highlighting a unique place for each letter of the alphabet. Stay tuned for more entries!
Photos: South Loop credit City of Chicago; Dearborn Park credit Alan Light; Dearborn Station credit Eric Allix Rogers