Marina City Towers

Most of us think of Chicago's central business district as a place for commerce and shopping, but more than 50,000 people actually live downtown. And if you look closely at today's luxury high-rises or classic mansions, you'll see that they tell a profoundly interesting story about the city's cultural history.

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The first official resident in what is now Chicago was Mr. Jean Baptiste Dusable who likely lived in a log cabin in the late 1700s. Then, you've got Fort Dearborn of course, and the origins of present day Chicago.

Skip ahead to 1890, Chicago breaks the one-million mark as the second largest city in the United States. But rapid downtown growth created an environment of filth. Waste problems were common and all kinds of disease, like cholera, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis. The city had grown too fast and hadn't prepared for the hoards of immigrants looking for work in this massive industrialized city.

So what does this have to do with downtown Chicago architecture? Everything.

Looking at the demographics, throughout these years there was a migration of the affluent to the new suburbs running up and down the coast of Lake Michigan. The poor couldn't afford the luxury of living out of the city because they had to work there, either at the Union Stock Yard (which was originally downtown), factories and stores. Thus the working class lived in tenements around the downtown area while the affluent enjoyed the fresh air of the suburbs.

No one who could afford otherwise wanted to live in downtown Chicago because it was dreary, dangerous and smelly - all-around unpleasant. Yet, downtown has always been where the money was and so that's where the tall, expensive buildings would have to be. In the 1880′s and 1890′s skyscrapers soared to new heights and in the 1920′s fancy retail boulevards were stretched across the Chicago grid. The result was a purely business-centered downtown.

In the '60s and '70s there was an urban renewal plan that started a slow drive towards residential living in and around the Loop. A major event was the 1964 opening of Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City. It was the first post-war high-rise residential apartment and would stand as a symbol of downtown living for decades.

Streeterville, Chicago neighborhood

Then in the 1970′s Printer's Row buildings were changed into lofts, demonstrating the ability to save architecture from demolition by renovating buildings and changing their functions. In the 1980′s office buildings sprouted up as well as residential buildings in the South Loop.

Now it seems to be one residential building after another, especially university buildings like the new Roosevelt University vertical campus skyscraper or the newest residential skyscraper in downtown Chicago, 111 West Wacker Drive. This building is to be another luxury rental tower with "504 rooms, 445 parking spaces as well as generous amenities."

A rise in downtown living can be attributed to better sanitation, easier transportation, and the beautification of the downtown area. By making the downtown cleaner and easier to get around, people are now more apt to live here. Expect more high-rises soon as many are in the works.

To book a tour of Aqua and the luxurious, residential neighborhood of Lakeshore East, click here.

To tour Streeterville: From Sandbar to Lakefront Residences, click here.

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