Redevelopment Wrecks: Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

In 1973, Chicago politicians decided that revitalizing downtown was imperative, and they commenced kicking people out of their homes and businesses.   Block 37, as it is still called, became the focus of efforts to eliminate poverty in the city. Decades later—after demolishing 16 buildings and displacing hundreds of hardworking families—this redevelopment project shows exactly what can happen when the government razes neighborhoods in the name of progress.

The historic old neighborhood, replete with late-19th and early-20th century buildings, may have needed sprucing up, but it provided the city with a vibrant and energetic atmosphere.  Affordable clothing shops and caramel popcorn vendors filled the streets, amid theaters and other commercial buildings.[1]  Most of the businesses were profitable, catering to black customers and providing substantial competition to a Marshall Field’s department store across the street.[2]  That is, until City officials destroyed the entire neighborhood with eminent domain in the name of higher tax-revenue.[3]

The plan failed catastrophically.  It took five mayoral administrations for the City to finally sell the condemned property to private developers—and they did so for 33 cents on the dollar.[4]

Since then, a number of other schemes have been announced.  In November 2005, Mills Corporation broke ground on a major urban-mixed-use project on the site.[5]  However, financial pressure has compelled Mills to put itself up for sale, prompting questions about its ability to complete the massive project.  Construction was halted in March 2006 after subcontractors demanded they be paid in advance, but they returned back to work April 10.[6] The next month, Mills signed confidentiality agreements with 30 prospective buyers and investors, and the future of Block 37 is—as it has been for decades—uncertain.[7]

[1] Ross Miller, “Progress Brings Us Back to the Prairie,” Chicago Tribune, July 16, 1993.

[2] Hugo Lindgren, “The Secret Life of a City Block,” Newsday, March 24, 1996.

[3] Cheryl Kent, “What’s the Deal? A Look at Chicago’s Block 37 Misses the Chance to Explain How Big Cities Take Shape,” Chicago Tribune, April 28, 1996.

[4] Ross Miller, “Progress Brings Us Back to the Prairie,” Chicago Tribune, July 16, 1993.

[5] “The Mills Corporation Breaks Ground on 108 N. State Street Project,” Mills Corporation Press Release, Nov, 15, 2005.

[6] Alby Gallun, “Dispute Halts Construction at Block 37,” Crain’s Chicago Business, March 15, 2006; Alby Gallun, “This Week: They’re Back to Work at Block 37 After Lull,” Crain’s Chicago Business, April 10, 2006, at 1.

[7] “Mills Corp.: Developer of Block 37 Moves Closer to Sale of the Company,”Bloomberg News, May 24, 2006.