Longtime resident's new book offers glimpse at booming West Loop's history
CHICAGO (CBS) -- The West Loop is one happening place these days, with booming development of retail, restaurants, and lots of new residential units.
CBS 2's Jim Williams recently spent time with a Chicago author who knows the neighborhood inside and out. She's lived there for 25 years, and says she's loved every minute.
The West Loop features legendary locations, sensational shopping, and some of the city's most popular restaurants lining Randolph Street. But even just a short time ago, the neighborhood was a very different place.
What's now a boutique shop on Madison Street used to be a women's shelter.
"It's been here for a long time," author Connie Fairbanks said of the boutique.
Fairbanks proudly calls the West Loop home. She wrote a book about it called "Chicago's West Loop, Then and Now: People, Businesses, Buildings."
"I wrote this book because I've lived in the neighborhood for 25 years," she said. "So I've seen the wave of changes, and I knew there was history here."
There's truly history around every corner of the West Loop.
"All the businesses that were over here. There were a lot of empty warehouse buildings when some of the developers came here," Fairbanks said. "We built parts for airplanes for World War II."
Fairbanks said people made history.
"We had a lot of pioneers that lived over here from the 1850s," she said.
Mary Bartelme was the first woman judge in Illinois, and a public park at Adams and Peoria streets honors her.
Dr. George Shipman established one of the first infant rescue homes – or "safe havens" – in the country.
Retail pioneer Philo Carpenter, the state's first pharmacist – for whom Carpenter Street is named – was an outspoken abolitionist who also offered a safe house to slaves along the Underground Railroad.
But perhaps the most well-known pioneer in West Loop history is Oprah Winfrey. When she took a chance and opened Harpo Studios in 1990, four years after the debut of her popular talk show, the West Loop was still struggling.
"Oprah made it okay to come over here," Fairbanks said. "I think she probably saw some good real estate, and saw that some things were happening."
Things still are happening. In 2016, Harpo Studios was demolished to later make way for the new McDonald's world headquarters.
But one iconic building that still stands is "The House that Michael Built." The United Center has hosted three of the Bulls six NBA championships, three Blackhawks Stanley Cup teams, multiple NCAA Tournament games, and next year will welcome the Democratic National Convention for the second time in its history.
"I think people thought, 'Ooh, that's a whole new area to develop.' The buildings are cheap; or they were at the time, not anymore," Fairbanks said.
The United Center opened in 1994 on a part of Madison Street that, for decades, was known as Skid Row; with cheap hotels called flop-houses and streets filled with people who had fallen on hard times.
Two years after the stadium opened, it put Chicago in the national spotlight by hosting the 1996 Democratic National Convention, and Mayor Richard M. Daley made sure Madison Street also shined.
"They cleaned the street up. They cleaned it up. They put in planters," Fairbanks said.
From that time to this, Madison Street has thrived; from businesses that have survived the pandemic to new construction popping up on corners.
WILLIAMS: "Critics, though, are going to say this is gentrification and this is not good for the working poor."
FAIRBANKS: "There is pockets of affordable housing here, and I know they're working with the new developers to make sure there is affordable housing."
For Chicagoans of a certain age, it is staggering to see what's happened in the West Loop. What is the lesson in the neighborhood's transformation?
"People caring about the neighborhood; jumping in and getting involved, donating your time," Fairbanks said. "People planting roots."
Fairbanks said getting to know your neighbors is easy in the West Loop.
"You can't walk down the street without knowing somebody," she said.
You can buy "Chicago's West Loop: Then and Now" online at conniefairbanks.com.
There are some other fun facts about the history of the West Loop.
The first powdered sugar donut was perfected in the West Loop.
Also, Mary Todd Lincoln lived in the neighborhood after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
And Schwinn Bicycles began in the West Loop.
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