Perhaps you are a new Illinois Tech student, in Chicago for the first time. Perhaps you are returning to Illinois Tech and have finally decided to read your first copy of TechNews. Or perhaps you’re a staff or faculty member, picking up the paper in the hope that your favorite historical trivia writer is still on the team. In each of these scenarios, you would likely benefit from familiarizing yourself with the neighborhoods that immediately surround this university’s main campus. Whether to aid in your exploration of the wonderful city you currently call home or to remind you of the grand history that surrounds you, consider this short article your introduction to Illinois Tech’s surroundings.
The entirety of Illinois Tech’s Mies Campus is located in the historic neighborhood of Bronzeville. While there is a great deal of local debate over official and unofficial neighborhood boundaries, most would agree that Bronzeville extends roughly from 25th Street to 51st Street, bordered on the west by the Dan Ryan Expressway. On the east, the neighborhood’s edge is formed by Lake Michigan (north of 43rd Street) and Cottage Grove Avenue (south of 43rd Street).
Bronzeville was the location of the private estate of prominent U.S. lawmaker Stephen A. Douglas during the early 1800s, and later became one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country when hundreds of opulent mansions were constructed for millionaires of the Gilded Age. Its most enduring legacy, though, is as the “Black Metropolis” from the 1920s to the 1940s, an area of significantly concentrated African American business and culture. At the height of the Great Migration, which brought countless thousands of black Americans to northern cities like Chicago, Bronzeville was the center of the city’s jazz scene. A strip of bars, nightclubs, and theaters known as “The Stroll” ran directly down State Street on the same ground that our campus now occupies. A bit further south, venues like the Regal Theater, The Forum, and Sunset Cafe welcomed prominent acts like Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. One block east of campus on 33rd Street, the site of Pilgrim Baptist Church is cited as the birthplace of gospel music.
Bronzeville’s prominence is by no means relegated to its past. The neighborhood faced steep economic decline during the middle of the last century but has been witnessing an active revival for nearly two and a half decades now. Today, Bronzeville is home to amenities as diverse as Gallery Guichard (a fine art gallery dedicated entirely to African diasporic works), the very first ComEd microgrid (a self-sufficient electric power infrastructure system that functions even when major outages take place around it), and Boxville (a venue for pop-up retail stores made from repurposed shipping containers). Everyday attractions include a wide variety of delicious food options, a large inventory of beautifully restored turn-of-the-century homes, and access to Lake Michigan through 31st Street Beach or the city-spanning Lakefront Trail.
West of campus across the Dan Ryan Expressway is the neighborhood of Bridgeport. Home to many different ethnic communities, including historical enclaves of Irish, Lithuanian, and Italian American groups, Bridgeport’s legacy on Chicago’s south side is sociopolitically complicated. It’s an area of strong historical significance: this neighborhood has been the home or birthplace of five Chicago mayors, including Richard J. Daley (mayor from 1955 to 1976) and his son, Richard M. Daley (mayor from 1989 to 2011). The first mayor Daley, especially, was known for protecting the residents of his neighborhood, which led to city planning practices that are seen as regressive and racist today. For decades, Bridgeport and Bronzeville were at odds with each other over ethnic tensions, leading to wounds that are only beginning to be healed today.
Bridgeport has long been a mostly working-class neighborhood, dominated by multi-family buildings and small homes. As the area has become more accepting of outsiders, it has become a popular choice for Illinois Tech students and alumni looking for apartments, as well as for Chinese American and Latinx residents coming to Chicago for the first time. Present-day Bridgeport is home to a number of notable businesses and institutions, including an array of arts and culture organizations on Morgan Street between 31st Street and 35th Street. The traditional Italian American core of the neighborhood is just a short walk from campus, where restaurants like Ricobene’s on 26th Street and Franco’s on 31st Street are ready to serve up different interpretations of Italian favorites. Bridgeport boasts a number of lovely public parks, as well, including Palmisano Park, a former limestone quarry which was turned into a hilly artificial prairie with impressive skyline views and a stocked fishing pond.
Just north of Bridgeport (or a quick trip on the Red Line one stop north from Sox-35th), Chicago’s Chinatown is also conveniently close to campus. An ethnic enclave of Chinese American (primarily Cantonese-speaking) residences, businesses, and restaurants, this neighborhood is a popular tourist destination that is worthy of exploration and appreciation. Unlike many similar districts in other U.S. cities, Chicago’s Chinatown is still expanding today, and is genuinely dominated by Chinese American life. In fact, much of Bridgeport’s rising Chinese American population is due to the crowded physical confines of Chinatown, which have caused new residents to move to what local organizations are beginning to call “greater Chinatown” in neighboring areas.
Chinatown has its historical roots in the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1800s. Looking to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and violence along the west coast, many Chinese laborers sought better opportunities further east, with a sizeable number settling in what is now present-day Chinatown. Over the decades, the neighborhood developed with distinctive Chinese-inspired architecture, featuring numerous pagodas, dragon accents, and shrines. Of particular note is the Ping Tom Memorial Park along the banks of the Chicago river, a city park which features one of the most recognizable Chinese-style pavilions in the Midwest.
Present-day Chinatown can be thought of as consisting of two different primary areas - “Old Chinatown” beginning at Chinatown Gate (located at the intersection of Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue) and running southwest to the intersection of 26th Street and Canal Street, and newer housing directly to the north anchored by an outdoor mall known as Chinatown Square. There is also an area of new development primarily targeting Chinese American customers along Archer Avenue between Canal Street and Halsted Street. In each of these places, a host of restaurants, shops, and other local businesses serve visiting tourists and Chicagoans alike with offerings from all across China’s many regions.
Heading north from campus toward the city’s skyline, past the northern boundary of Bronzeville, is the rapidly changing South Loop. One of the city’s newest neighborhoods, this swath of condo towers, high-end student apartments, and construction cranes sits on what was largely an industrial area a few short decades ago. With generational culture shifts moving huge numbers of young professionals into cities around the world, the South Loop has become a common stopping point for people who grew up outside the city and desire the convenience of a downtown lifestyle with impressive apartment views. In turn, the area has become home to plenty of staple Chicago businesses, like dueling Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s pizza parlors less than three blocks apart from one another.
The South Loop is so dominated by new construction that it doesn’t have a cohesive neighborhood atmosphere, but there are some specific parts of it which have deeper historic roots. For instance, Michigan Avenue between 14th Street and 24th Street is home to “Motor Row,” a set of former car dealership buildings from the early 1900s which today have mostly been converted into lofts, restaurants, and doctor’s offices. Further northeast, some portions of “Printer’s Row” (which once housed commercial printing presses in large brick industrial buildings) extend into the south loop between Clark Street and State Street near Polk Street. All over the South Loop, you can find trendy restaurants and bars, small public parks, and plenty of grocery store options to choose from.
Of course, this brief article only barely scratches the surface of the experiences that Chicago’s myriad of neighborhoods have on offer and is by no means a substitute for an actual visit to any of them. However, especially if you are new to Chicago, caution should be taken when venturing off campus, as it would be in any major city. Be sure to avoid clear signs of danger, and stay alert and aware of your surroundings. Chicago is truly a city of neighborhoods, and with proper precautions, it is highly encouraged for you to get out and explore those neighborhoods for yourself.