The Near West Side of Chicago sits to the west of the Loop and Chicago River. Part of the area used to make up one of the most crowded slums in the world. Pockets of the old ethnic influence still exists but the majority of the historic element has all but disappeared. Nowadays, it’s much more modern with hundreds of condos and apartment buildings, a university, and several excellent restaurants.
One of the historic buildings just west of the river is Union Station, designed by Daniel Burnham who died before it was completed. It’s a huge transportation hub that stands as a witness to some of Chicago’s best and worst times. Built in 1925, the cavernous building is the only intercity rail terminal in the city and the third busiest rail station in the country. The stairs from the Canal Street entrance into the Great Hall were used in the classic gangster film The Untouchables. In the movie, during a shoot-out with Al Capone’s men, Eliot Ness loses handle of a baby carriage which slowly tumbles down the steps.
A block west of Union Station on Jackson is one of Chicago’s iconic breakfast spots, Lou Mitchell’s. It was opened in 1923 by a Greek immigrant and has evolved into a Route 66 institution. Greek hospitality is shown to every visitor, with women and children receiving Milk Duds and all customers receiving donut holes. Gigantic omelettes are cooked in skillets, pancakes are fluffy, French toast is perfectly battered, and the juice is always fresh.
Are you happy you only have an eight hour workday? Do you celebrate May Day? Yo have Chicago to thank for that. Those two concepts originated after Chicago’s Haymarket Riot. In the late 19th century, Chicago was the center of a nationwide labor movement advocating an eight hour workday, and unions had set a deadline of May 1, 1886 before going on strike. On May 4, a peaceful protest turned into a bloody massacre when an unknown person threw a bomb at police officers trying to disperse the crowd. Seven cops were killed as well as four civilians.
The ensuing investigation saw eight men arrested for the crime. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, two served life in prison, and another served 15 years. The event, which took place on Desplaines between Lake and Randolph, set back the labor movement. A monument commemorating the riot was unveiled at the site in 2004 but it wasn’t there when I walked by due to a construction project.
Two blocks south along Madison is Batcolumn. It’s a 101 foot tall column in the shape of a baseball bat standing on its knob. Unveiled in front of the Social Security Administration Building in 1977 by artist Claes Oldenburg, this piece of public art was met with protests and cries to remove it. It’s since become a favorite sculpture of many Chicagoans.
Old St. Pat’s
At the corner of Desplaines and Adams is Old St. Pat’s. It’s the oldest church in Chicago, built in 1852, and was a survivor of the Great Chicago Fire. Known for being the host of the World’s Largest Block Party, it went from just four members in 1983 to thousands today.
Great Chicago Fire
Further south at Jefferson and DeKoven is the Chicago Fire Department Academy. Ironically, this was the exact spot where the Great Chicago Fire started. Around 9pm on October 8, 1871, a small barn owned by the O’Leary family became engulfed in flames. Two days later, over 3.3 square miles had burned, almost 300 people were dead, and more than 100,000 people were left homeless. Many factors, incidents, and errors turned this small blaze into a raging inferno. The cause was never determined, but popular legend says that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern and started the fire. A memorial in the shape of a flame stands on the exact spot where the fire started.
No institution was more instrumental to social reform in Chicago than the Hull House. The secular and progressive organization, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889, was located along Halsted Street. At the time, it was in the center of one of the dirtiest and most densely populated slums in the world. Over 60% of the population in the area was foreign-born. Dozens of nationalities were represented and dozens of languages could be heard in the streets, many of them recent working-class European immigrants. The goal of the Hull House was to aid these people in empowerment, education, finding employment, and recreation. They also provided residence to many who worked tirelessly toward its mission.
The complex had 13 buildings by 1911 and offered many innovative programs and concepts. It closed in the 1960s after the University of Illinois at Chicago was given eminent domain on the property. The entire complex except for the original Hull House was razed.
Hull House Museum
The Hull House Museum now occupies the building. Admission is free and it’s open daily except Mondays and Saturdays.
The first floor of the museum talks about the history of the Hull House and the important women who played a role in its success. A scale model of the complex is on display along with the keys to all the buildings and other artifacts.
Upstairs is Jane Addams’ bedroom. Her 1931 Nobel Peace Prize is located there. She was the first American woman to win the award, doing it at a time when she was considered by many to be “the most dangerous woman in America” because of her progressive ideas. Her death mask is on display in the hallway along with several pictures from the old neighborhood. A room with maps of nationalities and pay scales of people living in the area shows the extent and detail of the research done by the association.
Mary Bertelme Park
Finally, there’s a more recent addition to the Near West Side that’s nice to stop by. Mary Bartelme Park was named after Illinois’ first female high court judge and was built on the site of an old infirmary. Mary Bartelme (1866-1954) was a reformer and did a lot for children’s rights. She was known as “Suitcase Mary” because every time she sent a child to a foster home, she gave them a new suitcase packed with clothes. She also set up three “Mary Clubs” for girls unable to return to their parents. The park has excellent views of the skyline, a dog park, a playground, and mist stations.