Roadwork

(Rachel Wiseman)

A line of officers, some in the sky blue of the CPD, others in tactical black, form a phalanx at Michigan and Cermak, while behind them, the cavalry is held in reserve. A crowd fills the street, refusing to disperse. Drawing on tactics not much changed since Thermopylae, the CPD held their lines against Black Bloc protesters attempting to travel further South to McCormick Place, where the NATO Summit was being held. On an ordinary day, no barriers prevent travel down Michigan south of Cermak, but few choose to make the journey–there’s not much to see. This stretch of Michigan Avenue between Cermak and 25th, once known as “Motor Row,” due to its great number of car dealerships, has largely been vacated. Like much of the physical infrastructure built to support the automobile industry in the U.S., the buildings of Motor Row now sit empty and abandoned.

Foremost among them is the former Illinois Automobile Owner’s Club. With its soaring steeple, crowned by a brass finial in the shape of an automobile, it resembles a cathedral consecrated to the worship of the car. A handsome Spanish Mission building with Art Deco influences, its beauty is only slightly marred by the Plywood boards that now secure its windows from vandalism. Long vacant, this building on the corner of Michigan and 24th was once an exclusive society for car owners. The wealth which car ownership once bespoke is confirmed by the building’s baroque furnishings. Its basement housed a fitness center and the Olympic sized swimming pool in which, it is rumored, a young Johnny Weissmuller honed the physique which won him five gold medals and the part of Tarzan in the RKO Radio Picture films of the same name. Unofficially, it served as a social club and provided meeting rooms for the owners of the car dealerships which once lined Motor Row.

When the first buildings on Motor Row were built in the early twentieth century, cars were still an unusual luxury, sharing the city streets with horse drawn carriages. By the row’s decline, cars were a necessity in a city that was rapidly expanding into the suburbs. The first cars sold on this street would struggle to reach highway speeds, and even the last  vehicle still had fins and raised ceilings to accommodate the brims of men’s hats.

Chicago’s Motor Row is a local example of a national trend: as automobiles became increasingly prevalent on American streets in the first half of the 20th century, many cities developed equivalent areas as dealerships sought to create a single district where customers could shop for and repair cars. In its heyday, the street played host to as many as 116 different automobile manufacturers, including both brands still in operation today, like Ford, Buick, Fiat and Cadillac, and a number of brands which have since folded, like Hudson, Locomobile, Marmon, and Pierce Arrow. The period in which Motor Row was built was the most prolific for American automobile brands: more than 1,800 automobile manufacturers opened for business between 1896 and 1930. Few survived, and after the war manufacturers consolidated, so that today most formerly independent brands are owned by international conglomerates like Ford and General Motors.

The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of the end for Motor Row. Automobile dealerships began to relocate to the expanding suburbs to take advantage of low cost lots and a closer proximity to consumers. One by one, the city dealerships closed. Today, only Joyce Ford remains. Were it not for the banners the city has posted on streetlights labeling the area “Historic Motor Row,” one would need to know where to look to find evidence of the district’s past. It can be seen in shades and shadows, like the faded ghost signs on the sides of buildings which advertise dealerships and repair shops, or the lettering spelling “Locomobile” built into the facade of the former dealership of the same name.

The shabbiness of a place after its decline is often proportional to its former glory, and Motor Row is no exception to this rule. The opulence and grandeur of these buildings, once temples to luxury and the freedom of the open road, make their present vacancy all the stranger. Their ornate finishing, soaring ceilings, and large windows, designed to showcase cars in their best light, make these buildings ideal for storefronts and loft conversions. Their facades are elegantly decorated, with detailed metalwork or tiling. But now, most of the picture windows through which couples dressed in their Sunday best once peered in at the latest models from Detroit today display only signs reading “For Lease.”

 

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The sun setting behind the Chicago Automobile Owner’s Club casts an orange glow over the weathered green of its brass finishings.  A few doors down, I stumble across Forever Nana’s Vintage Boutique. Dealing in clothing, home furnishings and art, the storefront is filled with an eclectic mix of art and artifacts from every imaginable era. It resembles nothing so much as the attic of a grandly eccentric relative. Sets of 1960s bar-wear are arranged along side tube radios. The walls are hung with original lithographs and paintings, and dolls sit in every corner.

In the words of Yvette Fleming, who opened this shop in July of last year, entering the store is something like “going into Jackie Onassis’ closet”. All this is overlooked by a photo of Nana, Yvette’s great-great-grandmother, for whom the store is named. A longtime vintage clothing collector and Bronzeville resident, she opened her shop to bring vintage shopping to the South Side. Because she receives limited walk-in customers, she has had to broaden her operations. Recently she began to “get into the rental of period pieces for film.” Additionally, she now hosts “vintage tea parties for little girls.”

The area’s relative lack of development provides a challenge. There isn’t much foot traffic this far south, and because the storefront had been vacant for so long, locals “don’t expect anybody to be here.” Though Yvette speaks of the fact that, as a longtime resident, she’s seen the Near South Side “go through a lot of different transformations”, she feels that “it’s been a slow process” overall and more changes need to occur.

She argues convincingly that the area should “be a lot more developed, especially with McCormick Place in waving distance”. In the long term, she hopes that it will become “a neighborhood destination.” This has already begun north of Cermak, where new condos have been built, and a number of stores, restaurants and businesses have opened to serve these new residents. But traveling south on Cermak, the dog walkers and young mothers with strollers crowding the sidewalks of the South Loop are nowhere to be seen on Motor Row. As far as the residents of these buildings are concerned, the world drops off after 22nd street.

Despite the slow progress of development, Yvette is optimistic, noting the opening of the luxury housing development Cadillac Lofts. She argues that the area shows “a lot of hope and promise” as an entertainment district. Currently, the closest one nearby is University Village, and even that is not within walking distance. In the immediate vicinity, the only restaurants are Burger King and Chef Lucianos.

In the next building, 2420 S. Michigan Ave, Action Advertising has been on Motor Row for decades. The large former showroom is filled with tables and shelves piled high with the materials that go into creating the vibrantly colored signs that adorn the interior. Little remains of the finishings of the former auto showroom: the large picture windows having been built over, but the former greatness of this Pierce Arrow Showroom can be seen in the ornate metalwork that surrounds the door outside.

Marilyn Rutzsky, president, tells me about the changes she has seen since the ’80s when she began working at the company. She tells me about firms which have since relocated, including Hopkins Elevator, now in the Ukranian Village. A tailor moved in next door, she says, but was unable to find clients. After the nearby housing projects were closed down, Marylin noticed a decline in foot traffic in spite of the new constructions north of Cermak. Looking at these new buildings, it is clear why: they are built to be self-sufficient, with most containing shopping centers within.

 

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When Frank Lassandrello invites me into one of the two buildings that will soon make up the new location of Broad Shoulders Brewing, the table is covered with blueprints for brewing equipment. He shows me next door, soon to be a tasting room. It is a diamond in the rough: bricks jut unevenly from the wall, soon to be tuckpointed. Ceilings soar 16 feet high, and the three-storied building extends unobstructed across the full width of the block, with  and Frank intends to install a window to allow the brewery area in back to be viewed from the tasting room.

Both buildings were initially car showrooms, and are steeped in the history of the area. When he moved in, Frank found a horse-drawn elevator that dates to the early 20th century. 2337 is considered a historical building, and as a result Broad Shoulders has to adhere to certain regulations in any remodeling. However, the structure’s history is mostly a boon: the façade is covered in beautiful green and white tiling, which, although it is hidden behind white aluminum siding at the moment, will soon make a beautiful storefront once again.

There is some local boosterism behind Frank’s choice of location. “The North Side has its fair share of breweries,” he says. He is “really excited to be bringing something to the South Side of the city,” and will also seek to focus his distribution efforts on the South Side, with cans available year round at bottle shops as well as bars like Maria’s.

Once the new Greenline stop is completed at State and Cermak in 2014, the area will be easier to access, which will hopefully help with what Frank says is one of his main goals: “to generate more foot traffic to the Motor Row area.” He’s already received excited responses from “neighbors and people that live within half a mile radius.” He enthusiastically describes his plans for the facility: “To start out we’re going to have a small area that will mostly be for over the counter sales. But we’ll also have room for 16 to 20 people to sit in our tap room and order a beer.”  The size of the space makes it particularly “appropriate for a production facility” and in this way it’s a “microcosm of what’s happening here on Motor Row.”

Frank hopes to open soon, though his plans have been delayed by the layoffs in city offices necessitated by the budget crisis: it’s taken nearly twice as long to get the necessary permits as initially anticipated.  However, the city has also been instrumental in furthering the project. Frank assures me that the building could not have been built without the rezoning pushed through by the former Alderman, Robert Fioretti, who was an ongoing champion of the project until he was moved to a new district on the North Side during the latest redistricting. As a result of Alderman Fioretti’s work, the brewery didn’t have to seek rezoning, as the area was already approved for commercial use.

Frank also notes that there’s been some interest in the Chess Records building, now home to the Blues Heaven Foundation–in the 1950s, Motor Row was known as “Music Row.” Like Motown in miniature, Motor Row was once a center of gospel and blues in the city. The same features which make Motor Row storefronts attractive for businesses today–size, history–also appealed to recording studios, which moved into the area as dealerships moved out.  At one point, there were as many as 40 studios here, recording the bands which earned Chicago its place as a center of American music.  In Chess Records alone, which operated from from 1956 till 1965, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter recorded.  The Rolling Stones even dedicated a song–“2120 South Michigan Avenue”–to the studio.

 

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If plans are realized, “Music Row” may rise again thanks to Rockford natives Cheap Trick–the band behind “I Want You To Want Me” has announced plans for a museum and music venue in the disused Buick Dealership.

Band manager David Frey, speaking to the Sun Times, announced that Cheap Trick Chicago will include “a one-of-a-kind eatery, unique musical instrument museum, radio station, and performance space as well as rooftop and outdoor and event space in the future Music Row in Chicago.”  According to Frey, this is possible in part due to new union rules which will increase the occupancy of McCormick Place.

Just north of Motor Row, the South Loop has undergone a renaissance. Once one of the toniest residential districts of the city, from the late 1800s onward the area suffered from high crime and disuse. At the beginning of the 21st century, developers began to buy up these lots, erecting residential buildings and townhomes, allowing people to once again live in this district within walking distance from the Loop, the Lake, and Grant Park. Motor Row may undergo a similar transformation. The street along which the wealthy once selected their cars, and to which Chicagoans of all classes once traveled, may rise again as a center of business and entertainment. But progress has been slow, and the area is still on the cusp of transformation.

Motor Row occupies a strangely liminal place in the city.  Despite the proximity of the South Loop and McCormick place, it is eerily silent.

If the goal of the NATO Summit was to showcase Chicago as a world city, then the pitfalls of this dream were found on Michigan Avenue: both north of Cermak, where the city attempted to prevent a repeat of the 1968 convention, and south of it, where buildings which are ideal for development sit vacant.  The thousands of conventioneers who come to Chicago every year and stay downtown see only vacant storefronts surrounding a Burger King while being driven down Michigan to McCormick place. What should be a showcase of the industry and ingenuity which helped Chicago rise from the prairies is instead an embarrassing example of the abandonment and urban blight with which the city has struggled since the 1950s.

The transformations of Motor Row inscribe historical changes in the city into physical form.  The facilities of the Illinois Automobile Owners Club, built as a rarefied reserve of wealth and privilege, were acquired in the 1950’s by the Chicago Defender, the African American newspaper which chronicled and shaped the story of the Great Migration.  Its olympic-sized swimming pool was filled in to create a place for the newspaper’s presses. If the big plans of the city and developers are realized, these new stores and entertainment venues which will occupy Motor Row are writing the newest chapter: the transformation of Chicago into a regional and national destination.

Walking down 24th, I meet the Pastor of Quinn Chapel AME Church. Perhaps due to the small number of pedestrians who ordinarily visit this street, he greets me with suspicion.

“You know with NATO coming, people are trying to get in there,” he tells me, pointing to the section of McCormick place visible in the distance.  “You look like one of them.  You’re writing for the Chicago Weekly?  Tell them P­­astor James Moody said don’t come around here.”