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Tiffany Lane/MEDILL

William Tyre (in doorway), executive director and curator of the Glessner House Museum, says preserving the historic buildings of the neighborhood is vital.


A neighborhood coming back has come back far enough, group says

by Tiffany Lane
June 08, 2011


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Tiffany Lane/MEDILL

Organizations like the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance push for improvements in use of green space in the area.



The cycles of neighborhoods in a city have been much studied. One Chicago area that has been way up and way down is making its way back up – and some residents are working to help it find its footing right where it is now.

“We have a city that does have modern skyscrapers but it does preserve what once was,” said Darryl Dixon, manager of visitor services for the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.

Prairie Avenue, an upscale neighborhood that was once home to some of the wealthiest people in the country, has been fighting its way back after its post-industrial desertion in the early 1990s.

The neighborhood gained its original fame in the 1880s, when more than 90 mansions lined the several-block stretch just south of downtown, housing such Chicago names as railroad titan George Pullman and department store mogul Marshall Field.

By the early 1900s, however, the rich were moving north and industry began to take over the neighborhood. Many residents followed Bertha and Potter Palmer to North Lake Shore Drive, where lake views were not impeded by railroad lines.

Today, the neighborhood is being revived as a residential community with commercial shopping and family life.

Tina Feldstein, founder and president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance that began in 2006, is opposed to high rises and industrialization in the area.

Feldstein said she would like to see many improvements made to accommodate the residents of the community. She said some of the developments she would like to see include creating a retail walking community, providing more shopping, more open space with parks and entertainment and more services for people with dogs. Mainly she would like another public school in the South Loop because of current overcrowding in existing schools.

“Ideally we want to see the growth, but we want to still keep the feel of community,” she said.

Feldstein said her group wants to cultivate the charm of the neighborhood.

“When you come down here, people talk to each other,” she said. “They know each other. It’s a real neighborhood here.”

Feldstein said that although there will never again be the 90 mansions lining Prairie Avenue, preventing future high-rise developments will help preserve the historic nature of the neighborhood.

William Tyre, executive director and curator of the Glessner House Museum, a national historic landmark located in the heart of Prairie Avenue, said the district began to lose its historic distinctiveness once the South Loop began to grow and began to take on its identity.

Tyre said the neighborhood moved toward becoming residential again in the early 1990s when loft buildings converted to residential use after the tenant businesses moved to the suburbs or closed.

Since density has increased, he said, groups are trying to control what housing is built.

“There is so much investment in creating the residential character of the neighborhood so I don’t see it changing for a long time,” he said.

Dixon, who was born and raised in Chicago, said that the Prairie Avenue District as well as other neighborhoods have changed over time.

“They’re not what they originally were,” he said. “Even as neighborhoods have evolved, each new group that goes in brings in their own flair to the neighborhood that still makes it distinct.”

He said that new homes can be built in the neighborhood but follow the original style.