“It’s like a house without a kitchen!” My friend continued her critique of our residential neighborhood unsupported by viable retail, grocery stores and attractive shops.
Eight years ago, I discovered South Shore with astonishment at its beautiful setting and quality of architecture. The longer I live here, meandering the streets and avenues, the more I am impressed.
I enjoy walking down residential side streets near my home between South Shore Drive and Jeffery Avenue. Handsome houses bordered by well-kept lawns present an image of quiet prosperity, respectability, orderliness. Homes on Oglesby, Crandon, Paxton, Luella and Merrill Avenues between 71st and 75th Streets associate with the former South Shore Country Club to the north and the splendid St. Philip of Neri
Catholic Church to the west. Obviously, these homes were built for people with professional and upper level management careers or owners of successful businesses. Folks of the same social strata occupy these places today, but many are retired. I’ve chatted with proud homeowners, occupants for forty years of impeccably maintained Chicago bungalows and stunning mansions along those avenues.
Predominately Chicago style brick houses from the 1920’s comprise this neighborhood; a few idiosyncratic places with a Frank Lloyd Wright influence built in the 1910’s are beyond charming: they speak to the modern artistic taste of the original owners. This was a neighborhood of up-and-coming early 20th century Chicagoans. Blocks of single family residences like these can be found in a many other desirable Chicago area neighborhoods.
However, here in South Shore, the disconcerting condition of the wider streets running east to west taints these lovely homes, creating the perception of another south-of-the-Loop community scarred by misuse and disinvestment.
For the most part, the classic Art Deco, post World War I architecture is intact on the retail corridors. Long, low buildings, gracefully adorned with art deco terra cotta line thoroughfares designed to provide small businesses and professional services in to a residential neighborhood. Today, if these handsome buildings aren’t vacant, they just offer commerce appropriate to low-income communities such as Dollar Stores and fast food take-outs. Some are aggressively, blatantly postered like the enormous school-bus yellow WIGS sign across the tracks from a nearly abandoned Jeffery Plaza.
Regaling newcomers with wistful recollections of the economic vitality and splendid streetscapes that once distinguished 71st, 75th and 79th streets, neighbors and acquaintances support their fond memories with old photos and yellowed community papers. Somewhat apologetic, like embarrassed hosts excusing the living room’s untidiness to guests, many long time residents express shame and remorse about the appearance of their community. Perhaps the mortification is justified: community action saved the keystone of the neighborhood, the fabulous South Shore Country Club, now the South Shore Cultural Center; then allowed the main streets to crumble.
71st Street, 75th Street and 79th Street virtually welcome criminal activity. Surrounded by absentee landlords, vacant lots and low-end stores whose employees are not particularly motivated to challenge a weapon carrier, the handful of owner run businesses are seriously out-numbered. These retail corridors are begging for an ambitious “broken window” campaign. Many communities, including several Chicago neighborhoods have demonstrated over and over again that attention to details like sprucing up the store fronts and cleaning the sidewalks discourages disrespectful behavior and encourages legitimate, desirable businesses to fill the void. Ultimately, this effort restores pride in the community, but it takes a determined community to effect the change. Recently, a Special Services Area, a local taxing entity, has planted new trees and upgraded the street lights along 71st Street. It’s a start, but as of now, the loiterers and “loose square” dealers still own the walkways.
South Shore’s architectural assets, as well as the fact that it is a lake-front community, attracted the attention of The Chicago Architecture Foundation, co-founded by a woman who lived her entire life in South Shore. Marianne DesPres resided for most of her time here in the beautiful co-op apartment building on South Shore Drive that her father, Albert Alschuler, one of Chicago’s premier 20th century architects, designed. CAF has provided support for training and certification of tour-givers, called docents, members of the South Shore community to give tours of this historic and architecturally rich neighborhood.
I am one of the tour-givers for this neighborhood, and am delighted to share what I have learned and observed about this unique part of Chicago. Expressing our knowledge and enthusiasm for South Shore bolsters the community pride that will encourage reinvestment and bring about revitalization of our retail corridors.
“Walking Tours” of South Shore Drive can be given scheduled upon request. This tour is an information-packed two-hour stroll. We cover a mile along Lake Michigan for a $5.00 fee. If you are interested, you can respond to this blog in the Comments.