Nestled in the center of some of Chicago's most diverse neighborhoods, the industrial Near South Side is a prime place to experience urban living. Because of the historical Mercy Hospital, many medical professionals call this neighborhood home, as do artists taking advantage of the large, open layouts and studio space. The existing warehouses make for ideal loft conversions – the ultimate in “industrial chic” design – and contemporary condominiums provide more conventional homes. Surrounded by a network of highways and public transportation routes, the Near South Side offers residents easy access to other parts of the city and a quick commute to downtown Chicago. As a reinvented manufacturing quarter, the neighborhood still has a ways to go in terms of commercial business, but evidence of a dining district has already emerged.
Like most neighborhoods in Chicago, the Near South Side was once a homeland for Native American tribes, but by the mid-1800s it was overtaken by settlers to the Chicago area. Most of these early residents were employed by the Illinois & Michigan Canal, and later by the lumber industry that was thriving at the time. In 1853, the city of Chicago extended its border to 31st Street, folding the settlement in as a neighborhood.
Despite its new status, the area was still widely considered by city residents as the countryside. With the Civil War in full swing, The Sisters of Mercy decided to move their Chicago hospital further south. Many citizens scoffed at the idea of a hospital so far away, but it didn’t take long for them to eat their words. In 1871, as the city of Chicago was burning from the Great Fire, Mercy became a safe-haven, so far out of the way that not a flame could touch it.
After the fire, some of the city’s most notable families built gilded mansions in the suddenly chic locale, but they didn’t stay long. By 1900, the city’s work in developing an internal rapid transit system made it possible for wealthy families to move further from the city’s center. After the elites fled the neighborhood, industry took over, and by the 1940s the section of town had fallen into decline—warehouses and slum-housing reigned supreme.
By the 60s, it was apparent that what was once referred to as the 'Near Southside' was actually a collection of very different neighborhoods. Chinatown was its own distinct neighborhood, and the historic Prairie District started calling itself just that. What was left behind was a pocket neighborhood, sandwiched between reminders of its former glory. When, in 1968, Mercy Hospital pulled up roots from its home on 26th Street and Calumet Avenue and scooted over a few blocks to settle onto its present lot—where it was free to expand both its facilities and services—the little neighborhood that just couldn’t find its niche became a medical district.
During the housing boom of the 1990s it became desirable to convert industrial warehouses into trendy loft-spaces. Developers embraced the Near Southside neighborhoods for their proximity to the Loop and abundance of industrial properties. The caveat to the popular conversions was that many artists living in those neighborhoods weren’t crazy about the pending gentrification, and in turn started the search for a neighborhood without a Starbucks—an undeniable sign of urban development. They didn’t have to go far. The nearby medical district—the Near South Side neighborhood—became the perfect spot for young artists to get away from it all, without having to move too far away. We suspect that developers already have this little neighborhood on their radar, and that the development happening around it will eventually find its was into the Near South Side, but for now, it remains a refuge from the Starbucks and Condo sect.
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