From Burlesque to Bookstores

By Gregory Cappis

After having a couple of drinks at a bar on South State Street, a man wakes up naked in an alley without his belongings. He has no recollection of the past several hours except for talking to a woman in a dark bar and drinking a strange-tasting cocktail.

This was a common occurrence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the South Loop was known as the largest red-light district in the country. During the past 100 years, the South Loop has been transformed from an area filled with prostitution, drugs and crime into a growing residential community inhabited by college students, families and businessmen.

The process of putting drugs in a person’s drink and knocking them out was named for a Chicago bar owner named Mickey Finn, according to Columbia history professor Dominic Pacyga. This is where the term “slipping a mickey” derives its name.

Many tourists were taken advantage of in this way during the World’s Fair of 1893, causing the South Loop to gain national prominence. Columbia College was established during the same time period.

“People came to the World’s Fair to see Chicago and experience the city’s evils,” said Margaret Hicks, founder of Chicago Elevated, a walking tour company, which recently started offering red-light district tours. “Most men ended up getting robbed before having sex.”

The red-light district continued to blossom as railroads became the main mode of transportation. Dearborn Station, 47 W. Polk St., was a major stop for people traveling to and from Chicago.

“If you were going across country, you would take one railroad to Chicago, maybe stay over for several hours or overnight, then go to a different railroad to continue your journey west,” said John Thomas, acting director of the South Loop

Historical Society.

The high number of transient people, combined with the many local pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers, made the South Loop a breeding ground for the development of a red-light district, Hicks said.

Even the local politicians took a piece of the action. Each ward had two aldermen at that time. Aldermen “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna ran vice in the South Loop. They protected the many whorehouses, gambling and heroin dens in the First Ward, which included the South Loop, according to Pacyga.

Once a year the First Ward Ball took place at the Chicago Coliseum on Wabash Avenue and 15th Street. Coughlin and Kenna would invite most of the male executives from the Loop to the extravaganza, he said.

“The doors in the back would open, and all the prostitutes would walk in, and they would have this huge bacchanalia going on to raise money for the local Democratic organization,” Pacyga said.

State Street, otherwise known as skid row, contained 28 houses of vice in the six-block stretch between Van Buren and 11th streets during the late 1920s.

“The ’40s was about the densest period where it was at its worst,” Thomas said.

The South Loop started to become much more violent and dilapidated, according to Thomas. Single-room-occupancy hotels sprouted up throughout the neighborhood, providing an extremely inexpensive place to stay for the night. Some SROs can still be found across the city though in stark contrast to their large presence midcentury.

“The worst point of the neighborhood, where it was nothing but bums and homeless people and drinking and panhandling, was about 1980,” Thomas said.

The Columbia of today began to appear in the mid-1960s, Pacyga said, but it didn’t have a permanent home until 1974, when Columbia bought what is now the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave.

Pacyga started at Columbia in 1980 as the remaining houses of vice were being

swept away.

He said when he started teaching, the site of the Harold Washington Library Center at State Street and Congress Parkway was a burlesque house. There were also various kinds of peep shows and adult bookstores in the area, he added.

Many factors led to the taming of the South Loop, including a new openness towards sexuality, the availability of municipal funding for gentrification, the formation of Dearborn Park and colleges being established.

Dearborn Park, a residential community just south of Dearborn Station, was built in the 1970s. It reclaimed several square miles of old railroad tracks and led the way for the area’s development, Thomas said.

It was based on the suburban plan of self-containing neighborhoods, which were seducing people away from the city.

“Dearborn Park was the first big redevelopment,” Pacyga said.

Then, he said, Printers Row on Dearborn Street began to turn into lofts and

artists’ studios.

Columbia joined Roosevelt University in the South Loop and created an institutional base. DePaul University united with the two after a building was purchased at State and Van Buren streets, according to Pacyga.

“Suddenly the Loop, especially the South Loop, begins to turn into a college town in the ’80s and ’90s, especially the ’90s,” Pacyga said. “So today, it’s the largest college town in Illinois.”

Hicks navigates her tourists around the South Loop to illustrate differences between the romantic, the reality and “what was really going on behind

closed doors.”