“Motor Row” becomes “Music Row”

By Vanessa Morton

Development of a new entertainment district located in the city’s South Loop neighborhood has continued to make progress after a zoning redesignation was introduced by Alderman Robert Fioretti (2nd Ward) and passed in a City Council vote.

The City Council Zoning Committee agreed on the plan during a meeting that was held on Sept. 1. The initiative will try to transform what is known as “Motor Row”—a three-block stretch of South Michigan Avenue between Cermak Road and the Stevenson Expressway—into “Music Row.”

The new zoning approved by the City Council will prevent any future residential growth within the three-block boundary, allowing more room to promote and attract potential business owners. The hopes are to reinvigorate Motor Row’s vacant buildings with new retail stores, restaurants and jazz and blues clubs.

Tina Feldstein, president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance—one of the largest community organizations in the South Loop—said the purpose of changing the zoning boundaries was to give Motor Row the leeway to become an entertainment district.

“The zoning change really defines the idea of the entertainment district coming alive,” Feldstein said. “So, essentially, they are limiting residential development and encouraging commercial retail and entertainment growth.”

Feldstein hopes to see the expansion of blues and jazz clubs, especially because it would celebrate the history of the neighborhood.

Motor Row gained its name during the early 20th century, after the automobile industry sky rocketed. At its peak, Motor Row was home to approximately 116 different automobile dealerships. It became the most popular place to house showrooms for automakers such as Ford and Cadillac.

The district is also historically associated with the music scene. According to John Thomas, acting director of the South Loop Historical Society and director of public relations at East-West University, the far south end of Motor Row was the early northern reaches of the African-American community in Chicago, and eventually became what is known as “the stroll.”

“‘The stroll’ consisted of a bunch of music clubs, and they called it ‘the stroll’ because they’d walk from one club to the next,” Thomas said. “This is where Louie Armstrong was when he came to Chicago bringing New Orleans Jazz.”

The district is also the former home of the famous Chess Records Studios—now the Blues Heaven Foundation—which housed famous musicians, such as Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry. There was also another famous studio called Vee-Jay Records, which ended up distributing some of the first Beatles records in the

United States.

According to Feldstein, the entertainment district has been long-awaited and said it’s time for the city to provide the South Loop much more accessible

commercial retail.

“We not only really want but really need an entertainment destination,” Feldstein said. “There are a huge number of people living here, and we need more usable retail.”

As for the residents, Feldstein said there was a survey put out to the community asking what issues were important to address and the majority agreed with Feldstein and called for much more retail development.

“Our organization supports the alderman and the development of new businesses,” Feldstein said. “So all we ask is that they’ll be respectful to the community, but we’re here to encourage them.”

Kevin Mabry, office manager and tour guide for Blues Heaven—a foundation that educates young artists about the blues—said he supports Music Row.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea; it’ll bring jobs and tourism to the area,” Mabry said. “It will also bring much more visibility to the block.”

In terms of how long it will take for “Motor Row” to turn into “Music Row,” there are still unanswered questions. While the zoning ordinance has been approved already, it’s now up to the city to attract potential businesses to the South Loop area.