Walking in Roseland (October 27, 2009)





The far South Side neighborhood of Roseland was founded as a suburb of Chicago in the 1860s, by Dutch immigrants who nicknamed it “High Prairie” due to its elevated situation. The area enjoyed a booming heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it served as a satellite community for the nearby Pullman factory. South Michigan Avenue was once a veritable warehouse of big name, flashy department stores and businesses, a multicultural Magnificent Mile that serviced residents and employees of the local steel mills and railroad workers.

However in the 1960s, Roseland fell upon hard times with the exodus of steel plants and the slow disintegration of Pullman’s operations. The tremendous loss of jobs caused a “white flight” from the area that only exacerbated Roseland’s downward economic fortunes. Sadly, in recent years, Roseland has gained notoriety for more violent headlines such as these:



It was to Roseland that Sam and I were sent this week in our work with the Chicago Office of Tourism. The decision makers on the Neighborhood Mapping Project mean absolute business when they say they want to bring marketing and tourist attention to ALL of Chicago and I applaud them. Truth be told, perhaps I am being terribly naive, but I had no real qualms about going to the neighborhood. The residents of Roseland are people like anybody else and I wasn’t planning on being stupid. Yesterday we rode the Metra Electric to 115th Street, and today we opted to take the Red Line all the way to 95th. Both days we stuck to the main streets.

Anyway, the point of this post is this: why is that the people who have the least in terms of resources are often the most welcoming? I cannot tell you how many times I have been treated like crap, or flat out ignored in the most well to do trendy neighborhoods on the North Side – and this bad attitude permeates every walk of North Side life: bus drivers, shop workers, etc.

As Sam and I walked along South Michigan near 113th St., a concerned passerby actually asked us what we were doing there. I didn’t take the time to explain the whole project, but I assured this kindly elder gentleman that we knew what we were doing.

While patronizing Old Fashioned Donuts, a truly original and authentic local hangout with cheap and delicious cinnamon rolls (I know from experience), a few of the customers spent a minute or two checking Sam and I out, but not in any rude or derisive way. And once they had a good look, one of the men seated at a table nearby asked me how I was enjoying my doughnut. After I relayed my enthusiastic opinion that my treat was pretty damned good, he proudly declared the shop, “the best in the City” as if he owned the place.

It was then I realized what is missing in large degree from the North Side – a sense of ownership. Has gentrification stripped Lakefront Northerners of the ability to feel community? Is there just one too many Starbucks or Whole Foods stores in the way of neighborhood identity?

I am by no means recommending that you pack up the car and take the kids down to Roseland for a Saturday good time. It’s not quite ready for that yet. But if King Daley spread the stolen wealth around a bit instead of keeping it downtown and along the North Lake Shore exclusively, I think he’d find Roseland and neighborhoods like it have all the raw materials a great destination needs. People in this place actually care. Imagine that.


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