Illinois 7th District
An airplane passenger on a cloudless day can get a clear view of the biggest man-made cityscape between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans: Chicago’s Loop. Its high-rises and parks along Lake Michigan were pioneered a century ago, and the downtown district was named in 1897 for the quadrilateral shape the elevated train forms around the city’s center. International School modernists built their most impressive collection of buildings here and along Lake Shore Drive in the years after World War II. In recent years, postmodernists have reinvented the skyscraper. The Loop now spreads beyond the elevated train, or the “El” as it’s known locally. It reaches west beyond the financial exchanges to the 110-story Sears Tower—the third tallest building in the world—situated near the Chicago River. The Loop reaches north and stops at the Gold Coast, the wondrous shopping district along North Michigan Avenue. West of the Gold Coast is the River North neighborhood, which has become one of the city’s most vibrant. This is the face Chicago likes to present to the world: giant structures rising where the prairies meet the inland sea, a vast concentration of brains and muscle, the nerve center of the nation’s commodities markets.
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Behind the lakefront are the muscle and sinew, gristle and fat of the city. There are parts that do not work so well: Houses and apartment buildings are abandoned, commercial space stands empty and vandalized, and public housing projects are crime racked. (Although Mayor Richard M. Daley has been systematically tearing down old housing projects, such as the Robert Taylor Homes, built by his famous mayor father in a failed experiment to concentrate the poor in a few locations.) The West Side of Chicago, the vast acres directly west of the Loop, for years was a grimy and dangerous slum, with some areas almost completely abandoned. The decay spread west to the Austin neighborhood, almost to the city border with upper-income and racially integrated Oak Park. Many factories that made Chicago the chocolate and candy center of the nation were shuttered, and production went mostly overseas. In the 1990s, there was some revival. The United Center, the erstwhile home court of Michael Jordan, sparked commercial development of the West Side, and lower crime rates raised land values. Former meatpacking buildings have been turned into art galleries. A massive new downtown dormitory houses students from nearby DePaul University, Roosevelt University and Columbia College.
The 7th Congressional District of Illinois contains the Loop and most of the North Michigan corridor and the Near North Side, where the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project has been replaced by new, mixed-market housing. It goes south, past landmark museums, Soldier Field and 19th-century mansions along Prairie Avenue to take in a few South Side neighborhoods chronicled in the groundbreaking 1945 book Black Metropolis. Its heart, demographically and spiritually, is the predominately African-American West Side, which is more depopulated and socially disorganized than the predominately black South Side. To the west, just outside city limits, are Oak Park, the boyhood home of writer Ernest Hemingway and the location of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and museum and many of his prairie-style houses. There is also well-heeled River Forest; more modest Maywood, which is a black-majority suburb; and Broadview and Hillside. Just over half of the district are African-American.