Seven years ago, I remember how much I couldn’t stand living in the Gold Coast neighborhood. I wanted a bigger place, I wanted a place where I could get a dog, I wanted a place where I could walk and it feel like a neighborhood in this cement jungle. I was tired of all the tourists and shoppers and drunk 21 yr olds stumbling out of clubs and bars. A place in the city where I can walk on a Saturday morning to a coffee shop, local produce, meat and even a plant nursery for all my gardening needs. When I first moved to the West Loop, that’s exactly what I got. A place quiet enough to sleep in (minus that stupid garbage truck). A place where I can get flowers, tomatoes, ground lamb and coffee within 2 blocks of each other without paying retail prices. A place where the rooftops are accessible by stairs and not elevators. A place where I can go out on to my balcony, plant my herbs, talk to my neighbors and actually have a dining room big enough to seat eight people! It was the best move I made. Thing is…all good things come to an end…or at least what goes up, must come down…I can cliché all day!
Gentrification happens everywhere…especially in cities as big as Chicago with a continuously growing population. It doesn’t happen overnight, even though it often feels like it. When I first moved, I was a consumer…took advantage of all the eccentricities of the West Loop. Then a year later, I started my private chef business and realized even more the importance of this industrial neighborhood. The produce at N&G (on the corner of Randolph and Peoria) was pennies compared to the Dominick’s on the corner. Getting custom lamb cuts from Olympia (on Randolph) totally allowed me to provide luxury dishes for commodity prices. The fish and seafood selections at both Rubino’s and Isaacson Stein (both located in the Fulton Market District) made it seem like we lived on a coastal shore with their wholesale prices available to the public…not to mention their full-service fish mongers that would do anything you asked! The easy access to catering equipment, disposables, pots & pans and all other cooking needs was not only efficient, but economical! Bottom line…lower my costs, lower my prices for my clients. The whole champagne taste, beer budget thing…I proved it wrong time and time again. From a business standpoint, I couldn’t have had it better.
From a personal standpoint, I could walk into N&G…John, his father, his mother, his daughter…all knew me and greeted me with a kiss on the cheek every time. John knew my orders, would let me break cases of specialty produce that he could have sold to a caterer larger than myself. Then, one day I saw the owner of my fave Italian deli, J.P. Graziano, walk in and get some emergency tomatoes and I saw them talk as if they’ve known each other for years! Oh wait…their families had known each other for years! Then I remember seeing the owner of J.P.’s getting saran wrap and deli containers from Alliance Paper just a few doors down as I was picking up my order and saw even more how connected the small businesses on this street were. It was like Cheers…on Randolph! Every knew each other’s names, and after a year or two, they even knew mine. I would grab a beer at The Beer Bistro with Dennis, whose family owns Isaacson & Stein, the fish place. I even saw Chef Cantu (Rest in Peace), of Moto, at Herzog on Madison which is a wholesale restaurant equipment and supply shop and talked to him about some new gastronomical method of making sauce. What I loved about all this was how tied the neighborhood was from its business owners to its local vendors to its customers.
Then it started…almost simultaneously…the original restaurant row on Randolph started to turn over and chefs like Top Chef Winner, Stephanie Izard joined Chef Paul Kahan, one of the original pioneers of the West Loop. The more people came to eat at these new places, the more people started to look at this neighborhood differently. The word got out, this was the “it” neighborhood and the surge started. I think gentrification is important as it stimulates growth in commerce, traffic and property values for up and coming neighborhoods. At the time, I was all for it. I loved that there were new places to eat and drink, that there were more people walking around at night so it felt more secure and honestly, I loved that more of my friends were moving in! It was like Cheers met Sesame Street with a little sprinkle of Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood…although, those puppets still freak me out. But what’s taking it too far where it’s no longer restoration but now saturation?
That is happening now…it started to affect me really about 3 years ago, when Rick Bayless moved in and took out N&G Produce, well the landlord got greedy and gave John no notice to relocate…he still hasn’t reopened his consumer shop. Then Alliance and the plant nursery locations were vacated due to sales of the property or rent increases. That neighborhood feel is gone. I used to be able to walk down Randolph and get a seat at a great restaurant immediately because they knew I was a regular, a local. Now, there month long waits just to get a reservation. I get annoyed at every person that says I’m so lucky to live in the West Loop, as they are the ones taking my seats at the bar. Yeah, that’s right, it’s now getting personal! I lost my vendors, thus driving my costs up, resulting in a loss of profit as now I have lost clients that can’t afford me. I can lower what I charge so they can afford me, but the results in lower profit margins is still the same. I can’t buy wholesale items in consumer retail quantities, which is what these local businesses allowed me to do. Now, I shop at Whole Foods, Mariano’s, Restaurant Depot (praying that they allow me to break open some wholesale boxes to get the small quantities I need). I just learned that Isaacson’s is moving and that almost broke me last week. It’s hard enough getting seafood in a Midwestern state, now I will be forced to drive miles and cost in gas to find it or get charged a markup of 300% at Whole Foods for a comparable product. Either way, it’s more money coming out of my pocket. Of course, someone will tell me that I should be grateful that my property values are skyrocketing, so that should make up for the rise in cost…well, unless the banks are going to give me that money now while I still live here, it’s still more money going than coming.
I love this neighborhood, most likely always will regardless of how different it is from the day I moved in. I’m not a stick in the mud, I do respect growth and see it as necessary. Just when is it too fast, too much…some of it unnecessary? When it’s about greed and not necessity…it’s no longer about the residents or the commerce. Sure, I have an angle too, I have a business that thrives on my environment. My clients see the effect of the climate of my neighborhood as well. While I know that it will never go back to the days of going from getting morels from John, a sandwich from Jim, fresh tuna from Dennis and then maybe a new dill plant all in one long walk…this neighborhood doesn’t need to feel like a bullet train heading towards the end of a cliff…where’s the balance?