The Story of River North
Part of the Near North Side community area, the River North neighborhood is shimmering with art galleries, trendy bars, restaurants, and nightlife.
In the 1830s, railroad executive and first mayor of Chicago William Ogden began developing the land his family owned, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. The land, which included Goose Island, was home to several industries, including breweries, soap factories, and tanneries.
Watch: River North
River North has long been marked by a division between the rich and poor. Poorer Irish workers and other immigrants settled in the western portion of the Near North Side in what is now called River North. The wealthy built stately homes along the lake in the Gold Coast, Magnificent Mile, and Streeterville areas. Into the 20th century, the construction of Cabrini-Green exacerbated the economic divide (read more below).
Today, many large tech companies have also set up shop in the neighborhood. River North also features some of the city’s architectural landmarks, such as Marina City Towers and the sprawling Merchandise Mart. It still houses showrooms and offices for major companies. The Red and Brown lines serve River North, with stops at Clark and Division, Grand, Chicago, and the Merchandise Mart.
Neighborhood Spotlight: Cabrini-Green
Before the area was known as Cabrini-Green, it had many nicknames: “Swede Town,” for its Swedish immigrants; “Little Sicily,” for its Sicilian immigrants; and even “Little Hell,” thanks to nearby coal gasification plants and steel mills that sent smoke and flames into the air, making living conditions miserable.
By the early twentieth century, the city’s population grew and became more racially diverse. During World War II, the Chicago Housing Authority tore down Little Hell and built an apartment project for laborers working to support the war. The two-story row homes, arranged on a grid and named for Frances Xavier Cabrini (an American saint), were to serve as a kind of nationwide test for public housing. But once the war was over and the jobs left, the project began to decline.
In the 1950s, the city built the 15-building Cabrini Extension. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “the original population of Cabrini-Green reflected the area's prior ethnic mix; poor Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans lived among the war workers and veterans.” By the 1960s, African Americans who had been subjected to segregation lived in the project, and the Chicago Housing Authority built more than 1,000 new units with the William Green Homes. A decade later, the neglected Cabrini-Green neighborhood was known for its high crime rate and gang violence.
In 1997, the city, led by Mayor Richard M. Daley, announced a redevelopment plan that called for the demolition of the Cabrini-Green housing. In 2011, the last high-rise was brought down, its residents displaced and sent to live in other public housing. The two-story rowhomes still stand, as more luxury high-rises are being built to the east on the Near North Side.