Chicago’s former Skid Row is a big subject. From its beginnings around the turn of the last century to its demise by the 1980s, there is much to be said of life amid the squalor of West Madison Street.
A Personal Perspective
When I visited Chicago (from Milwaukee) in the early 1980s with my husband, we explored parts of the city most tourists wouldn’t see. Because he had gone to college in Chicago, he knew a city beyond the tourist zones. We explored Uptown where he had worked at a runaway shelter. We drove past Cabrini Green. And we drove through what was left of Skid Row. I remember being shocked and saddened by the down-and-out men lining the streets.
Fast forward to today. Leading some architecture tours on a Chicago River boat, I felt compelled to mention Skid Row as we glided along the South Branch, past the glass and steel office towers that have replaced the derelict area. I had done a little research and found that Time magazine discussed Chicago’s Skid Row in 1949, calling it “Land of the Living Dead” – and I used that phrase in my tours.
Chicago Daily News Exposé
I recently located the Time article. It is actually the story of how the Chicago Daily News found a good story in Skid Row. Time leads off with: “Along West Madison Street, within sight of the handsome Daily News skyscraper, sprawls the noisome slum of saloons, hash-joints, missions and flophouses that Chicago calls Skid Row. One morning last June, as he picked his way to work through Skid Row’s reeking garbage and broken bottles, and stepped past the bodies of sleeping derelicts on the sidewalks, Daily News Managing Editor Everett C. Norlander felt his stomach turn over. His next reaction was that he was walking through a good story.”
Norlander sent two young “rewrite” men to live as “bums” in order to write an exposé. Bill Mooney and Fred Bird spent two weeks on Skid Row. “In the twelve-part series, Reporters Mooney and Bird described the worst of 82 squalid saloons in three-quarters of a Madison Street mile (most of them selling the “morning special,” a double shot of whisky for 18¢), listed the names & addresses of saloonkeepers who were breaking the state liquor and health laws, and put the finger on couldn’t-care-less cops. The reporters took their readers on a guided tour of 46 flophouses, where 12,413 bums slept in lousy cubicles for 50¢ or 60¢ a night. They watched hard-faced jackrollers stripping the pockets and stealing the shoes from sodden bums, saw prostitutes plying their trade amid the lumber piles and back alleys, found that ‘a surprisingly large number [of derelicts] at one time were trusted employees, executives or professional men.'”
The story shocked Chicagoans, prompted a crackdown on the area…and boosted circulation of the Daily News by 20,000 copies a day.
Photograph of Madison Street, 1973 (unattributed photographer); current site of Presidential Towers.