Chicago’s Skid Row

0 Posted by - December 1, 2014 - Vintage View

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.

15 Comments

  • Shawn December 1, 2014 - 4:10 pm Reply

    The 15 cent shot of whiskey blows my mind. Thanks for posting where the photo was on Madison st. Didn’t realize how close it was to the loop.

  • Wendy December 1, 2014 - 4:16 pm Reply

    I found this pretty mind-boggling, too. Thanks for your comment, Shawn.

    • John Robert Bland October 15, 2016 - 1:33 pm Reply

      Hello Wendy
      I know Sid Row well. We lived at 1906 w. Monroe when I was starting elementary school and then to Henry Horner. I walked with my friends through Skid Row. We got our hair cut at the barber college and we were daring enough to go and watch movies there. It was a sad place. I am writing a children like book and would like to get permission to use one of your photo street view of Skid Row around the mid sixties. Will give credit in book. Thank you.

      • Wendy October 16, 2016 - 5:35 am Reply

        Hi, John – your book sounds interesting. The photo I use here has no photographer cited and is circa 1973.

  • Donna Primas December 4, 2014 - 9:40 am Reply

    When working on my master’s degree 1979-1980, I frequently walked from Ogilvie Station to classes at the University of Illinois Circle Campus in my combat boots and faded bib overalls past men sleeping in doorways. I am glad to see how things have changed.

    • Wendy December 4, 2014 - 9:51 am Reply

      I love the combat boots! Thanks for sharing that, Donna.

  • Steve Wylder August 9, 2015 - 12:51 pm Reply

    As a 15-year-old high school student, I saw Skid Row from the Madison bus after a pilgrimage to the SDS headquarters. The area has certainly gone upscale, but the down-and-out are still with us. The Single Room Occupancy hotels are completely gone from West Madison, and few remain in Chicago as a whole. At least the SROs gave a modicum of safety to the homeless.
    http://ontheslowtrain.blogspot.com/2015/07/west-madison-street-revisited.html

    • Wendy August 9, 2015 - 1:08 pm Reply

      Thank you for sharing that, Steve. So true.

  • John Robert Bland October 15, 2016 - 1:26 pm Reply

    My friends and I would walk through Skid Row from downtown back to Henry Horner Homes. It was a very depressed place and all I remembered were white men. Once before I knew what a hooker was, I saw one of those men walk down to the 2000 block of Madison where this black lady was standing in the doorway of an apartment building. He went inside the doorway with her and came out within seconds and I stood near wondering what happened. Author of Urban Removal Westside Chicago. @JRBland_Author

    • Wendy October 16, 2016 - 5:33 am Reply

      Wow, John, quite a memory. Thanks for sharing that.

  • Pam D. March 4, 2017 - 10:32 pm Reply

    I just happened across this page. I have been trying to help my friend learn more about her biological father who up and left the family around 1959/1960. She just received his death certificate and it listed 66 West Buren Street as a last known address. He died on Oct 17, 1985 at University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago. How would a person find out what was at that address during this time period. It appears to be parking complex area now. At one time in the early 1900’s – it was the location of the Vestibule Hotel. I am just wondering if her father was on skid row and what this address was in 1985. Any information would be helpful on that location would be great.

    • Wendy March 13, 2017 - 10:59 pm Reply

      Hi, Pam – How kind of you to help your friend. I did some research and couldn’t come up with much on that address, except the following from RootsWeb – Irish In Chicago archives. Nan Brennan, who seems like a Chicago expert, replies to a question as to if 66 W Van Buren was technically in Skid Row? She replies:

      “That’s an interesting question, Ed.
      And I’ll look forward to reading input from others on our list. To me, Van Buren has always been a strange street. A sort of dividing line in away. 66 west Van buren, in 1930, would have been one of many SROs on that
      street, probably mostly filled with the working poor, laborers, and visitors and transients in need of inexpensive housing, as well as the unemployed. It was in 1930 and is at the south end of “the Loop” and on the fringe of the Chicago Finanical district amid a lot of office buildings. It was in 1930 and is amid and within a block or two of many great Chicago Institutions and Architecturally significant buildings: the old Federal Building, the Monadnock Building, the Chicago Board of Trade, the Art Institute of Chicago, many exclusive private clubs, the Standard Club, Chicago Athletic Association, etc, Roosevelt University, DePaul University, The Conrad Hilton Hotel (Old Stephens
      Hotel), the Rock Island Railroad LaSalle St Station, the Auditorium Theatre. It was a short walk-less than two blocks- to Grant Park, a beautiful park on Michigan Avenue and a couple more blocks east to Lake Michigan. But immediately south of Van Buren on State St in the 1930s, it would have been a bit honky tonk: cheap theatres, arcades, burlesque clubs, poolhalls, I think some vaudville, too. etc.—a vice district and I think it remained so thru the forties, maybe into the fifties. It was fringe…….on the fringe of wealth and culture and on the fringe of skid row. Nan”
      Pam, I would add that that immediate area was beginning to change with the 1970s addition of the Metro Correctional facility across the street, and in the mid-1980s with the development of the new Chicago library center nearby…but that it probably still retained its SRO-on-the-border character at the time of his death. I am guessing, but think that parking structure would have replaced the old Vestibule Hotel in the late 1980s. Hope that helps a little. Wendy

  • Pam D. March 13, 2017 - 11:17 pm Reply

    Thank you so much – yes, this is helpful. I appreciate your response so much.

  • TinoGon August 23, 2017 - 7:12 pm Reply

    For more vivid description of skid row Read Willard Motleys novel: Knock on any Door, and Let no man write my Epitaph, both of which were made into major motion pictures starring Humphrey Bogart.

    • Wendy August 24, 2017 - 5:39 am Reply

      Thank you for that, TinoGon!

    Leave a reply

    Book Your Tour!