One Penultimite lived in Chicago for 2 years (2007-2009). She lived on the border of the West Loop and Noble Square. That’s about 1 mile out of the CBD, or what is known in Chicago as The Loop. We’ve just realised there are some pretty interesting parallels between the West Loop and Ultimo.
The West Loop was formerly an industrial area (and in some senses this continues). Much of it was a meatpacking district, and cycling around the backstreets can still be a very stinky affair. Rotting meat makes you cycle fast, even if you’re on a rickety old three-speed Schwinn.
It was also a busy immigrant area - at least in the residential sections - with communities Little Italy, Maxwell Street, Greektown. There are remnants of those days (albeit mostly in the form of restaurants), and the area now has a large Hispanic population, as well as increasing numbers of white people wearing lycra.
You do occasionally see old guys sitting out on the ‘sidewalk’. They’re not just your regular old kodgers, they look like Italian ex-Mafioso types, sitting by the side of Grand Avenue in foldable chairs, still commanding the road with their presence. Their elderly wives come out onto the sidewalk with trays bearing espressos and cigarettes. The men sit there, staring at the traffic, drinking their coffees. There are no trees for shade - but since Chicago is only warm for four months of the year, everyone takes as much sun as they can get.
In the West Loop, many old warehouses have been converted into galleries, studios, etc., and Harpo Studios is there too — that’s where Oprah records her shows. As with most of Chicago, the roads in the West Loop are wide, flat, and pot-hole filled. The El-train rumbles overhead.
If you’re on foot, you can walk for two or three miles before you hit your destination. It’s a sprawling, low density sort of area. If you’re a woman, chances are you’ll be continually beeped at from drivers, as you walk. This is normal for most parts of Chicago (but not really ok).
But there are new developments turning up - apartments, the West Loop Athletic Club, restaurants … and some fabulous old warehouses are sadly being demolished. We have mixed feelings about this sort of change.
Noble Square, like Ultimo, was carved up by a big freeway (although this happened a few decades earlier than it did with Ultimo and the City-west link). Also, the sheer scale of the expressways is so much bigger than in Sydney.
Once, when we were walking across a bridge (view pictured above), we looked out to the freeway, and saw a shipping container fly off a truck - through the air, and land on the road, blocking three lanes of traffic. Somehow - no one collided with it.
What were we trying to get at with this post? It is partly a coincidence that we have ended up in yet another post-industrial, inner city zone - nowhere in the middle of everything. And what does it mean to be nowhere in the middle of everything - rather than somewhere in the middle of everything? Where is somewhere in the middle anyway? Can you only be in the middle if you’re in New York, still? Echoes of that old provincialism problem …
What’s next for Sydney’s “nowhere in the middle”? Zetland? Does Zetland have an interesting urban history? Is there a Zetland blog, does anybody know?