Roseland’s South Michigan Avenue Commercial District, is the commercial center and heart of this Far-South Side community, located approximately 15 miles from downtown Chicago. Situated on a hilltop-ridge, the corridor extends between 100th Street and the viaduct just south of 115th Street, with the central core of the existing commercial district located between 110th and 115th Streets. Once referred to by local residents as “The Avenue,” the street’s viability as a commercial corridor began to deteriorate and fade in the mid-1970s. Over the decades, some historic buildings have been remodeled and covered with new facades, and many other iconic and significant commercial buildings, which further helped to define the district, have been lost to demolition. However, it is important to protect, restore and reuse the remaining structures—many of them noteworthy in their overall design and materials, to honor the legacy and history of this remarkable community and encourage a holistic approach to further promote economic revitalization along the South Michigan Avenue commercial corridor.
The Roseland community was established with settlements in 1849 by Dutch immigrants mainly from the villages of Eenigenburg and Schoorl, in the Netherlands. The initial group of early Dutch settlers traveled to America on a ship called the Massachusetts of Boston. While journeying in route from France to New York, an outbreak of Asiatic cholera impacted the ship, with 17 members of the original 64 passengers lost. Arriving in Buffalo, New York, they headed to Chicago on a steamer ship through the Great Lakes, and docked at the Chicago River. From that point, they travelled a series of long roads southward from the city center, and settling in the unincorporated Calumet Region. The initial settlements were perched on the west ridge of Lake Calumet, and located near both the Grand Calumet and Little Calumet Rivers, and nearby to Lake Michigan. The area being part of a vast prairie and nearby wetlands. Noting this geography of their settlement on the natural ridge, the early Dutch settlers called the area “High Prairie” and were later to be known as “the Hollanders of High Prairie.” The initial settlers, now remembered and honored as the “Nine Founding Fathers of Roseland” included Johannes Ambuul, Jakob and Pieter Dr Jong, Klaas and Pieter Dalenberg, Jan Jonker, Cornelis Kuyper, Jan Ton and Leendert van der Sijde, along with their families. They purchased land along an “old Indian Trail,” also known as “Chicago-Thornton Road,” “Holland Settlement Road” and “High Road,” which later became South Michigan Avenue in Roseland.
Further settlement came in 1852, with the establishment of the Michigan Central Railroad and the Illinois Central Railroad in the area to the east, and the Calumet (later known as Kensington) Station, which later became part of a vast switching yard for the trains. In 1860, the Lincoln administration appointed the first postmaster for the area, naming the post office Hope, Illinois.
Dutch residents of Roseland supported President Abraham Lincoln, vowing to help the Union, where possible, during the American the Civil War, 1861-1865. According to the book Down An Indian Trail in1849: The Story of Roseland, “It is well known that [Kornelius/Cornelius] Kuyper’s home was a station on the Underground Railroad and that he was a valuable member of that organization. As an Abolitionist and local Magistrate, he helped many fleeing slaves, seeing that they were safely conducted to the home of [Roseland settler] Jan Ton on the Little Calumet River, thence to Hammond, Indiana, Tremont, Indiana, Detroit, Michigan, and finally Canada.” Other important Roseland figures in the Underground Railroad included Charles Volney Dyer (1808-1878), who was a prominent abolitionist and “Stationmaster,” hosting many freedom seekers, along with the Dalton Brothers (Charles and Henry) and both Jan/John Ton (1826-1896) and his wife Aggie Vander Syde-Ton, who resided on a farm the north bank of the Calumet River from 1859 to 1867.
In 1873, Colonel James Bowen (1822-1881), known as “The Father of South Chicago,” and a real estate developer, was the first president of the Calumet and Chicago Canal Dock Company, suggested the area be renamed “Roseland” because of all the beautiful flowers, roses and gardens that abounded, planted by the Dutch settlers. Bowen also renamed other nearby areas including Kensington (formerly called “Calumet”/” Calumet Station”), Riverdale and Burnside in 1873. In 1880, Bowen sold thousands of acres of land to the Pullman Land Association for the Pullman Car Works, also referred to as the “Chicago Works of the Pullman Palace Company.”
In 1883, four-thousand of acres of land, became the planned industrial town of Pullman, which was established by American Industrialist, George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897) for the manufacturing of passenger railroad cars. The town of Pullman, was planned for a site just east of Roseland, and designed by architect Solon Spencer Beman (1853-1914) and landscape architect, Nathan Franklin Barrett (1845-1919). Pullman was opened with much fanfare and was a model industrial town, where the factory workers lived in nearby residences, built, controlled and operated by Mr. Pullman and the Pullman Company. However, many workers and their families were restricted by Pullman’s commercial and residential offerings, and this further secured nearby Roseland to the immediate west, as a popular destination. South Michigan Avenue in Roseland, became an alternative to the various limited businesses and services in nearby Pullman, within the Beman designed Pullman Arcade Building (demolished in 1927) and Market Hall (partially extant, following various fires). With this new industrial town of Pullman nearby, Roseland and its commercial districts, especially along South Michigan Avenue thrived. Both Pullman and Roseland were annexed into the City of Chicago in 1889.
Roseland was an important aspect for Pullman and the two communities are linked from their earliest days. Roseland being a well-established community, at the time of Pullman’s construction and offering goods and services, in addition to restaurants and saloons, which were frowned upon by Mr. George Pullman in pursuit of his idyllic and picturesque company town. In later years, when Pullman itself faced challenges in the 1930s to the 1960s, as its neighborhood image appeared to fade, Roseland one again provided relief and resources to that once aging community.
However, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the town of Pullman was once again recognized, honored, and given National Register Designation, followed by a Chicago Landmark Designation, for its architectural, labor and Civil Rights histories and links. It was designated the Pullman National Monument in 2015 and is expected to draw many additional tourists with this designation, along with the reinvestment of private developers and the National Park Service in the community.
Roseland and historic South Michigan Avenue, along with neighboring Pullman have the opportunity to again assist one another towards redevelopment projects. Pullman, once a bit faded, prior to the 1970s, as a National Park and Monument, will attract many visitors, expected to be in the hundreds of thousands over the course of a year. Roseland, which since the 1970s has seen vast racial changes, and extreme disinvestment, can rely on Pullman to some extent, with a draw of visitors’ tourism dollars and a place to once visit, as part of a Pullman-Roseland destination.
The First Reformed Church of Roseland, was for many decades a centerpiece of the early community, beginning in about 1855. It was rebuilt in brick by the early Dutch settlers or “Hollanders” in 1887, with Jan Kleinhuizen and Hendrik DeJong as the contractors. Located at 107th and Michigan the new church (still extant), replaced an earlier frame church adjacent to the immediate north. As the community transitioned rapidly from predominantly Caucasian to predominantly African-American in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the “Dutch Reformed Church Building” became the Lilydale Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in 1971.
Early houses, including the 1849 home of Cornelis Kuyper (demolished), mentioned earlier as part of the Underground Railroad, stood just south of 103rd and Michigan Avenue. Another early house, belonging to Pieter Boone at 10057 S. Michigan Avenue c. 1870 (still extant), and part of a later wave of Dutch immigrants, was constructed from locally made DeJong Brick, and represent some of the early structures of Roseland. Both the First Reformed Church of Roseland, now Lilydale Church and the Boon House, should be considered for Chicago Landmark Designation and protection.
As jobs left the steel mills, auto plants and the Pullman Car Company, the decline of the Roseland community and surrounding areas began to accelerate. “White flight,” enhanced by illegal “real estate block-busters,” were prominent in Roseland and nearby communities. Racial violence occurred in the past, dating back to August of 1947 when African-American veterans and their families moved into the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) Fernwood Park Housing Development at 104th and Halsted. Similar events occurred in Altgeld Gardens, a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) development, further south. Police were at first said to be non-responsive to the violent protesters, but eventually sent in large forces to quell the groups of people.
The once thriving commercial corridor along Michigan Avenue continued to deteriorate. Suburban business owners opened shop in the commercial corridor, but it appeared that they had little interest in helping the community thrive and prosper. Private investors were no longer investing money into the commercial buildings along South Michigan Avenue. As evidenced, the City did not invest equitably in the needs of the Roseland community, and with that the condition of homes, businesses, schools and infrastructure declined rapidly. With a constant glimmer of hope, there are strong block clubs throughout the community that have successfully promoted stabilization of their housing stock and strengthening of community networks.
A great number of historic buildings along South Michigan Avenue in Roseland, have been lost over the past fifty years, and much of what remains is in poor or fair condition. Without the necessary investment and upkeep, the historic character buildings are more likely to be at risk of “demolition by neglect.” The greatest threat to this commercial corridor is building owners who often further defer maintenance and investment in their properties and buildings.
Since 2015, Preservation Chicago and our staff, has been working closely with organizations in Roseland and with the City’s youth in the community. This has been in coordination with the One Summer Chicago program, Phalanx Family Services, Alderman Anthony Beale and organized by Andrea Reed, Executive Director of the Greater Roseland Chamber of Commerce and Preservation Chicago. In the summer of 2019, Roseland community members and Preservation Chicago, conducted an electronic survey of buildings and parcels along Michigan Avenue between 103rd and 116th Streets. Vacant parcels and parking lots mark portions of the district, along with areas where a great amount of the historic fabric that has already been lost along Michigan Avenue. While that demolition is more abundant between 100th and 110th, south of 111th Street, has still retained much historic fabric, along with some viable and legacy businesses. The overall current condition of many of the existing commercial buildings is fair to poor. The Loveland survey graphics indicate the story of how many parcels are vacant, how many buildings in the corridor appear to be vacant, how many buildings are in poor or fair condition, and how many historic character buildings are in poor or fair condition.
Sadly, during the course of planning and surveying properties along South Michigan Avenue, the iconic Gately’s People’s Store was lost to fire — another reminder of the fragility of these buildings and the urgency to turn the course toward revitalization. There are at least 12 historic buildings along the Michigan Avenue corridor that are in extremely vulnerable condition.
While only about 30 historic character properties were identified as in good or excellent condition by surveyors, that is promising for what is possible for the other historic character buildings along the commercial corridor. There are great and vibrant exceptions, including several legacy businesses, which include Ware’s Ranch Steakhouse at 11147 S. Michigan and Old-Fashioned Donuts at 11248 S. Michigan Avenue. This commercial corridor once met the shopping and consumer needs of surrounding communities including Pullman, Kensington, Fernwood, Gano, Burnside, West Pullman, Riverdale and Altgeld Gardens. With revitalization happening all around the area, it is time to invest the energy and resources into reviving Roseland’s commercial corridor.
Historic properties along Michigan Avenue in Roseland exceed those reflected in the Chicago Historic Resource Survey completed in the 1990s, and more than 60% of those properties are in fair to poor condition.
Chicago has an extraordinary opportunity to invest in the South Michigan Avenue commercial corridor between 103rd and 115th Streets, along with to revitalize the remaining historic buildings and develop vacant lots so that they complement that historic character.
It is time to use historic preservation as an economic development driver along Michigan Avenue. Of the original 17 buildings listed on the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, only 12 remain today. Without swift and effective investment, the deterioration and demolition will continue.
With a growing number of visitors expected to visit the Pullman National Monument site adjacent to Roseland, Roseland has a great opportunity to capitalize on those visitors by investing in its existing historic buildings, enforcing building code violations by negligent building owners and sensibly development vacant parcels along the corridor.
Priority should go first to preservation. Underneath layers of facades that were added in later years, there are solid and unique buildings along Michigan Avenue that have the potential to inspire full revitalization along the commercial corridor.
PlaceEconomics, a national organization that does city-level preservation impact studies, notes that historic preservation is an excellent tool to drive downtown revitalization, heritage tourism, improved property values and jobs and income. Investing in historic buildings has a substantially more economic impact than other industries. PlaceEconomics’ research finds that heritage tourists spend more money on lodging, transportation, food/beverage, retail and recreation as compared to regular visitors.
SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS for South Michigan Avenue and the Greater Roseland Community:
- Special and specific funds for local investors to acquire and revitalize vacant buildings.
- The assistance of the Cook County Land Bank Authority to make troubled properties available to responsible investors.
- Additional financial and capacity building support for community economic development agents like the Greater Roseland Chamber of Commerce.
- Establishment of both a Landmark District and a Neighborhood Character District to honor, restore and protect the historic character of Michigan Avenue. Neighborhood Character Districts are a new tool being created by the City of Chicago to protect the scale, massing, setback and character-rich features of an area that does not meet the threshold as a full Landmark District.
- Job training, entrepreneur development and small business loans to grow and keep more wealth in the Roseland community.
- Strict enforcement of code violations to ensure that all Michigan Avenue property owners are responsible business and community partners.
- Façade improvement grants or low-interest loans to restore building character, along with program requirements that make these funds more accessible to building owners and perhaps residents as well.
- Investment in new construction on vacant parcels that respects and contributes to the historic integrity of the commercial corridor.
- Grants or low-interest loans for existing building owners to invest in more welcoming security gates for their buildings.
- Investment in affordable housing on the upper floors of mixed-use buildings.
“We realize this kind of transformation will take time, but Roseland is ready to start now,” said Andrea Reed, Executive Director of the Greater Roseland Chamber of Commerce. “Michigan Avenue was once known as the ‘Jewel of the South Side,’ and we need to get it back to that place.”
The City of Chicago, through its “Invest South|West” and other programs, needs to strategically and comprehensively commit to “righting the disinvestment wrongs” in Roseland over the last part of the 20th Century, especially its commercial corridors. Progress is moving along well in Pullman just to the east in Pullman, and now it is Roseland’s opportunity to attract more attention. And by attention, we mean investment of capital, grants small business and entrepreneur development, along with protections for its historic built environment, for the benefit of the Roseland, its surrounding communities, and for greater Chicago and its residents.