The Giles Calumet District – Expanding the boundaries of history

giles-calumetThe Giles Calumet Landmark District, exemplified by a series of attached row houses became a protected historic district on July 29, 2009. The action culminated several years of active grass roots lobbying on the part of area residents to obtain landmark status for their community, which is generally bounded by 37th Street to the north, Pershing Road to the south, King Drive to the east, and Cottage Grove to the west. However, it was the support that the community received from Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd) that finally made the district and its accompanying protection a reality.

In the 1880’s and 90’s, the area from 31st Street to 39th Street on Calumet, Giles and Prairie evolved into a distinct urban enclave. Residents represented an elite class who helped fuel Chicago’s economic growth and allowed them to build fine homes in a variety of architectural styles including Italianate, Romanesque, Queen Anne, and Flemish Revival. Throughout the neighborhood’s history, a substantial African-American community co-existed with middle and upper class whites.

By 1920, due to the Great Migration, blacks occupied the vast majority of the larger Douglas community. Remarkably, even though the community underwent an ethnic change it did not lose its middle to upper-income identity. The area was home to many nightclubs where you could find jazz greats like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Joseph “King” Oliver. Douglas became a prosperous commercial and entertainment center during the first quarter of the 20th Century.

But, with the Great Depression, the community began a downward spiral. During the 1940’s and 50’s, many blocks were leveled, creating large gaps in the neighborhood. Public housing began to rise where unique homes and shops once stood and the larger community became a shadow of itself.

However by the 1990’s, this area started to become glamorous again. And developers – as well as those looking to flip properties – saw the area as a veritable gold mine. Alarmed by the amount of tear-downs as well as the incompatible development that had sprung up, the community began to explore what planning options were available. Preservation Chicago partnered with local residents to help with the advocacy and education campaign.

Quickly discovering that the zoning ordinance regulated neither design nor the legal ability to stop the demolition, the community, led by organizer Jeremi Bryant, considered creating a historic landmark district. Although the blocks of Calumet, Prairie, and Giles north of 36th street had been a landmark district since the late 1990’s, nothing south of 36th Street had been protected.

Sadly, a rash of demolitions in the 1980’s and 90’s destroyed the architectural integrity of all but 3 city blocks in the immediate area. Because of that, the final district consists of the most intact portions on the 3800 blocks of Giles and Calumet and a small portion of the 3700 block of Giles.

Fortunately, the fact that this section of the neighborhood was developed with attached row houses sharing a common wall discouraged the kind of demolition that had effected other blocks, which consisted mostly of detached single family homes and flats.

Now that the area is finally landmarked, residents can rest assured that the kind of wonton destruction that had once threatened the viability of their neighborhood is no longer an option. In fact, the support for the creation of the district was overwhelmingly positive.