Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Entries : Retail Geography
Retail Geography

Retail Geography

S. Michigan Avenue in Roseland, 1915
Retail geography has been a component of the evolving urban landscape of Chicago since the formal incorporation of the city in 1837. Historical records do not identify the first retailer in the city, but clearly the first major concentration of retail stores was located along Lake Street. Accounts of the Lake Street retail environment from the 1840s emphasized the rather slapdash construction of the stores and the rather coarse interactions between the dry-goods dealers and their customers. Despite the fact that Lake Street was one of the first streets in the city to be covered with wooden planks, travel up and down the street was at times quite difficult because of the heavy amount of animal and vehicular traffic in the area. The problem was exacerbated by bulky merchandise (such as building materials) that would extend beyond the wooden sidewalk into the main thoroughfare. By the mid-1850s, the intersection of Lake and Clark Streets was the nucleus of Chicago's retail environment. Here residents and travelers could find a bevy of goods ranging from ice skates to nails. Mirroring broader trends, several stores began to specialize in certain goods, such as haberdasheries and stores that only sold women's hats.

South Water Street, 1892
The South Water Street Market, located on the banks of the Chicago River, emerged as an important center of activity for food distribution throughout Chicago. This wholesale center was supplied by ships arriving from all around Lake Michigan. Photographs from the 1860s depict a scene much like the one found on Lake Street. Numerous carts and horses transported materials and goods from the ships to the wholesale retailers located on South Water Street, many of whom sold directly to mobile greengrocers who would later sell the produce from the back of their own horse-drawn carts. As the population of Chicago began to disperse, this type of mobile retail business became increasingly difficult, though it would persist in modified form into the twentieth century. By the early 1870s, the South Water Street Market was becoming an almost impossibly difficult place from which to transport goods around the city. Members of the local business community, particularly those in the real-estate industry, sought solutions from city leaders, but the question of South Water Street Market's future would not receive an official response until the early 1920s.

The next crucial development in the shifting retail geography in Chicago was the movement of the Field, Leiter & Co. store from Lake Street to the increasingly fashionable and business-friendly area developing along State Street. The development of State Street as a retailing mecca was aided by Potter Palmer, the Chicago mercantile king, who built an extravagant hotel at the corner of State and Monroe Streets and persuaded the city council to widen State Street. One contemporary observer, acknowledging planning efforts in Paris, referred to Palmer's work as the “Haussmannizing of State Street.” But most important to the retail community in Chicago was Palmer's role in persuading Field, Leiter & Co. to move into a rather ostentatious building on State Street.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Marshall Field on retail merchandising. Along with stocking dry goods in the Field, Leiter & Co. store at the corner of State and Washington, Field constantly maintained a stock of high-quality and cosmopolitan products, such as women's handbags and the latest fashions brought over from Paris. Field also helped maintain a loyal customer base through such innovative policies as a money-back guarantee and a competent and reliable delivery service. These customer-friendly policies were complemented by an almost astonishing array of ancillary services, such as children's playrooms, writing rooms, tearooms, and stenographic services. Marshall Field also kept a shrewd eye on the wholesale trade by contracting with the architect Henry Hobson Richardson to design a wholly modern wholesale goods distribution center at Adams and Wells Streets in 1885.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, most of the large-scale retail merchandisers had secured a place on the State Street corridor in the Loop. Along with Marshall Field's, Carson Pirie Scott and other large department stores had large and expansive emporiums that utilized large metal-framed display windows to showcase the wide variety of goods that they offered. Other prominent department stores included Mandel Brothers, the Boston Store, Rothschild's, Siegel, Cooper & Co., and the Stevens stores.

Dime Store in Grayslake, c.1950s
Arising at the same time as these magnificent edifices along State Street were the substantial retail centers in neighborhoods around Chicago. These retail businesses tended to reach their densest concentrations near transportation junctions, particularly near where the rapid transit lines intersected with major street railway transfer stations. Two of the most important examples of this trend toward retail aggregation and clustering were 63rd and Halsted in Englewood and Lawrence and Broadway in Uptown. As affordable and efficient transportation encouraged residential expansion around these increasingly popular areas, there was concomitant development within the retail environment. While many of these community and regional retail centers of activity would see their greatest flowering from the 1920s to the early 1950s, their presence within the urban environment was apparent by the first decade of the twentieth century.

In the years before World War II, a new mode of retail geography began to develop in suburban Chicago. Older inner-ring suburbs that were intimately linked to the city by a network of interurbans also developed clusters of retail establishments at junctions of major transfer points. Oak Park followed this pattern quite neatly, with a high concentration of major retailers at the intersection of Lake and Harlem Avenues, including a branch of Marshall Field's. At the same time, many other suburbs were building intricate and elaborately executed retail complexes that catered primarily to people with automobiles. One of the earliest such retail developments in the nation was Lake Forest Market Square in Lake Forest. Designed by the architect Howard Van Doren Shaw and constructed in 1916, this blend of retail and office space with residential apartments offered extensive parking facilities. The other early well-known retail development that catered to automobiles was the Spanish Court in Wilmette. Built in 1926, this innovative development was also built with the understanding that many of its patrons would arrive by automobile.

Despite the increased competition from retail developments outside the city of Chicago, the downtown area maintained its dominant role as a major regional retail center of the first order. Even as late as 1958, it sold 8 times as many shopping goods as the largest regional center within the city (located at 63rd and Halsted) and had 10 times the total retail sales of this particular regional shopping district. While the downtown area maintained its position atop the city's hierarchy of retail centers, the central business district accounted for only 15 percent of all retail sales within the city of Chicago. Many of Chicago's neighborhoods were well served by a nexus of available retail options around major arterials, often including a small department store (such as a Wieboldt's or Goldblatt's) and a variety of other retail businesses.

Planned retail developments became increasingly popular after World War II in the Chicago metropolitan area, though few were built within the city for several decades. One of the most well-known planned retail centers was Evergreen Plaza, located right outside the city limits at 95th and Western. Evergreen Plaza was developed by real-estate mogul Arthur Rubloff, who had initially conceived of such a plan in 1936. When it was finished in 1952, Evergreen Plaza had approximately 500,000 square feet of retail space and 1,200 parking spaces. Cars could easily pull in off the street into the parking lot, and the plaza also featured a conveyor belt that transported groceries from the supermarkets to a parking-area kiosk.

Woodfield Mall Interior, 1973
While many of these retail developments were built to accommodate a growing suburban population that was moving out to well-established suburbs in the metropolitan area, still other planned retail developments were built in conjunction with towns that were built totally from the ground up. Park Forest Plaza was a well-received example of this emerging retail complex style that sought to mimic a previous era in the history of town planning. At Park Forest Plaza, the architects Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett placed a landscaped court amidst a circle of shops and surrounded the entire area with parking.

In the city of Chicago, many retailers in neighborhoods faced with widespread demographic shifts fell on increasingly hard times throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Former areas of robust retail spending, including many of those on the South and West Sides, found themselves plagued by arsonists, robbery, and a general decline in the socioeconomic makeup of their clientele. The city of Chicago attempted to alleviate the dwindling returns of these neighborhood retail centers by diverting automobile traffic from the main area of pedestrian traffic. While this policy might have been successful in Oak Park (which created a small downtown pedestrian mall in 1974), it was met with resistance and apathy by shoppers and retailers alike along State Street, which was turned into a “pedestrian-friendly” street in 1979 and then restored to traffic in 1996.

Many of the city's formerly vibrant neighborhood retail areas continued on a downward spiral through the 1980s and 1990s. Planned retail developments such as Ford City on the city's Southwest Side seemed to siphon business away from surrounding neighborhoods rather than drawing nearby suburbanites into the area. Large-scale retail developments in the suburbs continued emerging throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, with several notable examples, including the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie and Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, drawing city and suburban residents. Many of these malls began to offer a diverse set of amenities such as children's playgrounds, valet parking, and senior citizen days.

Another retail development, the “big-box” retail store, began to situate itself within both the urban and suburban fabric in the 1980s and early 1990s. Like many of their historical predecessors, these massive single-story structures were frequently located at significant transportation junctions, such as the confluence of major highways or freeway exits. While big-box retail developments remained popular through the 1990s in the city and surrounding suburbs, the Loop has a seen a new influx of contemporary retailers, many of them occupying prime retail space along State Street. Along North Michigan Avenue, the much-heralded “vertical malls,” such as Water Tower Place, remain popular and highly visible destinations for tourists, suburbanites, and Chicagoans.

Berry, Brian. Commercial Structure and Commercial Blight: Retail Patterns and Processes in the City of Chicago. 1963.
Breese, Gerald William. “The Daytime Population of the Central Business District of Chicago.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago. 1947.
Condit, Carl W. Chicago, 1930–70: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology. 1974.