Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Entries : The Loop
The Loop

The Loop

Community Area 32. The Loop is the popular name for the Chicago business district located south of the main stem of the Chicago River. The name apparently derives from the place where the strands powering cable cars turned around on a pulley in the center of the city. The concept was extended to the ring of elevated rail tracks for rapid transit lines connecting downtown with the neighborhoods. Completed in 1897, this loop created an integrated intracity transportation system that helped insure the dominance of Chicago's historic core in the development of the metropolis. All of Chicago's nineteenth-century railroad depots were located at the edges of the central business district, creating a circle of stations around the hub of the city.

Jean Baptiste Point DuSable established a trading post on the north bank of the Chicago River in the late 1780s. Fort Dearborn followed on the opposite side in 1803–4. South Water Street, along the south bank, became a hub of activity in the 1830s, with Lake Street, a block to the south, soon picking up the character of a retail street. In the period of the walking city the Loop area accommodated all of the functions of the city near the main stem of the river.

Clark Street at Jackson Boulevard, 1929
The diverse nature of the population in the center city meant that most of Chicago's older ethnic groups can point to origins in the city's historic core. As early as the 1850s the area south and west from State and Madison Streets had a German character, although people of every background lived there, including Irish and African Americans. As the commercial district expanded toward the railroad stations, it pushed areas of blight, vice, and transient housing just ahead of it, often creating pockets of inexpensive housing just beyond the depots.

The Civil War brought rapid growth downtown encouraged by the use of streetcars, which first appeared along State Street in 1859. At the war's end Potter Palmer engineered the shift of retail commerce from Lake Street to State Street by erecting a splendid hotel, a large commercial emporium, and other mercantile buildings along State Street. This reorientation of the business district was well underway when the Fire of 1871 completely destroyed the central part of the city.

State and Madison after the Fire, 1871
The fire destroyed most residential buildings, as well as historic church and school buildings, in the heart of the city. The rise of the skyscraper in the 1880s reinforced the trend toward commercial growth, creating a distinct character for the downtown district and establishing a skyline as the symbol for the entire city.

Arcades on South State, c.1912
Improvements in transportation enabled the residents of the expanding city to maintain contact with the center. State Street's horsecars were replaced by cable cars in 1882, and these in turn yielded to electric trolleys in 1906. Gasoline buses joined the trolleys in 1927 and construction began on the State Street Subway in 1938. Until 1950 citizens of Chicago had two neighborhoods: their particular residential area and downtown, a common destination for work, recreation, government, and shopping. The number of passengers entering and leaving the Loop peaked in 1948, reaching almost a million per day in each direction, with a quarter of the total traveling by private automobile.

After 1950 the outward pull of suburban development in the new automobile metropolis reduced the importance of the Loop in the daily lives of many Chicagoans. It no longer functioned as a second neighborhood for numerous citizens and retail sales downtown accounted for a much smaller portion of the metropolitan total. An extension of the central business district northward along Michigan Avenue kept a luxury shopping district close by, and a return of residential buildings downtown brought back aspects of the old walking city. Cooperation between the city government led by Richard J. Daley and business leaders, supported by a steady flow of state and federal funds, produced a building boom of unprecedented scale to provide offices for corporations, banks, and governmental agencies, as well as hotel rooms for visitors, and expanded facilities for cultural and educational institutions.

Loop (CA 32)
Year Total
(and by category)
  Foreign Born Native with foreign parentage Males per 100 females
1930 7,851   28.2% 30.3% 394
  7,639 White (97.3%)      
  98 Negro (1.2%)      
  114 Other (1.5%)      
1960 4,337   7.1% 13.8% 502
  3,841 White (88.6%)      
  449 Negro (10.4%)      
  47 Other races (1.1%)      
1990 11,954   9.0% 112
  8,924 White (74.7%)      
  2,451 Black (20.5%)      
  44 American Indian (0.4%)      
  448 Asian/Pacific Islander (3.7%)      
  78 Other race (0.7%)      
  679 Hispanic Origin* (5.7%)      
2000 16,388   15.1% 105
  10,744 White alone (65.6%)      
  3,249 Black or African American alone (19.8%)      
  46 American Indian and Alaska Native alone (0.3%)      
  1,631 Asian alone (10.0%)      
  16 Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone (0.1%)      
  293 Some other race alone (1.8%)      
  409 Two or more races (2.5%)      
  975 Hispanic or Latino* (5.9%)      
Duis, Perry. Chicago: Creating New Traditions. 1976.
Holt, Glen E., and Dominic A. Pacyga. Chicago: A Historical Guide to the Neighborhoods: The Loop and South Side. 1979.
Johnson, Earl Shephard. “The Natural History of the Central Business District with Particular Reference to Chicago.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago. 1941.