Author Archive

Queering Chicago’s CRE Market

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This blog is based on our podcast episode: “Queering Chicago’s CRE Market ft. Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. For the best experience, we highly recommend listening to that episode here. An adapted transcript follows below:

Imagine a phone book. For anyone born after the new millennium, picture an encyclopedia or something. Imagine having to peruse that phone book every time you want to travel. If you want to go to dinner, drinks, and dancing, you have to ensure that the restaurant, bar, and club are all queer-friendly and safe. You consult the Pink Pages directory, because you just want to go grocery shopping without feeling like you have to apologize for your gender presentation. Your world is narrowed and limited to a series of addresses, and you know that if you venture outside of it, you risk being harassed, abused, or worse. 

One of these books is called the Spartacus International Gay Guide, and I had the distinct honor and privilege of flipping through the guide when I toured the Gerber/Hart library and archives earlier this month. To research this topic, I spoke with Jen Dentel, the G/H Community Outreach and Strategic Partnerships Manager. Gerber/Hart is a LGBTQ+ library and archives located in the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago. Founded in 1981, Gerber/Hart is one of the largest repositories of LGBTQ+ content in the world. Gerber/Hart focuses on collecting, preserving, and making accessible the LGBTQ history and culture of Chicago and the Midwest. They’ve also got a podcast called Unboxing Queer History that can be found here

Jen: “This is like the international gay guide. So it would tell you like the spaces where you could go.  For like, safe spaces, or places where you could meet other people, and it’s international.”

Me: “Do they still [circulate] it?”

Jen: “… I don’t know if Spartacus is still going. I’m pretty sure Dameron is still going. I don’t know if we have  Recent I’m not sure if Dameron… That’s the thing, is like, so many of these really specialized travel guides, I feel like, with the internet becoming more, like, the, the physical copies, I mean, any travel guide, I feel like those are less common, but, I mean, I see, like, this Spartacus going to 2016, um, I’m sure that there are stuff, well, now we’ve got more Damerons, 2010, yeah, it really, and again, this is all donated, so it’s like, I’m sure there are more recent ones, but we just might get them later … I love The Traveler and there’s like, Gaia’s Guide was a women’s guide, so it’s just really fun to be able to look through and like time travel.”

I asked Jen what she thinks people find most surprising when they tour the archives.

Jen: “I think sometimes people are surprised that the travel guides exist, that those were so, especially like the early, like there’s ones going back to the 60s that we have. And it’s kind of like … the green book … with safe spaces and places people could travel. So yeah, just that there were so many, especially during a time when it was so criminalized that there was this way to find other people, if you could get your hands on the book. … [Also], I think some of the older periodicals, like we have The Ladder, which is the first lesbian magazine nationally distributed in the U.S., so that starts in the 50s … and just the newsletter, I think sometimes people don’t realize [that] small organizations they were part of might be something others would find interesting. So like, there’s a newsletter that was a Chicago queer swimming group called The Smelts. And like, we have all their newsletters.

Me: They have the best names, I swear to God. 

Jen: Yeah, and so it’s like, I think sometimes people don’t see that they’re part of that history, so I think that that’s a surprise.”

Jen showed me around the library first, where thousands of books written by and about LGBTQ+ folks are available for anyone to check out anytime. 

“Anyone over 13 can check out books … you can check books out for three weeks. There’s no fees. We’re not part of the public library system. So it’s just a form that people fill in … I think it’s up to 10 items at a time.”

Afterwards, Jen showed me multiple rooms filled to the brim with queer Chicago business history. 

“[The] Special Collections [is a] mix of stuff. You see the giant tongue. … I feel like it’s become like our mascot. It was from Carol’s Speakeasy, which was a drag bar in Chicago. There is a bar called Carol’s now, which is like a western bar, but there used to be a drag bar, um, and disco. And it was named for Mother Carol, who was known for being super loud. So the mouth was like, ‘loud mouth.’ Um, yeah, I think we got it in 94. And the story we always hear is that when we got it, the tongue was black from all the cigarette smoke. So it had to be, like, cleaned. Um, so I think Erin was saying she thought we had it, like,  taken somewhere. I was like, no, it was a volunteer task. We all, like, apparently people pitched in and did it in the 90s. They did a great job … It’s sitting on top of all these posters. So we have an intern right now who’s processing a whole bunch of the posters and just adding more details and photographs about them. Like this was signed by Barbara Giddings, who’s an early activist. And then it’s just a smattering of stuff. So like all of these file cabinets, these are all like magazines or periodicals, newspapers, newsletters. Again, it’s mainly Chicago and the Midwest, but we also have some bigger, like, national publications.”

So, besides the fact that it’s pride month, why should you care about queer Chicago history and gay travel indexes? What does any of this have to do with us? Well, these days the CRE landscape is about so much more than buildings and businesses. It’s about people. It’s not enough to plan for the bare minimum – the cisgender, straight, white, upper middle class man in a suit and tie, commuting from the Gold Coast to his cushy downtown corner office with a briefcase in hand. People are finally starting to see the rich treasure trove of diversity and inclusion within the industry, and our job as professionals is to think two steps ahead when we’re advising our clients. 

A 2022 report by the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance found that 46% of respondents reported that they are known specifically as an LGBTQ+ agent, and 40% of respondents said their number of queer retail clients has increased in the last few years. Another 34% reported that LGBTQ+ people make up at least 30% of their real estate “sphere of influence.” At the same time, 41% of respondents reported experiencing discrimination from other real estate agents due to their sexuality, and 29% said they believe they were denied committee assignments and professional advancement opportunities via their local MLS or real estate organizations due to their sexuality. 

Last year, a commercial real estate agent named John Combs shared his story about coming out, saying, “I quickly learned, for example, at an annual convention there was a group of LGBTQ+ individuals who quietly met. The group was invited via a blind copy to protect identities. Today, this would not be necessary. The industry has come a long way in 20 years.” DEI initiatives are all well and fine, but too often they’re designed to tip-toe around the topic of queer inclusion, making it difficult for LGBTQ+ people to connect with others like them. In a GlobeSt article, Chely Wright of Unispace states, “we cannot underestimate the significance of having a white, straight, cis male CRE CEO talk about queer issues.”

A global real estate investment firm took this to heart and launched their own PRIDE Network designed to “make the ‘table’ comfortable for those who identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, specifically those at officer or C-suite levels, to be authentic and not feel that being out at work will impact their performance within the industry or organization.” For example, the group is working on programming about the use of proper pronouns, dress codes, and creating a network of allies to support these initiatives. One strategy they’ve used is to tap into local student organizations and show aspiring CRE agents that there are abundant opportunities for them, that they can feel safe and be successful at the same time.

Organizations like Gerber/Hart are vital to understanding the queer landscape in Chicago and the Midwest. They’re critical for identifying pot holes in the road to equality. Take for example John Teets, a gay journalist who joined the Chicago Sun Times in 1966. In the 1970s, former minister Roy Larsen, reporter Patricia Anstett, and Teets spent two weeks compiling information on gay business owners, church members, queer nightlife, at-risk and homeless youth, and gay lawyers, in order to educate the public on the prevalence of the gay community in Chicago, showing that the LGBTQIA community should not be treated like an afterthought.

Trailblazing initiatives like GREG – the Gay Real Estate Group – are rarely if ever discussed or promoted for new brokers. The RealDeal stated that “on the residential side, it seems that more brokers are out and open than in the commercial sector — but that could be because residential agents are far more active on social media as a part of their own branding and marketing strategies.” When the Real Deal asked CRE firms to provide a male-versus-female breakdown of their brokers, Elizabeth Ann Stribling-Kivlan, president of Stribling & Associates, was the only one to decline, stating that it’s not her firm’s place to identify its employees by gender. 

Additionally, when we talk about or promote the fact that the buildings we represent are landmarks or close to landmarks, we’re doing a massive disservice by not mentioning the numerous sites around the city where queer history was made. And believe it or not, it’s not just Boystown. For example, did you know that the Picasso statue at Daley Plaza is the site of the first Pride March in 1970? Did you know that the Aragon Ballroom used to host Orange Balls and other LGBT+ fundraisers? For those who don’t know, Orange Balls are also known as drag balls or cross-dressing balls, and they date back to the 17th century when gay subculture began to carve space into an otherwise homogenous, heteronormative society. The Medinah Temple on Wabash, too, was once the site of a 1977 protest against singer Anita Bryant’s anti-gay Save Our Children campaign. These are just a few examples of queer landmarks around the city, many of which I’ve walked past countless times and never knew I was standing on hallowed ground. 

Chicago is a treasure trove of queer history, but only if you know what you’re looking for. That’s why Gerber/Hart’s work is so critical for all of us – not just allies or business partners looking for a strategic partnership. Just like any other industry, the real estate landscape has been built in part by the tireless and brave efforts of queer leaders, and those brave enough to speak up for those who can’t or won’t speak for themselves. We owe it to ourselves and our clients to educate ourselves on issues that we may or may not identify with. We owe it to this beautiful city to expand our vocabulary and pay tribute to those who made Chicago a safer city for queer folks. So look around. Find your niche. Your people. Don’t assume your your clients, brokers, executives, and associates feel adequately supported and understood. Educate yourself regardless of whether you think you’ll ever need to use that knowledge. That’s how we enact real change. That’s how we make Chicago a better place to live and work, and a safer place to buy and lease. Not just for one month a year, but forever.

To learn more about Gerber/Hart and the sources used for this episode, check out the show notes. This episode is also transcribed on our website, at Willard Thank you again to Jen Dentel and the entire G/H staff who were so welcoming and helpful. And thank you to my boss, who has always embraced me and my identity without judgment. 



The “Real World” Isn’t Real

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“In the real world, this would never fly.” “In the real world, you’ll need to know this.” “In the real world, you’ll be held to a much higher standard.”

These are some of the sentiments I recall hearing in almost every academic setting I’ve ever been in. As early as middle school, we were trained to expect a different set of standards in the, quote-unquote, “real world.” Fast forward two decades, and I’m still hearing about this mythical, elusive world where all of my academic and social education is simultaneously tested and ignored. I was taught that my bosses would be strict and severe; that my every move would be scrutinized by my peers and colleagues; that my personality and self expression would become unacceptable the moment I entered the adult workforce. 

What a bunch of nonsense.

I’ve been a legal adult for a decade now, but I’ve been working since I was 15 years old. My parents enrolled me in leadership classes and I snagged as many professional internships as I could, minimizing the apparent risk of matriculating into a world for which I was woefully unprepared. 

But the older I got and the longer I’ve been in the workforce, the less I understand what exactly I was preparing for. I’ve agonized over drafting emails, carefully curated my online presence, learned how to navigate and mediate difficult discussions, and developed a healthy facade of self-confidence to project in a room of strangers. And while I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by a community of kind, generous, talented people thus far, it seems that a not-insignificant number of people march to a different drum – not necessarily better or worse, but one whose function depends on the odds of success rather than the cultivation of a symbiotic community. In other words, I was taught to predicate my professionalism on perception…say that five times fast…whereas some others predicate theirs on efficiency. It remains to be seen which strategy is more successful, but at least in my experience, the tortoise seems happier than the hare.

For those of you rolling your eyes at my idealistic dream of a global kumbaya, just hear me out. I realize that capitalist society functions on a marketplace of ideas and sometimes brutal competition. I know that we are all subject to the curse of being perceived and many of us routinely practice the art of code-switching to protect ourselves and our jobs. I know that the “real world” is a rat race, and our livelihoods sometimes depend on us sacrificing respectfulness for profitability. I know courtesy looks different to everyone and sometimes is reserved for those we deem most essential to our ultimate goals. And as Shakespeare once said, “all the world’s a stage.” But he also said “virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese,” so I guess we can take his wisdom with a grain of salt.

With all that in mind, it’s understandable that compassion sometimes takes a back seat to sexier things like “synergy” and “deliverables” and “optimization.” The corporate world rarely rewards gentleness. And we’ve all heard the phrase, “life isn’t fair,” and many of us were probably taught to expect unfairness and disappointment once we grew up and into the “real world.” But that “real-world” lesson doesn’t begin once you hit adulthood. It’s ubiquitous and omnipresent. Privilege, of course, plays a major role in how fair and just the “real world” is, but that’s exactly the point: the real world isn’t something you age into, it’s something you’re born into. That is to say, it’s useless to try to prepare kids for the real world, because they’re already in it. So lessons about courtesy, productive communication, intersectionality, and yes – even professionalism – shouldn’t be contingent upon whether those lessons will result in traditional employment.

I’m grateful for the difficult lessons I learned in pursuit of being prepared for this so-called real world, but were they really necessary? I’ve received messages, emails, DMs, and calls from peers, professors, administrators, and C-level executives that barely pass for professional. “Sent from my iPhone” as a signature instead of a name. Critical messages consisting of one letter: “K.” I’ve encountered colleagues who still use outdated terms and phrases that I care not to repeat here. There’s no-call, no-show appointments and meetings; cover letters addressed to the wrong company; unwelcome late-night text messages from sales representatives; repeatedly misspelled names despite multiple corrections; it’s excuses and entitlement, whether earned or not; it’s mistakes made by experts and innovations made by accident. And more than anything, it’s the reality that it really isn’t about what you know, it’s who you know. 

There’s no straight line and no ladder to climb. Whether you sign off with “best wishes,” “sincerely,” “yours truly,” or the dreaded “regards,” the email gets sent and read and acted upon. Whether you wear a three-piece suit or those stretchy jeans you pulled out of the laundry basket this morning. Whether you work through your lunch hour or, like me, opt to nap on the common area couches. The only skill you need is self-awareness, and awareness of your environment. You might have to trade comfort for class, or respond to a hostile email with poise and stoicism. You might have to take stock of your moral compass and decide whether the salary is worth the sacrifice. But the real world doesn’t disappear when you get home and close the door behind you. It’s still there, you’re still a part of it, and you’re still successful just for having participated in it.

We have to recognize that the real world isn’t real at all – it’s relative. It’s a gamble. You can spend your whole life preparing to enter a society of homogeny and cooperation, but you’ll never find it. Hostility isn’t always discouraged, and altruism isn’t always rewarded. The real world is about flexibility and adaptation. Surviving and thriving in a fast-paced, big-city corporate culture is less dependent on academic and professional worthiness, and more about radical acceptance and empathy. Despite everything we’re taught, there are no hard and fast rules for succeeding in this so-called “real world.” If there were, we’d all break them to carve out space for authenticity. The real world isn’t a place. It’s not a threat. It’s not a reward. It’s not a goal to be achieved or a bar to set. It’s a fishbowl surrounded by mirrors, and we’ll all just ride each other’s currents and bump into one another again and again. But as long as there’s water, we’ll just keep on swimming. 

So if you take nothing else away from this, take this to heart: maybe the real world isn’t so real after all, but we are. We can’t control how our kids, students, mentees, and interns experience the joys and woes of corporate culture, but we can teach them acceptance, adaptation, consideration, and collaboration. Professional etiquette is important, sure, but so is playing well with others. The tortoise and the hare both eventually crossed the finish line. They enjoyed the same scenery and probably shared a beer afterward. And maybe next time, their race will be a relay. 

Listen to this episode on Spotify or Apple Music here.

Black History Landmarks of Chicago

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As we start to close out Black History Month and head into March, we here at Willard Jones have decided to look at some of Chicago’s most iconic Black Cultural Landmarks. With a history as rich and colorful as Chicago’s, it can be easy for us to overlook some of the landmarks that have given our city and country such a strong identity, so today we would like to highlight some of those for you.

Grab a cup of coffee or your favorite snack and join us as we embark on a journey through time, uncovering the stories behind these cherished landmarks and celebrating their enduring significance in weaving the cultural tapestry of our city.

John and Mary House:

The Site of the John & Mary Jones House in Chicago, located at 45th Street and Vincennes Avenue in Bronzeville, embodies the enduring legacy of African American activism and leadership. Formerly the residence of John and Mary Jones, the house served as a pivotal center for civil rights organizing and community empowerment.

John Jones, a former slave turned successful businessperson and abolitionist, alongside his wife Mary, fostered a hub of social justice initiatives, including involvement in the Underground Railroad and advocacy for education and suffrage. Though the physical structure no longer stands, the site remains a symbol of African American resilience and the ongoing struggle for equality, reminding us of the profound impact of Black leaders in shaping Chicago’s history and the broader American narrative.

Quinn Chapel

Nestled in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a venerable symbol of African American history in Chicago.

Well before the Emancipation Proclamation, Quinn Chapel played a pivotal role in Chicago’s abolition movement and served as a vital “station” along the Underground Railroad. Over the years, it has welcomed esteemed figures such as Presidents William B. McKinley and William Howard Taft, educators George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and renowned preachers like Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

More recently, Quinn Chapel has hosted prominent political figures including Governor Rod Blagojevich, Mayor Richard M. Daley, Congressmen Danny K. Davis and Bobby Rush, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Governor Pat Quinn, and Senator Barack Obama.

Additionally, Quinn Chapel counted among its members Milton Olive III, a posthumous recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and remains an enduring symbol of resilience and community leadership.


The Old Post Office at 433 W Van Buren

Our final landmark of note is the Old Post Office at 433 W Van Buren in Chicago. Originally built in the 1920s, this architectural marvel served as a bustling hub for postal activities in the city for decades. However, its historical significance extends beyond its structural grandeur. During the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, Black postal workers faced immense challenges in pursuing their careers and contributing to the postal service’s operations. Despite systemic discrimination, many Black individuals persevered, working within the Old Post Office, and making invaluable contributions to its functioning.

The Old Chicago Main Post Office Building served as a crucial employment hub for African American Chicagoans, with many initially hired as temporary workers during the Depression, among them the renowned author Richard Wright. The National Alliance of Postal Workers, an African American union established in 1911 in St. Louis, played a pivotal role in challenging prejudice within the postal system. In Chicago, the union advocated for “color-blind” job applications and sought improved job opportunities for Black workers within the postal system. Over time, the union gained considerable influence, culminating in the historic promotion of Henry Wadsworth McGee as Postmaster of the Chicago post office in 1966, marking him as the first African American to hold such a position in a major metropolitan post office in the United States.

Today, the Old Post Office stands as a testament to the resilience and tenacity of Black individuals in the face of systemic barriers. Its revitalization and adaptive reuse reflect not only the city’s commitment to preserving its architectural heritage but also honoring the contributions of Black Americans to its cultural and economic fabric. As Chicago continues to evolve, the Old Post Office serves as a reminder of the struggles and triumphs of the past, inspiring future generations to strive for equality, justice, and opportunity for all.

We hope you’ve enjoyed and learned something from this special edition of the WJ Blog! Remember that Black History month doesn’t just end in February, so we hope you can take a moment to reflect on the very real ongoing struggles for Black Americans, as well as other communities of color and marginalized members of our society.

Let us take time to remember that to create a better society we must learn from the mistakes of our past and collectively recognize that the scars of years past can and do still influence the generations ahead. Please be sure to support communities of color this and every month in any and every way you can, whether it be supporting Black-owned businesses or otherwise.



Links to support Black Owned Businesses in Chicago


Do The Evolution

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As 2023 disappears in our collective rearview mirrors, there is finally enough evidence at hand to reasonably project what the future of the office will look like. After analyzing the trends and attitudes of the post-pandemic workforce, it has become abundantly clear that the era of spending five days per week in the office has gone the way of the fax machine, VHS player and car phone. Times change, technology progresses and people evolve. This is, and always has been, the way of the world. Should we really be all that surprised that office use is now following the same pattern?

The truth is that a hybrid work model was bound to happen eventually. When the COVID lightning bolt struck, it simply sped up the inevitable. The main culprit enabling this is the advancement of technology. Things like smart phones, laptops, wireless internet, hot spots, cloud computing and video conferencing empower remote work. The seeds were already there, but the pandemic-induced shut down proved to us that it could be done. Just image if COVID would have hit in 1995 instead of 2020. There is no possible way so many people could have worked remotely because the technology was light years behind today. It would have been an absolute disaster on so many levels.

The forced evacuation from the office also served as an epiphany, making people realize how much they detested their commute. Furthermore, after dealing with what seems like an entire life wasted in traffic, or squeezing into an excruciatingly crowded bus or train, the reward is sitting down in your 80 square foot “workstation” that practically is on top of 15 co-workers who you probably have no desire to see. As a related point, good luck staying healthy as the germs fly in between these ridiculously close quarters. Can you really blame someone for preferring to remain in hiding inside the comforts of their own home?

We also must acknowledge the fact that present tense downtown Chicago is not the same as pre-pandemic times. There are more safety concerns than in the past, both on the CTA and the streets, and there are a staggering number of vacant storefronts and struggling buildings. The undeniable energy which once pulsated through the Loop on a daily basis still picks up from time to time, but it is no longer a consistent presence. The customary excitement associated with coming downtown is, at best, in hibernation.

Indeed, it is time to accept that the air of immortality surrounding the office is no more. Fortunately, there is some good news shrouded in this spinning black circle of doom, for we have also learned that permanent remote work is not an effective solution for many businesses. There are plenty of times where co-workers need to gather and be together. It can be for organization meetings, planning, brainstorming sessions, training, mentorship and even comradery, or simply needing a quiet place to escape to if the house is hectic. None of these things can be accomplished over Zoom.

So, fellow real estate professionals, just breathe. There is still, and will continue to be, a need for office space. Hybrid work changes how much space is needed and how it is utilized, but it is still essential for most businesses. There are numerous occasions where if you are simply trying to get work done, it doesn’t really matter if you are in the office, at a coffee shop or sitting at your kitchen table. From a management standpoint, here is yet another example of technology evolving as new software and company-provided electronic devices enable remote employees to be monitored to make sure they are doing their jobs. It is simply a different form of supervision.

As the “Zoomers” begin moving into management roles and starting up their own businesses, they will know nothing other than hybrid work. They can sit back and listen to nostalgic tales of from their parents and grandparents about what it was like to spend 50 hours per week at your desk. This will become the new version of the “in my day I had to walk 15 miles in the snow to get to school” lecture. Fortunately, television shows like The Office and Mad Men are around to remind us of that foregone era. This is how things evolve and is for the best, whether or not we want to admit it.

As the office evolution becomes more crystalized, there is another evolution of utmost importance which has to transpire next. The City of Chicago must get serious about the urgent need to revitalize downtown and its rapidly growing stock of distressed office buildings. As we are painfully aware, statistically this is the worst office leasing market ever when factoring in the amount of vacant space, sublease space and shadow space in play. Piling on, the headaches associated with the staggering number of suffering properties and sky-high property taxes have basically frozen the sales market. There now are dire situations where owners have copious amounts of vacant space, yet no capital to do new deals. Of course, given how comatose demand has been for most non-trophy assets, it might not even matter.

Taking a deep dive into the data, there are two markets in Chicago right now: the haves and the have nots. The haves are the new construction (just about everything in Fulton Market, Bank of America Tower, 320 South Canal to name a few) and the massively renovated (like the Old Post Office). These are very alive and holding their own rather nicely, as the market is tighter at the top. However, once you drop down to the B and C class buildings, there is a dramatic difference. While there are sporadic success stories here and there, by and large there is mostly pain and insignificance.

The first step toward a renaissance is to reduce the supply of office space. Downtown Chicago has a glorious stock of vintage buildings. Sadly, many of these have become functionally obsolete and have no future under present configurations. Renovating these for continued office use is simply not practical, as it will cost a fortune and there is limited demand to fill this space. Therefore, alternative uses need to be considered.

The jury is out as to whether residential use is the fixer, but it is undeniable that there is a housing crisis in this country. The new mayoral administration, at least so far, has shown indifference towards moving forward with the LaSalle Street Reimagined initiative and retrofitting only five buildings might not make that big of an impact. However, with a coordinated effort, the hope is that there will be a chain reaction where this initial group of properties experiences success, leading to a copycat effect with more buildings following suit. Retail space will then need to adapt and become more service oriented, so things like grocery stores, dry cleaners and pet supply stores will be required. This is the dream outcome that would bring a smile to even the dissidents out there.

On the downside, the costs associated with renovating office buildings and converting to residential use are astronomical in many cases. It might very well be cheaper to demolish and build from scratch, but who knows if the new buildings ever get constructed? The last thing downtown Chicago needs is a bunch of empty lots that could remain empty for seemingly light years (see the northwest corner of Washington & Franklin, going 22 years and counting). Fortunately, there are some innovative ideas being implemented right now in other cities involving the use of prefabricated materials built ahead of time in factories and then installed in the buildings. By cutting back on construction costs, more of these proposals suddenly become feasible. Other municipalities, such as Calgary for example ( have figured out practical ways to incentivize adaptive reuse. Perhaps Chicago can follow in their footsteps and replicate some of these programs.

There always will be a need for affordable office space. Not every business can afford to lease in higher class properties, no matter how much they downsize. It might shock some to learn that there are people out there who do not need or care about lavish amenities. Their wish list simply consists of a well located, efficient and cost-effective place to congregate at a reasonable price. Yes, the “flight to quality” is real, but it doesn’t apply to everyone. By scaling back on the supply, a very robust Class C market can emerge and have an extremely bright future. This is how we move the market forward.

Hey, who ever said change would be easy? Better buckle up because there is no quick escape, but amongst the waves of distress, brighter days truly are around the bend. The sooner everyone acknowledges that office space usage has evolved right before our very eyes, the sooner businesses can start to create new habits and thrive in their new routines. As a clear vision emerges of how much space is needed, the city will hopefully get serious about developing a sensible approach to absorb the excess office space and recalibrate it in a manner which benefits all current and future residents. It’s evolution, baby.

Remembering Chicago’s Fallen on September 11, 2001

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The following tributes were compiled from the individuals’ obituaries, articles, statements from friends and family, and biographies sourced from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. We recognize that these are mere glimpses of these individuals’ lives, and that the full scope of each person’s life and legacy can never be contained within a few brief paragraphs. We encourage you to visit the links at the bottom of this page to learn more. We have also included a list of resources for those struggling with grief and loss. To share your own story, please email Amanda at Whether reading this transcript or listening to the podcast episode, please take care, as this may be triggering for some readers and listeners.

Kathy Bantis, 44. Kathy was among the 295 Marsh & McLennan employees who perished in the World Trade Center attacks. Having moved to Seattle in 1993, Kathy was known for her nurturing spirit and had formed deep bonds with her friends, akin to sisterhood. Despite relocating to Chicago in 1999, the distance did little to dilute the close ties she had with her friends; they stayed connected through visits and frequent calls. Kathy was in New York on business, and scouting new homes for an upcoming job promotion, when she was tragically present in the first tower during the attack. Those who remember Kathy reflect on her with mixed emotions, sometimes joy and other times deep sorrow. The impact of her loss has inspired them to cherish relationships more, showing affection openly and making conscious efforts to reach out to loved ones. The aftermath of September 11 may have momentarily paralyzed them with hatred, but love propels them forward.

Jeffrey Collman, 42. A flight attendant hailing from Yorkville IL, Jeffrey was on American Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center. Typically, Jeffrey worked the Boston-to-San Francisco route, allowing him to commute conveniently to his residence in Navato, California and connect two cities he loved. The reason for his presence on Flight 11 was unforeseen; he opted for an extra shift so he could take time off for his 42nd birthday celebration on September 28. For Jeffrey, travel was pure joy. His journey to becoming a flight attendant was a testament to his determination; after a rejection from United Airlines, he got accepted by American Airlines on his second application. Aside from his love for flying, Jeffrey was an avid tennis enthusiast, even attending the U.S. Open the week before the tragedy.

His partner, Keith Bradkowski, received an unexpected phone call from Jeff the night before the tragedy. On the call, Jeff conveyed his deep love for Keith and eagerly anticipated his return home later that week. That brief conversation, lasting merely three minutes, was the last time they spoke.

The aftermath of the tragedy propelled Bradkowski to lobby for LGBTQ rights, driven by challenges he faced over inheritance rights as a registered domestic partner. With fervor and unwavering determination, he championed California Assembly Bill 2216, which eventually granted these rights to domestic partners. Bradkowski’s advocacy efforts further led to a policy change by American Airlines regarding compensation and benefits to domestic partners of deceased employees.

Collman’s legacy continues through the book, “Jeff’s Way,” published in 2007. It outlines his journey of resilience and strength, especially after a turbulent childhood marked by his mother’s abandonment and a stint in foster care. Despite his tumultuous past, Collman remained an emblem of positivity, ensuring he and Bradkowski never ended a day with lingering anger.

Their relationship was beautifully encapsulated by the song “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler, a melody that resonates with Bradkowski to this day. Two decades later, he finally penned a heartfelt letter to Midler, expressing gratitude for the song that continuously brings solace and keeps Collman’s spirit alive.

Bradkowski frequently revisits a cherished letter from Collman, penned on their decade-long anniversary. The words serve as a poignant reminder of their undying bond: “I love you truly, Keith Alan Bradkowski…know how much you mean to me now and always.”

Andrea Haberman, 25. Andrea experienced her inaugural business journey to her New York office. In her parents’ Wisconsin residence, a drawer preserved Andrea’s distressed wallet, a partially fused cell phone, her ID, credit cards, checkbook, and house keys, for nearly six years. Time had corroded her eyeglass rims; the lenses nowhere in sight. These common possessions stand as silent testimonials to a life tragically truncated on September 11, 2001, when a commandeered plane hit the World Trade Center’s north tower. On the cusp of matrimony with her college beloved, Andrea was in New York City for the first time, representing the brokerage firm Carr Futures. That fateful morning, she began her day early for work meetings and was conversing with her Chicago office when disaster struck. The remnants of her belongings, still carrying the acrid scent of the tragedy, bring waves of grief to her family. To find solace, they donated these items to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.



Vanessa Kolpak, 21. A bright young woman from Lincolnwood, Vanessa was in service for an investment firm stationed in the South Tower of the WTC. The day’s horrors began, and she contacted her mother to assure her safety, only to face the subsequent tower impact. Vanessa’s magnanimous spirit was marked by generosity, laughter, and an unwavering support for others. She illuminated paths with her intellect and ardor for knowledge, enriching the lives of those fortunate enough to know her. With her early education in Chicago, Vanessa graduated with high honors from Georgetown University, majoring in economics and minoring in philosophy and theatre. Just three weeks before 9/11, she commenced her role as a financial researcher at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. Her talents extended beyond academia; she was an accomplished violinist, debater, golfer, and a recognized scholar. To honor Vanessa, a teddy bear, crafted from the dress she donned for her job interview, sits in the 9/11 Memorial Museum, adorned with a teal ribbon bearing the words: “Love, Vanessa.”


Suzanne Kondratenko, 27. An alumna of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills, Suzanne was on the 92nd floor of the WTC’s South Tower, serving as a consultant for the Chicago-based Aon Corporation. As she descended the stairs, she paused on the 78th floor to assist a woman struggling to breathe, sacrificing her possible escape. Her acts of selflessness were remembered in memorial services in Chicago and at Sacred Heart.

Suzanne’s legacy at the Academy of the Sacred Heart is palpable. A dynamic individual, she served as student body president and always left an indelible mark with her vibrancy. In 2009, the academy named its infant classroom “Suzanne’s Nest” in her memory, a gesture that the Kondratenko family deeply cherishes. Eric Kondratenko, Suzanne’s father, recalls how Suzanne lived life fully and passionately, participating actively in her community. Suzanne’s connection with the academy is profound, with Patricia Kondratenko, Suzanne’s mother, emphasizing that her daughter’s spirit endures within the academy’s walls.


Darya Lin, 32. Raised during Iran’s turbulent times and acquainted with adversity from a young age, Darya showcased her brave heart on September 11. As a senior manager with Keane Consulting Group, Darya chose to stay behind on the 78th floor, attempting to aid a pregnant client while her colleagues sought safety. Darya had a profound awareness of life’s fragility, once leaving a note in a borrowed shoe, aware that it might be a way to identify her should something happen. Having migrated from Iran to Ann Arbor, Michigan, at 11, Darya’s adult life was filled with travels and explorations. Her mother fondly remembers her thoughtful letters written in Persian, expressing gratitude. Darya and Suzanne were together in their final moments.

Both Suzanne and Darya exemplify the essence of selflessness, bravery, and the spirit of living life to its fullest. Their memories serve as lasting reminders of the deep imprints one can leave on the world.

Jeff Mladenik, 43. The Hinsdale native tragically perished on Flight 11. A dedicated leader in the realm of Internet publishing, Mr. Mladenik held the position of interim chief executive officer at eLogic in Los Angeles. But beyond his professional achievements, he was deeply rooted in faith, serving as an associate pastor at Christ Church of Oak Brook, where he engaged in meaningful discussions about spirituality in daily life. His impact on those around him was profound. Bill Cirignani, a church member and friend, spoke of Mr. Mladenik’s infectious passion for God, which inspired and rekindled his own faith.

Jeffrey’s life was also marked by his deep devotion to his family. He left behind his wife, Suzanne, two daughters—Kelly and Grace, two sons—Joshua and Daniel, and a baby girl, Hannah, in China whom they were in the process of adopting.

Amidst his demanding work schedule, Jeffrey Mladenik consistently found solace in the scriptures. Friends recall that he often spent his frequent long-haul flights between Boston and Los Angeles engrossed in the Bible. A member of his church said he believes that during the tragic hijacking of Flight 11, Jeff would have had his Bible open, offering solace and prayers to his fellow passengers.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Murphy, 38. Commander Murphy met his tragic end alongside 183 others in the terrorist attack when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon. A product of Marian Catholic High School’s 1981 graduating class, Lt. Cmdr. Murphy hailed from Flossmoor, Illinois. He furthered his education with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Mississippi in 1986. At the time of the attack, he was on a brief, two-week Reserve assignment at the Navy Command Center.

His ties to the University of Mississippi ran deep. Glen Murphy, a former teammate from the Ole Miss Rugby Club, remains committed to ensuring that Patrick’s memory is not forgotten. When the Rugby Club marked its 40th anniversary, they paid tribute to Patrick and others from their ranks who have passed.

The Pentagon Memorial Website houses a heartfelt tribute to Lt. Cmdr. Murphy, describing him as a deeply committed individual, placing paramount importance on family, God, and nation. His sacrifice has left an indelible mark on many, from family members to fellow countrymen, who pray for his peaceful repose.

Back in his hometown, his memory is etched onto the streetscape. A street sign in Chicago Heights, where Patrick spent his early years, now reads: “Patrick Murphy Way, September 11, 2001.”

Christine Olender, 39. Christine was a native of Chicago with a deep-rooted passion for fashion. From an early age, she was immersed in the fashion world through her parents’ Northwest Side clothing store, Cragin-Hanson. Though she initially attended Mundelein College, her aspirations led her to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. After graduating, Christine chose to remain in New York, gradually transitioning from fashion to hospitality.

For half a decade, she held the role of assistant general manager at Windows on the World, a prestigious restaurant located on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. In her role, Christine brought a unique blend of creativity and dedication, supervising the morning staff and bringing a tasteful eye to the remodeling of dining spaces. The management, as well as her colleagues, consistently praised her broad knowledge across departments and her unwavering sunny demeanor, making her an invaluable asset to the establishment.

Though she embraced the vibrant life New York offered, Christine never lost her connection to her family in Chicago. Regular surprise visits and frequent phone calls were a testament to her dedication to her family, especially her mother, Stella. The tragic events of September 11th meant that the familiar light on Stella’s answering machine indicating a message from Christine would never blink again. Struggling with the weight of the tragedy, Stella and her son traveled to New York for a memorial service, hoping to find some semblance of closure, even without the discovery of her daughter’s remains.

Christine’s vibrant spirit shone bright in her personal life too. Born on the Fourth of July, she was often referred to as a “little firecracker” by her mother. Yet, as much as the date symbolized celebration, it also highlighted a sense of solitude for her. New York City typically went silent on this day, prompting Christine and her friend, Melissa Trumbull, who shared the same birthday, to create their own traditions. They’d order a strawberry shortcake, pair it with a bottle of champagne from Windows on the World, and celebrate their day together.

Remembered for her practicality (except, apparently, when it came to shoes), Christine’s legacy is one of passion, dedication, and an effervescent spirit that touched everyone she knew.

Lt. Darin Pontell, 26. Arlington Heights native Lieutenant Pontell met a tragic end during the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, just as he was concluding his 12-hour duty in the intelligence department. His wife, Devora, fondly remembered him as a beacon of positivity, whose generosity and warmth resonated with all who knew him. Committed to his country, Darin graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1998 and was soon designated as an intelligence officer. His exemplary service included deployments to the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf aboard the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower, during which he provided crucial intelligence for critical missions. His dedication was recognized with multiple medals, including a posthumous Purple Heart.


Robert Rasmussen, 42. The Hinsdale resident and dedicated financial consultant tragically met his end in the South Tower of the WTC. Robert’s illustrious career spanned from M.A. Mortenson Construction to Coopers & Lybrand and finally, Vestek in 1996. Survived by his wife, three young children, mother Elizabeth, siblings, and a host of relatives, Robert’s loss is deeply felt. His last moments were witnessed by a survivor, whose testimony provided a modicum of closure to his family. Memorials to honor his memory were held in Hawley, MN, and Hinsdale.



Susan Sauer, 49. A Chicago resident and managing director at Marsh Inc., Susan was known not only for her dedication to her profession but also for her deep passion for travel. Determined and goal-oriented, she aimed to visit 50 countries before her 50th birthday and was just two countries short of reaching that milestone. Susan’s adventurous spirit had her planning a unique trip, including a cooking school in Italy and quick stops in Hungary and Wales to achieve her goal. Although questions arose about the technicality of her count, her previous visit to Czechoslovakia lent weight to her claim.

Beyond her work and love for travel, Susan was an ardent golfer, influenced by one of her five cherished nephews who had secured a golf scholarship. Her other pursuits included hiking, needlepoint, and a recent stint at the Culinary Institute in Napa Valley. Pictures in her Chicago office revealed her juxtaposed against mountainous terrains, reflecting her love for nature.

A graduate of Wheaton Central High School and Illinois State University, Susan joined Marsh in 1992 and was remembered by colleagues, like Christopher Long, for her constant smile and unwavering positivity. On the fateful day of September 11, while attending a meeting at the World Trade Center, Susan became one of the many Marsh and McLennan employees who tragically went missing. Her absence left a void in the lives of those she touched, both personally and professionally.

Navy Cmdr. Dan F. Shanower, 40. Commander Shanower was a dedicated servant of the nation and native of Naperville, Illinois,who tragically lost his life in the Pentagon. Born on February 7, 1961, he showcased his leadership and spirit from an early age, playing for Naperville Central High School’s varsity soccer team before graduating in 1979. He furthered his education at Carroll College, earning a Bachelor’s in Political Science and interning for Senator Charles Percy in Washington.

His commendable naval journey began with a commission as an Ensign in 1985. Throughout his illustrious career, CDR Shanower held multiple critical positions, from serving on the U.S.S. Midway to working as a Foreign Service Officer in the Philippines and eventually rising to the rank of Commander in December 2000. His last assignment was in the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, DC, where he provided essential intelligence support to the Navy Secretariat and other key officials.

Throughout his career, CDR Shanower was a recipient of numerous accolades, including the Defense Meritorious Service Award, Navy Commendation Medals, and the Purple Heart. His dedication and service to the country were further acknowledged posthumously by his alma mater, Carroll College, and his high school.

But beyond his remarkable professional achievements, those who knew Dan cherished his warm smile, exceptional sense of humor, and his profound love for the sea, exploration, and writing. His penned reflections, including an emotional piece titled “Freedom Isn’t Free,” illuminated the sacrifices made by military personnel and their belief in a cause greater than themselves.

Leaving behind a legacy of honor, bravery, and commitment, CDR Shanower is survived by his parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews. He was laid to rest with solemn honors at Arlington National Cemetery on October 1, 2001.

Mari-Rae Sopper, 35. A lawyer from Washington, D.C., and a native of Palatine, met a tragic end on September 11, 2001, aboard Flight 77, bound for Los Angeles. Born on June 19, 1966, she was setting forth to embrace a dream role as the head coach of the women’s gymnastics team at the University of California Santa Barbara. However, she never arrived; terrorists hijacked her flight, and it crashed into the Pentagon, claiming the lives of 64 individuals on board, as well as 125 in the Pentagon itself.

A star gymnast since her youth, Mari-Rae excelled at Fremd High School in Palatine and was awarded Fremd’s Athlete of the Year in 1984. Her talent ran in the family, with her sister, Tammy, also achieving state honors in the sport. Mari-Rae’s gymnastics journey took her to Iowa State University and later, while pursuing further education and her legal career, she coached at the Colorado Gymnastics Institute and other establishments. Remarkably, she also served at the Pentagon during a stint as a lieutenant in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, later joining the Supreme Court Bar in Washington, D.C. Her deep passion for gymnastics persisted; she assisted the U.S. Naval Academy women’s gymnastics team and coached at George Washington University.

Before accepting her dream role at Santa Barbara, Mari-Rae practiced law in Washington, D.C. Despite knowing about the program’s imminent closure at UC Santa Barbara and the significant pay cut involved, her dedication to gymnastics prevailed.

Posthumously, she has been honored with various awards and memorials, both in gymnastics and in remembrance of the tragic events of 9/11. The “Mari-Rae Sopper Gymnastics Memorial Fund”, established by her mother, has aided struggling gymnastics programs, and she’s commemorated at events and venues, including the annual “Mari-Rae Sopper Invitational” and the “Mari-Rae Sopper Gymnastics Show”. Additionally, her legacy is etched in memorials across the U.S., such as the National September 11 Memorial in New York and the Pentagon’s light bench memorials.

Mari-Rae’s final resting place is the Arlington National Cemetery, where her name, along with other victims, is inscribed on a dedicated memorial.

Mary Lenz Wieman, 43. The marketing executive at Aon Corp. was working on one of the South Tower’s upper floors when the building was attacked. Her children, Alison and Chris, were at school, and her husband, Marc, was also in Manhattan but managed to escape on foot. The chilling aftermath saw Alison and Chris return home without their mother’s welcoming presence.

Marc, trying to shield the young ones from the harrowing truth, initially told them that their mother might be absent for a few days due to an incident. However, the gravity of the situation was clear to Alison, even at her young age. Chris, who first heard of the attacks at school, clung to the hope that their mother would emerge safe. But as the days turned to weeks, hope began to wane, and the grim reality set in. A haunting token of Mary’s presence that day—a class ring—was eventually found amid the wreckage.

In the aftermath, Rockville Centre’s close-knit community’s support was a bittersweet salve to the family’s wounds. While the town’s compassion was comforting, the perpetual condolences became a poignant reminder of their loss. For Alison, attending Villanova University provided a reprieve, a place where not everyone knew her story.

Years have passed, but Mary’s memory remains alive in her children’s hearts. They cherish memories of her, from family trips to Disney to her vibrant personality that always sought joy and inclusivity. As the 20th anniversary of that fateful day approached, the siblings expressed that the number of years matters little; the void left by their mother’s absence remains deep and unyielding. As Alison prepares for her wedding, the bittersweet realization dawns that she has now lived most of her life without her mother’s guidance and warmth.

As we reflect upon the events of September 11, it is vital to remember that beyond the shadow of that fateful day lies the radiant light of countless lives—lives filled with laughter, love, dreams, and triumphs. These were individuals who touched the hearts of many, who left behind legacies of joy, and who contributed to the tapestry of our shared human experience. While the weight of the tragedy will always linger, let us shift our focus to celebrate the vibrant lives they led, cherishing the moments they shared and the memories they created. In doing so, we not only honor their existence but also ensure that their spirits continue to inspire and uplift us, reminding us of the boundless capacity of the human heart to love, persevere, and hope.

A list of sources for this article, as well as resources for those struggling with grief, are located below.


The Center for Grief Recovery & Therapeutic Services – This organization offers specialized counseling services to help individuals cope with various forms of grief.

Willow House – A nonprofit focused on supporting grieving children, families, schools, and communities through various support services.

Chicago Survivors: This is a local grief and support group for those who have been affected by violence. They primarily service families who have lost loved ones to gang-based crime, but they offer a plethora of resources for anyone struggling to deal with a tragic event.

Sources for this episode include:,_LT,_USN


Unearthing the Forgotten History of Chicago’s Oldest Buildings

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Like many others, I have vivid memories of sitting in my high school history classes, slumping in my chair and using my textbook as a pillow. Old stuff didn’t matter to me back then. My grandparents would reminisce about the good ol’ days and scorn the rapidly-evolving technologies which they never seemed to catch onto. But later on in life, after they had passed away, the only pieces of them that remained were the yellowed pages of books they’d once read, newspapers that once lay sprawled across their ancient breakfast table, aging film from cameras that once captured their love and lives in black and white. As I palmed through these tactile memories, I rediscovered a childlike fascination with the past. Everything obsolete that was once innovative, everything decayed that was once pristine. Rare remnants from ancestors, the only surviving pieces from generations of hardship and survival. I consider myself incredibly lucky that my entire job is to traverse relic after relic of downtown Chicago, investigating the stories that have long been forgotten. The quote-unquote “flight to quality” has encouraged a surface-level thirst for what’s shiny and new, but under the iceberg of Chicago’s architecture lays an endless ocean of history. Today, I’d like to share with you some of my favorite stories from our portfolio of buildings. 

100 N LaSalle

100 N LaSalle is a building unlike any other. Constructed in 1927 by Anker Sverre Graven and Arthur Guy Mayger, this architectural gem was formerly known as The Lawyers Building. In its infancy, 100 North played host to the Cook County Real Estate Board, offering proximate access to City Hall and the Chicago Title and Trust Building. It was constructed from brick with a detailed terra cotta trim, and the lobby was treated with imported marble.

The Lawyers Building was designed to replace the Merchant’s building, which had been built in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Construction broke records when it was determined that the building was erected in less time than any other with equal tonnage and height in the city of Chicago.

In 1932, a 99-year lease was signed to the Reywal Building Corporation in order to keep, quote, “the battalion of sharpshooters, chiselers, and other racketeers who flock around the building,” at bay. Reywal, of course, is Lawyer spelled backward.

Today, 100 North LaSalle has taken on a new life, with renovations to almost every facet of the building. A stunning new lobby with modern finishes, a penthouse suite slated to host an event space, refurbished common corridors, and massive glass walls have turned the Lawyers Building into a highly desirable space where small to midsize companies can enjoy all that the Central Loop has to offer.

819 S Wabash

The Loftrium at 819 S Wabash stands tall and proud in the former Film Row of Chicago, where major movie producers used to house their operations during the Golden Age of cinema. But its exquisite, distinctive appearance belies its rich and storied history, comprising of over a century of drama, betrayal, mystery, hubris, and the pursuit and failure of The American Dream.The story begins with a familiar Chicagoland namesake:

In the mid 1800s, the Gurnee family settled in Chicago to establish a saddle-and-whip store. The latter quickly gained influence via political connections, and achieved success through real estate developments across the state. In 1869, Amelia Gurnee married Joseph Armour, the owner of a massively successful grain merchant company. In the years following the Great Chicago Fire, however, their marriage fell apart, and Amelia died of an undisclosed cause. Shortly thereafter, the widower Joseph began to develop a mysterious illness and spent much of his time receiving extensive treatments at local spas.

A few years later, Joseph married his widow’s sister, Carrie, and quietly moved back to Chicago after a quick European wedding. Joseph’s health continued to decline, and a series of illness began to plague the Gurnee-Armour family. In rapid succession, Carrie’s father, her son, and her husband all passed away.

Carrie was the sole inheritor of $3 million in cash and bonds, as well as her late husband’s share of his company. Two years later, she became acquainted with and married Charles Munn, who had strong business connections with the Dows and their extremely successful freight brokerage and grain commission company. The Dows company and Munn family had worked together in New York not long after the Munns immigrated from Ireland, and became close even after the latter moved to Chicago.

Carrie and Charles Munn had two children and quickly worked their way up the social latter with the help of the Dows. Their family frequented Newport, New York City, Mancester, St. Augustine, and Palm Beach. With their success came mansions, vacations, and exclusive access to the famed Chicago Club and Union Club. But even legendary wealth couldn’t protect them from tuberculosis, which unexpectedly killed Charles at age 50.

During the Gurnee-Munn’s time in Chicago, Carrie had become acquainted with the son of a supreme Court justice and “Chicago’s first lawyer,” Arthur Caton. Caton’s wife had famously maintained a lengthy affair with Marshall Field, whom she later married. Caton had died of unknown causes during their marriage, and Field, too, dropped dead just five months after his wedding to the former Mrs. Caton.The Gurnee-Munn children often held playdates with the Caton children at the White House, where the eldest Munn befriended Robert Todd Lincoln. Through a series of high-society teas and meetings, Carrie successfully commissioned the construction of the Munn Building at 819 S Wabash. She also financed a nearby building which was regarded as “the world’s largest music house.”

During their time in Washington D.C., Carrie’s daughter and namesake became close with Ethel Roosevelt and spurred rumors that she was due to be engaged to Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. She instead married Reginald Boardman of Boston, but stayed close with the Roosevelt family.

Carrie Munn suffered a stroke in 1912 and was confined to her Washington home, where her children stayed by her side for months. Carrie survived the stroke, but was killed in a tragic car accident when her limousine inexplicably crashed into a telephone pole only a year later.

Her estate was carried out by her children, at which time S. Karpen & Bros signed a 99-year lease at 819 S Wabash. The building has since changed hands several times over the past century, and at one point ironically hosted a coffin factory. But today, the building boasts almost all of its original charm: namely, a massive central atrium whose light reflects off every surface, not unlike its original creator. The Gurnee-Munn family continued to make headlines for their luxurious lifestyles, with one Munn child becoming one of the first people to film their wedding day. The others went on to be fashion icons, developers, and eventually retirees — some settled in their former vacation towns, and others’ fates were lost to time.

The once-gilded age of the Munns trickled slowly into grit, and then was again revived in the mid-20th century when the South Loop underwent revitalization efforts by developers and played host to dozens of major film companies. Another handful of decades later, yet another transition attempted to rebrand the area into a desirable location for professional service firms. The only remnant of its glitzy and glamorous past is the pale, haunting ghost signs boasting colorful, flashy ads across its facade. Its rich history may be buried, but 819 S Wabash stands strong over 100 years on.

40 N Wells

The Washington Block sits quietly and modestly on the corner of Washington and Wells (formerly 5th Avenue). Oft-overlooked in favor of more visually striking skyscrapers, 40 N Wells is rich with history. Its walls have seen a wealth of tragedy and triumph since its construction in 1873. The reconstruction boom sought to begin healing the wounds left by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. It was commissioned by Barbara Cure and John P Olinger of Olinger & Ballard, who hoped that The Washington Block would help to extend the Loop’s business district further west.

Designed by the Baumann cousins, the building became the first signifacnt example of an isolated pier foundation, which was a major advance in developing adequate stable foundations for the city’s infamously compressible soil. Multiple ornate textured surfaces, punch-open windows, carved hoods, and a timely Victorian influence characterized the internal and external aesthetic of the building. An optimistic report shortly following the building’s construction stated that “this building, with those occupying the other three corners, (all of which are very beautiful,) combines to form a series of the most attractive business corners on the South Side of the Chicago River, and virtually does away with all rumors regarding the low value of business property in the location named. It probably has enhanced the price of real estate at least 25 percent within the past six months, and no doubt this figure will be doubled within the next twelve months.”

Unfortunately, such optimism was misplaced. In the late 1800s, 4-5 story skyscrapers fell out of favor, and the construction of the El line further detracted from interest. Nearly all buildings with similar construction were demolished by the early 1900s for later replacement by 10+ story buildings, including all of the Baumanns’ buildings… except one.

The Washington Block survived by sheer luck due to its isolated location at the time. It flew under the radar for decades, which made it a highly desirable location for speakeasies and surreptitious gambling sites. In the 1920s and 30s, The Washington Block saw multiple police raids and dozens of arrests, particularly in t he wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal which uncovered a massive gambling scheme that slithered through Chicago’s dark underbelly. Gambling and prohibition raids plagued the Central Loop, with business-owners and agents facing arrest nearly every day at 40 North Wells. Were that not enough, a 1926 investigation revealed a massive health scam on the part of a medical tenant who prescribed unnecessary procedures and expensive snake oil drugs to unsuspecting patients seeking help for, well, “lost manhood” issues. The quack doctor lost his license, but not before draining many innocent patients of their time, money, and self-esteem.In the 1950s, the building faced yet another scandal: its contemporary remodeling removed many of the historically significant finishes, shearing off the original metal facings, stonework, and cresting, replacing nearly all of the interior features on the ground floor except for the original spiral staircase which can be admired even today. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that developers began reforming the original tooling and keystones that made The Washington Block so attractive.

In 1997, the building was designated a Chicago landmark, and signified as “Red” by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. A red designation is only awarded to structures that are architecturally or historically significant in the context of the City, the State of Illinois, or the country. A red designation is a major honor, and signifies long-awaited recognition for a building that had been overlooked and under-appreciated, abused and ignored, for over a century.

Today, The Washington Block is a distinguished and distinctive home for small-to-midsized tenants, boasting stunning hardwood floors, 12-foot ceilings, and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the hustle and bustle of the city. 

218 S Wabash

The tale of 218 S Wabash begins in 1899. A devastating fire caused by a freak accident turns the original McClurg Building into unrecognizable ruins, which then froze over in the subzero temperatures, making restoration efforts impossible. Hundreds of rare and priceless books from the first-floor bookstore are destroyed beyond repair. The remains of the building are torn down and the new McClurg building, the one we know and love today, is constructed. In 1926, scandal strikes. Two families, led by their respective patriarchs, conspire to steal from the tenants at 218 S Wabash. Fred Pauli and Joseph Kelly, each of whom were hired maintenance staff at the building, recruited their wives and children to assist in the organized theft of merchandise from the building’s wholesale jeweler tenant. They are held on what would be nearly $50,000 bond and charged.

In 1978, During a city council meeting to discuss the induction of landmark status to several buildings, including 218 S Wabash, multiple city officials walked out in protest of how such “ineffective, cumbersome” processes were handled. The hearing for landmark designation of the McClurg building is delayed when the building’s attorney requests more time to gather witnesses to speak against landmark designation.

In 1999, The McClurg Building is among multiple terra cotta- laden buildings in Chicago that are flagged as potentially dangerous to pedestrians after multiple incidents of falling structures peeling off of skyscrapers. Several passers-by are injured as a result of improper maintenance to the buildings, causing concern not only for the people of Chicago, but also for the future of these inherently delicate landmarks.

The problems continued in 2007 when 3 people are injured in a series of fires at 218 S Wabash and 228 S Wabash, which are investigated as possible cases of arson. The fires are contained, but temporarily displaced the city’s most acclaimed dance troupe, the Hubbard Street Dance Company.

In 2021, The McClurg Building’s sister, 228 S Wabash, is severely damaged after city staple Central Camera is destroyed and looted, suffering at total loss. Smoke damage permeates the Wabash Trio, but 218 S Wabash survives the ordeal mostly unharmed. Today, the beloved building has undergone a series of renovations, including a new lobby, restoration of the original flooring, upgraded ceilings, new light fixtures, and improved layouts. 218 S Wabash is revered by the Tribune as, quote, “a beautifully proportioned, early Chicago School commercial office structure … with very simple but elegantly scaled ornament.” 

Finally, we’d like to share a few shorter stories:

850 S Wabash

In the 1960s, this South Loop building played host to a local committee that planned and protected anti-war and Black liberation  demonstrations, advocating for peace during a turbulent time in the country’s history. Looking at it now, you would never guess that this area was once used as cheap housing for people needing a temporary shelter that wouldn’t ask many questions. But several decades and $40 million later, luxury apartment leases at the building were literally flying off the shelves. Additionally, the hotel portion was once the home of Charles J. Glover, a universally beloved lifetime bachelor who spent his post-WWII retirement years volunteering at local hospitals to provide cheer and companionship to recovering veterans and sick patients. 850 S Wabash isn’t just a dramatically-different office building with high ceilings and prime access to Chicago’s best dining and convenient transportation. It’s also an unofficial landmark for a slew of positive, joyful events from its modest pre-development days.

230 W Huron

Although this River North brick and timber loft has become an attractive hub for small tech tenants and high-end retailers, its early days bore perhaps one of the most quintessential Chicagoan inventions ever created: the dual-purpose hot dog and bun warmer machine, patented by The Ernest Reich Company. The company also filed several other patents for appliances you may use every day: the Chop-O-Matic food chopper, the Tearless Mincer, and the Double Sifter. Some say that when you take a tour of 230 W Huron, your stomach will growl in homage to Mr. Reich’s culinary genius. 

Nonprofit Shoutout

If any of these stories resonated with you, we’d love to take you on a tour so you can see for yourself just how special these buildings are. We also encourage you to contribute to Preservation Chicago, the only nonprofit in the city dedicated to preserving and protecting Chicago’s architectural heritage through outreach, education, and partnership. By donating and volunteering with Preservation Chicago, you can help strengthen the foundation of this city and uphold its centuries-old legacy. Check out their website and learn more by clicking here.

How to be Disabled in Chicago

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It is a uniquely difficult experience to watch your own body devolve from something you previously perceived as strong and resilient to something that barely passes for functioning. The first few doctors just want to cut you open, and several of them do, subjecting your already-aching body to a series of invasive and painful procedures. In one instance, the doctor who performs such a procedure ghosts you as soon as he receives your copay. Putting aside all the complexities of finding a provider who accepts your insurance, believes that you’re suffering, and puts forth a genuine plan of action, you find you’re struggling just to get through the day. You make the decision to work from home for awhile, and soon you realize that it is almost impossible to be a broker when you yourself are broken. 

We would all like to believe that Chicago is a progressive utopia of social awareness and justice. We’d like to believe that we’ve come a long way in respect to accessibility. The truth is that most places in the world, and specifically in Chicago, are a nightmare for people with physical disabilities. The physical and emotional toll of living and working in Chicago whilst battling a chronic, crippling condition is enormous, and that’s to say nothing of the financial burden. The City offers handicap services such as refueling assistance and free mobility devices, but not only does the approval process take weeks if not months, but those services are limited to six hours per week and assessed on an individual basis. During that process you’re compelled to share the intimate details of your disability and defend the thesis of your suffering to convince the assessor to approve your application for assistance. For months, I had been told that I was too young to be this sick, and that I must be faking it for attention. Instead of subjecting myself to another gaslighting session, I opted to try to find my own help. $85 for pickup and drop-off wash-and-fold laundry service. $100 for weekly meal delivery. $2,500 for a motorized wheelchair, or $150 for a bare-bones manual one. Thousands of dollars in medical bills. My school doesn’t offer any kind of assistance to get to and from class, and the nearest parking garage is two blocks away, so my only option is to spend hundreds of dollars on Uber rides which can pick me up and drop me off directly in front of the entrance. And thousands of dollars in missed opportunities due to being too unwell to handle showings at work. 

When you are finally able to secure a wheelchair, you find you can’t maneuver it around your apartment. The threshold of every door is lifted just enough to make it impossible to push yourself over it without losing purchase, and every hallway is just a bit too tight of a squeeze. The gaps in the elevator trap your wheels so you nearly somersault out of your chair. The walkway from your lobby to the sidewalk is all stairs – no ramp, no handrail – and the only access to your garage is via a steep driveway covered in cracks and various detritus that sticks to your wheels and gets tracked back into your apartment. Out in the world, wheelchair ramps are few and far between. The ones that do exist are in abysmal condition. Most buildings lack a handicap button on the door, so you have to wait until someone takes pity on you and lets you in, or, like me, you McGyver your cane into a makeshift claw and pull the door open that way. Sidewalks are a mess of shattered concrete that resembles a stairmaster, with slabs sticking out every which way. More than once you have to turn around and find alternate routes because a tree is situated in the middle of the walkway, or a mailbox has cut your available rolling space in half. On the days you’re able to recruit a friend to take you outside and enjoy the sunshine, you narrowly escape several catastrophic injuries just getting to the lakefront bike trail, and that’s to say nothing of actually rolling along that trail. When you arrive back home, your apartment’s only elevator is being repaired, so you sit in your lobby staring daggers into the repairman’s back, telepathically willing him to work quickly so you can get upstairs and get back in bed. I signed my apartment lease before any of my health problems reared their ugly heads, so accessibility didn’t even occur to me at the time. Neither I nor any of my friends or family expected it to be so hard for me to get to and from work, let alone in and out of my apartment.  

14% of Chicagoans report having some kind of disability, with most of those requiring some kind of assistive device. Why, then, is accessibility such an afterthought? In many buildings, installing a wheelchair ramp or lift can cost upwards of $100,000, and installing just one handicap-accessible door can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000. That’s to say nothing of the cost to repair and replace broken sidewalk slabs, which, let’s be honest, has never been a city priority. Disabilities can be incredibly isolating if for no other reason than it’s just easier to stay home rather than try to navigate the world from a seated position. Most people perceive the need to be so small and niche that it’s not worth the expense of implementing accommodations, or they assume that the disabled population consists only of those who are well past retirement age, so it’s a waste of time and effort to consider accessible upgrades in office spaces. They don’t see thousands of wheelchair-bound or cane-wielding businesspeople out and about, so they assume they don’t exist in significant numbers. But in reality, 10% of Chicagoans aged 35 to 64 report having a disability, and many of those Chicagoans grapple with the reality every day that the world is not designed to accommodate them. So instead, like me, they stay home. 

The problem is self-perpetuating. Push it under the rug, table it for another time, we’ll get to it when we can justify the cost. The solution is universal design, with all kinds of people in mind, including those who require a little extra help to get around. Lower call buttons on elevators. Small, $50 ramps installed on all door thresholds. Wider hallways, elevators, and doors. Modernized, adaptable turnstiles. Abundant seating. Handrails on all stairways. Designated handicap street parking. Automatic handicap door openers. Rugs or flooring with a little bit of traction to minimize slip-and-fall risk. Adjustable lighting with lower light switches. Or, at the very least, onsite management to assist tenants who unexpectedly experience physical hardship and require accessibility upgrades. 

Right now is the perfect time to reassess the tenant experience. Landlords and owners are willing to create tenant lounges, install new lighting and flooring, invest in elaborate decor and modern furniture, glass walls, frosted windows, custom murals, and high-tech digital directories. Each of those can cost far more than a few small changes to make a building more accessible to tenants and visitors. While everyone is downsizing and consolidating, and tenants have their pick of the litter when it comes to office space, I implore you all to consider this: a million dollars in renovations and redecoration means absolutely nothing if your tenants can’t access their office. It is worth your time and money to cater to the 10% of Chicagoans who otherwise couldn’t possibly consider your building. Today, I challenge you to sit in your rolling desk chair and attempt to get yourself to the closest bus stop without getting up. Do that just once, remembering that I, too, believed I would never need to worry about overcoming such a challenge, and then look me in the eye and tell me your building is optimized for your tenants. Go ahead, I dare you. 

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I’d like to shout out Access Living of Chicago, which is the leading nonprofit for disabled civil rights. Access Living provides advocacy, training, support, and education for individuals with disabilities and their families, as well as for employers who seek to improve their company’s accessibility initiatives. The organization’s website features a comprehensive guide to the CTA’s accessibility options, including free ride permits, paratransit resources, and other helpful information – most of which is nonexistent or extremely difficult to find on the City of Chicago’s website. Similarly, Devices 4 the Disabled, that’s with the number 4, accepts donations of mobility equipment, including walkers, wheelchairs, lifts, crutches, and scooters, each of which are given to individuals who otherwise could not afford them. 

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3 Lessons I Learned During My Time Undercover as a Wealthy Chicagoan

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I am not a wealthy Chicagoan. I’m a second-year law student still paying off medical debt from 2019. But through a series of fortunate events and strategic use of my student status, I had the opportunity to briefly experience life from the rose-colored, Chanel-clad eyes of someone in a vastly different tax bracket, starting with a membership at one of the most exclusive social clubs in the city. Due to a health emergency and reassessment of my priorities, not to mention the crushing reality of my spring semester tuition invoice, my high-end lifestyle was destined to last no longer than the length of my winter break, but the lessons I learned will last a lifetime. Here are some insights I gathered from this beautiful-yet-fleeting moment of my life:

The barrier to entry is surprisingly low.

In order to get accepted as a member of the Union League Club of Chicago (ULCC), I had to submit an initial application, take an in-person tour of the club, have a formal interview with a member of the admissions board, submit another application, and have those applications reviewed by said board. The whole process from start to finish took under two weeks, and the questions were very straightforward: why did I want to become a member, what activities did I see myself doing, what contributions could I make to the club’s various charitable organizations, etcetera. I was repeatedly sold on the “young members committee,” which purported to be several hundred members strong, with multiple outings scheduled throughout the month (I later discovered that nearly all of these outings centered around alcohol, which was completely unappealing to me and therefore I never took advantage). Once I became a member, I had access to one of the largest private art collections in Chicago – the ULCC is sometimes referred to as the “other Art Institute” for this reason. Discounts and amenities abounded: a private gym with personal training priced at less than half the rate of the leading fitness centers, an enormous pool, multiple private pickleball courts, a library that resembles something out of Hogwarts, massively discounted hotel rooms and dining experiences, access to $30 lobster dinners once a week, a cigar bar, an onsite salon, and so much more. That’s to say nothing of the networking opportunities, which I had originally cited as my top reason for joining. The final bill for one month of access to all this? Less than $250.
Physically getting into a “rich people” environment isn’t all that difficult if you can “walk the walk and talk the talk,” as they say, especially in a city like Chicago where all the wealthiest individuals dress in deceptively expensive jeans and t-shirts. A blowout from Drybar is $50 and a quick at-home manicure is $20. Target has knockoff Burberry and Gucci brands, and if you can finagle your way through a conversation about NFTs, you’ll have everyone believing you’re just as New Money as they are.

Belonging often exists in a vacuum.

One question I repeatedly asked during my ULCC interview was whether there were programs designed to diversify the membership pool. I’m a white, blonde, 20-something, so I fit in just fine with most suburban circles, but one of the reasons I moved back to Chicago from LA was the fact that I hated living in a bubble. I didn’t want to just assign a certain percentage of my membership dues to ULCC’s partnership orgs and pat myself on the back for a societal duty fulfilled, I wanted to speak with real people and learn how I could be a better advocate and ally. Unsurprisingly, however, the overwhelming majority of members are middle-aged white men. I did expect to see one or two people from non-white backgrounds, but every single time I stepped foot in the club, the only people of color there were the staff. It felt very much like I had wandered into an 18th-century plantation, and I found myself questioning whether I even wanted to be seen there. The irony was not lost on me: I had spent so long worrying I’d stick out like a sore thumb and that the upper-class crowd would know I’m not “one of them,” but the reality is that as a member, I very much was – I’m privileged, white, wealthy-passing, and I was happy to sit in an exclusive cafe sipping a $12 chai while the only black person in the room stood silently at his post awaiting his next order. It was an environment in which I knew no one would question my belonging, but it was a wake-up call when I found myself wishing I’d fit in just a little less. I remember fixing my hair in a gold-plated mirror and thinking to myself, “oh god, I’m insufferable!”

I had a similar sinking sensation when I had the opportunity to dine at Nobu with my sister. She and I opted for the Chef Nobu Special, which is a uniquely-curated experience starting at a measly $150 per person. The price per person goes up from there, with higher tiers broaching $1,200 and consisting of rare caviar and A5 kobe beef. We were asked to give a few parameters: any allergies or restrictions, anything that particularly caught our eyes, and whether we wanted to include drink pairings with each course. Some of the courses were off-menu specialties, favorites of the chef or experimental dishes usually reserved for adventurous diners.

I have to admit that this was, bar none, the best meal I have ever had in my life. The food was so good that our server had tattoos of some of the dishes, and apparently rapper Drake shouts out Nobu in one of his songs. I can’t blame him – the experience from start to finish was impeccable. I even saved the receipt so I could remember how lucky I was – and am. But I was frustrated to see that the majority of diners didn’t seem as giddy as we were to be there. My sister and I had been looking forward to this dinner for months and had saved up every penny we possibly could. When we arrived, we could barely contain our excitement, and my sister fretted that she wasn’t dressed elegantly enough. Looking around, though, we saw multiple tables of men wearing backwards baseball caps, jeans, and t-shirts with stretched-out necklines. A mother-daughter pair seated near us had clearly picked this place as a last-minute option after a day of running errands. Many people were on their phones the entire meal, barely looking at the $80 wagyu gyoza in front of them. We admired the care and thoughtfulness that was clearly imbued within each hand-crafted dish and took our time to appreciate everything in front of us. But to so many other diners, this was just Thursday.

At first, we were appalled – how could anyone be so blind as to take for granted this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? But then we realized that luxury isn’t a tourist industry; it doesn’t exist for struggling grad students like us who pull couches apart looking for loose change, it exists for C-Suites and dealmakers whose way of life is perpetually elevated. No one was looking at us in an accusatory way or hovering over us to ensure we didn’t dine and dash. No matter how much we insisted that this was a truly special occasion, and one we probably would never be able to afford again, the reality was that we were in the same room as everyone else, enjoying the same food, paying the same market prices. We belonged there because we were there. Somehow, this truth offered nothing but discomfort.

There’s no way to project to the rest of the room that you’re genuinely interested in the preservation of sanctity when it comes to experiencing luxury. When you’re in a glass house, the prisms of reflective light will bathe your face in rainbows regardless of whether you enjoy the sun. When it comes to wealthy circles, at least the ones I temporarily entered, money was social currency as well as actual currency. If you could afford to even consider dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant, then you were welcomed there. I’d like to point out that people of color are treated with far more scrutiny and skepticism than their white counterparts in these spaces, but there are far better sources and stories about that by people who have actually experienced it. My personal experience, with all my privilege, can be summed up thusly: wherever you go, there you are, even if you don’t feel like you deserve it.

Money can’t buy you class.

There exists a notion that wealth is usually intertwined with etiquette. “Old money,” for example, conjures images of large intergenerational estates where families take great care to maintain an illusion of propriety and education. Ladies cross their ankles, not their legs. Men wear ties and remove their hats indoors. “Please” and “thank you” punctuate each sentence, and everyone takes pride in having excellent manners.

What a joke.

Many people blame the influx of Californians to Chicago as the source of abundant shamelessness and impoliteness in traditionally exclusive spaces, and as an ex-Californian I can understand that sentiment, but my experience revealed a much uglier truth: because extreme privilege often shields people from consequences, egregious displays of wealth sometimes beget egregious displays of rudeness. I witnessed a middle-aged, impeccably-dressed woman in the ULCC cafe spread her belongings across several tables and chairs, prop up her iPad and phone like a NASA control center around her, and proceed to watch TikToks for over an hour with the sound turned up. Another woman stood in the middle of the room at a highboy table, drink in hand at 2:30pm, and openly scolded her business partner about a highly confidential financial agreement. On more than one occasion, I heard the phrase “don’t clean that up, it’s the staff’s job to do that for you.” The 18-year double-cask whiskey on the rocks is too cold. That person experiencing homelessness has the gall to stand within 30 feet of this building. The $260 bluefin tuna is too salty. Beach too sandy; water too wet.

Be that a lack of gratitude or self-awareness, the impact it left on me will forever remain negative. I think back to the sanctity of scarcity and the value I project onto others’ wealth. I could never tell someone how to spend their money, but I found that the culture around wealth can be so isolating and downright boring. How can it be that something so highly sought-after is so disappointing? Is that a reality that everyone faces when they reach a certain level of success? Or are there still precious experiences in the world reserved for those who can not only enjoy them, not only appreciate them, but desire to share them?

In the $32 Uber ride back to my studio apartment with the broken sink and temperamental radiator, I let down my hair and pulled off my fake eyelashes. Inside that apartment awaited the lounge pants I’ve had since 8th grade and a t-shirt with a mysterious stain that has defied dozens of aggressive spin cycles. It’ll be packaged ramen and generic-brand Walgreens hauls for the foreseeable future, but it was worth it to find this peace: The gift of low expectations pays dividends in the form of pleasant surprises. Perhaps the fur-lined lap of luxury is a nice place to lay my head, but I now know that middle-class mediocrity is my sanctuary.

The Mishegoss of the Loop

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One of my mentors — the late, great Howard Weinstein — was quite proficient in Yiddish. A favorite word of his was mishegoss, meaning “craziness,” or some type of senseless behavior or activity. He often used this expression (in jest, I hope) to describe some of the decisions I made while running the commercial division of Rubloff. As I reflect upon the current state of affairs in the Loop, mishegoss certainly seems like an appropriate description.

As most people familiar with downtown Chicago are aware, the Loop (and the Central Loop in particular) is in chaos right now. Office vacancy is at an all time high, it seems like every other storefront is dark, crime is noticeably up and the overall perception is rather bleak. Numerous properties are in financial trouble and rumored to be on the brink of foreclosure. Many of the classic buildings up and down LaSalle Street have lost their luster from yesteryear. One of many immense challenges facing the City of Chicago right now is how to restore the Loop to the mighty economic engine it once was.

Fortunately, the news is not all bleak. Google’s decision to purchase and renovate the Thompson Center is a gargantuan development, as it is rumored to eventually bring over 1,000 employees back to the city center. Just as significant, although maybe not quite as sexy, is the State of Illinois’ decision to acquire and occupy the former BMO headquarters at 115 South LaSalle. One cannot ask for a better set of notable bookends. It is also encouraging that the city has at least put an initiative out there to revitalize the LaSalle Street corridor by making streetscape improvements, presenting concrete ideas on how to generate more activity and offering economic incentives for owners and developers to convert certain troubled buildings into apartments. Developing 1,000 new residential units with an affordable housing component is certainly a worthy goal.

Here is the problem with this plan. Seemingly every struggling vintage building is rumored to be getting ready to kick out their tenants and convert into apartments. Many people have recently confided in me that they have “inside information” about a building.  If every one of these rumors is true, we are going to end up with half a million new apartments, give or take a few. Is anyone considering how much it will cost to convert some of these older properties into apartments? Nearly all will be a gut and rebuild. Something tells me that the TIF money and tax incentives offered by the city will not make enough of a dent in the total cost.

The other consideration is demand. Do people really want to live in the Loop? I can only imagine the sole appeal is a shortened commute to the office, which is understandable in an era of high gas prices and a crime-ridden CTA . However, if people are not using their offices like they used to and still working remotely 2 – 3 days a week, is living a few blocks from the office really that much of an incentive? Why not just come to the office everyday and stay in your neighborhood laden with restaurants, bars, grocery stores, parks, trees and other similar attractions?

If the residential idea ends up being a bust, or at least not as successful as planned, then what happens to these struggling buildings? Call me crazy, but I believe that more tenants will return to the office on a regular basis as time moves on and there will be a need for affordable office space. In spite of the narrative out there, not every tenant can afford to be in Fulton Market, on Wacker Drive or at the Old Post Office. Many people would love to live in a mansion, own a private jet or drive a 2023 Ferrari. 99% of the population cannot afford this. The same is true with office space. Who wouldn’t want to office in a newly constructed, amenity laden building in one of the most electric neighborhoods in the country? In reality, small tenants and those on a budget can only dream about this. Once everything shakes out and some tenants are displaced, those C-class buildings which do survive will be viable for many years to come.

If not office or residential, what use do some of these downtrodden properties have? We have enough hotels and student housing downtown. What about senior housing? A life sciences building? Perhaps a data center? Do a group of buildings get demolished so a park can be created? The options appear to be limited.

There is one other potential Central Loop bombshell out there. There is talk that Chase is actively scouting the market for a new headquarter building, likely in the West Loop. It is a classic case of “keeping up with the Jones’” as Bank of America and BMO have recently relocated to new properties, so why not Chase? This is understandable to a certain extent, but Chase already occupies an architecturally gorgeous tower which is an important part of the skyline. Exelon, the other large tenant at Chase Tower, just appointed a new CEO who is from Baltimore. As a result, is it really so far-fetched to think that Exelon’s headquarters might be the next to leave our fair city? If so, will the entire building eventually be vacant? This would undo all of the progress that would be gained by Google moving in. The city simply cannot allow this to happen. Treat Chase like a new firm looking to move to the city for the first time and use some of that TIF money and tax breaks to keep them in place. They are a vital cog of the Central Loop machine.

How will all of this mishegoss play out? The next three years will be critical. We are either going to end up with a revived, vibrant Central Loop that will remain an integral part of the city for decades to come, or we will morph into a version of pre-bankruptcy Detroit. It will take a collective effort from government, business leaders and building owners to figure this out. History warns us about betting against Chicago. This is a resilient city which has overcome adversity for hundreds of years. My best guess is that we will do so yet again.

Whiplash from the Past

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The year was 1901, and Chicago was a blossoming city with a booming economy. At the forefront of its success were the lumber and meat industries, and the city was quickly becoming one of the largest manufacturing centers in the entire country. Perhaps one of its most important features was its unparalleled railway system, with nearly 3,000 miles of track laid within the city limits. So optimistic were its residents that property magnate H. H. Honore Jr., whose widow would later become president of a new women-led petroleum company, penned a thoughtful piece in the Tribune praising the city’s commercial real estate market and making predictions for its future. This month, we are going to dissect these predictions like a frog in a high school biology lab. 

Firstly, and perhaps most hilariously, Honore Jr begins his analysis with the following:

“Commercial Chicago, with its inexhaustible and wonderful drinking water, made pure by its drainage canal at a cost of $35,000,000, with the best food market in the country, affording probably the greatest variety, is now in a position to attract the worker as well as the investor.”

We have a hard time imagining anyone describing the River water as wonderful or drinkable, but we concede that Honore was right about Chicago being the best food market in the country. At the very least, we have more variations of deep dish and italian beef than anyone could or should ever desire. 

Honore continues by describing the city’s exponential growth. In 1855, he says, the city had only 60,000 people. In 1901 that number had reached 1.8 million. He predicts that figure to reach 6 million by 1925, and proclaims that by 1950, Chicago will have become the most populous city in the world with more country and people tributary to it than any great city has ever had in the world’s history. 

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who you ask, Chicago’s population today is right around 2.5 million. That’s actually a drop of several hundred thousand since the 1920s, and a significantly smaller population than the actual most populous city in the world. That title goes to Tokyo with over 37 million people. That’s okay, maybe Honore has other dreams that have come true. He says, “before the middle of the century its wealth will be beyond parallel. No city in any country affords such opportunity for the young. Labor of all kinds is well paid and in demand. Art and science will flourish and inventive genius will be constantly into play, and will be richly rewarded here, because here business will center, goods will be produced, distributed, and wealth created.” 

Honore actually wasn’t too far off here. Today, Chicago’s gross domestic product, or GDP, is the third largest in the United States and surpasses the total economic output of Switzerland. Last year, Chicago saw a herd of nine unicorns – that’s a privately-held company with a value of over $1 billion. We’re also home to over 6,100 tech companies, hundreds of which were founded just in the last few years. Fulton Market, as you all well know by now, is an absolute hotbed of young tech talent and innovation. We were named the number one city for corporate investment for seven years in a row. And there is no competition for our legendary film, art and music scene. 

Honore goes on to say that to purchase commercial real estate in 1901 is to guarantee yourself an ever-increasing income which will multiply tenfold, particularly in the Central Loop. He says, “there is no city where you can so safely invest money in ground and buildings as in Chicago, and there is no street in Chicago where you can invest money more safely and with as much certainty of increase in the future as on Michigan Avenue. Business men are rapidly occupying it. They are going to the cleanest street in the city.”  

Yeah…that didn’t age well. Chicago’s sublease space availability is about 23% and the direct vacancy rate is right around 21%. For reference, let’s look at the stats for 2002: sublease space in Chicago was up to 28%, and vacancy rates were the highest on record at 19%. Michigan Avenue is floundering, although a handful of new retail leases and subsidized security systems are helping to keep its pretty little head above water. The holiday season will be a major indicator of whether the Mile keeps its Mag, but we’re sure Honore is rolling in his grave.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. He ends by describing Michigan Ave, and Chicago’s business and shopping districts as a whole, as the finest and most promising in the country. He says that many will pick up cheap bits and pieces of it without realizing its full potential, and will see mountains of wealth if they just wait a decade or two. Throughout this piece, Honore does something I haven’t seen much in recent years. He views Chicago through this childlike lens of wonderment and pride. He is naive and overly optimistic, a young hopeful looking wistfully toward the skyline in gratitude for just the opportunity to behold it. Certainly his dreams were warped by privilege and a lack of perspective, but we can’t say they were entirely inaccurate. 

The commercial real estate world still does have value. It’s like a Faberge egg: looking at it, all you see is its elegant fragility, and you’re scared to touch it or even look at it too long for fear of destroying it. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money someone spent on it. It doesn’t matter that its value is entirely based on some arbitrary conceptualization of opulence and exclusivity. It’s pretty. That’s why we look at it. That’s why we display it. That’s why we enjoy it. Chicago is really f*king pretty. It inspires the same beautifully careless admiration that Honore felt when he sat down to write this piece. Let’s take a second to look up from our listing agreements, close our checkbooks, and see the city the way we might have in 1901. Look at all the possibilities. Look at how far we’ve come. Look at all the places we’ve yet to go.