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When David Loiselle and Lindsey Bailey decided to buy a home last year, they explored several North Side neighborhoods close to downtown. But as the two roommates looked around, they kept thinking about how much they always enjoyed visiting some friends who lived in the South Loop. “I mean, it’s not close to downtown,” Loiselle says. “It is downtown.”

After pricing properties in various neighborhoods, Loiselle and Bailey found that the South Loop easily edged out the North Side contenders. For approximately the same price, Loiselle says, they could get 750 square feet in Wicker Park but 1,100 in the South Loop. Decision made, they went south, moving in April 2006 into a loft building in the 1300 block of South Wabash Avenue.

Their springtime move put the couple in their new neighborhood just in time to enjoy summer, the season when the South Loop’s three magnetic neighbors—Lake Michigan, the Museum Campus, and Grant Park—come alive. They walk their Lab, Chastain, two blocks to the southwestern edge of Grant Park at Roosevelt Road, they bike along the lakefront, and they enjoy the “free” concerts at Northerly Island. “They become free because we go to the 12th Street Beach and listen,” says Loiselle. “We had a beach party 150 feet from the stage while Journey was playing.”

It’s not just the concerts, the museums, and the lakefront parks. Loiselle and Bailey say they are close to everything they need: restaurants (their condo is at the center of the South Loop’s mushrooming dining scene), grocery stores, and even expressways. “It’s so easy to get around here that it’s almost like being in the suburbs,” Loiselle says. “But then you look up Wabash or Michigan, and downtown is right there, spread out in front of you.”

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The recent transformation of Chicago’s South Loop is mirrored in some of the country’s bigger downtowns. There is South of Market in San Francisco, Lower Downtown in Denver, the Pearl District in Portland, and the Third Ward in Milwaukee. But none of them compares to the magnitude of what’s going on here. “You’re seeing these fallow areas fill up with condos and restaurants everywhere,” says Michael Beyard, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. “But it’s not like what you see in Chicago, where the numbers are so much larger than anywhere else.” That’s in part because Chicago is simply bigger than any of those cities, but also, Beyard says, because the South Loop’s boom is tied in with the larger effort to beautify and enhance the city overall.

This renaissance is clearly visible throughout the neighborhood, where old structures are getting rehabbed and new condo towers are rising in thickets. In 2006, according to data from Appraisal Research Counselors (a local real-estate consultant), 45.6 percent of the condos sold in downtown Chicago were in the South Loop—nearly twice the neighborhood’s share in 2003. In the past four years, enough new homes have been sold in the South Loop to swallow the entire housing stock of suburban Wood Dale. (Because the information from the last national census, in 2000, is outdated, and because the South Loop actually encompasses several Chicago neighborhoods in the U.S. Census Bureau’s database, it is difficult to calibrate the exact size of the ever-expanding South Loop population—which means the results of the 2010 census should be especially revealing.)

What makes these changes even more remarkable is that they have occurred in little more than a decade. Mayor Richard M. Daley provoked some head-scratching in 1993 when he moved from his family’s longtime home in Bridgeport to some place in the South Loop called Central Station, at that time a fledgling bunch of townhouses across Lake Shore Drive from the Field Museum. Thirteen years later—in July 2006—Daley hosted President Bush’s 60th birthday dinner at a restaurant (Chicago Firehouse) only a few blocks from his home in Central Station, by then a well-established enclave of luxury residences. Here was Bush, the most powerful man on the planet, dining in a popular neighborhood that, before he came to office, had been an obscure blip on the local real-estate scene.

“You can’t believe how fast this is all happening,” says Craig Alton, whose gangland-related Untouchable Tours have been cruising the South Loop—once home to the city’s most notorious speakeasies and brothels—for 18 years. “When people on the [tour] bus used to ask what this part of town was called, I’d call it the No Neighborhood,” says Alton. “It was no place.” As Alton says this, we are driving along the 2100 block of South Wabash Avenue, where this spring the nightlife impresario Jerry Kleiner opened Room 21, a wildly colorful restaurant in a brewery once owned by Al Capone (the restaurant’s name comes from an inscription on a rusted metal door uncovered during the renovation). It’s Kleiner’s fourth venue in the neighborhood—a sure sign that hipness has definitely ventured south of Madison Street.

At roughly 74 square blocks (plus Grant Park), the South Loop is a sizable swath of the city, bounded by Congress Parkway on the north, the South Branch of the Chicago River on the west, Cermak Road on the south, and Lake Shore Drive on the east. Until recent years, the area was essentially the Loop’s back 40, a forlorn landscape of surface parking lots and warehouses, peppered with some residential housing.

“It was like coming to the surface of the moon,” recalls Kathleen Butera, the executive director of the Sherwood Conservatory of Music. Butera arrived at the school in 2002, three years after it moved into its new South Loop home (at 1312 South Michigan Avenue). “All around us was this huge, open expanse of blacktop,” she says—and then counts the high-rises built on (or planned for) the blocks immediately surrounding Sherwood in the years since. She tallies at least a dozen.

The high-rises are the most visible newcomers to the South Loop, towering over the cityscape with their domed tops, their glassy sheen, their colorful garnish of red, blue, or yellow bands—a recent architectural flourish. But a massive change is also under way at street level. The number of restaurants is multiplying, college students are swarming, and even the local churches are noting increased foot traffic. “This neighborhood has really found its moment,” says Alicia Berg, the vice president for campus environment for Columbia College (from 2001 to early 2004, Berg served as commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development). As the owner or tenant of 19 area buildings, and with plans to build at least two more, Columbia has become one of the South Loop’s anchor institutions. Along with three other colleges—Roosevelt, DePaul, and Robert Morris—Columbia also provides the South Loop with a student population numbering more than 30,000.

“There’s a real concentration of energy here,” Berg says. “You’re watching a neighborhood get built from scratch.”

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