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An image of Fulton Market Street with a neon gateway sign at sunset.
The $500,000 Fulton Market District gateway sign.

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How Fulton Market lost the last of its grit

From meatpackers to tech workers

Tucked away in a back alley in Chicago’s hottest neighborhood lies the city’s least-known parcel of holy ground.

The rear of the three-story brick warehouse on the 1100 block of West Fulton Market Street is the unlikely home of the Fulton Vortex, a swirling concentration of energy akin to the metaphysical phenomena that attracts new-age tourists to Sedona, Arizona. The vortex’s vibes provide positive, perhaps even healing powers to those who venture near it. That’s according to the urban legend propagated by the owners of Mars Gallery and Jupiter Outpost—the celestial-sounding former tenants of the building—and the artists, musicians, and loft-dwellers that once lived in the neighborhood.

In 2002, a shaman allegedly pinpointed the vortex’s epicenter at a lonely-looking loading dock in the alley behind Mars Gallery. The spot was later marked by a hand-painted “Fulton Vortex” sign with an arrow pointing west towards an improvised shrine in the form of a few vinyl records and other ornaments affixed to the building’s exterior.

A photo of a worn sign that reads: Fulton Vortex. There is an arrow pointing towards the site.
The Fulton Vortex sign is long gone now.
Courtesy of Ryan Smith

But during a recent pilgrimage to the site with my friend Jeff—a bookstore clerk who lived on the building’s third-floor for most of the decade—we discovered that almost everything had been wiped clean without a trace: the sign, the shrine, even the building’s roof. Due to its inclusion in the Fulton-Randolph Historic District established in 2015, the brick-and-mortar shell remains standing but the guts have been carved out and thrown into a dump truck parked in the alley.

“Wow,” Jeff said while staring at the clear blue afternoon sky through the glass of his old third-floor windows. “All of this happened so fast.”

Welcome to the Fulton Market District in the 2010s—a neighborhood simultaneously moving forwards and looking backward with an incredible amount of speed. In the rush to make the new seem lived-in and carefully preserve the bleached bones of this historic neighborhood for the sake of authenticity (“Don’t sanitize the neighborhood,” a Google executive told developer Sterling Bay earlier in the decade), the actual grit and character have been sanded down.

In 2019, the neighborhood feels like a funhouse mirror version of its former self.

From meat market to money market

For those who remember what it was like in 2010, touring the current Fulton Market District can be a surreal experience. It’s difficult to find an aspect of the built environment that hasn’t been altered or reborn in some way. Come back next week and you’re sure to find something different.

“It’s crazy,” says a young bartender at The Hoxton, a London-based boutique hotel that opened earlier this year. “Like it’s almost disorienting to walk around here because it changes so much.”

Some of the alterations are obvious, like Google’s towering brick-and-glass headquarters and mega-sized luxury apartment buildings with one-word names like The Parker and The Venn. More subtle are familiar low-rise warehouses from the district’s historic period from 1880 to 1929 that have been gutted, restored, and are now home to Michelin-starred restaurants with $17 valet parking.

Fulton Market has seen plenty of change in its history, of course. When a neighborhood is defined by its utility—the word “market” is in the name, after all—it reconfigures constantly to reflect the needs of whatever market it serves.

Previously, it served as the capital of the meatpacking industry dominated by the “big three” global brands of Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift, and Nelson Morris—an era that ended in the 1920s. In the generation prior, two blocks of Randolph Street were designated as an open-air produce market. Because it was the city’s primary market for hay, it became commonly known as “Haymarket Square” (where the famous riots of 1886 changed the face of the organized labor movement). Even before that, in 1850, the city built a municipal market hall building—West Market Hall—in the middle of a widened section of Randolph.

At the beginning of the current decade, the section of West Fulton Market Street from Halsted to Ogden was in transition—a ten-block stretch of dilapidated warehouses and factories; a smattering of up-and-coming art galleries and restaurants; and Oprah’s Harpo Studios was still seemingly the biggest show in town. The forces of globalization and suburbanization had emptied many American cities of its manufacturing and industrial base. The food processing and distribution centers that hung on here (from 80 establishments in 1962 down to 32 in the mid-2010s) felt charmingly retro.

It was a street still alive with the cacophonous sounds of workers in long white coats and blue aprons weaving forklifts through warehouses onto the street and hauling heavy boxes onto semi-trucks. At least during the early shift. “It started bustling at 4 or 5 a.m. but then it would be dead around here at night,” recalled Jeff.

Dead except for some scattered openings at art galleries like Mars, DIY warehouse parties, and raucous punk shows. Sometimes you’d get an occasional glimpse of a seedier side—drag races, graffiti artists tagging buildings, used needles or condoms littered in alleys. It didn’t always feel safe.

But that’s also the kind of post-industrial grit that helped lure the first wave of redevelopment to the West Loop back in the ‘90s. After a stretch of Randolph Street became ensconced as the new “Restaurant Row,” a pioneering set of high-end chefs migrated a block north in the late aughts as if on a dare; intending to turn the Near West Side warehouse district into Chicago’s version of New York’s Meatpacking District—itself an example of a zone that evolved from dangerous to underground cool to “the most fashionable neighborhood in New York,” according to New York Magazine.

“We had grand illusions that we could do the same in Chicago and totally transform the area,” said Donnie Madia, one of the partners behind Publican, the seafood-and-pork joint that opened on 837 West Fulton Market in 2008. That prediction would prove prophetic and the Zagat crowd led the way. Publican begat Grant Achatz’s Next and The Aviary which gave rise to a never-ending parade of well-heeled followers.

The writing was on the wall for the small independent businesses and lower-income residents remaining—almost literally in the form of a rather garish $500,000 “Fulton Market District” neon sign hung over the entrance to the district. “That fucking sign,” says Jeff. “I knew the end was coming when that thing went up.” We’d visit the rooftop of his building every few months, look east and see where the invisible line of redevelopment line had moved next. It slowly crept west towards his place like rising floodwaters, ready to displace everyone inside.

The real floodgates of Fulton Market’s real estate boom burst open with the coming of Google’s Chicago headquarters in mid-decade on the site of the Fulton Market Cold Storage building. Big money and deals poured in faster than ever and the remaining food distribution businesses began to sell to real estate speculators and developers with intimidating names like Thor Equities.

Gentrification is almost too leisurely of a term to describe the vortex-like redevelopment since 2017. It’s more like an old fashioned gold rush, with local political and business leaders and investment firms proclaiming: “Go west (from the Loop), young man!” and everyone hitching their wagons to go almost simultaneously.

The numbers tell the story: Retail rents have tripled in the last three years, according to real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, which also called Fulton Market Street one of the 20 “coolest streets in North America.” Millions of square feet of new office and retail space are under construction or in the planning phase and Google is reportedly considering doubling the size of its office footprint to around 1 million square feet.

Shapack Partners purchased a parking lot in 2014 on West Fulton Market near Halsted for $2.6 million—built a seven-story office building on top of it for $20 million and flipped it five years later for a record-breaking $50 million. Mars Gallery and Jupiter Cafe (and Jeff and his roommates) were displaced earlier this year when the entire south side of Fulton Market between May Street and Racine Avenue was sold to a private equity firm for $20 million.

It hasn’t all been success stories. Gold rushes inevitably lead to bust cycles, which means you can stumble upon the ghost towns of still-freshly painted redevelopments like the Fulton Galley food court—which shuttered in November after only five months in business.

“I never saw anyone in there,” says a barista inside Time Out Market, an immense 18-restaurant food court at 916 West Fulton Market that recently debuted a few blocks from its failed brethren.

An identity crisis

In September, jerky and sausage maker Bridgford Foods—the last major holdout of Fulton Market’s old industrial guard announced it was moving to a new facility in the Back of the Yards. It’s the symbolic end of an era and arguably represents a more fundamental shift than any in the neighborhood’s history.

It’s been a century since Carl Sandburg wrote the poem that mythologized Chicago as the “husky, brawling” City of Big Shoulders, the rugged Midwestern manufacturing town. It helped provide Chicago with a distinct identity and set it apart from the coastal cities. Fulton Market helped provide those large shoulders.

Now, the only hard hats left in the neighborhood are the ones operating the construction cranes and this blue-collar relic of the city’s fading industrial and manufacturing past has been adapted and retrofitted for its present and future as a live-work-play hub for the new global class of tech workers, start-up entrepreneurs, and laptop-toting gig workers drifting in and out of coworking spaces like WeWork, The Wing, Working From__.

It’s Chicago’s Silicon Market District—if you will.

It’s in step with what’s happened at the Merchandise Mart a mile to the east. Over the course of the 2010s, it self-consciously seduced companies that dealt with data rather than objects. Then finally it excommunicated the old economy for the new—jettisoning its showrooms and longtime dealers of wholesale goods last year and rebranding itself “TheMART.”

Fulton Market District’s products are overwhelmingly virtual instead of physical, and its workers’ white-collar instead of blue. But, there’s little acknowledgment of this and the neighborhood’s identity crisis is glaring.

An intersection with cobblestone, people sitting on a bench, a valet umbrella, and brick buildings.
An intersection with new cobblestone and streetscape.

Morgan Manufacturing (Morgan MFG), at 401 N. Morgan St., is masquerading as the very thing it replaced. Prior to its purchase in 2013 by private equity firm MAB Capital Management, the 86,000-square-foot industrial building had been the home of Salisbury by Honeywell—which produced electrical safety equipment like voltage detectors.

Now, it’s divided into 32,000 square feet of private event space offering “industrial elegance” and hosts the chic corporate headquarters of companies like Threadless, the local apparel company which—ironically enough—used to manufacture custom T-shirts at its former warehouse at 406 N. Sangamon, but outsourced production and distribution to facilities in other states.

“We want the aesthetic to feel like it’s part of the DNA of the area, rather than having one building that looks contemporary,” Marc Bushala, MAB’s CEO told Crain’s in 2017. “I want people to feel like this building has always been there.”

They’re far from the only newcomers trying to blur the lines between past and present.

It’s as if everyone is pretending it’s 1920 again. There are fresh cobblestone streets, intentionally faded signs, distressed wood, art-deco interiors, street murals depicting old-timey factory workers in hard hats and smocks. While walking in the neighborhood, I see a model in a black dress posing in front of a swirl of graffiti on a factory shutter door as a kneeling photographer snaps photos—and wonder: Is this a bygone factory with a fresh paint job or just made to look that way?

Inside Time Out Market, you can purchase $10 to $15 elevated versions of classic Chicago lunch-pail fare like “Original Chicago” hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches as black-and-white photos of a neighborhood food hall from the 19th-century flashes on a LED-sign the size of a tractor-trailer.

At Punch Bowl Social, a chain of entertainment megaplexes for millenials that opened a Fulton Market location in 2018, you can drink $15 cocktails in a bar made to look like a classic laundromat, or a greasy spoon diner, or a vintage-looking bowling alley, and swig craft beer in a space with exposed brick walls, salvaged wood furniture, and industrial light fixtures.

”What we love, and what really taps into the essence of Punch Bowl Social, is how seamlessly the neighborhood blends industrial, gritty roots with an edgy-yet-modern vibe,” said the company’s CEO Robert Thompson during the announcement of the Chicago location.

But the reality is far from seamless. Like a lot of what’s come here in the past decade, Punch Bowl Social is an upscale Disneyland version of the neighborhood’s past.

At the corner of Fulton and Halsted, I see a banner draped on a fence advertising a gleaming 18-story office tower going up to replace the third-generation Isaacson & Stein Fish Company seafood distributor that fled in 2016.

The sign reads “Be Fulton Market.” Does anyone actually know what that means?

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