Sorry for the radio silence yesterday, folks. I know it’s pretty lame to launch a blog and then not post anything, but I had to turn around a piece faster than I anticipated because of a teensy-weensy appellate court decision
that I’m sure didn’t even make the nightly news. (More on that tomorrow.)
Fortunately, the presser I attended in the morning was held at the Chicago International Produce Market
(CIPM), tucked away on the banks of the Chicago River’s south branch between Damen and Wood, just about three miles southwest of the Loop. The owners call it a state-of-the-art food distribution center, but it’s really a city within a city; the nine-year-old market is 26 acres wide and stacked to the ceiling with sweet corn, bell peppers, onions, oranges, and virtually every other perishable item imaginable. Dozens of truck drivers and vendors, speaking several languages (and many donning hilarious Teamster windbreakers), dodge and weave through traffic to get their food into the right spot for delivery. Every liberal yuppie in America knows that most supermarkets purchase their inventory directly from large agribusinesses. But if you eat out or frequent specialty and ethnic grocers in the Chi, you have likely consumed produce that’s made one stop at CIPM.
That wouldn’t have been the case a decade ago, when Chicago’s iconic market -- South Water Street -- was still housed at 14th and Morgan, just south of the University of Illinois-Chicago. That equally-massive structure was erected in 1925 for $17 million, but only after the demolition of several dilapidated homes in the area. (One historian wrote
that residents resisted the dislocation so strongly, “the old houses were practically torn down over their heads.”) Originally designed to accommodate farmers shipping goods via trains and horse-drawn carriages, the demands of modern technology (namely, trucking) eventually wreaked havoc on the food purveyors occupying the space. Harold Henderson painted the claustrophobic scene
in a 1993 story for the Reader
:Trucks of all sizes fill the 90-foot-wide street. A few daring vans and station wagons squeeze in. Semis are lined up for two blocks north, next to the town houses on Morgan. The winners in this slow race eventually succeed in backing up to the storefronts, next to a high sidewalk that doubles as a loading dock. And eventually they succeed in leaving. A loaded maroon van, with duct tape covering its right rear window and a Mexican flag on the aerial, edges out of the pack in triumph. [...]"People are refusing to send food to Chicago," says deputy city commissioner of planning and development Charles Thurow, in part because of South Water Market's perpetual traffic jam. He says it's gotten so bad that local restaurants have bought in New York to avoid South Water. "All produce is, in terms of cost, is labor. If it takes all day instead of one hour to get into the facility, you're paying a big premium to send produce here."
It took years of political wrangling, and several false starts, to get CIPM’s wide driveways and updated refrigeration systems in place. The city issued several general-obligation bonds to get the ball rolling in the 1980s. In 1992, a Planning and Development Commissioner by the name of Valerie Jarrett tried to restart talks, telling the Sun-Times
(May 28, 1992) that South Water Street had “outlived its useful life." Her efforts fizzled. Same story seven years later. Finally, in 2001, with a little help from the Pilsen Industrial tax increment financing district
, the city closed the deal.
If you care at all about food or what goes on in the city's guts, CIPM is worth a visit. (That is, if you can get by the security guard, who was friendly but took his job seriously
.) And be sure to take a look at these photographs
from the old site of the South Water Market, which now is home to plenty of condos.Ed note: I'm still learning how this blog operates, so the block quote is screwy and you miss out on a cool picture
of orange boxes. Sorry!