In the 1850s, what had been vast swaths of marshland, was transformed into German and Scandinavian farming communities. In the decades that followed, British immigrant steel mill and railroad workers established various settlements, leading to the construction of the South Kenwood Station (71st and Jeffrey Blvd) on the Illinois Central line in 1881. After being annexed to Chicago in 1889 and the World’s Fair of 1893, South Shore experienced a housing boom as wealthy white Protestants began leaving the nearby Washington Park neighborhood. Having fled Washington Park due to an influx of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, these South Shore newcomers constructed both the exclusive Jackson Park Highland district and the South Shore Country Club, which denied membership to African-Americans and Jews. The first half of the 20th century saw a major population surge as Catholic and Jewish immigrants took residence in the extensive bungalow and high-rise developments that still characterize the area. In the 1950s, African-Americans began moving to South Shore, and by the 80s it had become over 90% black. Over the past several decades, the neighborhood has become a hub of social activism, serving as the headquarters of organizations ranging from the Black United Fund of Illinois to grassroots, youth led organizations. Through its ups and downs, South Shore has retained a mostly working and middle-class identity while benefitting from its lakefront location and proximity to Jackson Park. With its impressive historic housing stock, underrated lakefront beaches and parkland, and various community enriching local businesses and organizations, South Shore is flush with treasures to seek out.
A Great Day in South Shore
A casual and approachable spot to kick off a visit to South Shore is Give Me Some Sugah. For nearly a decade, the bakery and café has been the neighborhood go-to for coffee and a homemade pastry. The pancakes and quiche also come recommended for a more substantial breakfast.
There’s an abundance of historic residential architecture to take in throughout the neighborhood. The most distinguished South Shore district is the Jackson Park Highlands. Commissioned in 1905, the grand homes with large front yards and setbacks represent a cross-section of fashionable early 20th century housing styles ranging from Prairie School to American Four Square. Over the years many high-profile South Siders have called the neighborhood home, including Bo Diddley, Enrico Fermi, and Jesse Jackson.
A more modest, but also noteworthy residential section is the South Shore Bungalow District. With nearly half of the homes built before 1920, many of South Shore’s bungalows showcase early manifestations of the archetype. Some of these visible defining features are the low-pitches roofs and embellishments in the brickwork and limestone detailing.
Like many other Chicago lakefront neighborhoods, South Shore has several architecturally significant residential highrises. Two neighboring buildings that were both built in 1928, are 13 stories, and have private beach access for residents are the Windsor Beach Apartments (7321 S. Shore Dr.) and Coastland co-op (2666 E. 73rd). While the Windsor Beach Apartments is replete with the terra cotta detailing that is prevalent in most art-deco highrises of the era, the Renaissance Revival Coastland is clad in granite and limestone flourishes. A point of neighborhood pride, two prized modernist residential towers designed by prominent African-American architect and Mies van der Rohe protégé John Moutoussamy (designer of The Johnson Publishing Building, aka The Ebony/Jet Building) are the Lake Terrace Apartments (7337 S. Shore Dr.) from 1952 and the Quadrangle House Condominiums (6700 S. Shore Dr.) from 1968.
Just outside the historic bungalow district are two pivotal sites of South Shore’s most illustrious former resident. The one bedroom, childhood home of Michelle Obama (Robinson at the time) still stands at 7436 S. Euclid Ave. At 7355 S. Jeffrey Blvd. is the Bouchet International School (formerly Bryn Mawr Elementary School), which she attended through eighth-grade before moving on to Whitney Young High School.
An additional neighborhood landmark is the Mosque Maryam at 7351 S. Stony Island Ave. The former Greek Orthodox church was purchased and converted into the headquarters of the Nation of Islam and largest mosque in Chicago in 1972.
There are a couple of quality spots for a wholesome midday meal. Ask any South Shore resident where to grab lunch, and they’ll most likely tell you Chef Sara’s Café. The quaint eatery prides itself on sourcing fresh ingredients for their straight-forward salads, sandwiches, and breakfast items. For those looking for meatless variations of American staples, raw dishes, and smoothies, Good Foods Vegan & Vegetarian is the place.
If you need to pick up some fresh produce, herbs, and dry goods, the Healthy Food Hub market is a great resource. Hosted every Saturday at the community event center The Quarry, the market was created to offset the lack of nearby fresh food for many South Shore residents. Over the past 10 years, the non-profit has sourced their food from local urban plots as well as farms from Michigan and Wisconsin. While the $25 annual membership is encouraged to help maintain their operations, the market is open to non-members alike.
For many, South Shore’s lakefront parks and amenities are the galvanizing attraction. One of Chicago’s more underrated and less cramped beaches, Rainbow Beach offers a large expanse of sand and arguably some of the best views of the downtown skyline. On the park grounds, there’s also an ADA compliant beach walk, dune habitat, and community garden.
Famed as the wedding reception venue for the Obamas and the exterior stand-in for the “Palace Hotel Ballroom” in The Blues Brothers, South Shore’s most well-known cultural institution is undoubtedly the South Shore Cultural Center. Since being purchased by the Park District in 1975 and shedding its infamous past as the racially exclusive South Shore Country Club, the cultural center has recast itself as a South Side cornerstone. Whether its seeing a performance by the South Shore Opera Company in the Robeson Theatre, checking out the latest exhibition in the art gallery, or attending a cultural program, camp, or class, there’s a number of ways to engage with the neighborhood’s arts community. The rarefied Mediterranean Revival building is set amid an evolving lakefront refuge. Rambling through the park space, you’ll encounter sand dunes, prairie, a bird and butterfly sanctuary, and the tranquil South Shore beach.
Another means to getting a glimpse of the cultural center’s interior is by dining at the Parrot Cage. Passing through the main lobby, the marble, crystal chandeliers, and intricate ornamentation flaunt the preservation of its opulent, early 20th-century details. While the restaurant’s décor is less ostentatious, its role as a training ground for Englewood’s Washburn Culinary Institute students gives it a unique purpose. The upscale American, student driven restaurant is relatively pricey but is BYOB for the cost-conscious drinker. A solid dinner option Thursday through Saturday, it’s also popular for its Sunday brunch.
At South Shore’s southwest border stands an additional neighborhood monument that has the potential to deliver even more arts programming to the community. The recently reimagined Avalon Regal Theater will be the third incarnation of the historic Avalon Theater movie palace built in 1927. Designed by consummate movie palace architect John Eberson, the interior of the immense Moorish Revival building is a mesmerizing exhibition of murals, mosaic tiles, marble, gemstones, a flying carpet ceiling in the lobby, and an Arabian tent over the stage. In the late 80s, the theater underwent extensive renovations, was rebranded as the New Regal Theater, and repurposed as a performance venue until shuttering in the early 2000s. Owner Jerald Gary plans to reopen the theater later this year, billing it as “the largest venue in the United States dedicated to celebrating African-American contributions to the performing arts”. Plans for additional phases include renovating adjacent commercial space for small business development and establishing an arts district with a museum.
Since 2008 Lost Boyz Inc. has been providing Shore Shore and neighboring youth access to mentoring, educational resources, and organized baseball programs via a sports-based development model. Established initially to fill the void of a defunct neighborhood Little League, the non-profit has grown to include softball programs for girls, on- site tutoring, and service learning to engage participating youth with their community and locations throughout the region. Year-round programming and mentoring is offered with the objective of reducing neighborhood violence and fostering positive growth and relationships. To learn more about the organization and ways to get involved, visit here.
The Take Away
It would be hard to ignore and disingenuous not to acknowledge the recent spate of somber news stories detailing the increase in violence, eviction crisis, and economic struggles facing South Shore. While we don't debate that reporting on the impact these realities have on local residents should be paramount, the minimal coverage of the community’s assets does the neighborhood a disservice. Like Woodlawn, the neighbor to the north, many South Shore stakeholders anticipate a major resurgence once the Obama Presidential Center and Tiger Wood’s designed golf course take root. Whether or not these developments can deliver in ushering in these expected changes, South Shore’s cultural, recreational, and architectural wealth will continue to deserve recognition in person.