Upstairs, Downstairs | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Upstairs, Downstairs

The Club-cum-Transient Hotel: A New Trend in South Loop Gentrification


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"It was a bar, you know. A bum's bar," says Andy of the space that's now home to his new club, the Spectrum Bar & Grill on Halsted near Jackson.

A slick male-model type with a fixed blond coiffure sweeps past in a long camel-hair coat. In the corner a group of smartly dressed black businesspeople lounge in silk ties and crisp collars. The Spectrum sports the average yupster-club decor--little Italian star lights in square, mirrored-glass pillars, a basketball game, a few video screens, and "Sultans of Swing" on the stereo.

The Spectrum is on the ground floor. Upstairs is the New Jackson Hotel for male transients. The hotel probably lived up to its name years ago, but now a dull red paint covers its broken facade. You can still rent a room there for $12.

"The bums don't give us any trouble," says Andy. "Not yet."

A young man, who's stuffed into a red flannel shirt, an unending smile across his round face, sits at the bar, sipping a beer and bobbing his head. He's wearing a fishing cap covered with buttons and pendants. One says DAMN FUCK PISS HELL in a neat white-lettered stack. A man with long gray hair broods over a drink, and a petite Oriental waitress whisks by. Across the street a currency exchange promises to accept payments for Luz, Agua, Telefono.

Some of the boys of the New Jackson sit chatting idly in the spacious linoleum-floored lobby. A young man passes through with a bicycle and an enormous orange reflector on his chest, muttering about "bus number seven," then exits onto Jackson.

The 7th Street Hotel, or Carter's, which is at the corner of Balbo and State, is another transient hotel for men. On the first floor, bending around from the Balbo to the State Street side, is the pink neon-lighted South Loop Club. The club's matchbook announces "Gourmet sandwiches, over 50 bottled beers." The menu describes the club as "an intown bar and grill with neighborhood flair." Across the street is the Pacific Garden Mission.

Inside the South Loop Club a blond waitress spins from table to table delivering drinks. I ask her how she feels about serving gourmet sandwiches across the street from the soup kitchen. "I dunno," she says. "I never thought about it. If a bum comes in here we throw 'em out right away. You know, 'cause of the way they look."

Leon has been living in the 7th Street Hotel for a year now. "Best security of any of them--better than the Harrison or the Mark Twain," he says. He is standing in the hotel's tiny lobby wearing layers of winter garments and a BMW cap. The hotel shares an entrance with the South Loop Club. The door from the sidewalk opens into a vestibule, where two glass doors offer entrance to either business. A steady procession of well-dressed couples files into the club. A few steal glances at Leon.

"It doesn't bother me a bit," he says. "It's happening all over the city. But I'm not indigent. If this place goes, I'll move on. They kicked me out of the west side when they built the projects in the 40s."

A cologned man steps into the hotel lobby with his date.

"Can I help you?" Leon asks.

The man pushes a few quarters into the antique cigarette machine without looking at Leon. "No Camel Lights?" he asks.

"What you see is what there is," Leon says.

The couple walks out.

"The fellas in the mission have to be out every morning at 6 AM," Leon says. "They wish they had the 55 bucks a week to live here."

Across State from the South Loop Club is a dark boarded-up two-flat called Pete's Place. "I used to go over to Pete's every night," Leon says. "They served 75-cent beers there. One time when I was over there I fell asleep upstairs. When I woke up there was a rat the size of a cat sleeping on my chest."

The next night Pete's Place is a pile of rubble--hundreds of softball-size chunks of white concrete and an occasional blue splinter of the old plywood sign.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Richard Alm.

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