Gleaming skyscrapers, luxury retailers and upscale restaurants that frame a picturesque skyline — this is what characterizes the stretch of North Michigan Avenue that runs through Chicago’s central business district, also gloriously known as “The Magnificent Mile.” The length of 13 city blocks, The Mag Mile is a core feature of the undeniable charm that attracts more than 50 million tourists to The Windy City every year and raked in over a billion dollars in tourism tax revenue last year alone.
The Magnificent Mile, however, was at one point not the only commercial district on Michigan Avenue that attracted shoppers in droves.
Located on Chicago’s far southside, the neighborhood of Roseland also once boasted a lively shopping district on South Michigan Avenue.
Centrally located between 110th and 115th streets, the shopping district was affectionately nicknamed “The Ave” by locals, and operated as the local hub for buying groceries, dining out, catching a movie or expanding your wardrobe — nearly everything one could desire from strolling The Mag Mile, only right around the corner.
Though it has now all but withered, The Ave’s legacy as a staple of the South Side has not entirely faded away. Its history is rich — spanning over 160 years — and has been preserved through photographs taken by residents who have loved Roseland throughout the decades. Through these photographs one can see the remarkable shifts — some sparked by technological advancements, others by racial strife — that reveal the story of The Ave, the street of rusted beauty.
1860 - 1919
Before Roseland joined Chicago as one of its 77 neighborhoods in the late 19th century, it was once a small village called “High Prairie” — or “de hooge prairie” — as it was named by the Dutch immigrants who settled there in the 1840s.
Before the arrival of the Dutch, however, Roseland was first stewarded by the Potawatomi people, who were the main inhabitants of the land they named “Chicaugou” or “the wild onion.” After being forced out of the area by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Native tribe relocated west and were replaced by the Dutch the following decade.
The first Dutch families to arrive in High Prairie built their homes along Michigan Avenue, which was then called “Thornton Road.” Located near Lake Calumet, High Prairie’s swampy, fertile land provided perfect conditions for farming and raising livestock, and soon the village became a central source of goods such as butter, cheese and lumber for surrounding areas.
Spurred by the new flurry of commerce, High Prairie constructed railroads and a shipping depot by the mid-1850s. In addition to the added infrastructure, wages increased for local workmen from 30 cents to one dollar a day, which attracted more settlers and strengthened the town’s reputation as the “City of Hope.”
By the next decade, High Prairie — now called “Roseland” after the flowers that blossomed around town — was ready to establish storefronts to service its growing population. The first store was owned by Cornelius Kuyper, whose home on 103rd and Michigan, which previously operated as a “well known” station on the Underground Railroad, he transformed into a shop.
Following Kuyper came a wave of grand openings on South Michigan Avenue: a general store on 110th, a tin shop on 111th, a wooden shoe shop on 109th. The Avenue was soon paved with brick, which according to local druggist and community leader Theophilius Schmid, made it take the “appearance of a real business street.”
By the late 1800s when Roseland was annexed to Chicago, the neighborhood was part of the largest ward in the city and had approximately 10,000 residents, many of them laborers employed by the historic Pullman Palace Car Company in the bordering neighborhood. In the words of Theophilus Schmid, Roseland had become the “one of the most important business centers outside of the Loop,” — and its era of prosperity was only just beginning.
We can envision turn-of-the-century Roseland largely thanks to a photographer named Henry R. Koopman. Born in the Netherlands in 1865, Koopman immigrated with his family to Roseland in 1870. After relocating several times throughout his youth, Koopman returned to his childhood home after his father’s death in 1884 to work as Roseland’s official photographer.
In 1886, he built his first photography studio on 111th and Michigan, and over the next three decades would take hundreds of photos for the Pullman railcar company, as well as of weddings, graduations, and, of course, of Roseland’s burgeoning commercial district on South Michigan Avenue.
Koopman’s photography remains a treasure of Roseland, and has been preserved in regional archives for almost 140 years.
1920 - 1959
Over the next three decades, Roseland continued to develop in tandem with urban areas across the country. Automobiles and electric-powered streetcars quickly replaced horse and buggies, while storefronts diversified to offer an even wider range of goods and services to locals; movie theaters, home stores, pharmacies, restaurants and more began to crowd the once sparse street.
Life in the neighborhood, however, wasn’t entirely harmonious. Roseland was still majority-white at the time, but the onset of the Great Migration was beginning to alter the racial makeup of the area.
In the 1940s, new housing developments were constructed to accommodate incoming Black families, which spurred hostile — and sometimes, even violent — opposition from white residents.
These festering racial tensions would trigger significant change in Roseland and The Ave in the coming decades.
1960 - 1974
Ford Mustangs, the Beatles, boxy silhouettes: the sixties arrived to Chicago — and The Ave — in full swing. Colorful, fluorescent neon signs beckoned pedestrians to visit the array of shops that lined both sides of the street; one could enjoy a hotdog at five-and-dime Kresge’s, buy a new outfit at J.C. Penney’s or watch a blockbuster film at one of two movie theaters in the shopping district.
But there was one store on The Ave more memorable than others. At one point the biggest store on Michigan Avenue, Gately’s Peoples Store on 112th and Michigan was the centerpiece of the street. Gately’s was a formidable structure; it featured three floors, a basement and a five-story parking garage. Its interior was no less impressive — the store sold everything from household appliances to groceries to fine linen.
Patricia Higgins, a volunteer at the South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society Library in Hazel Crest, Illinois, remembers the store fondly. A senior in high school in 1973, Patricia worked part-time at Gately’s for $1.80 an hour. She still has a near-photographic memory of everything of the store: the discounted clothing on the main floor, the nuts and candies sold by the pound near the back, the pneumatic tubes that would whoosh checks up to the cash room.
One of Patricia’s most vivid descriptions was of the bakery, where “Everyone remembered the donut machine.”
Located in the basement, the bakery sold fresh donuts, made in-house with the use of a conveyor belt that dipped the soft dough into a vat of hot oil, flipped it over halfway and returned the hot donut to be powdered with sugar by the worker at the end of the machine.
Patricia stopped working for Gately’s in 1974 when her family moved away to Homewood. In 1975 another Gately’s Peoples Store opened in nearby Tinley Park, but it wasn’t the same, Patricia said. The Gately’s in Roseland was beloved by families in the community for three generations; even after moving to the suburbs, Patricia found connections to her childhood home, and to The Ave.
“No matter where you went, you could find someone from Roseland, and someone from Gately’s.”
1975 - present
Unfortunately, the 1960s bore Roseland's last decade of economic success. The neighborhood — and the city at large — was undergoing a metamorphosis. For the first time in Chicago’s history, its population was shrinking, decreasing by 70,000 residents in just ten years. Chicago’s racial demographics were also shifting; the Great Migration invited an influx of new Black residents, and Roseland went from being 3% Black in 1930, to nearly a quarter Black in 1960, to 55% Black in 1970.
As white residents departed from the city’s neighborhoods, so did the stores they frequented. One by one, shops emptied The Ave: J.C. Penney’s, the two movie theaters, Kresge’s. The iconic Gately’s Peoples Store shut its doors for good in 1981, after the owner, John Gately, said he was experiencing too many break-ins.
Roseland was also suffering the same disease of economic deterioration as other cities in what would come to be known as the “Rust Belt.” Industrial work became automated and moved overseas; large factories that once employed thousands of locals — such as the Sherwin-Williams paint factory, which closed in 1980 — no longer acted as the economic backbone of the neighborhood.
Though struggling significantly, The Ave was not fully gone. New Black-owned businesses — such as the legendary Old Fashioned Donuts — began to appear in the 70s, helping stitch the new fabric of The Ave.
Roseland’s commercial district, however, would soon take another hit. In the late 1990s, Reverend James Meeks of Salem Baptist Church rallied to vote Roseland to a dry precinct. This declaration forced nearly 30 liquor stores and taverns in the neighborhood to shut down, further driving The Ave towards extinction.
Today, The Ave is a frozen wreckage in time. Abandoned storefronts tell memories of a glorious past through vintage awnings and faded ghost signs. Store windows now made of bullet-proof glass, and are shuttered by unwelcoming steel gates. The street is littered with vacant lots and patches of overgrown grass; unsightly weeds grow between the cracks of the sidewalk in the summertime.
But all is not lost. In recent years, residents, business owners and politicians have been collaborating to restore The Ave. In 2020, a panel was held by Preservation Chicago, which named The Ave an endangered historic site. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also launched the “Invest South/West” initiative in 2019, which pledges to invest $750 million dollars in public funding towards rehabilitating commercial areas and infrastructure in ten underserved neighborhoods on Chicago’s West and South sides. The empty Gately’s Peoples Store and Roseland Theatre are proposed sites for redevelopment, potentially becoming mixed-use buildings for shops, homes, and office spaces in the near future.
Moreover, the Chicago Transit Authority plans to extend the Red Line — the busiest rapid transit line on the “L” system — further south to areas like Roseland where existing public transportation is very limited. This construction will hopefully spur investment near the proposed train stations, and encourage more Chicagoans and tourists alike to visit Far South Side neighborhoods.
However, until these ideas materialize, Roseland leans on its current community leaders — like longtime business owner Eddie Davis — for support.
Eddie is the owner of Bass Furniture and Co. on 114th and Michigan, which has been in business since 1941, making it the longest-operating store on the Ave. Bass Furniture is also one of the few Black-owned businesses still on the street, despite the neighborhood being composed almost entirely of Black residents.
Soft-spoken with a smile to match, Eddie reminiscences of older days on The Ave. First hired with Bass Furniture as an employee in 1982, Eddie was a talented salesman; he was even sought after by other furniture stores, who wanted to hire Eddie to help increase interface with Black customers. When then-owner Gilbert Levy decided to leave Roseland in the early 1990s, he encouraged his best worker to buy the store. Eddie has been the head of Bass Furniture ever since.
When asked about the downfall of The Ave, Eddie said “the problem that we have [is that] we don’t reinvest in our own community.” Younger generations of Black residents moved away from their original neighborhoods and never returned to continue the work of their family-owned shops.
Disinvestment also debilitated The Ave, according to Eddie. The Roseland Business Development Council, of which Eddie was a member, and two other community organizations were denied $90,000 in block grant money in 2004. According to the Chicago Reporter, out of 52 business development groups, “the Roseland agencies were the only ones to have their funding cut in any way.”
He wishes that the development unfolding in nearby neighborhood Pullman — which is home to Chicago’s first national monument, designated by President Obama in 2015 — would happen to Roseland. In the past ten years, Pullman has opened up a new Walmart, a Culver’s and an Amazon warehouse. It also boasts the only African-American Labor History Museum in the country. Meanwhile, less than two miles away in Roseland, progress is slow.
Despite this, Eddie has high hopes for the neighborhood. He’s excited about the new developments coming soon to South Michigan Avenue, and believes life in the area will start to improve.
While he waits, Eddie will continue providing quality furniture at the only store to survive three generations on The Ave.
“We build positive relationships with our customers. That’s why they keep coming back.”
A previous version of this article stated that Roseland Pharmacy had closed; it is currently open during limited hours.
The people who made this project possible.
Historical Society Library