Chinatown, between Wentworth and Archer Ave. and the Chicago River
From its beginnings till today, Chicago’s Chinatown has been evolving to keep up with changing times and needs. By the 1980’s overpopulation was the community’s major dilemma. The construction of the Dan Ryan and Stevenson Expressways prevented growth in the area and caused many young residents to flee to the suburbs – threatening the community’s vitality. Chinatown was overpopulated. And still more Chinese were expected to immigrate to Chinatown in the coming years. In 1984 the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed decreeing that Hong Kong would pass from British to Chinese control in 1997. This agreement was met with mixed emotions in Hong Kong causing many to make plans to move. Chinatown needed room to grow – it needed Chinatown Square.
When the Santa Fe Railroad abandoned their yards adjacent to Chinatown (north of Archer Avenue), the Chinese-American community seized their opportunity. In 1984 the Chinese American Development Corporation (CADC) was formed to organize the purchase of the property. After a few setbacks, in 1988 they finally succeeded in acquiring the 32 acres of land at a cost of nine million dollars. Chinatown Square, a mixed-used development, was planned offering both commercial and residential units.
The first design by architect Y.C. Wong was rejected for being too modern. Instead one of Chicago’s greatest architects, and certainly its greatest city planner (at the time) – Harry Weese – was chosen to take on the project. Weese, who was famous for his design of the Washington D.C. Metro system, as well as numerous buildings in Chicago, had just returned from a trip to China when he was awarded the job. He was chosen due to his enthusiasm for the project and sensitivity to China’s architectural history.
Completed in 1993, Chinatown Square is a two-story 175,000 sq. ft. open-air mall containing retail shops, restaurants and other businesses (condos were also built which are found hiding behind the mall). The focal point and entrance of the complex is a central courtyard where celebrations and festivals are routinely held. Around the courtyard are twelve bronze sculptures of the zodiac from Xiamen, China, and two fifty ft. tall modern adaptations of the pagoda. On either side of the courtyard are long, tree-lined, bi-level retail corridors. It is a remarkably pleasant escape from the hubbub of Chicago. Elements of the design recall the Summer Palace in Beijing, especially seen in the geometric-shaped windows and red iron railings (see above).
In discussing Chinatown Square one of Weese’s designers commented, “This is Chinatown, not China. It’s a project of cross-cultural examination.” And so it is. Though it has some distinct Chinese references, it is a cosmopolitan center. Weese’s design of Chinatown Square bridges traditional Chinese architecture into a modern American city – a comfortable setting for a Chinese-American community.
Chinatown is always a fun place to visit. For information on upcoming events and places of interest check out Chinatown’s Chamber of Commerce website. Hungry? For a fun-filled guide detailing everything you’d ever want to know about the neighborhood, including where to eat, read Timeout Chicago’s Chinatown: Insiders Guide. And for more information on architect Harry Weese, read this short biography recently published in Chicago Magazine.
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