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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

How River North changed from the city's industrial center to a booming art district

Written by
Joanne Kim

Punk rock music? Bootlegging? Art galleries? Nobody knew for certain what would come of the thick smog that blocked the sun in Chicago's Smokey Hollow, also known as River North, during the early 20th century. During the heyday of the River North Gallery District in the 1980s, buildings on Superior and Huron streets were stacked with one gallery after another. It was the main hub of the art world in Chicago, and it still carries that legacy today.

But how did one of the most industrial areas of Chicago become home to one of the largest concentrations of art galleries in the country? Here's a look into the strange history of the neighborhood.

Dark Past

“It was all factories back then,” said Paul Berlanga of the River North of yesteryear. Born in River North, Berlanga is the former director of Stephen Daiter Gallery and owner and director of Berlanga Fine Art & Photographs. He remembers an era when coal bins were placed on every corner to gather shipments and provide storage space for factories; when black air puffed out of smokestacks day after day. The trains fumed smoke, chugging along railroad tracks that went along the Chicago River and beneath Merchandise Mart.

Long before transforming into the River North Gallery District we know today, the area was known for mafia scandal. Back in the '20s, the now notorious mobster Dean O'Banion bought interest in a flower shop across the street from Holy Name Cathedral at State and Superior streets. The shop was a front for bootlegging and mob operations during the height of Chicago's gangster era, and it helped make O'Banion a rival of Johnny Torrio and Al Capone during Chicago's bootlegging wars. On the morning of November 10, 1924, O'Banion was clipping chrysanthemums when mobsters walked into the shop and shot him dead. The incident sparked a brutal five-year gang war. 

Meanwhile, Chicagoans’ fear of urban crime increased and people left the city. But in the 1970s, one of the biggest punk rock clubs of the time brought some liveliness back to River North. The name of the club was O’Banion’s.

Art on Fire

While O'Banion's was having its moment, art started to creep into the area. In 1979, Roy Boyd moved his gallery to River North, marking the beginning of the gallery district. The following year, Art Chicago (now known as Expo Chicago) was held for the first time in Navy Pier in an effort to create an American version of the Art Basel. 

Right as the district started booming, disaster hit the Chicago art world. Berlanga remembers it vividly. The “Great Gallery Fire” in April 1989 destroyed dozens of galleries and caused many to relocate to Wicker Park and Bucktown. 

Good Things Take Time 

But River North is now more colorful than ever and claims to have the largest concentration of private galleries in the U.S. outside of Manhattan, with dozens of galleries. While the Roy Boyd Gallery closed in October 2014 after 42 years, the River North district continues to mature. 

Learn more by taking Chicago Gallery News’s free River North Gallery Tour, offered every Saturday at 11am. 

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