Racing against progress, camera in hand

West Loop from Willis Tower
The West Loop in September 2010

When my wife and I bought our first home 15 years ago, the West Loop was one of the few neighborhoods in Chicago we could afford. The eight-blocks between Greektown and the United Center were a largely undeveloped stretch of old warehouses, low-density office space, restaurant supply companies, and Orpah’s Harpo Studios. But for newlyweds in the market for a starter loft condo, it was perfect.

It didn’t occur to me how much the neighborhood would change since then —otherwise, I might have taken a few pictures. But when I look back through my files all I can find is a grainy nighttime shot of the Willis (née Sears) Tower, which at the time was in full view from our deck.

A few months later, that view was gone. A new condo building stood in the way, one of dozens more to pop up on surrounding streets or flesh out the bones of gutted warehouses.

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The neighborhood’s transition is a blank space in my photo library though. There are no shots of the mini strip mall behind our old condo, the Fannie May candy factory torn down to make way for a Target, or the sprawling taxi garage on the block where our current home now stands. To be fair, most of the pictures I took during that time are of our family, but I regret losing the context of those images: the view from the sidewalks where we first pushed our children in strollers, or the empty lots where we let our dogs play off leash.

In the past few years, the rate of change in the West Loop has accelerated. We’re suddenly living in the hottest neighborhood in the city, fueled by a burgeoning hipster restaurant scene, a stellar public elementary school, migrating corporate headquarters, and ever more condos and apartment buildings.

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As I’ve started taking photography more seriously, one of my ongoing projects is to document the West Loop before it changes even more. There are still pockets of Fulton, Lake and Randolph where patches of the old neighborhood show through around the edges, but even now with a new sense of purpose, I can’t keep up.

I never thought of myself as a gentrifier when I moved here 15 years ago, but that’s the fate of anyone starting a family in an unestablished neighborhood. Now, I’m an amateur historian, racing against progress to document the place where I live.