|The main downtown area extends about 16 blocks south and about 7 blocks north of the Chicago River's main stem. It extends about 10 blocks west of Lake Michigan, its eastern border. Within this area, elevated trains run along a rectangular "loop" of tracks 5 blocks wide and 7 blocks long. These tracks give the central downtown area its nickname, "The Loop."|
The heart of the Loop is the intersection of State and Madison streets. These two streets form the base lines of Chicago's street-numbering system. Madison, which runs east and west, divides the north and south numbers. State, a north-south street, divides east and west numbers. State Street is also a famous shopping area. It includes the original Marshall Field & Company department store, with its landmark clock that juts out above the sidewalk; and the original Carson Pirie Scott & Company Building, which houses a department store and was designed by the noted architect Louis Sullivan.
Three blocks west of State Street is LaSalle Street, Chicago's financial district. Along the street stand six major banks, the Chicago Stock Exchange (formerly the Midwest Stock Exchange), and the Chicago Board of Trade, the world's largest grain market. The City Hall-County Building and the striking, blue-tinted James R. Thompson Center (formerly called the State of Illinois Center) also face LaSalle Street.
Wacker Drive, a double-deck boulevard, follows the inside curve of the Chicago River and its south branch. Local traffic uses the upper, street-level deck, and express traffic uses the lower level. The drive connects with 17 of the 19 downtown bridges that cross the river. The Merchandise Mart, formerly the world's largest commercial building, stands across the river from Wacker Drive. A stunning group of modern office buildings in airy plazas lines South Wacker Drive and the river. The most impressive is the 110-story Sears Tower. It rises 1,450 feet (442 meters), and boasts the tallest top floor of any building in the world.
The Loop is a veritable "museum without walls." Examples of public art - in the form of traditional monuments, murals, and monumental contemporary sculpture - are located widely throughout the city, but their concentration within the Loop (and nearby Grant Park) is worth noting. The best known of these works are by 20th-century artists, including Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Calder, Moore, and Oldenburg.
The area south of the Loop in downtown Chicago is one that is not as dense as it should be, as close as it is to the center of Chicago. There are many undeveloped plots and vacant lots in the area, especially along the Chicago River, which borders the site to the West. Going south, you cross over into "Printer's Row," known for it's publishing history. Today its quickly filling with loft apartments and restaurants, and is sure to enjoy continued growth; the South Loop will undoubtedly turn into a center of Chicago revitalization and renovation in the near future.
Pilsen, bounded by Damen, 16th Street, Canal and the south branch of the Chicago River, has been a port-of-entry area for many nationalities for more than a century. During the first weekend in August, Pilsen is the site of the three-day Fiesta del Sol, one of the city's largest neighborhood festivals, which attracts visitors from throughout the city.
Long used as a water passage for Native Americans traveling between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, the Pilsen/Little Village area continued to be of vital importance after European settlement, becoming an economic and cultural crossroads. As a port of entry for recent immigrants, the Pilsen area has welcomed countless immigrants to begin a new life in America. In the 19th century, workers arrived to build the Southwestern Plank Road; the Illinois and Michigan Canal; and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. Many stayed to live in the neighborhood.
By the late 19th century, rapid industrialization and urbanization had transformed the largely Czech and German working-class neighborhood into a national center of labor activism. Poles, Croatians, Lithuanians, Italians, and members of other ethnic groups settled in the area, and all have left their imprint. Now one of the largest Mexican communities in the United States, Pilsen/Little Village and its residents have, for more than three decades, engaged in a struggle for political representation, educational reform, social justice, and workers' rights.