A Brief History of Chicago’s Fulton Market

Carl Sandburg famously wrote that Chicago was ‘stormy, husky, brawling…City of the Big Shoulders.’ A city full of railroad workers, hog butchers, builders, cooks; this was his city. Integral to that conception of the city was the Fulton District

Meatpacking was Chicago’s biggest business by the Civil War. It makes sense; the southern states were occupied by other matters, midwestern beef grazing was at its height, and Chicago was full of workers. The city sat in the middle of America’s best grazing lands.  Railroad connections ensured transport and logistics. By 1890 over 12 million cattle and hogs went through the stockyards per year.

This was the initial purpose of the Fulton Street Wholesale Market Company; a building constructed for meat wholesalers. But the area was a gathering place and market area long before the 1890’s.

A hundred years prior, the area was already a place where Chicagoans went to buy produce. The city widened Randolph so that they could build the West Market Hall in 1850; a large building that sat literally in the middle of the road. 

Even before that, the neighborhood was Chicago’s principal commerce area for hay, hence ‘Haymarket Square.’ Of course, the organized labor movement changed forever here in 1886 as workers striking for an eight-hour workday fought police. By the 1920s, Randolph Street was the place where a lot of the city’s fresh produce supplies were sold. Along with the Water Market and the stockyards, most of the Midwest’s grocery distribution network was in Chicago. 

Of course, much changed in the 1930s when the Great Depression hit.

The invention of refrigerator trucks meant that food-services industries no longer needed to be centralized. Many warehouses moved out to the suburbs where land was cheaper and there was easy access to the interstate highway system. It just didn’t make sense for large amounts of trucks to make their way in and out of central city streets. Furthermore, many of the meatpacking industries relocated to the South, where workers weren’t unionized. The large warehouses began to empty out. New highways isolated the neighborhood. Finally, it just didn’t make sense for stockyards to exist anymore; animals were simply prepared for market on or near farms. Armour and Swift both vacated their properties in the ‘50s, and in 1971 the stockyards became an industrial park.

Of course, when the warehouses became vacant and rents went down…artists and galleries moved in. The MARS Gallery opened in 1988, and was part of Chicago’s art scene parties for over thirty years. A year later, Oprah Winfrey opened her own Harpo Studios in the area. This was a turning point in the neighborhood’s history, as the first high-end restaurants opened nearby to serve the studio and art clientele. Some meatpacking and fresh-food services remained in the area, and these new restaurants used them.

Another boom time hit the Fulton Market District around 2008. Google and McDonalds opened new corporate headquarters in the area (the former taking over Oprah’s old studio.) These new workers needed places to live, and glossy new residential towers sprang up. More restaurants followed. By 2010, the Market District was one of the hottest real estate addresses in the United States. These days, the FMD is considered an ‘innovation district’, a tax designation that attempts to preserve existing buildings and businesses while stimulating new growth. High-end restaurant and retail businesses along with offices and I.T. firms now occupy red-brick buildings that were empty in the 1960s and 70s. The population has doubled in the past ten years;  not only have more residents decided to live here, many other Chicagoans travel to the FMD to partake in the excellent restaurant and bar scene.

As Chicago grows and changes, the Fulton Market District will be there!


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