THE LOOP — In 2012, Chicago Architecture magazine deemed the 400 block of South Clark Street “Chicago’s Worst Block” and called it a “time capsule of the worst kind.”
Worst is subjective, of course, but walking down the street is like being taken decades into the past.
It survived the real estate boom of the early 2000’s and continues to stay unchanged in the current era of condo conversions, gentrification and mega-developments like the impending “The 78,” which is walking distance from the block.
Located Downtown in what was once an infamous vice district called “Little Cheyenne,” the west side of the block is home to a pawn shop, liquor store, an architectural gem called The Yukon, a couple fast-food restaurants and a 220-unit single room occupancy hotel called The Ewing Annex that serves as the block’s anchor and source of its residents.
It is also where Hollywood often comes to film, using the block as a gritty landscape for shows like “Chicago PD” and movies like “The Dark Knight” and “The Fugitive.”
It’s a different world even just across the street. On the east side of Clark looms the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the high-rise federal jail that is currently the home of R. Kelly.
There are other neighbors that blend into the area better than the federal lockup. Around the corner to the north on Van Buren, for example, is the Sky Ride Tap, a shot-and-a-beer joint named for an attraction at the Century of Progress 1933 World’s Fair that has been around since the 1950s. There’s also Boni Vino, a family-owned Italian restaurant that’s been there since 1967 and is one of the best-kept secrets in the Loop.
Both occupy ground-floor storefronts in the hulking Yukon Building, which is now known as the Bock Building.
Just to the north across Van Buren is the Chicago Board of Trade, where some of the area’s most successful make their living. To the south of the block is the Ida B. Wells Drive, leaving the west side of the 400 block of South Clark as an oasis, or a step-back to the seedy side of the 1960s.
The Bock Building, formerly known as The Yukon, is a two-story building that begins at the northwest corner of Clark and Van Buren and stretches south across four storefronts, from a convenient store on the corner to La Conina restaurant — which despite being a Mexican restaurant, maintains a Chinese-style sign with a pagoda on top, reused from the former restaurant that was in its location.
The Yukon, designed by Holabird & Roche and built in 1898, was recently described by author and architecture critic Lee Bey on Facebook as “one of the most overlooked cool buildings downtown. … It was built as a temporary taxpayer building that would exist only until a taller permanent structure could be built … which hasn’t happened. But look at it. So glassy, so early. The 2nd floor ribbon of glass on Clark Street turns the corner and graces the Van Buren side too. Like a Victorian peek into midcentury Modernism.”
Indeed, city historian Tim Samuelson said if his office was not inside the Chicago Cultural Center and he had to pick an office, the second floor of The Yukon building would be his first choice.
“Absolutely, with its big windows, it’s classic city, hidden Downtown,” Samuelson said. “You almost expect to see the words ‘Sam Spade’ on the windows. It makes you want to take up smoking cigars or cigarettes.”
The Yukon may be the most architecturally significant building on the block, but the Ewing Annex Hotel, the 220-room SRO hotel for men only is the most controversial. It continues to operate despite being the target of various aldermen over the years.
In 2013, two alderman — James Cappelman (46th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) — tried unsuccessfully to shut down the Ewing, with Reilly saying at the time that “average Chicagoans wouldn’t want to house their dogs in this type of facility.”
The block is currently on the northern edge of the 4th Ward, which extends south all the way to parts of Hyde Park. It’s alderman, Sophia King, did not respond to requests for this story, nor did Cappelman or Reilly.
The building that houses the Ewing was once owned by another alderman, the infamous 1st Ward Ald. Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna.
“Hinky Dink” Kenna was one of the Lords of the Levee who ruled over the city’s notorious vice district at the turn of the 20th century and was an architect of political corruption.
The hotel was called the Alaska back then and changed its name to the Ewing Annex in the 1950s — but has not changed much else. It remains a single-room-occupancy hotel for men, most at the bottom rung of the financial ladder who rent 5-foot-by-7-foot cubicles for $340 a month. The cubicles are tiny stalls with walls that don’t reach to the ceiling and chicken-wire over the top. For $440 a month, there are rooms with a drywall ceiling and a closet.
It’s owned by brothers Randy Cohen and Wayne Cohen, who also own Royal Pawn Shop and three other storefronts on the block.
In 2013, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown predicted that the Cohens, who were the stars of a reality TV show filmed at Royal Pawn called “Hardcore Pawn: Chicago,” would sell the Ewing “in a minute when the price is right — despite Randy’s protestations of having only the interests of the Ewing’s residents at heart. Yet, just as Reilly’s attempts to change the block, Brown’s prediction has not happened.
Back then, the residents of the Ewing and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless teamed up and succeeded in staying open and remain open today unlike many other SROs. The reason, according to Coalition Director of Organizing Wayne Richard, was that the city had no plan for where the residents would end up.
“You can’t make people homeless because of a development. The residents may be on the bottom rung of housing, but they are not homeless,” Richard said.
He also said because of its location, a lot of residents live close to where they work, unlike some of the SROs that were closed on the North Side.
Randy Cohen told a reporter that the Ewing is home for many veterans and people who without his hotel would likely be living on the streets.
“No one cares about them, I care,” Cohen said. “I lose money here. We have security, we keep it clean. If we close there would be more people on the street. My kids bring them clothes.”
Mike Bush, a resident of the Ewing for more than 20 years and the hotel manager, described the hotel and the whole block as a community where everyone looks out for each other.
“Some guys have been here more than 30 years, longer than me. Most have been here for a decade. …We have all walks of life living here, from a CTA bus driver to students, teachers, and restaurant and hotel workers.”
Bush said that residents are often helped by nearby restaurants like Boni Vino, a local Panera and the soul food restaurant on the block that often donates food. It’s also aided by the Board of Trade and organizations like Food For Friends. Additionally, random people often stop by with food and clothes for the residents as well, Bush said.
As for the inside of the hotel, during a tour of the hotel given by Bush, the tiny units were mostly occupied. The building was clean, including its community bathrooms and common room, where men sat and watched television.
“You see, it’s not scary. There isn’t anyone on the floor with a needle hanging from their arm,” Bush said, while giving a tour.
To get a room, one needs to have proof of income, which in some cases can be having a city peddler’s license, Bush said. He added that people arrive at the Ewing from “quite a number of scenarios.”
One thing that bonds them together is a sense of community and many come back to visit once they move out.
“One guy who worked for the railroad got divorced and lost everything and ended up here, “Bush said. “He was thinking about killing himself when he was here. I talked him out of it and eventually he moved out and came back one day to tell me that he built his own home. Another guy was a student when he lived here at one of the nearby colleges and started his own business.”
While there may not be a landscaped center median with trees and flowers on the 400 block of South Clark street, there is a sense of community that is the envy of many fancier blocks, as well as an appreciation of things and a feeling that we are all the same. As Bush said, “A lot of people are only one paycheck away from being here.”
So, as the large cranes continue to pop up around the city, building new and improved buildings and developments, the 400 block of S. Clark Street remains much like Nelson Algren’s description of Chicago, which he said was like loving a woman with a broken nose. Or, as the blog Chicago Sojourn wrote of the block in 2008, it’s “run down and real.”