|The Hyatt Regency O’Hare, located in Rosemont, IL. Source: totsandtravel.com
Millions of people pass through O’Hare, settle into the adjacent hotels, go to conferences and meetings in the nearby convention centers, shop in the nearby stores or drink and eat in the nearby bars and restaurants, and believe they’re in Chicago. But they’re not. In most cases, they’re in the small village of Rosemont, the tiny town that’s done more than any community I know to capitalize on its location.
Last week my wife and son flew out of town for a quick vacation on the West Coast. As for me, duty called and I was unable to join them. But I did drop them off and pick them up from Chicago’s main international airport, O’Hare. While I waited for their arrival, I drove around the area surrounding the airport. For reference, here’s Rosemont’s boundaries, courtesy of Google Maps. Rosemont is the area shaded in faint red (click on the map if you need to make it larger):
Here’s what many people don’t know. Yes, O’Hare International Airport is technically within the City of Chicago. The airport is owned and operated by the City; Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) “L” lines can take you directly from downtown Chicago to the airport within 30-40 minutes. But the airport is connected to the rest of Chicago by a sliver of property that follows the parcels fronting Foster Avenue for about a half mile, before connecting with the broad tarmac that is the airport. Immediately east of the airport, where all the highways meet that connect the airport to the region, stands little Rosemont.
But “little” hardly applies in any sense to Rosemont. The village is a dizzying mix of hotels, convention centers, restaurants, large and small-scale entertainment venues, tightly packed against the interstates that wind their way through the community. Those familiar with the area know that the area has almost a Vegas Strip feel to it, with a scale that can overwhelm. Here’s some screenshots from Google Earth:
What you see above are hotels, a convention center, office complexes, an outlet mall, and Allstate Arena, a venue for professional and collegiate sports teams. What have I not included? Myriad bars and restaurants, a performing arts center, even a field for a professional women’s softball team. There’s even a casino, but it’s in yet another suburb, Des Plaines, just feet from the Rosemont boundary. All of this within a 1.8 square mile area that holds only 4,200 residents.
How did this happen? Two words, one man — Donald Stephens.
Airplane construction had taken place on the site that is now O’Hare for many years prior to the airport’s official opening in 1963. The City of Chicago annexed the property for manufacturing uses in the 1940s, using the Foster Avenue sliver mentioned earlier to reach the site. Chicago, as well as neighboring suburbs Des Plaines, Park Ridge and Schiller Park, all passed on annexing the land just east of what was a major manufacturing hub. However, the Interstate Highway Act, which initiated the construction of the Interstate Highway system, was passed in 1956. That act opened up possibilities for the development of an airport and changed how the empty lands would be viewed. Donald Stephens, an insurance underwriter, led the effort to incorporate the community that same year.
Rosemont’s boom as a commercial center paralleled the growth and expansion of O’Hare. First came the hotels, and then smaller commercial uses like bars and restaurants. The Donald Stephens Convention Center and Allstate Arena opened in 1975 and 1980, respectively, and throughout much of the ’80s the entertainment district also grew and expanded. The airport-driven uses continue to gather in the community; the Rosemont Theater for the Performing Arts opened in 1995. The Fashion Outlet Mall of Chicago opened in 2013.
This extreme concentration of commercial, recreational and entertainment uses led to a unique development in Rosemont. In 1995, residents living within the small residential core of the community voted to enclose all portions of residential Rosemont as a gated community. Rosemont residents may fight major traffic when going to or coming home from work, but they have a sense of security that usually comes with living in upper class enclaves.
Rosemont’s growth didn’t come without controversy. Stephens, who was the only mayor of Rosemont from its founding in 1956 until his death in 2007, was often dogged with accusations of associations with Chicago organized crime. Twice he was brought up on political corruption charges, for tax fraud and bribery, but was acquitted. After Stephens’ death, his son Bradley assumed the position of mayor.
Rosemont’s unique location has led to a unique set of statistics about the community. The community’s residents are firmly middle- and working-class: the median household income for residents is about $46,000, just below the metro area’s median of $55,000. Demographically speaking, the community is about 57% non-Hispanic white and 35% Hispanic/Latino. Rosemont residents lag behind the metro area in terms of educational attainment by one measure 13.1% of residents over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to 35.3% in the metro area.
But none of that matters when the community has outsized economic numbers related to its location. In a region that averages about 1.1 jobs per household, Rosemont has 11.3. In a region that averages about $14,500 in general merchandise retail sales per capita, Rosemont has over $163,000. In 2014, Rosemont had an equalized assessed value, or a value for all property in the community, of nearly $260 million. Schiller Park, just to the south of Rosemont and nearly three times its size in terms of residents, had an equalized assessed value of $290 million.
So, in many respects Rosemont is less a community than a state-chartered commercial and entertainment district. Its successes cannot be replicated. But that doesn’t mean that its successes are enduring. On my brief visit there, I saw many pedestrians walking across Rosemont from one commercial or entertainment venue to another, in what is a challenging walkable environment. The network of interstates that meet in the village means that it is an environment for cars, and there’s currently no way around that. If Rosemont wishes to maintain its position as a commercial and entertainment venue, it may really need to consider improved walkability as a way to reach new and younger demographics travelling through Chicago.
As for me, I often wonder how the area would look if Chicago had the foresight and vision to annex the property prior to the development of O’Hare, If it had, the uses may have been quite similar but the look very different.