“Have you been downtown lately? It’s nearly empty.”

Canal Street

We hear comments like that more and more often from alarmed readers in the Chicago area. We see it, too, and it’s worsening. So we’re putting up a few pictures for those who haven’t visited lately, and adding the perspective of one downtown restaurant owner.

We took the pictures downtown on Thursday between 9:30 AM and 1:30 PM.

Things seemed to be improving a bit over the summer, but no longer.

Is it COVID, crime or the new trend to remote working?

The recent surge in COVID began in the first week in July, and that’s undoubtedly a major cause. The trend toward remote work is real and may be permanent. But crime seems to be increasingly on people’s minds.

Adams Street

I checked in with somebody who is a kind of real time barometer of downtown activity. That’s Jesse Boyle, who owns two restaurants in the Ogilvie Transportation Center – Station Restaurant and Bar and Vinny’s Pizza Bar. Ogilvie is the primary commuter train station in downtown Chicago, so Boyle has a pretty good feel of the pulse of downtown activity.

“In the spring and summer I was anticipating things to really come back after Labor Day,” Boyle told me.

“I was hearing a lot of companies were scheduling their employee returns for the fall, and my group was excited to get closer to normal,” he says.

And he had put his money where his hopes were, completing major renovations.

“But there are two things that have converged,” Boyle says, that have set things back.

“One is that the Delta variant has taken away a lot of that early enthusiasm for work gatherings and people getting reacquainted.”

“A very close second” is crime, as Boyle sees it.

“Overall crime is up again, and the stories we’re hearing and reading about suggest that downtown is not as safe as it used to be.

It’s confluence of those causes, and whatever else has drained people from downtown, that’s most deadly. You can feel it, and it feeds on itself.

“It’s a ghost town feeling that you have just walking down any downtown street,” as Boyle puts it.

“It makes you a little uneasy, and it’s kind of shocking to me that we continue to see this for such an extended period. The offices are empty, and the energy is gone.”

Jackson Street

Boyle went on:

It wasn’t like that prior to last year, and I’m hopeful that our city government pulls it together and helps us fix this. I’ve seen a sales dip from July to August, which is unusual.  Things in September continue to be flat or down from August.

Just having more people around downtown will make all of us feel better, but at this point I have no sense of direction on when that will happen.  As a business owner this is very dispiriting and depressing.

Our hearts are out to Boyle, his employees and all the others like them, in downtown Chicago and all places suffering like it.

State Street

This cannot go on. Chicago as we’ve known will not survive with as few people downtown as there are. And Illinois cannot survive without Chicago.

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