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Sunday, March 3

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This week's question was suggested by Cinnamon.

Q: I recently read an article referring to Michigan Ave. as the Miracle Mile. I thought it was the Magnificent Mile or the Million Dollar Mile. How could one street get so many names? Where did they all come from?

Thanks, Cinnamon, for the question. I could just give you the short answer, but what would be the fun of that?

The story of Michigan Avenue, particularly that stretch known as the Magnificent Mile, begins in the late eighteenth century. Back then, what is now North Michigan Avenue, extending from the Chicago River to Oak Street, was part of the Old Green Bay Road -- little more than a trail along the shore of Lake Michigan. Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, Chicago's first settler, built his home along this trail, just north of the river, perhaps foretelling the importance this area would have for the city to come. Fort Dearborn was also built along the trail, just across the river to the south.

By the mid-ninteenth century, North Michigan Avenue was called Pine Street, and the development of the Near North Side was already underway as the city filled in over 100 acres of lakefront, creating the Streeterville neighborhood and establishing the current configuration of the lakeshore.

Real estate developer Arthur Rubloff is widely credited with coining the Magnificent Mile nickname when, in 1947, he launched his Magnificent Mile plan to rejuvenate Chicago's post-war economy. His plan called for renovations and new construction on North Michigan Avenue in order to transform it into a major commercial center. The essence of Rubloff's plan, however, had its roots in the 1909 Plan of Chicago designed by architect Daniel Burnham. In the early twentieth century, North Michigan Avenue was already a vital commercial and residential district, but the Burnham Plan envisioned the street as the Champ Elysees of Chicago -- a wide boulevard lined by buildings of uniform height with tree-lined islands, stretching as far as the eye can see.

Two of the major steps towards achieving this vision were the widening of Pine Street and the completion in 1920 of a double-decked bridge over the Chicago River, connecting the old South Michigan Avenue with the new North Michigan. These improvements transformed the street into a major gateway to the Near North Side, and led to rapid commercial development of the area. The Wrigley Building and the Tribune Building were both constructed in the 1920s as part of this new expansion, but the stock market crash of 1929 put a rapid halt to the city's plans for the street.

Arthur Rubloff, with his Magnificent Mile initiative, revitalized the area once again. Development has more or less run amok along North Michigan Avenue ever since. Unfortunately, most architectural critics agree that the Magnificent Mile has fallen woefully short of the plan imagined by Daniel Burnham. The failure of the city to impose stricter regulations on the development of the area has resulted in unmitigated architectural disaster. Nevertheless, the Magnificent Mile attracts over 22 million visitors a year and is considered one of the world's most-renown shopping districts.

Now, the Miracle Mile nickname is a more recent appellation that may have been dreamed up by local tourism boards or the businesses themselves along Michigan Avenue. Although I could not find any definitive data on the origin of the term, the name is a sort of joke referring to the idea that it would take a "miracle" to be able to walk the length of the mile without spending any money.

The Million Dollar Mile nickname is also derived from the commercial success of the area but seems to apply more specifically to the wealthy residents of the Gold Coast area and the upscale boutiques along a one-block stretch of Oak Street at the northern end of Michigan Avenue. I suppose one block can seem like a mile if you're walking in Ferragamo heels. But, again, I could not find any specific information indicating the origin of the Million Dollar nickname.

Well, I hope this answered your question or at least provided five minutes worth of entertainment. Now who's up for some shopping?


Chicago's Magnificent Mile.

Oak Street Chicago.

Stamper, John W. Chicago's North Michigan Avenue: Planning and Development, 1900-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

You've got questions. I've got answers. Send your questions to librarian@gapersblock and it may be featured in a future column.

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Ramsin / November 6, 2003 4:20 AM

Alice- When I was a kid, I remember guys used to call Michigan Ave. "Boule Mich." (pronounced "Bull Mish") Presumably, this is short for "Boulevard" and "Michigan". However, Michigan Ave is obviously not a Boulevard. And why the annoying abbreviation? (although I do prefer "Boule Mich" to "Mag Mile.") I heard once that the name is a take off on some street in Paris that is abbreviated similarly. So, what's the scoop?

Alice / November 6, 2003 9:49 AM

Yes, the "Boule. Mich." name also originates in Burnham's Chicago Plan of 1909 as he envisioned Chicago as a Paris by the lake. The Boule. Mich. harkens to his original idea of making Michigan Avenue a wide boulevard a la the Champs Elysees in Paris. I could give you more specific information, but I don't have my notes with me here.

murgatroit / November 7, 2003 2:44 PM

Is it possible that the Miracle Mile tag just got tagged on to Michigan Ave? I think Battle Creek has a "Miracle Mile" which largely seems to be a row of new car dealers. And doesn't Billy Joel talk about cruising the Miracle Mile in "It's Still rock and roll to me"?

Just a thought.


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