Forum Retail Over The Decades: From Schaefer Billiards to Red’s Lounge and R & R Barbecue
The Forum’s retail offering were a key part of its contribution to Bronzeville. Covering 130 feet of frontage on 43rd Street immediately adjacent to the Green Line, the six ground-level retail slots provided a wide range of products and services to neighborhood residents and transit users. Hospitality was a particular strong point; and, many Forum venues showed great staying power. However, even the most robust of Forum stores were unable to withstand to exodus of residents from Bronzeville beginning in the 1950s and by the 1990s Forum retail had shrunk to a shadow of its former self.
Forum retail stores lay at the core of a diverse and vibrant 43rd Street shopping corridor in the 1910s and ‘20s as this ethnic white South Side community evolved to become the heart of the Black Metropolis. A typical Sunday stroll might include a bout of billiards along with a drink and smoke at 324 East 43rd, a visit to the milliner next door to secure the latest headgear, and an informal family lunch at Erickson Restaurant, one door west. Groceries could be procured at the Zemansky & Bros. store at 318 East; and, the stroll usually would include stops at the other major retail buildings within a stone’s throw – for a cup of coffee or basket of fruit at the cafe and market at 43rd & Prairie, to browse other hats and clothing articles directly across the street, and, time permitting, to catch a show at the Indiana Theatre, one block west.
While the decades passed, the core nature of the retail offering remained remarkably constant well into the second half of the century. Forum retail flourished, fueled by a dense residential population and a steady flow of commuters to this hub of street car and elevated train activity. Hospitality venues comprised the mainstay. And, longevity, a rarity in the fickle world of retail, became a key mark of The Forum, with some stores approaching – and surpassing – 30 years tenure in their location.
What change occurred respected the tried and true. Schaefer became Willis & Hart billiards. Cachules Restaurant succeeded Erickson, which in turn gave way to Dallas Lunch, which was soon to be joined by R & R Barbecue. Zemansky Grocery became Kutrubis Grocery, which became L Food Shop. And clothing maintained a strong presence in the building through headwear producers, a succession of tailors, and what appears to have been a major retail menswear operation.
But this era of retail vibrancy and neighborhood sufficiency was doomed to end. Hard-won 1960s era civil rights provided options to residents of overpopulated and under-maintained Black Belt neighborhoods. Civic intransigence and poor planning shifted the remaining population mix to large, concentrated groups of very poor residents and, as a consequence, transformed retail demand while transferring the retail center of gravity to the State Street corridor. Subsidized highway travel combined with new retail and communications technology – resulting in the creation of big format stores and large online shopping enterprises – to further decimate the neighborhood retail corridors that had defined Chicago and other North American urban centers for 100 years.
By 1990, Bronzeville had lost nearly two-thirds of its 1950’s population and the vast majority of its spending power. The street cars running east-west on 43rd Street had long been replaced by infrequent bus service. And the Chicago Transit Authority was poised to shutter what was now the CTA Green Line for a major renovation.
By then, not surprisingly, Forum retail had degenerated to offerings of fast food, liquor, and haircare of limited scope and marginal quality; though, by contrast, The Forum’s primary retail neighbors and competitors, lying directly east, west, and south, had been leveled if not forgotten.
The Forum remained standing as sole major retail survivor at 43rd and the El – dark and empty, but with a bold facade and rich heritage.
By all accounts, Red’s Lounge, at 320 East, was an iconic part of The Forum in the 1960s and early 1970s. According to Isom Moore, a long-time neighborhood resident, Red’s was a “very high brow” club and lounge that strictly enforced age limits (which initially prevented him from entering). Red’s Lounge was featured in the 1973 movie “The Sting”, winner of 7 Academy Awards including for Best Picture, in which Robert Redford is seen running out of the Lounge.