Two residential buildings made of concrete. The towers are aesthetically identical. Each features columns of half-moon balconies that create a “corncob” look. Apartments have pie-shape interiors, with each front door opening into a small hallway that slowly expands. These living spaces have also remained affordable compared to the surrounding area, keeping with the developers’ initial mission.
The center of Chicago. On the Chicago River between N Dearborn St. and N State St.
Why Marina City?
When I first moved to Chicago, I saw my home blow up in a ball of fire.
The Rock would soon be starring in a movie called “Rampage.” The trailer featured a giant albino gorilla attacking tanks around the Chicago River. The trailer also showcased a giant explosion at the apartment I had just moved into.
Hollywood has decided that my Marina City towers should be wrecked on camera over and over again. And I think I’ve felt some sort of pride that I live in cinematic ruins.
Even if others have teased me for my choice of residence.
Even the famed Chicago architecture tour has a whole bit about how it’s ridiculous to live at Marina City. While floating down the river, listening to the tour guide and craning my neck to look skyward at my apartment building, I waited expectantly for some fun trivia about my home. Instead, the guide said something like:
“Can you imagine? You move to Chicago and have chosen a studio in Marina City sight unseen. And then you get here and find out you have a pie-shaped room that’s only 500 square feet. Where do you even put the bed?”
Well, as someone who did just move to Chicago and chose to live in Marina City without touring it first, I can tell you where I put the bed in my 500-square-foot studio — it’s in the living room/office/kitchen. And I love it. The commute to work takes less than a second since I work from home. I also get to follow one of those habits of “super successful people” by never eating lunch at my desk. Instead, I have the privilege to eat at the kitchen counter a few feet away.
Maybe others believe it would be best for these buildings to get the demolition treatment. But I’m here to say this has been the best home I’ve ever had.
Sure, Marina City has a reputation for being a “seedy, crumbling wreck” that may “fall into the river.” But the constant construction required to keep the cement from collapsing adds a sonic charm. And as a bonus, this restoration drilling causes reverberations through the entire building that residents can use to massage their feet. It can be relaxing when you think about it.
Perhaps the old interior design choices from the 1960s and 1970s don’t work for most people. But where else can you have an apartment that comes with shag carpeting with remnants of cocaine or floor tiling that features a toga-wearing couple having sex? I bet the fake rock venue offered in the new luxury apartment building down the river doesn’t have anything like that.
The many quirks of the building aside, Marina City’s true greatness comes down to two things — affordability and centrality.
I pay less money to live in Marina City than the amount I spent to live in crummy, multi-roommate apartments in far-flung parts of New York City. I live a renovated Marina City studio that overlooks the Chicago River and puts me just steps away from almost every train line. Compared to what had been possible in my former city, I now feel like I won the lottery.
Rising rents in all American cities and stagnant wage growth means that anybody that doesn’t have incredible wealth typically has to move farther and farther away from the city-center. Making friends and joining a community becomes increasingly difficult when you have to live in the outskirts of town — especially when the people you meet live in other, faraway outskirts.
For the lucky few who use Marina City as a home-base, this problem disappears. With the abundant access to public transportation and taxis circling the area, it remains easy to get just about anywhere in the city by spending almost no time at all. It makes living in the city a joy. It makes me wish there were more than just two towers. It makes me wish every city would build centrally-located affordable housing that has a unique enough look to be considered a tourist attraction and ultimately get Landmark designation — making it impossible for predatory real estate companies to raze and rebuild with meteoric new rents.
Perhaps that’s just a pies-in-the-sky dream though.
When I moved to Chicago earlier this year, I drove a van with my father from New York. We listened to a global SiriusXM station to help pass the time. When we came across the very first road sign indicating the route to Chicago, a song by the band Wilco started playing on the radio. The song comes from an album called “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which has album art that features a picture of the Marina City towers against a golden sky.
The very next song on this supposedly global station was “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens. The singer tells a story of driving between New York and Chicago in a van. Although the coincidental Chicago theme ended there, the next song was by Car Seat Headrest, a band I used to be in during college (and became successful after I left… whoops). The next song was by my favorite band, Beach House, which I then learned would be playing steps away from my new home at the Chicago Theater.
This moment had clearly been a cosmic sign from a God I sometimes believe in. Perhaps our invisible God works in mysterious (radio) waves.
This moment felt like affirmation that the 500-square-foot kernel of a corncob I’d soon call home was exactly where I should be slotting into the universe.
And that has continued to feel true every month since I moved into my atypical apartment. Every time I stand on that balcony and watch the boats go by, I feel like I’m living in a gray, but vibrant cell of the city’s heart.
Perhaps the “safe” asbestos will kill me. Perhaps I’ll hear a creaking one night and find myself falling into the river while still in my pajamas. Or maybe I’ll only have to endure countless people telling me my residence is an eyesore.
But I’ll insist to my grave that cement has never been so beautiful.
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