Student Perspective: Grant Park Dangers Then and Now

An article in the Columbia Chronicle dated May 21, 1979, talked about how the area surrounding 600 South Michigan was at the time.  The article stated that Grant Park was “sprawling, wooded and serene and, potentially, a mugger’s paradise.” In 1973, a string of five women were murdered in and near Grant Park by a man named Lester Harrison, who, according to the Chicago Tribune, “got ready for his walks through Grant Park by watching porn movies in the Loop. Then he’d go hunting.”

The Past:

In June of 1973, David Ott held his baby boy while his wife, Judith, went to a restroom in Grant Park. A horrific scream drifted from the bathroom, followed by a man bolting out of it with a bloody knife in hand. Ott chased him down and tackled him, not knowing that the scream was his wife’s, and that she was dead.

Harrison cannibalized his victims, taking pieces of them home as souvenirs and keeping them in envelopes with newspaper stories about the heinous crimes he’d committed and gotten away with.

At the time, Wabash and State Street were characterized by peep shows, parking lots, and cheap food.

In 1983, in the back of an eccentric, crumbling store, filled with books about magic and novelties such as masks and crystal balls, 77 year-old owner, Frieda Fenster, was found raped and strangled in the back room. This bookstore was located on 526 South State Street, between Van Buren and Congress.

The article in the Chronicle pointed out that while men didn’t feel as if they were in danger, women felt unsafe. One woman said night classes were not an option.

The Present:

Today, Grant Park is free of any wooded areas, perhaps thanks to the Dutch Elm Disease which destroyed a majority of the trees in the late 70s. Wabash and State Street are now lively and lined with businesses such as Epic Burger, Panda Express and Subway.

I asked a few Columbia students if they felt safe around campus. One graduate student stated their reasoning for driving to campus, “I’d rather walk two blocks to the garage and pay more than go to the train to the stop that is frequented by criminals, but not everyone has this option.”

The South Loop is certainly more visually appealing than it used to be, with more things to do, more places to eat, and fewer places to watch strippers and porn. But students still don’t feel completely safe at night. I think that’s a good thing because you should never let your guard down. There are nearly three million people in this city and unfortunately that means there is more danger lurking.

You can read the entire Chronicle issue here:

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