SOMETIME around the birth of the 20th century, architect D. H. Burnham happened upon Congress Street. It was short and unextraordinary. But its location fit so well with Mr. Burnham's vision for Chicago that he picked it to be the city's central east-west thoroughfare.
Burnham's vision was popular when it was unveiled in 1909, but his plans for Congress Street never made it. Much later, the road was widened and linked to an Interstate highway. By that time, West Congress Parkway, as it came to be called , was not a central axis, but a kind of barrier.
Now, there are signs the barrier is slowly crumbling.
Congress Street lies directly south of Chicago's downtown, known here as the Loop. To the north, tall office towers rise; to the south, until recently, abandoned buildings that few people crossed over to see.
''Chicago unfortunately has this mind-set that when you say south, you're saying black,'' says Bette Cerf Hill, president of the South Loop Planning Board. ''And when you say black, you're alerting people's individual prejudices.''
Her nonprofit group of property owners is trying to change the perception that the area is a high-crime district. That's why a new development, dubbed One Financial Place, is important, she says.
''We're shifting a focus here,'' agrees Arthur B. Gingold, standing near the top of the unfinished 39-story office tower.
Whereas the focus of Chicago's financial district along LaSalle Street has been northward, the growth of the city's futures and options exchanges and the building of One Financial Place is moving it south, says Mr. Gingold, executive vice-president of US Equities, Inc., a partner with Casati-Heise Partnership in the project.
One Financial Place, just south of the Chicago Board of Trade annex, will house the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the Midwest Stock Exchange, and the tower that Gingold calls ''the Rolls Royce of office buildings.'' It will sport large bay windows and expensive polished Imperial Red granite - exuding an air of luxury in an area that until recently was more noted for seedy establishments.
In addition, the new trading floor of the growing Midwest Stock Exchange will straddle West Congress Parkway - creating a symbolic bridge to the development already going on farther south.
There, about 8,000 residents live in a variety of developments with names like Dearborn Park, Printers Row, Printers Square, and River City. Some are new buildings, some are renovations. Other buildings are being converted to office space. A few years ago, this area of roughly one square mile was virtually empty , says Ms. Hill.
The stigma surrounding the area may be lessening, if comments of passersby on a recent Saturday are any indication.
''It reminds me of some parts of San Francisco,'' says Jean Pacella, who moved to Dearborn Park two years ago from Mountain View, Calif. Friends ''told me not to go near it,'' she recalls, but ''I think this is as safe as the suburbs.'' Two evenings a week she walks to watercolor classes.
Besides the area's proximity to the Loop, Hill says, many are lured here by the prices.
''At the time, the values were tremendous,'' says a trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, who moved to Dearborn Park three years ago. But rents have gone up. A two-bedroom apartment now costs from $600 to $800 a month, he adds.
Success is not guaranteed, but Ms. Hill is confident that if the economy remains stable, as many as 30,000 people could live here in the next 10 years. To another woman, who recently quit her job in the Loop, the rents are a concern. ''It's a nice area. It's just too expensive.''
For third-grader John Stotts, who pulls along his dog, Freeway, on a chain leash, other issues are more immediate. He has enough friends in the area, he says, heaving a handful of gravel at a brick wall. ''But I still get bored.''