A Visit to 1871 Chicago, the City's Shiny New Start-up Showcase

A new 50,000-square-foot start-up coworking space is a beautiful best foot forward.

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The Merchandise Mart in Chicago is a fortress, with a heavy, two-block-wide footprint and a shadow that stretches across the adjacent Chicago River. Since its opening in 1930, the 4.2 million-square-foot structure has been one of the largest commercial hubs in the country--a place where wholesale buyers gather their retail inventories, and interior designers can browse hundreds of showrooms at once. 

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Today, the lower floors are still filled with brightly lit model kitchens and luxury upholstery studios. But in the upper section of the 25-story building, tech is taking over. The top three floors of the Merchandise Mart will soon be home to Google offices. And on floor twelve, 50,000 square feet of concrete and glass now house a startup hub called 1871 Chicago, which opened in May of this year. 

This morning we toured 1871 Chicago. The elevators slide apart onto an open-plan co-working space where founders float among small tables, communing with their laptops. One whitewashed cinder block wall is painted in a bold, geometric pattern--the work of a local artist, we learn from our guide, Caity Moran. An Intelligensia Coffee kiosk in the corner aids in creating the feel of a private coffee shop. As we marvel as the scale of the place, Moran points out that it's as big as a football field. And in a moment that seems staged to underscore her point, a young woman glides by on a razor scooter, as if crossing the office requires wheeled transportation. 

This area is for individuals who've bought in at the lower tiers of membership, paying up to $250 per month to gain access to the venue, though no permanent space of their own. Secured behind a translucent blue and green wall are 108 personal desks, which are available for $400 per month and rented mostly by teams who've progressed a bit further down the start-up path.

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In addition to providing space for individual entrepreneurs, 1871 plays host to a number of small tech accelerators, angel investors, and university-affiliated groups. Along several corridors, those partner groups occupy glass-fronted private rooms. Chicago-based Code Academy, now known as Starter League, recently took up residence in two large offices. They were out today, and in their empty space a huge, graffiti-style mural was still drying on the wall, the words "Hello, world" sprayed opposite a bank of Apple monitors. 

Excelerate Labs has installed its class of ten nascent startups in another room around the corner. We spoke with the creators of Lasso, a mobile app that helps friends arrange social plans in the "real world;" SpotHero, which describes itself as "the Orbitz of parking spots," aiming to address urban car owners' woes; and Cureeo, a woman-founded start-up that connects art collectors with one-of-a-kind pieces. 

Tomorrow, the Lasso founders told us, the Excelerate teams will be reenacting their Demo Day presentations for a public audience, since apparently they had to turn away numerous interested parties when they presented exclusively to investors earlier this year. They're even expecting Rahm Emanuel to drop by to show his support, though they seem to be gleaning all the fortitude they need from a black-and-white print-out of Ryan Gosling, which is scotch taped to a pillar above their desk, watching over their coding sessions like a reminder of the fame and fortune that awaits the best entrepreneurs. 


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Sarah Rich is the editor of Smithsonian's Design Decoded blog, co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project, and a former senior editor at Dwell. Her most recent book, Urban Farms, was published in June 2012. 

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