Chicago: Neighborhoods Pt.I

Sunday, November 15, 2009

..Elaborating on my previous post where I said that I felt Chicago’s best asset was its string of unique neighborhoods, I’m doing to go ahead and dedicate this post to my assessments of the various Chicago neighborhoods I visited. A city of neighborhoods, Chicago’s neighborhoods were usually comprised of a particular architecture style; either prairie-style wood-frame houses and bungalows, 3 + 1 flats/walkups, Victorian buildings replete with turrets, 1920s courtyard apartments and in some areas, old, brick (beaux arts, art deco, neo-classical and Chicago style) skyscrapers. They tended to have an adjacent retail strip or shopping corridor, and more often than not, were anchored by, and sometimes named after fairly large parks (Washington, Garfield, Humboldt, Grant, Douglas, Lincoln, Portage, and the various Lakefront parks). The nabes…..true Americana urbanity.

The Loop:

Undoubtedly the New York of the Midwest, it is the bustling heart of Chicago and altogether the world’s 2nd largest employment center (in terms of sheer number of jobs). The dense city center is vibrant, teeming with business professionals, commuters and tourists, overwhelming in scale, and with its gargantuan skyscrapers, intimidating – quite literally, too, since many of the buildings feature gargoyle gatekeepers, amongst other Gilded Age details. Visiting the Loop, one is constantly dwarfed by towering skyscrapers -- several which are 100+ stories – and the seemingly never-ending construction/public works projects. That, and the ubiquitous “L,” a nickname affectionately used to refer to the vast elevated rail system.

The train lines – all of them – begin in the downtown area and fan out from there, but not before running in loop, enclosed fashion, hence the “Loop” name. Synonymous with trains in the US, Chicago has a long history with the iron horses, spanning from the sprawling rail yards that distributed meats (slaughtered 18,000,000 heads of livestock in 1920; remember “Hog Butcher for the World?”), to having been an early pioneer of inner-city rail systems. Sadly, despite a complex history of innovation, I found much of the system to be dated, starting with the 1960s train carriages. The worst part, though, was how in some areas the system was literally falling apart. On several occasions, my train had to stop many times for workers to place a new tie or plank of wood on the track. That and sharing 1 rail with another rail line (Red/Brown lines), something which hampered speed and efficiency. Another thing that left me wondering was why some of the stations lacked proper covering, in a city known for inclement weather nonetheless? Criticisms aside, the trains were indeed good enough to get me around the city with relative ease.

Courtesy of the El, I traveled practically the whole city, and was able to taken in a wide scope and crossection of Chicago neighborhoods and their corresponding lifestyles. As a city of several million, its neighborhoods unsurprisingly span the whole spectrum, from the dangerous which ensure Chicago’s status as a murder city, to the safer, more down to earth ones I am about to describe. Now that my thoughts and opinions have crystallized to a certain degree, perhaps what I liked most about Chicago neighborhoods was the sense of intimacy, scale and personality they all held. The quiet, leafy streets lined with gorgeous greystones and corner, locals-only ‘watering holes.’ Out of all the nabes I visited, I naturally found myself drawn to the whole Wicker Park nexus, of which includes Wicker Park (obviously), Bucktown, Logan Square, the Ukrainian Village and East Humboldt Park -- places of which will be discussed in a later post.

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