Chicago: Neighborhoods Pt.II

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wicker Park:

Wicker Park..the Silverlake and Williamsburg of Chicago. Chock full of bustling thoroughfares packed with endless trendy cafes, haute restaurants, fly boutiques, antique shops and other, specialty stores (stores selling notebooks, messenger bags, cult items, etc). I visited there a few times, mainly to just hang out, but also for breakfast and to photograph the area itself. One rainy morning, I followed the wise words of a bearded, bicycle-riding hipster and grabbed breakfast at the funky “Earwax” café. I got the highly-recommended challa bread French toast served with pastry cream…which made for a splendid breakfast, to say the very least. The place, with its “staff” (and our discussions about The Wire), wild décor and dive-ish vibe definitely reminded me of some my preferred haunts down here in LA. After that, in pouring rain, I walked along Milwaukee, admiring the handsome architectural offerings; it was primarily 2-4 story buildings done up in various Chicago-styles, often replete with corner turrets and other, prominent fixtures and details. There was lots of questionable infill, too, particularly in the form of 2-story “jumbo brick” buildings, which sported recessed roofs and decks. Not long after that, I wandered off the commercial corridor and into the residential part, something I’ve got to admit, was quite nice. Imagine block upon block of handsome brown and greystones, on wet, rain-soaked streets teeming with foliage in the various attractive hues, colors and tones of autumn. Such a setting, reminded me, at least to a certain degree of parts of (brownstone) Brooklyn, particularly Fort Greene.

And while this neighborhood definitely has an artsy vibe, you can tell that it it’s not nearly what it once used to be, perhaps the work of the gentrification handyman. Most of my friends told that the neighborhood is now thoroughly gentrified and much of the “scene” has migrated to places further west, such as the Ukrainian Village, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. Glad to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same; gentrification patterns across the US are pretty much the same.


Pilsen. One of a handful of Chicago neighborhoods that I declared a “must-see,” I was drawn to Pilsen for its position as the revered heart of Chicago’s rapidly growing and now large Mexican community. Coming from Los Angeles, itself a city of Mexicans, seeing the Pilsen – and later comparing and contrasting it to similar Mexican neighborhoods here – was an obvious priority. Of course, hailing from the world’s 2nd-largest Mexican city, one second to only DF and larger than Monterrey or Guadalajara, it was a place that I could certainly relate to. Having grown used and accustomed to panaderías, carnicerías, taquerías and other neighborhood facets unique to Mexican culture, I felt right at home seeing such in the Pilsen.

The architecture was quite wonderful, too; A bevy of gorgeous Bavarian, Czech, and other Central and Eastern European styles, which were often characterized by large amounts of stonework. Somewhat unsurprising given that the neighborhood afterall was originally built and settled by immigrants from those countries. Today, legacies of their past remain, even if only in the form of old immigrant societies and organizations, along with their respective languages inscribed into the buildings, stating their purpose (or at least, former purposes). The neighborhood has obviously changed – most likely for the worst – something evidenced by the crumbling facades and the seemingly ubiquitous CPD (Chicago PD) CCTV installations that dot the urban landscape. Locals mentioned a gang problem, too, but aside from some graffiti here and there, I didn't notice too much really going on.

Following an extensive tour of the neighborhood, a friend and I debriefed in what really seemed to be the only welcoming store, a Church’s Chicken not too far from 18th St. I’ve got to admit, toying around, pointing at photos on thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment – almost naively, to a certain degree – inside a greasy chicken joint, and the reactions I received from the largely blue collar, working-class locals from doing so was definitely…memorable. After an hour had past, we set out to canvas the rest of 18th St, and then headed to the neighboring Little Village (nicknamed La Villita) nabe for the remedy to a 40-degree rainy day: a warm, authentic dinner comprising of Bistec a la Mexicana, una papa, arroz y frijoles con tortillas (Mexican –style steak served with rice, beans and a baked potato; also with tortillas, allowing the meal to be eaten like a fajita).


Uptown was another interesting nabe, for it obviously has 2 very conflicting and polar-opposite identities. Once the theater capital of Chcago, and a potential preeminent to the Loop, this nabe blossomed from 1920s development and investment, receiving many theater houses and (now) seemingly out of place skyscrapers.

I found Uptown to be stratified between the nicer, attractive gentrified areas near the Sheridan L stop (i.e Buena Park) and the grittier, run-down areas near Broadway and Wilson. Full of the homeless, abused, addicts and people of the aforementioned groups in various stages of recovery, alongside other marginalized groups, through the efforts of the local Ald (Shiller), the nabe is home to the highest unemployment, poverty, concentration of homeless shelters, number of sex offenders and violence in the Northside. Amongst other things it is also the home to the highest concentration of the chronically mentally ill (in the nation) – constituents the infamous alderman fights to keep there.

Several times, on Broadway/Wilson, I was accosted for money and solicited pornographic DVD’s. The neighborhood itself, the poorest & most dangerous on the Northside (only Rogers Park is higher) is one of Chicago’s most diverse, hosting a near-equal mix of Whites, Blacks, Asians and Hispanics, with an equally rich mix of socioeconomic groups. Locals differentiated the neighborhood from “gang-infested warzones” such Garfield Park, and said that Uptown was merely a good, livable nabe that so happened to have a high crime rate. Closer to the Argyle stop, one finds a large Vietnamese community, replete with the appropriate restaurants to compliment such. I have to admit, it was strange seeing a neighborhood with such amazing access to the lakefront and 24-hour Red Line, stellar architecture in a somewhat disappointing state.

Though, using the handful of theaters that’ve been renovated, the sprinkling of building renovations and new construction, the new-ish Borders and Starbucks and a visible youth presence, one could vouch that the nabe was in some stage of gentrification. In fact, several of the original establishments that helped build Wicker Park’s artist vibe have since relocated to Uptown, in the quest for cheaper rents and bigger spaces. Of particular interest to me was the abundance of stunning terra cotta architecture; the sheer detail and craftsmanship in these buildings was to be admired.

Lincoln Park:

Next stop was the archetypal Chicago yuppie neighborhood, Lincoln Park. I explored the areas surrounding the Armitage Brown Line stop, which with its near-continuous stretches of spectacularly-colored Victorians donning ornately-detailed corner turrets. The area was fascinating; it was dense, well-served by transit (Red/Brown lines) and had a handsome architectural integrity. The people seemed to be largely transient, with a majority being students at the nearby DePaul University. That said, while the Midwestern student body of DePaul often comes under scorn for various reasons, I’d much rather have them – frat boys, NCAA team-specific bars and Abercombie & Fitch withstanding – than the people who really drag down the quality of life. Lincoln Park actually reminded me more of Boston than it did Chicago; charming architecture of a ubiquitous style, college students and bars, tree-lined streets, intimate atmosphere, etc.

UK Village/E.Humboldt Park:

My favorite section of Chicago, though, had to be the areas on the periphery of Wicker Park: Ukrainian Village, E. Humboldt Park and Logan Square. As mentioned in my previous blog post, these areas appeal to me for they offer great proximity to the scenes in Wicker Park & Bucktown , but aren’t too far from major employment centers and transit arteries. More importantly, you have these wonderful conveniences, without the exorbitant prices (though, as a Californian, all of Chicago is relatively affordable) and without the hyper-development and gentrification that is found in the former neighborhoods. The lack of hype has kept these locales somewhat secluded and sheltered, giving them an almost quaint, intimate feel – an oasis within the city, if you will. What appealed to me the most, though, was that the neighborhood had a perfect mix. It had the gritty authenticity that I would expect from Chicago, but, too, it had trendy restaurants, bars (I love all of the old-school watering holes with Cyrillic signage) and boutiques reminiscent of home. The desirable balance and stellar locations would make these nabes my number 1 pick were I to move to Da Chi.

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9 comments: to “ Chicago: Neighborhoods Pt.II so far...


    The black Anthony Bourdain - slash - Conde Naste strikes again (or maybe I should say, writes again?)! Killer write-up and summary of Chicago's "nabes!!" <-- your favorite word

    As usual, love the post, love your unique perspective, love the photos.
    Love you.


    Great shots! :D


    Another excellent write up Devan. No Deep Dish pizza though? Very intriguing views on the socioeconomic composition of the city.


    Your Chicago posts have given me an urge to explore more parts of the good ol' USA I have never seen before. Chicago is at the top of my list, then Boston, Miami, and New Orleans.


    Here is a Token of my appreciation..:)
    Great work!
    Keep it up!


    your blog and photos are awesome. it kinda makes me hate livin in sandy springs GA. lOL!

    but it seems like by your photos, i can still make the best of this weirdly dry uncharacterized (i made that word up. i think) place.

    you have become an inspiration to me and my ART and i wish you the best in your endeavors.

    keep up the AMAZING work.


    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


    Wicker Park is a Chicago neighborhood northwest of the Loop, south of Bucktown. Charles and Joel Wicker purchased 80 acres (32 ha) of land along Milwaukee Avenue in 1870 and laid out a subdivision with a mix of lot sizes surrounding a 4-acre (1.6 ha) park. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 spurred the first wave of development, as homeless Chicagoans looked to build new houses.


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