Back to the future

A new condo development sits alongside a workers' cottage on the 2200 block of West Augusta Boulevard, in West Town, where preservation and building are often at odds.

Story by Alison Soltau | Photography by Michael Jarecki

Can eclectic West Town balance preservation and building? 

At The Bleeding Heart Bakery, a brightly colored shop on Chicago Avenue in West Town, hipper-than-thou customers wearing shirts with slogans such as “Ironic T-shirt” munch on organic s’mores brownies and cookies made with enormous chunks of chocolate as they browse Bitch magazine.

Kasia’s Deli is just a few blocks away, but it might as well be in another universe. Longtime neighborhood residents from Ukraine and Poland come here to stock up on cheese blintzes and potato pancakes and of course, Kasia’s famous pierogies, which the eastern European deli has dished out to the likes of Bill Clinton and Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Dinner at the popular restaurant Moonshine, 1824 W Division St, one of the many lively eateries and bars along Division Street.

Welcome to West Town, a diverse neighborhood of taquerias, chic restaurants, dollar stores, grand churches, currency exchanges, boutiques and anonymous corner taverns where the only signs advertise Old Style, or sometimes, simply the generic cerveza fria or zimne piwo. Cold beer is recognized throughout West Town. Whether you should be asking for it in Spanish or in Polish or in a shapely Pilsner glass with a wedge of lemon changes block by block.

West Town’s official borders are Bloomingdale Avenue on the north, the river on the east, Kinzie Street on the south and Kedzie Avenue on the west. It’s a massive chunk of the city that includes Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, East Village, River West and parts of Bucktown, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and other neighborhoods.

The area was first settled by Eastern European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and later by Latinos, African-Americans, artists and working class Chicagoans of all kinds looking for cheap rent.

James Berner with his Amazon parrot and American bulldog outside Wicker Park.

In the 1980s, West Town was a gritty neighborhood down on its luck and troubled by gangs, crime and substandard housing. Those are still issues in much of West Town, though parts of the neighborhood have gone upscale.

During Chicago’s housing boom of the 1990s, professionals who couldn’t afford to buy in areas like Lincoln Park and Lake View started snapping up condos and single-family homes in the area, drawn to its eclectic streets and proximity to downtown and the Kennedy Expressway. In the process, they pushed housing prices and residential building to new heights, and neighborhoods like Ukrainian Village and East Village have seen the spillover effects of gentrification in Wicker Park and Bucktown.

Development vs. preservation

West Town’s streets – some quiet and leafy, others noisy and extremely urban – are lined with modest but handsome brick two-flats, graystones and workers’ cottages built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The neighborhoods are dotted with nondescript storefront churches and some of Chicago’s most famous, including Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, which was designed by Louis Sullivan in the 1890s and financed in part by Czar Nicholas II of Russia.

Shannon Fortune strums his guitar in Wicker Park.

Locals joke that West Town homes are well preserved because the early residents were too cheap to renovate. But many simply were too poor to improve the homes, which are modestly embellished with limestone, pressed metal and iron fences.

Some of today’s residents, however, prefer the old housing stock, dilapidated as it might be, to much of what’s been built during the last 15 years. A burst of condo development in East Village during the 90s sent horrified residents scurrying to their alderman, complaining that the new 55-foot-high buildings were bland sun-blockers that increased traffic congestion, says Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago and a Ukrainian Village resident.

“Everyone had the same $199 Home Depot door,” says Fine. It’s jarring, he says, to see new condo buildings standing next to old homes constructed by “bricklayers from the old country who cut their teeth building cathedrals in Europe.”

This mural, at the corner of Division Street and Hoyne Avenue, is one of a number of pieces of public art in West Town.

Landmark districts

The Chicago City Council listened to residents. Between 2002 and 2006 parts of Ukrainian Village, East Village and parts of Wicker Park were declared landmark districts. Homes in landmark districts cannot be torn down, and alterations to facades are subject to strict review to ensure that renovations are consistent with the historical character of the streetscape.

“It’s stability of architectural design and historical preservation of the area as a family-oriented community,” says George Matwyshyn, president of the Ukrainian Village Preservation Society and a 50-year resident of the neighborhood. “You know the person next door, you can count on them.”

But not everyone supports the creation of landmark districts.

“There’s been a lot of passionate debate about how much we should save,” Fine says. “Should we save anything at all? Should we save everything, and what is a happy balance?”

And debate has raged even over the shape of certain properties that have been saved. Members of the influential residents’ group, the Wicker Park Committee, resigned in 2006 because of infighting over whether to support MCM Properties‘ plan to convert Association House, a landmark Prairie-style building at 2150 W. North Ave., into a condo and retail development. MCM also has proposed constructing a 45-foot mixed-use development on an adjacent lot that’s currently a playground. The city council has approved the project.

Michelle Garcia puts the finishing touches on a wedding cake at The Bleeding Heart Bakery, 2018 W Chicago Ave.

Carol Mrowka, who owns a workers’ cottage within the landmark district in East Village and is a real estate agent with Koenig & Strey, argues that such condo development is revitalizing the neighborhood and that landmark status can be onerous.

“This wasn’t about choice,” she says of landmark designation, “it was about taking my property rights away from me.”

Mark Peters, whose firm, Studio Dwell Architects, has designed numerous modern buildings in West Town, is sympathetic to the argument that much of the new development in the neighborhood has been bland and insensitive. He doesn’t like the neighborhood’s “cookie-cutter condos” any more than the next West Towner, but he isn’t sure that landmark districts are the best way to address the problem.

“People [created landmark districts] for the wrong reason,” Peters says. “I don’t think it’s a love of the past, so much as it’s a fear of the future. It’s hard to understand why you would want to stifle creativity and diversity. The last thing I want to do is have an aesthetic committee created.”

Peters often designs residential projects for Ranquist Development, which builds modern condos and single-family homes with open-plan rooms and high ceilings. The projects have clean, contemporary lines and favor glass, aluminum and block. Scott Hoskins, who heads CMK Realty and has worked with Ranquist, says he bought a condo at the developer’s East Village project, 919 N. Wolcott Ave., because he appreciates modern architecture and thinks new homes that mimic historic ones are “boring.” Hoskins says his condo’s open floor plans and oversized kitchen island make it perfect for entertaining.

Contemporary homes in West Town.

Despite the landmark districts, condo and single-family home developments continue in other parts of the area. The condo projects tend to have three to six units, as development sites that support buildings of this size are the ones most commonly available. Busy Division Street is now lined with new condos, and some side streets between Ashland and Western, north of Chicago Avenue, seem to have new developments on every block.

Condo craze

The developers of the new condos say that landmark districts can hurt property values by limiting the property’s future use. Developers often will pay more for a “teardown” single-family house than the typical buyer, and this has the effect of raising values throughout a neighborhood, they say.

Preservationists say landmark districts generally don’t hurt property values, pointing out that many Chicagoans like the idea of living in historic homes.

Empirical data on the issue is hard to come by in West Town, but it’s clear that overall, prices have risen at a quick clip. The median condo price in West Town in 2005 was $361,450, up 31 percent from 2000 and 125 percent from 1995, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors. The median price of a single-family home in 2005 was $623,500, up 70 percent over five years and 265 percent over 10 years, according to CAR.

Miriyam Rashid (left) of Ukrainian Village, reads, while her friend Mai Staiti, visiting from Palestine, checks her email at Atomix, a cafe at 1957 W Chicago Ave.

And housing prices continue to climb. During the period from August 1, 2005, through August 1, 2006, the median condo price was $368,000 and the median single-family home was $713,500, according to statistics compiled by Susan Dinko Real Estate from the Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois.

Prices on new construction, of course, tend to be higher than prices on resales. The brick three-unit development at 1415 W. Chicago Ave., marketed by Domus Group, is typical of the neighborhood’s new product. The three-bedroom condos are priced from the $420s and include granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, oversized showers, marble baths and parking.

Condo conversions and loft projects also have been popular in parts of West Town, though the number of lofts has dwindled in recent years. The College Lofts, 1521 W. Haddon Ave., is one of the few currently on the market. PNA Development’s conversion of the old St. Stanislaus College into 23 one- and two-bedroom lofts offers units priced from the $320s to the $520s. Features include exposed brick walls, exposed concrete columns, granite countertops, balconies and heated parking.

Out for drinks in West Town.


Developers also are catering to families who want to live in West Town in spacious single-family homes, says Alderman Ted Matlak (32nd), whose ward takes in a large chunk of West Town. Developers are tearing down older houses in areas that sit outside the landmark districts and replacing them with single-family homes that sell for upwards of $1 million.

Matlak says he regrets that so many of the neighborhood’s two-flats have been torn down because they provide relatively affordable rental properties. “But there’s a 20th century expectation of space,” Matlak says. “Most of this ward was built by and for horses and wagons. People don’t want 8-by-8-foot bedrooms.”

Families are finding the neighborhood a good fit in other ways too. On weekends, the jungle gym at Wicker Park is overrun with toddlers and kids, while couples laze on blankets and browse the farmer’s market. But do the families stay once their children reach school age? Public schools in West Town have a poor reputation and many families bus their kids to private or magnet schools.

Craig Benes, principal of Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy, says that over the past few years, West Town schools have seen enrollment decline as the neighborhoods gentrify and working class families move out.

West Town designer toy store and gallery.

“A six-flat might be replaced with two single-family homes and the parents don’t even have children of school age yet; they just have dogs,” Benes says. “A school could easily lose about 20 kids.”

But some local schools, including Talcott, are showing signs of improvement, and families are taking notice. Enrollment at Talcott rose to 600 in 2006, from 490 in 2004 after the school formed ties with downtown cultural institutions like the Field Museum and The Art Institute of Chicago, integrating the institutions’ exhibitions into the school’s curriculum, Benes says.

Retail revitalization

As more families and professionals move to West Town and condo development increases the neighborhood’s density, streets like Damen and Chicago avenues and Division Street have developed into lively commercial corridors.

Over the past five years, Division Street, the one-time “Polish Broadway” has morphed into an upscale destination where you can find rare wines and “flights” of bruschetta at Enoteca Roma Wine Bar, or have your aura read at upscale spa, the Ruby Room. Remnants of Division Street’s past remain, including the Division Street Russian Baths, where luminaries from Saul Bellow to Jesse Jackson and Russell Crowe have scrubbed up alongside the great unwashed, but the street is almost unrecognizable from its appearance a decade ago.

Other streets, including Milwaukee and Western, maintain a gritty, urban aesthetic. If you’re in the market for a cheap wig, cheap furniture, used clothes or a pitcher of beer that costs less than a single fancy cocktail at one of the newer places on Division, these are your streets.

The new shops and restaurants have brought jobs and cash into the neighborhood and resurrected a couple of dead commercial strips. Some observers wonder, however, if the ongoing effort to discourage an increase in residential density will stifle the new retail development.

Saturday night outside Cleo's, a popular West Town night spot.

A group of residents recently protested American Eagle Bank‘s plans to move its headquarters from Elgin to West Town. The institution has requested a zoning change at 700-710 N. Ashland Ave. that would permit a six-story building containing 44 condos. At press time, the bank was still negotiating with residents, who argued that the project would cause parking problems and should be built at the existing zoning level, which permits about 19 condos.

An editorial in a community newspaper, the Chicago Journal, took issue with the residents’ stance, pointing out that locals yearn for cafes to replace the neighborhood’s dollar stores. “Those types of businesses don’t just pop up without a critical mass of customers,” the editorial said.

But for now, retail appears to be thriving. The stretch of Chicago Avenue, between Wolcott and Western avenues, has emerged a hotspot over the last two or three years. Pioneers include Sonotheque, where DJs spin hip-hop, jazz and lounge in coolly minimalist surrounds, and Rotofugi, a sort of anti-Toys “R” Us, that sells vinyl toys, including a three-eyed rabbit, wrought from the twisted imaginations of independent designers. Newcomers to Chicago Avenue include Five Star Bar & Grill, which has a stripper pole and a staggering selection of bourbon.

Chicago Avenue should get even busier with the arrival in late 2007 of a Dominick’s supermarket, which will replace Edmar’s, an independent grocery store at Chicago and Damen avenues. The 50,000-square-foot Dominick’s will include a Starbucks, a bank, a pharmacy and heat-and-eat-gourmet meals.

West Town church.

“I can’t wait,” says Amanda Meyers, president of the Chicago / Grand Neighbors Association. She currently shops at a Dominick’s in Old Town. “Neighborhood grocery stores have always been a place where neighbors meet and share news about a new home, a new baby or a new puppy, and are an important part of the glue of any neighborhood.”

But some locals have reservations. “It will encourage the kind of people who have taken over Wicker Park to encroach on Ukrainian Village, parking their jackass Hummers in the bike lanes and cackling on cell phones,” writes April, a blogger on the Ukrainian Village neighborhood journal at New Homes magazine’s Web site, “Rent will keep going up, and I’ll have to move out.”

Maintaining diversity

And therein lies the rub. West Town faces the age-old dilemma that so many revitalizing communities confront – how to stimulate residential development and interesting, convenient retail, without pricing people out of the neighborhood and sacrificing the diversity that attracted many of them in the first place.

Artists transformed Wicker Park from a seedy enclave into a bohemian neighborhood in the 1980s and early 1990s, but over the last 10 years, locals have been engaged in a series of battles to keep out corporate giants. The owners of the famous Double Door concert venue won a court battle against the building’s owner, who wanted to evict the music club in favor of a higher-paying tenant, rumored to be Banana Republic. The club, which has served as a springboard for Chicago bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Veruca Salt, remains open for now, but who knows what will happen when its lease comes up for renewal?

Polish deli in West Town

Milwaukee Avenue is the latest battleground as national chain stores move in next to hip boutiques like Jade and Language. Urban Outfitters, American Apparel and New-York-based Scoop have all landed on Milwaukee Avenue and small retailers fear they’ll be forced out because the national chains can pay higher rents, says Paula Barrington, executive director of the Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce, which favors a balance between national and local retailers.

Preservationists are chiming in on that issue, too. The Wicker Park Committee is lobbying the city to landmark the stretch of Milwaukee between Division Street and North Avenue, worried that national retailers will tear down or slap corporate logos on the street’s historic facades.

A happy medium

Many residents say they’re optimistic that the most appealing aspect of West Town – its quirky diversity – will remain. A trip to the aptly-named Happy Village bar on a Friday night offers some evidence to support the idea. The 42-year-old tavern, which has linoleum floors, tables with green and white checkered cloths and framed photos of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy on the wall behind the bar, draws everyone from old-timers to hipster kids, who crowd the back patio in summer.

“There have been many battles and many differences of opinion about what the physical future of West Town was going to be, and some of those battles have yet to be decided,” says Fine, of Preservation Chicago. “But the bottom line is that it’s a neighborhood of diversity in opinion and we are all neighbors and we are all residents of West Town.”


  • woodlawnchuck 12 years

    It’s all true. Except the diversity part. It’s losing its diversity. What made Wicker/East Village great is gone. On to better things. These people should start heading south. There’s a great L-Station at 18th & Paulina. There’s also the Lumpens in Bridgeport. Time to reunite! Bye bye West Town!

  • West Town – a recent location for an almost 9 unit Condo Building off of Blackhawk and Ashland. After 8 months, $15,000, endless meetings, and lack of cooperation from the community groups – we were asked to build 2 Single Family homes which would preserve the mentality the groups are trying to retain – which are: Move in, and stay here for ever.

    I understand new construction brings higher taxes, young professionals, 1-3yr neighbors, some crazy orange new building with poor design and large price tag, but… what it also brings is equity, blending of cultures, mutual respect, better resale, and the ability to update something that may be barely standing.

    On the flip side – recently had a broker trying to sell a 400sq ft store front for $320,000 – that’s also crazy.

    I have a feeling that although real estate will continue to grow, we are toward the Clean Up stage – where what has been done over the last 5-6 years is the greater bulk of development, and it will remain the bulk. If neighborhoods changed they will now stay the same, if they didn’t, then they had their chance.

    Anyway – have a great day!