When the cool kids in Wicker Park want a taste of the Real World, they head to Piece, a pizza place and microbrewery at 1927 W. North Ave. The restaurant is massive, a meticulously rehabbed loft space with soaring ceilings, multiple skylights and exposed wood beams. It’s loud and crowded and there’s no shortage of beautiful people or great beer brewed on the premises.
The Real World, MTV’s reality-based show, puts half a dozen young, good-looking people and some predictable conflicts (the gay character and the homophobe, for example) into a stunning home they could never afford in the hippest part of a hip town.
The current season was filmed in Chicago, across the street from Piece, which makes it the obvious place for diehard fans to watch the show. The restaurant cranks up the volume and plays the evolving saga on its countless TV screens. Equally important, the proprietors of Piece offer half-price pizzas during the show and all-night beer specials.
In tonight’s episode, Aneesa, the spoiled African-American lesbian, loses the keys to the group’s car and cries to her mother and then her brother about needing several hundred dollars she doesn’t have, to get the vehicle re-keyed (her brother takes care of most of the tab). Kyle breaks up with fellow housemate (was it Cara or Keri?), and the girls whisk her off to a dance club and find her an immediate blind date.
If you’re getting the feeling that The Real World may be the most ironically named TV show ever created, you’re not alone. It’s perhaps fitting, though, that it was filmed here, on the border of Wicker Park and Bucktown, a world that these days is as unreal as anything MTV ever dreamed up.
Wicker Park is bounded roughly by Augusta, the Kennedy Expressway, North Avenue and Western. Bucktown sits north of North Avenue between the Kennedy and Western. Together, the two neighborhoods comprise an alternative universe that defies description.
Historically, Wicker Park was best chronicled by novelist Nelson Algren in books like The Man with the Golden Arm and Never Come Morning. Algren wrote about the seedy streets, two-bit hoods, junkies and juvenile delinquents that formed the core of the neighborhood. At that time, in the ’40s and ’50s, Polish was the language of choice on Milwaukee Avenue.
In the ensuing decades, Spanish was added to the mix as large numbers of Latinos moved in. The dominant language changed, but the tough streets, gang problems and negligent landlords didn’t, at least not for the better. Drugs and prostitution grew rampant in the ’70s.
In the mid-’80s, however, real estate brokers and developers turned their eyes to the area. Rehabbing and building in Lincoln Park and DePaul were growing, and as prices rose there, some considered moving west of the expressway for a massive discount on housing.
To the east, brokers and investors were making a fortune as the poor ethnic types, the artists and gangs were squeezed out, and well-off whites moved in. Wicker Park, the faithful maintained, could be the next Lincoln Park. With money to be made, the marketing wizards set their sights and carved out a corner of the neighborhood, resurrecting the name “Bucktown” for an area that most knew simply as the northern half of Wicker Park
The young professionals took the bait and began to migrate west. Prices, not surprisingly, started a steep climb that has never stopped, though it has leveled off a little.
Stroll up Damen from North Avenue today, and you might be tempted to think the Realtors were right, that this is a new Lincoln Park. The commercial strip looks a lot like Halsted used to, lined with trendy boutiques and antique stores, upscale restaurants, salons and cafes. The Northside Café has the kind of overpriced beer, bar food and banter young Lincoln Parkers love. Farther up the street, Phlair, Babaluci and Le Bouchon have pricier menus and gourmet dishes.
Even more noticeable, if you haven’t been to Bucktown lately, is the row of trendy shops selling designer handbags, handcrafted jewelry, antique furniture and eclectic clothes from all over the world. They have names like Tangerine, P.45, Climate, Stitch and Vive la Femme. Or else they’re named for a woman who is proprietor and or designer, such as Robin Richman and Amy Rigg.
The chic shops began to pop up about five or six years ago after residential development had hit its stride, and a wave of loft conversions, condos and townhouse projects were underway. Commercial rents were still cheaper than farther east, and Damen offered retailers the same advantage Bucktown offered home buyers – convenience. The shops are next to the expressway and the el, and they’re a quick car ride from downtown or the suburbs.
“I like this neighborhood,” says Robin Richman, whose eponymous shop is located at 2108 N. Damen. “I’m not in that congested area near North Avenue, so parking is good. I’m close to the highway, which is nice because half of my customers are from the North Shore.”
Richman sells clothes from Japan, Germany, Spain, France and other countries. At the low end, a “really unique” tee shirt costs $64, and shoppers can spend up to $600 for a dress. She also sells jewelry, shoes, various accessories and original furniture by Floyd Gompf. The local artist designs and makes pieces using salvaged wood and antique hardware. Presentation is important at Robin Richman. Clothes are hung on antique hangers, and Gompf’s designs can be seen in the counter, couch and other pieces in the store.
Tangerine, 1719 N. Damen, specializes in “fashion-forward” items, according to owner Lori Mandarino. “I pick unique items,” Mandarino says. “We find things in New York and L.A., and they don’t take a trend until a year later sometimes.”
And while shoppers and diners are strolling through Bucktown, they can also stop for a pedicure at Hush, 1808 N. Damen, pop into an art gallery or take a “screaming yoga” class at the new Cheetah Gym / Wilshire Urban Resort, which is being built in the former home of The Real World kids, across from Piece.
But even in this corner of the neighborhood, the transformation into Lincoln Park West has never fully taken. The shops might be pricey and exclusive, but they’re also less staid than what you’d find on Halsted or Armitage.
“What’s nice is that, first of all, as a woman, I’d say in more than 70 percent of these boutiques, the sole proprietors are women,” Richman says. “They’re small, so we all know each other. It’s not like Halsted, where it’s all big names now. This is a newer neighborhood, so people can be more adventurous.”
Boutique owners here describe their wares as funky, edgy, different, eclectic. Vive la Femme, 2115 N. Damen, a new store done in black and hot pink, specializes in clothes for women size 12 and up.
“We are visited by people from the suburbs and surrounding areas because we offer such a unique service,” says Christi Blackburn, co-owner of the shop with Stephanie Sack. The sizes at Vive la Femme start where the sizes at most shops end, and Blackburn says other stores on Damen send shoppers her way if they don’t carry plus sizes.
There are two kinds of yuppies: those who are proud of the status and those embarrassed by it. The first group are the ones with earpieces for their cell phones, Beamers or Jags in the garage, designer purses that cost more than they can hold in small bills. Lincoln Park is the neighborhood of choice for this crew.
For the second group, those embarrassed by their yuppiedom, Bucktown is paradise. They drive SUVs that cost just as much as the more ostentatious cars but pretend they need these rugged vehicles for the dog, the (future) kids or potholes. They have high paying jobs and secretly love lattes but wouldn’t be caught dead in a Starbucks. They’ll pay as much for a shirt to get a label none of their friends will recognize as the admitted yuppie pays for a well-known brand.
Even though they spent $300,000 for their new condo or $600,000 for a house, professionals in Bucktown can say they live off the beaten track, in an ethnically diverse, edgy, artistic community.
And in a lot of ways, they’re right.
Despite the rapidly rising prices, the trendy new shops, the high-end restaurants and shrinking diversity, Bucktown and Wicker Park retain an edgy, artsy, eclectic feel. Sure, a shopper can spend hundreds on an imported French nightie at a Damen boutique. She can also buy used – yes used – lingerie at Lipstick, 1937 W. North. Diners can order the escargot and creme brulee at Le Bouchon, or a cheap burrito at one of a dozen taquerias. The counterpart to the original furniture and rare antiques sold north of North Avenue is the factory-made stuff for sale at U.S. Mid-town Furniture, Economy Furniture and other stores south of North Avenue.
“We get more people coming in here because it’s more exciting than Lincoln Park; there’s more of an edge to it,” says Nick Gecan, of Gecan Realty Group. “Young people like it. It’s certainly more diversified than Lincoln Park. I like Starbucks and baby carriages as much as anyone, but I also like the spiked purple hair, tattoos, artsy folks, and you have that here. There’s more character.”
That “edge” is most evident south of North Avenue, especially along Milwaukee. The boutiques and antique shops are getting a foothold here too, but cheap shoe stores, furniture warehouses and taquerias still dominate. There’s also Reckless Records, one of the city’s best stores for used albums, and Myopic Books, a used bookstore with a great selection.
It’s true that Recycle, a resale shop at 1474 N. Milwaukee, sells only designer clothes, but the Salvation Army Thrift Store is across the street. Music venues range from a small secretive room where bands play in back of a taco shop to the Double Door, which books mid-range acts. The street is crowded and urban and dirty and one of the most colorful places in the city to take a walk.
A fair number of Latino businesses and residents have managed to hang on despite the gentrification. The artist community was pushed out of its cheap loft space in the neighborhood, but some artists have lingered in makeshift digs. Others moved nearby, to Humboldt Park, Logan Square and the Near West Side, but are still active in Wicker Park. The homeless are still around too, and gang violence has not disappeared.
No neighborhood in the city is more vocal about the evils of gentrification or is doing more to fight this force even though it did most of its work here years ago. Steven Anderson was one of the organizers of a protest opposing gentrification as well as globalization and other trends outside of The Real World house while the show was being filmed.
“We knew that gentrification had already begun, we acknowledged that,” Anderson says. “None of us could live anywhere near that area (where The Real World was filmed). We all had to live five blocks away or whatever, but knew it used to be a great place.”
But a quick look at local real estate shows that gentrification is closer to being finished than having just begun in Bucktown and Wicker Park. New single-family homes routinely sell for close to $1 million. Bucktown View, a new condo development at 2342 W. Bloomingdale, on the edge of Bucktown, has units ranging from the $250s to the $280s. And Wabansia Row, a development of 33 townhouses at 2311 W. Wabansia, has prices starting in the $580s.
Gecan says that vacant lots in the heart of Bucktown sell for $300,000 to $350,000 on the rare occasions one comes to market.
“There are only a finite number of vacant lots, and they were gobbled up a long time ago,” Gecan says. “There are a few out there, and they’re gold when they come up.”
Right now he’s getting ready to close a house that his company sold for $370,000 two years ago. This time around it will go for somewhere between $410,000 and $425,000.
The Charleston, 2076 N. Hoyne, is one of those holdovers from the pre-gentrification days that has managed to survive. It’s a mixed crowd tonight, some younger patrons but most older are than those in the typical Bucktown or Wicker Park bar. The Lou Rider Band, a trio playing classic rock, is set up in the middle of the space, but there’s no cover charge. A stuffed sand crane and goat are perched atop the piano and a stylized bear guards the front window. This isn’t the fabricated kitsch of so many Wicker Park establishments but real junk collected organically over the years.
Wendy Pick is the unlikely owner. She wears glasses and a floral shirt beneath straight bangs, and she has a maternal air. “Be nice or leave,” is her main rule for the bar. Another is “no shots named after body parts.” She bought the corner tavern 16 years ago, just as Bucktown was beginning to change.
“Back then there were a lot of artists in the neighborhood,” Pick says. “It was an eclectic, wonderful mix. They settle a neighborhood and then get priced out, which is sad. It’s a double-edged sword. I have a lot of business, which is nice, but you hate to see it get homogenous.”
In the back of the Charleston, the pool table is surrounded by about a dozen regulars, pool fanatics who show up every night. Most have long associations with the neighborhood, although they now live everywhere from Humboldt Park to the western suburbs. John Keeney, who is now an elementary school teacher in Warrenville, says the neighborhood was ideal when he lived there in the late ’80s, playing music and making art.
“It was great back then, kind of hairy, with a lot of old Polish and Puerto Rican families here,” Keeney says. “Almost all of my friends were artists and the rents were cheap. The seeds of gentrification were there but it wasn’t safe enough yet for too many people to move in.”
Another pool player, who does not want to be identified, has mixed feelings about the changes in the neighborhood.
“Here’s the parallel I’d use,” he says. “It’s like at the Charleston. There were a lot of characters here who were entertaining and fun to talk to, but they screwed up and got kicked out. Do I miss them? Sometimes, but really they were a pain…Well, I don’t really miss the gangbangers either. It’s true I might not be able to talk to the yuppie lawyer who moves in, but at least he won’t shoot at me.”
Keeney regrets some aspects of the more polished neighborhood to which he returns to shoot pool, but he says, there has been enough continuity to keep him coming back. And like all the regulars, he is a devoted fan of the Charleston.
“You can’t turn back the clock,” he says. “Nothing stays the same – except maybe this place.”