The new French restaurant, Bistro Campagne, uses organic products and flies in fresh fish from Pierless Fish, on the East Coast. It’s specialties include saumon moutarde, a plank-roasted mustard-crusted salmon; selle d’Agneau, a premium lamb loin chop; and steak frites. The extensive woodwork is Wisconsin old growth pine salvaged from an 1850s building and re-milled for the interior space, and a lushly landscaped garden provides one-of-a-kind dining al fresco.
Of course, there’s a Starbucks on the corner, and down the street, high-end shops, such as Fleet Feet and Fine Wine Brokers, Inc., as well as half a dozen other fancy restaurants and bars, ranging from She-she to Bella Domani to the Bad Dog Tavern.
If you guessed we were in Lincoln Park that would be understandable. After all, there’s the Old Town School of Folk Music, as if you needed confirmation.
The increasingly trendy neighborhood is centered not around Halsted or even Southport, but Lincoln Square, the once-quaint European mall along Lincoln from Montrose to Lawrence, in Ravenswood. The Square has long been home to charming European businesses, most with slightly outdated and incongruous facades, but it and the surrounding neighborhoods, from Ravenswood to Budlong Woods to Ravenswood Manor, have been going upscale.
The expansion of the Old Town School of Folk Music and its move from Lincoln Park to Lincoln Square in some ways mirrors the changes underway in its new location.
Like the Old Town School, a growing number of young professionals have made the trek northwest from more expensive and congested lakefront neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Throughout the ’90s, they explored Albany Park, Jefferson Park, Budlong Woods – affordable areas with a solid housing stock. Many were drawn to Ravenswood’s wide lawns, quiet streets and large trees. The neighborhood, bounded roughly by Clark, the river, Montrose and Foster, had low rents and a stock of beautiful old single-family houses, many historic, at a fraction of what they would have cost in Lincoln Park.
Buyers began sacrificing Lincoln Park and Lakeview amenities for Ravenswood’s more affordable prices in the ’90s. Back then it was a trade they were willing to make for a safe, affordable neighborhood with good transportation. Now the amenities are following the new moneyed residents, and Lincoln Square is being talked about – by some with hope and others with horror – as the “next Southport” or the “new Armitage.”
The Old Town School has brought new attention and a new cachet to Lincoln Square – the commercial heart of Ravenswood – though it already had plenty of amenities that might not have been obvious to outsiders. The Sulzer Regional Library, at Montrose and Lincoln, is one of the best in the city and second only to the Harold Washington Library in circulation numbers. Welles Park, across the street, likewise has some of the best facilities and programs of any city park. The tucked-away Davis Theater offered one of the best movie deals in the city, and is now a first-run cinema.
And of course, there’s the square itself. From Montrose to Lawrence, Lincoln Avenue is lined with Old World delis, shops, restaurants and bars. Planters overflow with fresh flowers and quaint kiosks announce upcoming festivals and open-air concerts, usually involving lots of lederhosen, bratwurst and oom-pa-pa accordion. Traffic is diverted at Leland to create a pedestrian mall, which manages to keep the noise and bustle of the city at bay.
For a couple of quiet blocks, strollers on Lincoln used to be able to pretend they were in some old European town. Stop for a stein of Dab Pils at the Huettenbar, a dinner of veal and dumplings at the Brauhaus, fresh pastries at Café Selmarie. Or feed the pigeons and read the paper in Giddings plaza, near the fountain and the Lombard Lamp, an ornate gift to the square from Germany.
The European flavor is still very much present, but the same walk today takes place on new sidewalks under giant arches that label the square at Leland and Lawrence, part of a brand new streetscape. Pedestrians now will pass a prominent Starbucks at the corner of Wilson and Lincoln; She-she, an upscale restaurant by the owners of Tomboy; the Bad Dog Tavern, a restaurant and bar with reasonable prices and high-end décor; the Grafton, a beautifully appointed new Irish pub; and the Daily Bar & Grill, a once dimly lit, mid-range restaurant that has been reborn as a Lincoln Park-style bar serving pub grub.
Many of the restaurants and cafes, including Café Selmarie, La Bocca Della Verita, the Bad Dog, the Grafton, Bistro Campagne and the Daily Bar & Grill, have outdoor seating, and on summer weekends, the street is one of the most festive in the city.
And that’s just for starters. Michael Cullen, who helped spur development of Southport by opening Cullen’s Bar & Grill and the attached Mercury Theater, plans to open a similar restaurant and theater complex on Lincoln within the next two years. Cullen says the project, in the 4500 block of North Lincoln, has zoning approval and should break ground in about six months.
The restaurant will be a little larger than Cullen’s on Southport and will be attached to the Gate, an intimate theater with a three-quarters thrust stage and seating for about 240 people, Cullen says. The project has been in the works for several years, as Cullen courted neighborhood groups and Ald. Gene Schulter (47th). Why all the effort to locate in Lincoln Square?
“It’s a natural progression, a wonderful area with great neighbors and an excellent alderman…” Cullen says. “I was one of the first ones on Southport other than the Music Box and then Streganona. Lincoln Square is way more affordable than Southport today.”
In addition to the Bad Dog and the Grafton, both of which opened during the last year, the Chopping Block, a Lincoln Park school and store offering gourmet cooking classes, is opening a Lincoln Square location, and Hog Head McDunna’s, a Lincoln Park bar, is rumored to opening a new location in the former Rumors Bar & Grill, at 4500 N. Lincoln. Real Estate brokerage Sussex & Reilly, which is headquartered in Lakeview’s Roscoe Village neighborhood, just opened a Lincoln Square office, and at press time, Gallimaufry Galleries, which has operated at Halsted and Roscoe for 25 years, was moving shop to Lincoln Square.
Michael Altenberg, who opened Bistro Campagne with partner Steven Schwartz, says the neighborhood actually has more potential than Southport.
“We’re attracted by what’s happening in Lincoln Square,” says Altenberg, who also operates Bistro Campagnola in Evanston. “It’s completely changing culturally. Between the Old Town School and the proposed theater, the neighborhood has a popping feel to it. Southport never really took off like this. This is more like Halsted in Lincoln Park.”
The changes in Ravenswood have not gone unnoticed by longtime residents, who have mixed responses. Many welcome the new businesses and physical improvements to the neighborhood, such as the improved streetscape along Lincoln. Others are more wary. The opening of the Starbucks, which many saw as the green light for gentrification, met with well-attended protests in Lincoln Square.
Neighborhood tension became even more obvious a couple of years ago, when Ravenswood suffered a rash of well-publicized graffiti targeting new homes, houses that were being remodeled and for-sale signs. The messages varied but ran along the lines of “Yuppies out,” “No developers” and “Yuppies go home.” Others were more obscene. At least one vandal was arrested, and the graffiti seems to have disappeared.
“(The graffiti) was such a crock because this neighborhood was always upwardly mobile, a middle-class stronghold,” says Martha Cameron, who sold the building that now houses Bistro Campagne to the current owners. “It’s just more hate crime. Yeah, new housing will cost more than old housing. The neighborhood was solidly middle class anyway.”
Cameron doesn’t see Ravenswood overdeveloping the way Lakeview did, but other residents aren’t so sure. Alberto Valencia had to move out of his two-bedroom apartment on Wolcott when the 21-building complex in which he lived began converting from rentals to condominiums. The buildings had not been especially well maintained, but Valencia could afford the rent of $770 and the place was just big enough for his wife and two children. Like many of the 150 families who were forced to move out, mostly Mexican immigrants, he could not find another apartment in Ravenswood that he could afford.
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in a good building now starts around $1,200, according to Jurgen Frank, broker-owner at Ravenswood Realty.
“The condo boom has really altered the market because the condo developers can pay so much more than investors can, and there are fewer rental buildings in the neighborhood now,” Frank says. “In the ’60s there was a small condo boom in the area, but nothing on this scale. There’s been a huge boom in the last five or six years, but especially the last three or four.”
For-sale housing in Ravenswood also has become prohibitively expensive for many, including some of the developers who build it.
“I could not afford to live on Hermitage now,” says Jane Limonciello, of Just Jane Reconstruction. Limonciello tore down an old single-family home with a double lot on the 4700 block of Hermitage to build two single-family houses. The last one, a four-bedroom house of 3,600 square feet, sold for more than $700,000.
Limonciello built and sold two similar houses next door in the $500s a few years ago, and the new homes next to those, which are a little smaller, sold in the $300s a couple of years before that.
Figures from the Chicago Association of Realtors show that the same rapid price increases are occurring with resales. The median condominium sold for $196,600 in the Lincoln Square community area (which includes parts of more affordable Albany Park) during 2002, 63.8 percent more than the median of $97,060 five years earlier.
“It’s very popular; people have followed the Brown Line,” says Mary Ellen Considine, a sales agent with Keller Williams Fox and Associates. Ravenswood has been very hot for several years, with people moving up here from DePaul and Lakeview. They like the quality of the inventory, the convenience of transportation and shopping, the Brown Line and the Metra. People are projecting that this will be the next Southport, but they also want to keep the ethnic feel, so there’s some controversy.”
Irma Frolich is aware of the controversy, but she believes the neighborhood can maintain its ethnic charm despite recent changes. Frolich is tending bar late in the afternoon at the Huettenbar, 4721 N. Lincoln. The tavern is a quaint German joint, heavy on dark wood and imported beer – Spaten, Dab Pils, Julius Echter Hefe Weiss. Frolich bought the place around 17 years ago and built a new faÃ§ade with windows that open onto Lincoln – an ideal spot to relax and watch the square.
“All of the 7-year-olds running around the neighborhood when I opened here are my customers now,” Frolich says. But a lot of her older customers no long live in Ravenswood. Though the neighborhood’s roots are German, stretching back to founder Conrad Sulzer’s truck farm, located at what is now the corner of Montrose and Clark in 1836 , many of the German residents have moved. German immigration to the U.S. has not been strong since the ’50s, and like other immigrant groups, successive generations of Germans have moved to the suburbs as they began to make money.
Those who have moved on, though, return to the Huettenbar for a beer or to the Brauhaus for a meal on weekends.
“We have a dozen unique German establishments that bring customers from all over the region – you’ll even see tourist buses here from Milwaukee,” says Brad Leibov, executive director of the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce. “The German businesses that continue to market and adapt are doing extremely well. Most of our German businesses market to the broader community, as well as to German customers. Those businesses that are solely dependent on German customers, I would imagine things will be difficult for them in next 10 to 15 years.”
It’s a lesson the Huettenbar has learned well, evolving without losing its roots.
“I still get a lot of German customers on Saturday afternoons, but the bulk of my customers now are young people, what you’d call gen-Xers and yuppies,” Frolich says. It’s been good for business.”