Grit supplies makeover (so far) on West Town's Division Street

If in the mid-’90s you told people you were looking for smack on Division Street, they expected needle tracks on your arms. Today, you might be after nothing more decadent than a $200 designer blouse from L.A. or a pair of low-rider cords “by Ruth.”

The fact that the owners of a boutique at 1650 W. Division could name the trendy shop Smack without a hint of irony shows just how much the once gritty strip has changed.

Few commercial streets in Chicago have transformed as thoroughly or as quickly in recent years as Division, the thoroughfare that novelist Nelson Algren chronicled in the lives of the impoverished immigrants, petty crooks, crooked cops and hustlers of all kinds who populated its sidewalks.

A satisfied patron at Division Street Russian BathsToday, this same stretch of West Town, which sits roughly on the line between Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village-East Village, is lined with upscale restaurants, cafes, boutiques and salons, many of them open a couple of years or less.

In the mood for sushi? You have your choice of Bob San sushi bar, at 1805 W. Division, or Mirai Sushi, at 2020 W. Division. If Italian’s more your mood, try Settimana, 2056 W. Division, the gourmet Italian restaurant where Mayor Richard Daley reportedly has eaten on a number of occasions. For upscale Mexican, the new Adobo Grill Wicker Park, at 2005 W. Division, features “platos del horno de lena,” wood oven plates of dishes like roasted rack of pork and roasted vegetables, as well as guacamole and margaritas prepared tableside.

If it’s gourmet coffee you want, there’s Milk & Honey, Letizia’s, Jinx, Aion Antiquities and of course, Starbucks – all within six blocks.

Dog walker Amanda Blesse and her client SophieIf you buy off the rack, you’re out of luck on Division, but if you’re looking for designer clothes, there’s Penelope’s, Noir, Public i, and Lilly Vallente. Chic furnishings? Try Symmetry, McKinley Design, Porte Rouge, Techstyles or Aspen Kitchen and Bath. Le Fetiche and Steelo are your best bets for shoes.

Salons, spas, flowers, exotic tea, expensive accessories – whatever well-heeled consumers like to spend an afternoon immersed in after a lunch of Chilean sea bass or crab cake sandwiches with chipotle mayo, the odds are good they’ll find it on Division Street between Ashland and Western, a mile that’s edgier and funkier than its Magnificent cousin to the east, but at least according to some, every bit as stylish.

What would Algren characters like Bruno “Lefty” Bicek or Frankie the Machine have to say about the Ruby Room, at 1743 W. Division, “a spa for the spirit and body” that in addition to cosmetics and hair care, offers astrology, aura therapy, energy healing and numerology (“for men, women, children and pets too!”)? They might be impressed that a new kind of confidence game is underway in their old haunts, but it’s hard to imagine them trading three-card monte for tarot.

Still, they might not be completely out of place. There are signs for Little Zakopane and Phyllis’s Musical Inn, two seedy corner taverns and holdovers from Division’s heyday as the “Polish Broadway.” Andy’s Polish Deli has survived, along with Alliance Bakery, Leo’s Lunchroom and the renowned Division Street Russian Baths, where everyone from Saul Bellow to Jesse Jackson has gone to soak and socialize.

Division Street still has remnants of the old ethnic flavor, a touch of the inner city grit that once covered the street thick as asphalt. Some of the old businesses have managed to hang on, either because they’ve been able to reinvent themselves for a new clientele, or because their Old School wares have just enough kitsch value for the hipsters and young professionals who now patronize the street.

It remains to be seen whether Division can maintain some of the rapidly fading eclecticism its residents and business owners say they prize so much. Some of those same people insist it’s the “next Armitage,” the “next Southport,” or the “next Damen,” prosperous, high-rent corridors that these days, aren’t exactly models of diversity. High-end condos, of course, have made their appearance and the busted windows that greeted a Starbucks opening have been stark statements in the usual debate – perhaps at its hottest in West Town – over gentrification.

A game of pool at North SideWhat Division will look like in five years is anyone’s guess, but it barely resembles the sparse city strip of five years ago. Indeed, the speed of the turnover here has been so fast, some blocks are unrecognizable from just last year. Division is, in the jargon of real estate, hot. It sits at the center of a vast community that includes trendy pockets in Bucktown and Wicker Park, but also edgier streets in Humboldt Park and bordering East Garfield Park. For the time being, there are enough remains of the old neighborhood to infuse the growing heat with a nimbus of character and history.

When I first met Jimmy Colucci, he was sipping a Coke and smoking a cigarette in the front office at the Division Street Russian Baths, 1916 W. Division. A friendly man in his 60s, with thick gray hair and a gray sweater, he blended seamlessly into his surroundings: an oversized office desk with chrome legs, gray carpet and walls that were mostly bare, except for the poster of a scantily clad woman taped to a gray fuse box.

“My father used to come and get a steam every day until a few months before he died – at 93,” Colucci said. Jimmy Colucci himself died a couple years ago and just as he took over from his father, Colucci’s son, Joe, has taken the baths over from him.

The baths were built in 1906 with 48 sleeping rooms upstairs. Jimmy Colucci’s father, Joe, was a loyal customer until 1974, when he heard the place was going to be closed down and bought it. Jimmy Colucci worked at the baths for more than 25 years, taking over from his father when he retired.

The third generation of Coluccis to run the baths, Joe, is 38, a friendly man, stocky with thick eyebrows and a quick smile. He worked at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for 13 years before taking the reins from his father. He describes the baths as “boring” compared to the Merc, but he says it in a tone that implies everything positive about the word – low stress, low blood pressure and a healthful bath every day.

Jimmy Colucci modernized the front of the building when he took over, tearing out the cage that used to shield the front desk “because the neighborhood was not the greatest” and removing panels to restore the original 1906 tin ceiling. Joe is continuing the trend. The front office has been dry-walled for privacy, sealing off the old glass block counter that used to greet customers, and the hallways are being painted a soothing shade that might be labeled salmon or peach in a trendier spa.

But the Division Street Baths still has the edge for which it’s famous. A fat half-smoked stogie sits in the office ashtray. The same bikini poster is taped to the fuse box and across the room’s ratty carpet are shelves holding a bottle of tequila, old phones and random boxes.

Sketching in the Flat Iron Building at the Around the Coyote Winter Arts FestivalStepping into the baths is like dabbling your toe in the waters of history. This is the 1940s male ideal of a health club, and you get the feeling that apart from obvious improvements, the fundamentals here have not changed since Nelson Algren roamed the street outside. Many of the patrons stop for beers in the dining area after their soak, and it’s not unusual to see a half-naked guy chomping a cigar or working his way through a cheeseburger in the dining area after a bath. The baths are strictly for men, and the typical patrons are, well…these are not the kind of physiques you find at Bally’s.

“There are a lot of Russians today; Friday is the Russian day,” Joe said. “There are some guys who come every day, some groups get together here once a week or twice a week. There are some real characters.”

A bath and “a sleeping room,” little more than a human-sized coop, cost a quarter in the old days. Today, an upstairs apartment with 16-foot ceilings rents for more than $2,000 a month. But prices at the spa are still reasonable. For $25, customers get two towels, a sheet, a bar of soap and access to the baths. They can stay as long as they want, making use of the Russian hot room, the Eucalyptus steam room, a Whirlpool, a cold pool, showers and for an extra charge, services such as massage and an “oak leaf scrub.”

In the Russian hot room, one of only four such facilities in the country according to Joe, stones are heated in an oven all night and then retain their heat through the next day. The experience is like that of an intensely hot sauna, but with some humidity as workers and customers take turns firing hot water into the newly rebuilt oven from a scoop carved out of an old bleach bottle. The oak leaf broom, which looks like it could remove a layer of fat and muscle as well as dead skin, is softer than you think but just as effective.

Customers at the baths have included Jesse Jackson and his congressman son, Jesse Jr., Mike Ditka, former Judge Abraham Marovitz and a number of prominent boxers. The clientele shows the same mix of old and new as the physical space. The baths were dominated by Eastern Europeans when Joe’s grandfather took over, in the ’70s, and many Russians still come to soak. The number of Latino clients has grown in recent years and a smattering of “yuppies,” owners of the new condominiums rising around Division Street, also have started coming.

The changes outside, on Division, have been more dramatic than those in the baths, according to Joe: “When I was a kid you couldn’t even walk out here,” he said. “It’s all changed within the last five years.”

In fact, it’s changed so much that real estate developers have been making regular offers to buy the place for redevelopment. Condominiums and retail space are fetching hefty prices on what’s become a highly desirable strip.

The new development City Lights“The place is in good shape, and we’re going to stay,” Joe said. “I made a promise to my dad.”

The testosterone-laden confines of the Division Street Baths seem an unlikely source of customers for Porte Rouge, a new shop specializing in “chic wares” across the street, at 1911 W. Division, but owner Kristin Doll said the baths are a good complement to her business.

“I get guys who come here from the baths to pick up something for the house or a gift for their wife or girlfriend,” said Doll, 34, offering a visitor a cup of The Sur la Nile, a sample of the French tea that’s one of the shop’s staples.

Porte Rouge, which stemmed from Doll and her attorney husband’s love of antiques and ceramics, sells everything from French copperware and high-end stainless steel pots to antique armoires and gourmet French teas, olive oils and marinades. You can find a Global Tako sashimi knife for $135 and a quaint Henry Watson mustard pot for $15.

Like many newer business owners on Division, Doll was excited by the street’s potential before she opened her shop in August of 2002, but nervous about how long it would take for retail to catch here. And like many of her colleagues, she has been pleasantly surprised.

“I thought that the first year would be destination shopping and we’d have to rely on all events, but a week before we opened we had people coming in all day long and then at the holidays, we had tons of traffic,” Doll said. “Milk & Honey opened a week before me, and that’s been a great partnership. People go there for lunch, then come here. Then Penelope’s, Public i and Symmetry all opened.”

Trying on a hat at Casa de SoulThe fact that so many new businesses opened on Division between Ashland and Western while the economy was in the doldrums may be surprising, but the explosion of restaurants and retail here was inevitable at some point. For more than 15 years, Bucktown and Wicker Park, to the north, have been gentrifying as people priced out of Lincoln Park headed west to the more artsy, eclectic streets west of the expressway.

The area around North, Damen and Milwaukee, now is full of upscale restaurants, shops and bars and to some extent, Division is catching the overflow. When the boom started in earnest on Division, around three years ago, rents were much lower here than on Damen between North and Armitage, the heart of Bucktown.

But Division has other attributes that ultimately may make it a more popular spot than Damen. It is quieter, cleaner and less congested, and perhaps most important, it has doublewide sidewalks.

“Division has boomed because of the demand for retail and restaurant space in the area,” said Susan Dinko, who has served as president of the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce and of Dinko, Inc., her real estate firm. “Damen was pretty much utilized and North Avenue is a busier street, so people started looking toward Division, which had wider sidewalks and better prices.”

Every merchant on the strip mentions those extra-wide sidewalks and during the summer, it’s easy to see why. From Milk & Honey to Mirai Sushi to yes, even the Division Street Baths, everyone who can, has sidewalk seating when weather permits. Having 30 or more customers seated outside your business is a great advertisement, but together, these al fresco enterprises also create a vitality and street life that’s hard to beat on the North Side. Other strips try for the same atmosphere, but the sheer breadth and comfort of Division make it unique.

Bob San SushiThe strip also is well served by the expressway, trains and buses and it’s minutes from downtown when traffic is good. Commercial rents are still lower than those in Bucktown, but already they’re starting to catch up.

Storefront rents are 40 percent higher on average than several years ago, according to Christine Kosiba, of Prime Properties Realty.

“I think it’s going to be the restaurant row,” Kosiba said. “I have many commercial clients looking for spaces on Division, and every one is thinking of a restaurant or a spa, a small boutique, as well as banks.”

Residential development, which preceded the commercial growth, also is thriving, Kosiba said. Division is now full of new condo buildings between and above the new businesses, and side streets throughout West Town are lined with new condos and houses.

“People thought I was crazy when I started my office here because back then, they’d throw bricks at cars when they went by,” said Joe Betancourt, of Betancourt Realty Network, 2131 W. Division. “We were the first ones here. We helped the owners fix their property up, gave recommendations on what to do. We’ve done probably 18 properties on this strip and sold 30-some condos on Division.”

Letizia Sorano and her husband opened Letizia’s, at 2146 W. Division, just a little more than five years ago, but even then she said, her stretch of Division was a desert.

“I was the only store on this side of the street except for a 25-year-old old-style grocery store,” said Sorano, a 56-year-old native of Rome who came to the U.S. 10 years ago, when her children went to college in Florida. “The store was robbed five or six times, and I was robbed at gunpoint in April 1999. I remember people selling drugs in front of the store, gangsters shooting at each other. It was unbelievable, like a movie.”

The Plastic Crime Wave Sound perform at the Empty BottleAnd that was just a few years ago, hard to imagine sitting in a quaint café packed with students, artists and laptop jockeys sipping gourmet coffee and munching biscotti made from Sorano family recipes. Sorano, a young, garrulous grandmother whose diminutive glasses, intentionally or not, make her fashion simpatico with her hipster customers, laughs when asked how she had the foresight to put her business here.

“I chose this place because the rent was low,” she said.

When syndicated daytime T.V. host Jenny Jones needed makeovers for guests on her last show, she turned to a trusted source, Vata Salon & Spa, at 2038 W. Division. Vata not only has makeup artists and hair stylists, the two-floor 5,500-square-foot facility has massage therapists and specialists for pedicures, manicures, facials, waxing, aroma therapy, hydro therapy body masques and just about every other kind of pampering you can imagine.

“You want to get pampered, you come here,” said Rick Scali, the owner of Vata, which opened a couple years ago. “Vata,” according to the brochure, “is one of three tenants that constitute Ayur Veda, which is the art of holistic healing. It corresponds to air and is ruled by the planet Mercury.”

Scali is 33 with heavily gelled, perfectly coifed black hair and a tight light blue shirt. Coincidentally, he went to high school with Joe Colucci, of the Division Street Russian Baths, in Elmwood Park. His office, however, couldn’t be more different from Colucci’s. Soft New Agey music is piped in, as it is in most of the lower-level spa area. Scented candles burn on Scali’s mahogany desk in an office that holds a set of golf clubs, a leather chair, bottles of wine, a stylishly thin computer monitor, a white teddy bear with a red ribbon (it’s almost Valentine’s Day) and a plasma T.V. on which a hushed voice announces a golf tournament.

Vata is only half a mile from the Division Street Russian Baths and both are broadly speaking, spas, but this is clearly another world, one in which the very idea of cigarettes and cheeseburgers is anathema. Given recent changes on Division, it’s something of a surprise then, that on this day, the Division Street Baths seems busier.

But Scali said business has been good, and is growing.

“Business is good, and we’re building, getting more employees, more customers.”

No one would guess at first glance just how much Scali and Joe Colucci have in common. Each is trying to fill a niche, to help people relax in a stressful world and to grow with a street in the midst of transformation. They have carved homes for themselves here, though each has his own reasons and his own distinct vision for Division.

“A lot of restaurants and bars have opened here, salons too,” Scali said. “I hope it will be like Lincoln Park in 10 years. That was our gut feeling here.”

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