New Life in the Old Neighborhood
A Chicago native treats us to a walking tour of historic Logan Square.
By Alan Ehrenhalt | From Preservation | July/August 2008
Flip through a Chicago guidebook and you'll read page after page about celebrated neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Wicker Park. But Logan Square? You're lucky to find a few sentences about this northwestern Chicago neighborhood, in part because of its reputation in the 1970s and '80s as a haven for gangs and crime.
No longer. Today, Logan Square is a dynamic neighborhood in transition, home to a growing population of middle-class professionals who have rediscovered the area's century-old limestone mansions and working-class bungalows. Starbucks has arrived, but there are also old Polish bars and taquerias doing a booming business. I recently visited Logan Square and mapped out a walking tour that reveals many rich layers of history—so many, that you may want to explore this vibrant neighborhood yourself.
Take a CTA Blue Line train to the Logan Square station, cross Milwaukee Avenue, and stroll down Logan Boulevard.
"The final gem in the emerald necklace"—that's what Chicago Journal writer Lars Sorenson recently dubbed Logan Square. In the late 19th century, Chicago embarked on an ambitious plan to create a system of parks and boulevards encircling and beautifying the city. Logan Boulevard was the last section built—the ultimate emerald added to the verdant string.
At the turn of the century, successful Chicago businessmen—mostly upstart Scandinavian and German immigrants—settled here because they weren't welcome in affluent places like Prairie Avenue or the Gold Coast. They generally built limestone two-flats—one floor for themselves, the other floor for relatives or occasionally a rent-paying tenant. Fortunately, these buildings have survived structurally intact, and the artists, architects, and executives flocking to Logan Square today are restoring them.
"Houses like this will never be built again. You can't even get the materials," says Michael Bishop. He turned an elegant two-flat on Logan Boulevard (1 on map, next page) into a single-family home, but kept the pair of brass mailboxes used by the first residents. Making wholesale changes to buildings is legally difficult. (The city made Logan Boulevard, long part of a national historic district, a city landmark district in 2005.) But owners are allowed to convert them to single-family homes, and many will follow Bishop's example. "We are blessed with great architecture and beautiful green spaces," says Bishop. "And there's a Starbucks a block and a half from my house."
Walk down Logan and take a right on California.
OK, it's just a Starbucks. But it says something about how urban neighborhoods change these days. Most nearby residents weren't eager for the coffee corporation to come to Logan Square. As Alderman Rey Colon puts it, "They were nervous about the stamp of gentrification." But the building's owner persisted, and in came Starbucks seven years ago, sparking a commercial revival on California Avenue.
Continue to Fullerton and then head right a couple of blocks to Milwaukee Avenue. Take a soft right.
Milwaukee Avenue tells the tale of Logan Square's immigrants. By 1930, Chicago had the largest Polish population in the world outside Warsaw. Many settled on this street, home to newspapers published in Polish and stores where the shopkeepers spoke nothing else. By 1970, most of the Polish families had moved out and been replaced by Cuban families and, later, waves of Puerto Ricans. Today, Logan Square boasts one of the most affluent Hispanic communities in Chicago.
At the corner of Milwaukee and Sacramento you'll find a vivid example of Logan Square's revival: the Rev. Daniel Alvarez Sr. Apartments 2, a former warehouse that Chicago's Hispanic Housing Development Corp. converted into 41 units for senior citizens. "Loft developers were lusting after the building," says Hipolito "Paul" Roldan, the corporation's chief executive officer. "But we managed to get it."
In recent years, new immigrants have poured into the neighborhood—Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans. Many congregate at the Megamall at 2500 Milwaukee 3, a pair of big, squat, windowless boxes (one now closed because of a 2007 fire) where retailers sell jewelry, clothing, cell phones, tacos, and other merchandise from tiny stalls rented by the week. Built around 1920 to house a car dealership, the Megamall is chaotic, a little dirty, and notorious for code violations—112 from a single inspection two years ago. City officials have long wanted to raze it. But activists have opposed that plan because of concern for the vendors, some of them illegal immigrants. One compromise would turn the mall into a market for fresh produce to attract a broader demographic. How this sticky and contentious issue will ultimately be resolved, however, is anybody's guess.
Walk to the end of the block, past the Megamall, to Logan Square.
The first thing you may notice about the square itself is that it's actually an oval: Surrounding streets were widened in the 1920s to accommodate more traffic, rounding out its corners. "Pedestrians have to walk half a block around to use a crosswalk, or they can run across the middle of the street and takes their lives into their hands," says Lewis Coulson. He's the president of Logan Square Preservation, which is trying to persuade the city to make the square more pedestrian-friendly.
At the center of the square, a cenotaph designed by Lincoln Memorial architect Henry Bacon commemorates the Illinois Centennial of 1918 4. And the towering red-brick Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church 5, built in 1912, rises nearby. Services at the church are conducted in Norwegian three weeks out of four. Virtually no parishioners are locals; they drive in from suburbs all around Chicago—the third or fourth generation returning to the church that their great-grandparents attended.
The dominant building in the square and "the hub of social life in the early 1900s," says Coulson, is the Logan Square Auditorium 6, built in 1911. The second floor featured one of the first indoor markets in Chicago, and the third floor had a "huge, ornate room where they had dinners, dances, and balls," says Coulson. "The great Glenn Miller played there."
Today, the hall is heavily used for weddings—and rock concerts. On the ground floor, cyclists often congregate at Boulevard Bikes. Logan Square has been bike-minded since the early 20th century, when Ignaz Schwinn lived a few blocks away and turned Chicago into America's bicycle-manufacturing center.
Whatever you do, don't miss the restaurants on the ground floor. Johnny's Grill is a classic greasy spoon filled with cops, construction workers, tattooed bikers, mothers with children, and affluent recent arrivals. Lula Cafe started as a seedy coffeehouse in the 1990s. Today it's packed from morning to night with the area's local artists and suburbanites who've come to the city for fettuccine with octopus or pan-roasted skate. (I recommend the goat-cheese quesadillas.)
Walk past Lula Cafe and continue south on Kedzie Avenue.
Along Kedzie Avenue you'll find imposing Gothic and Romanesque Revival stone mansions. On side streets such as Albany, you can see modest stone homes built for the working class that have survived virtually intact. At the corner of Kedzie and Albany stands the Masonic Temple 7, a striking example of adaptive use. Abandoned by the Masons in the 1950s, this six-story building with imposing limestone columns now serves as the Armitage Baptist Church, led by the charismatic and sometimes controversial Rev. Charles Lyons, who says he preaches to "the hip, the square, the straight, the down and out, people with AIDS, believers, and skeptics." Armitage holds eight services a week and boasts 4,500 parishioners.
Turn right on Fullerton Avenue.
Two more must-see buildings on our tour reflect this changing neighborhood. The Whirlaway Lounge 8, half a block down from Kedzie on Fullerton, is an old Polish tavern now owned by a Mexican American family that caters to an Anglo hipster clientele. "My mother and I bartend," says Sergio Jaimes, who grew up upstairs from the bar and recently took over the business. "It's an eclectic crowd: actors, college students, lawyers."
And for a complete surprise, check out the old Scandinavian funeral home 9 at the corner of Fullerton and Spaulding. This beautifully ornamented Gothic Revival building now houses an ashram led by the spiritual leader Adi Da Samraj.
Continue on Fullerton to Bernard Street, and turn right.
A two-block enclave of Queen Anne houses, Bernard J is a street of strollers, front porch conversations, and block parties. "It's a really nice contrast to Logan Boulevard's limestone houses," says Ward Miller, an architect and neighborhood preservation official. "Bernard has a magical historic character to it. You see it, you're captivated, and you want to turn down it."
Keep an eye on your compass, though, because just a few blocks south, near Humboldt Park, gangs and violent crime remain a serious problem. Chicago's first homicide this year happened here, and newspapers ran stories about Logan Square as a neighborhood with a "split personality" where revitalization and old problems coexist. "I feel safe on Bernard," says Miller, "but crime is an issue."
At the end of Bernard Street, turn right on Wrightwood, and then left on Kimball to Diversey.
The triangular intersection of Kimball, Diversey, and Milwaukee avenues K was once Logan Square's thriving commercial hub. In fact, this corner was Chicago's fourth-largest retail cluster in 1941—a crowded streetcar terminus where thousands shopped at large, locally owned department stores like Goldblatt's.
Today, the intersection has a Gap outlet store and a Payless ShoeSource. But the buildings, mostly handsome three- and four-story art deco structures from the 1920s, have remained largely empty above the ground floor for decades.
Preservationists and other neighborhood groups hope to make this intersection Logan Square's "downtown" again. Developers have plans for retail, condos, and rental units in the Gap building. But the conversion costs are substantial, and affordable-housing activists caution that too many expensive lofts will yield a bland, boring neighborhood.
The winning strategy for revival in Logan Square will blend thriving businesses, affordable residential development, and a keen awareness of the history of this urban gem. Paul Roldan, the nonprofit developer responsible for the Alvarez Apartments, has it right: "We're lucky that this neighborhood is filled with serious people who care about their community. Together they will help us ensure a melding of the past and the future in a thoughtful and equitable way."
Alan Ehrenhalt is executive editor of Governing magazine.
Alan Ehrenhalt is executive editor of Governing magazine.
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