Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A tale of two neighborhoods

The children and I had a great day in the city last Saturday, half of it spent in the north side community of Lincoln Square, the other half in the south side neighborhood of Bridgeport.

The first part was to be all errands, go to the library, pick up a present for a one year old cousin's birthday, feed the kids, etc. The area bisected by the half-mile stretch of Lincoln Avenue between Montrose and Lawrence Avenues has been one of our go to neighborhoods for quite some time. It has a terrific branch library, the Sultzer, the Old Town School of Folk Music where our children take music classes, Welles Park with its many amenities, as well as one of our favorite restaurants, La Boca della Verita. We also have very good friends who have lived there for a couple of decades now. They've seen the neighborhood go through ups and downs, mostly ups, in the time they've been in the area.

It just so happened that we ran into this friend on Saturday along with another old friend from out of town. We decided to stop for coffee at a bookstore/cafe, a privately owned establishment, not one of the big chains. Then we got to chatting about the neighborhood and its charms, of which there are many. My friend told us that his four boys are all fixtures in most of the shops and restaurants of the neighborhood and wherever they go, people know them by name. He then started to reminisce about the old German businesses that have been replaced by trendy, upscale establishments.

There is some credibility to his lament about the good old days, but let the truth be known, the new establishments combined with the spiffed up older ones such as Merz Apothecary, have kept the neighborhood vibrant, while retaining much of its traditional gem├╝tlichkeit. One does not need to travel far around town to realize that successful storefront business districts like this one are becoming a rarity in Chicago as shoppers are drawn to car friendly strip malls and suburban shopping centers.

The topic of Jane Jacobs came up and how this section of Lincoln Square would fit into her scheme of what makes for a successful urban neighborhood. Lincoln Avenue is an active street of storefront businesses of the old school, that is to say they come right up to the sidewalk. What little parking exists, is on the street and in a couple of small public lots that are often commandeered by festivals and farmers' markets. About twenty years ago, through traffic on Lincoln was diverted from the core of the business district between Lawrence and Leland Avenue two blocks south. In those two blocks the street remains but only one way for the purpose of parking on one side of the street.

The scarcity of parking does not seem to deter folks from visiting and shopping in the least.

Though it is not a pedestrian mall, the greatly reduced traffic on Lincoln between Lawrence and Leland makes for a relaxed atmosphere which has been greatly enhanced in recent years by the creation of Giddings Square, which cut off the street of the same name from Lincoln Avenue.. Blocking off streets to automobile traffic is of a risky proposition. It didn't work on State Street, Lake Street in Oak Park, or in countless other cities throughout the country in an attempt to wrestle business back from the suburban shopping malls. But it seems to be working here in Lincoln Square. Although not all of the businesses have survived these turbulent economic times, I haven't heard much of a call to bring back through traffic. As it is now, this little two block oasis serves as a destination spot, a gathering place not unlike the Greek agora or Italian piazza. Giddings Square is an attraction unto itself as it hosts weekly musical performances and other events.

I can't say what percentage of people who were on this stretch of Lincoln Avenue last Saturday live in the surrounding area and how many come from elsewhere, but the essence of Lincoln Square is that people get around and mingle on foot. Since people walk from place to place rather than hopping into their cars between every stop, there is an active street life contributing to a tremendous spirit of conviviality in the place.

Some, including the local Chamber of Commerce, make the claim that Lincoln Square has a "small town atmosphere." I think this is a misconception. In the small towns I've visited, out of towners are held at an arm's length, the locals may be friendly enough, but every visitor knows his or her place. It used to be that way in the old, tight knit neighborhoods of Chicago where outsiders were considered a threat. Times however have changed and while this city still has strictly defined neighborhoods, people get around a lot more these days. Today, Lincoln Square is a neighborhood of great diversity, at any given time you will see people, young and old, of all races and hear a rich variety of languages spoken.

As my Lincoln Square friend boasted about the friendliness of his neighborhood, I made the observation that he might not be the best judge. After all I pointed out, this guy could win the Mr. Conviviality award as everywhere I go with him be it in his neighborhood or downtown, he runs into people he knows. I no sooner got those words out of my mouth when my daughter's violin teacher walked into the cafe and gave the two of us a big hug, confirming my friend's point to a tee.

Lincoln Square is a tremendously convivial place, and as such, it is a great urban neighborhood.


Part two of our day was devoted to the continuation of my photography of Stearns Quarry Park, the terrific new park built on the former site of an old stone quarry in Bridgeport. That neighborhood like Lincoln Square has undergone considerable change in the past few decades. Bridgeport has always been a working class neighborhood combining homes and industry. As is often the case, young, urban pioneers, looking for inexpensive, off the beaten path places to live "discovered" it, and people with money followed, to some extent. Cafes and other establishments heretofore unfamiliar to old time Bridgeporters have appeared along side venerable neighborhood institutions like Shaller's Pump and the curiously named Healthy Food Lithuanian restaurant.

Amazingly, a small community of expensive homes sprung up about ten years ago along the South Branch of the Chicago River, the stretch of the river known not so affectionately as Bubbly Creek. I won't go into details other than to say that this section of the river flowed through the old stock yards and was the dumping ground of a century's worth of effluence from the yards as well as other heavy industries in the area.

The demographics of Bridgeport have also been changed by the expansion of Chinatown to the north.

Through it all Bridgeport, as the ancestral home of the two Mayors Daley, retains much of its solid ethnic, blue collar roots, as well as its influence on the city's political landscape.

And now it is the location of Stearns Park, in my mind one of the best large scale urban redevelopment projects I've ever encountered. As I wrote earlier in this space, the park embraces the industrial landscape and history of Bridgeport rather than insulating itself from it. Walking through the park the sound of chirping crickets competes with the drone of traffic coming from the Stevenson Expressway just to the north.

Stearns Park is unique in many ways. It does not have a parking lot. It's not uncommon in a typical city park to see folks set up shop, be it a picnic, ballgame or whatever, a few feet away from their parked car. By contrast, at Stearns Park, in order to get to any place of interest, be it the remnants of the quarry some thirty feet below street grade, or the top of the berm formed from construction landfill which affords a spectacular view of the city, you must go by foot along prescribed walkways.

Most of the acreage at Stearns is covered by native grasses and wild flowers evoking the prairie that dominated the Chicago region before it became settled. There is little to be had here of recreational amenities, save for an expansive lawn where you might find a pickup soccer game, and one of the best kite flying spots in the city at the crest of the berm. The real point of visiting the park is the walk. As you stroll through this unique park you experience a magnificent urban landscape as well as topography, flora and fauna, all of which are quite unusual anywhere else in Chicago.

Recreational facilities are across the street at McGuane Park. While McGuane is no great shakes aesthetically, it has served an important function for decades as one of only a handful of parks in the neighborhood. As such it brings together a cross section of the community, hosting parents with their small children in its playground set in a very urban setting, softball and baseball leagues in the summer, and a variety of year round athletic activities in the field house complete with gym and swimming pool.

Stearns Quarry is the perfect counterpoint to McGuane and the combination of the two parks create a great public space that enlivens and celebrates this very essential part of the city.

What these two drastically different places, Stearns Quarry/McGuane Park and the commercial heart of Lincoln Square have in common is that their spirit of community is greatly enhanced by their dependence on foot traffic, and their success is hardly compromised by not going out of their way to accommodate the automobile.

Both serve their respective communities extremely well as public gathering places that bring together people from within the community as well as outsiders.

These two great public spaces are wonderful models that hopefully will inspire designers, planners, and civic leaders throughout Chicago and elsewhere.

As I emphasized these two areas as being friendly to those without cars, I'd be remiss is not mention how to get there by public transportation:

The commercial center of Lincoln Square, at the intersection of Lincoln, Lawrence and Western Avenues is served by the bus lines (#11, #81, #49 and #49B) of all three streets as well as the CTA Brown Line Western Avenue stop.

Stearns Quarry Park is on Halsted Street between 27th and 29th Streets. It is served by the CTA Orange Line Halsted Street stop two blocks to the north and the Halsted Street (#8) bus.

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