West Roscoe Village, or West of Roscoe Village?

A Fake Neighborhood Storms into Chicago

Gareth: “I’m the assistant regional manager.”

Brent: “Assistant to the regional manager.”

from the BBC’s The Office

Do words, names, and titles even matter anymore in this day and age of text messaging, email, emoticons, and cyber slang like LOL, LOFL, and ROTFLMFAO? Many of us might say yes, especially if we’ve ever been on the losing end of an argument involving a lease, a contract, or the exact definition of drunk and disorderly.

So here we go again: you blink in this town and a new neighborhoodwith a brand-new namehas popped up overnight, often much to the surprise of we residents who find ourselves living there.

There are so many of these real estate speculator-driven “hoods” that I’m losing track of them, but sometimes one of these new McNeighborhoods is so floofy, so ridiculous, so blatantly bogus and patently preposterous that I simply cannot resist getting my crank up, especially when it’s my neighborhood being besmirched with god-awful ghetto connotations.

I know the negatives that come with these designer communities: an influx of Hummers hogging the roads, chain coffee stores reproducing like rabbits, goofy boutique shops, small wiener dogs (OK, they really aren’t so bad), and property tax increases so steep they might cause heart damage.

On the other hand, maybe I’m not appreciating the positives. I suppose that would be largely the new neighbors, who aren’t resigned to living with trash on the sidewalks, corrupt politicians, potholes, lousy schools, and other various urban ills, such as the smell of the Chicago River on a hot day (which used to cause migraines but is now just a minor discomfort). Property value increases are preached like Gospel, but I’m not so convinced longtime homeowners are better off with skyrocketing values, or whether I can afford to live next to the new people for long (see my prior mention of property tax increases). In my case the future remains to be seen, but for many people it’s already too late.

Now, it’s not just newcomers to Chicago that want these positives, and in fact Chi-town natives and longtime residents work tirelessly to improve this city. They just rarely get the credit. Instead, for some reason many people associate a clean neighborhood with … Starbucks. Now that’s a head-scratcher.

The real question is: do you truly need to deceive people in order to improve the city and encourage residents to live somewhere besides Lincoln Park?

Of course not. In all seriousness, newcomers to Chicago are a good thing. They keep the city vibrant by infusing it with new energy (although don’t get me started on people rollerblading down the street) and they have rampant enthusiasm for urban life, which is both a bit charming and a little naive. It’s the reckless deception the developers practice for the sake of a quick buck, the fact that housing prices are growing increasingly out of reach for the middle class thanks to the speculators, and the way these tricks divide communities that take a jackhammer to my proverbial last nerve. Are people really so shallow that they won’t live at a given address unless it falls into some preconceived neighborhood? I’d sure like to doubt that, but I digress.

So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to what the lame mope contingency of the development industry and their attached-at-the-hip speculator parasites and media mouthpieces are calling “the emerging neighborhood known as West Roscoe Village.”

West Roscoe Village.

This one really cracks me up. The boundaries of this “emerging” neighborhood were optimistically defined in a January 8, 2006, Chicago Sun Times’ article entitled “Banking on the North Branch” (no longer accessible on-line) as:

Bisected by the North Branch of the Chicago River and bounded by Western Avenue on the east, the Kennedy Expressway on the west, Diversey Parkway on the south, and Addison Street on the north, West Roscoe Village is a vintage blue-collar, industrial neighborhood.

For starters, the Kennedy crosses Addison just east of Pulaski. That’s about two miles16 full-sized city blocks (not baby blocks)west of Roscoe Village.

Second, none of the blue-collar, industrial folks I’ve met would describe their neighborhoods as vintage.

Third, unfortunately for the excitable realtor stating “zoning is more liberal,” in this area, a massive swath of land (94 acres, including approximately Kedzie Avenue to Kimball Avenue, Belmont Avenue to Diversey Parkway) in this new so-called neighborhood has been permanently zoned as the Kennedy Planned Manufacturing District. So sorry, Charlie, no condos there for you. Many of us still support the idea that Chicago ought to make something besides trash bound for Indiana, and more important still, this manufacturing district provides almost 1,000 jobs right now. There’s nothing whatsoever “vintage” about those.

But the larger problem is, this is already a neighborhood, and it already has a name. That name is Avondale. And as a resident of Avondale, I really don’t cotton much to the idea that some realtor flapping his gums about West Roscoe Village means I’m in a new neighborhood, or that my neighborhood is so crappy that it can’t simply be called what it is.

Additionally, piggybacking this new identity off of Roscoe Village isn’t just lame and uncreative, it’s also ludicrous. Until very recently Roscoe Village was more of a small commercial strip (and perhaps the housing) along Roscoe Street itself, rather than a full-blown neighborhood. It wasn’t a whole lot different than the old strip of Belmont that used to be called Antique Row. There is no Roscoe Village Elementary or High School, for example. In fact, not 10 years ago most people I know would probably have described this ever-growing area as “Over by Lane Tech,” the 4,000-student high school at Addison Street and Western Avenue.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago History mentions Roscoe Village only when describing the larger community area, North Center:

Like their predecessors, most of North Center’s new inhabitants earned moderate incomes. In the 1990s residents began to worry that they would be displaced by gentrification spilling over from neighboring Lincoln Park and Lake View. The popularity of newly designated neighborhoods like Roscoe Village provoked fears that longtime residents of North Center would no longer be able to afford their modest homes and small businesses.

But unlike “West Roscoe Village,” the development and new identity of Roscoe Village were driven by the residents, not the speculatorsbig difference. One was a small neighborhood that grew, the other is a scam, which they all but admit to. From the earlier Chicago Sun Times article, we have:

Al Johnson, president of the Roscoe Village Chamber of Commerce, said West Roscoe Village is technically Avondale, “but from a real estate marketing standpoint, it’s being referred to as West Roscoe Village.”

Apparently, misleading real estate customers isn’t, technically, much of a concern. I’ll get back to this.

Now, don’t confuse my dislike of the hype with dislike of the neighborhood. I definitely like Roscoe Village. It’s a fun place to hang out, and has avoided a lot of the superficiality that Lincoln Park suffers from. Besides having its share of cool pubs, great restaurants, and the hands-down best video rental store in Chicago (Hard Boiled Records, which has an incredible selection), Roscoe Village is family friendly, and there is certainly much less public urination and vomiting there than in either Lincoln Park or Lake View proper. You can learn more about the community at this fine community-run website.

Recently the Chicago Tribune recognized that Roscoe Village is increasingly geared towards families (the sign of a lasting community), with a May 18, 2006, article entitled “It’s baby central. Roscoe Village a haven for kids and moms-to-be.”

But you know, I also love the neighborhoods that were here first, and which apparently are not quite hip enough to be considered “The Village” – neighborhoods such as Lake View, North Center, and now, apparently, Avondale.

What drives me nuts is watching the speculators use a cool little community like Roscoe Village to make a quick buck; the way they are operating is what I would call the “nefariously express” version of gentrification.

When you have people moving into an artificial neighborhood based on false pretenses, what usually follows are groups and organizations comprised of just these peoplepeople who really want their neighborhood to be something it isn’t.

This leads to miscommunication and conflict with longstanding members of the community already involved in such groups. It is these longstanding community-oriented folks who do (and have been doing all along, thank you very much) the grunt work that improves neighborhoods, and it chaps my hide that they rarely get the credit. Instead it’s the newcomers who are usually credited with “cleaning up” a neighborhoodsuch as Avondalethat was just damn fine to begin with.

I may have caught this just in time. No searches on “west roscoe village” returned hits in any major Chicago publications. In fact, outside of this bizarre mention of “the emerging neighborhood of West Roscoe Village” in the Chicago Sun Times (which was parroted word-for-word in what passes for a real estate section, “New Homes,” in my local neighborhood paper, The Booster), I found only a few ads on Craig’s List with people using this neighborhood name to sell newish condos and townhouses (go figure). As of this writing (late May), Craig’s List returned a listing for “$479,000 new townhomes being offered at “West Roscoe Village’s Newest Townhome Community,” which of course happens to be just west of Sacramento Ave. (3000 West).

And most egregious of all, a townhome at Belmont and the River listed as “this is in or around West Roscoe Village.”

“In or around?” So, do they even know where the hell this West Roscoe Village is, or do they just think it will get them more money if they mention it? I’m guessing the latter.

Now, the Chicago River is a thing of beauty, especially the section just west of Western between Belmont and Addison.

However, one of the most preposterous claims in the aforementioned Chicago Sun Times article was that “West Roscoe Village is just steps from the river and only minutes away from all that Chicago has to offertransportation, shopping, entertainment, recreation, and nightlife.” It then went on to list numerous establishments on Roscoe between Damen and Western.

“Steps” and “minutes away,” eh?

So, let’s say I want to walk east to a Roscoe Village eatery from my new swank pad in West (of) Roscoe Village:

Oops. Looks like that may be a problem. Doesn’t the river know it’s in my way? The realtor must have forgotten this small detail.

Heading west from Roscoe Village later that night, back from the bars, say? Same problem:

So, is West (of) Roscoe Village really just steps from Roscoe Village? Apparently, only if you are Jesus and can walk on water, or if you plan on portaging a canoe or kayak so that you can cross the Chicago River. The river presents something we laymen call “a natural barrier” between Roscoe Village and this “emerging” neighborhood to the west. (By the way, there are fellows who rent kayaks to travel the Chicago Rivercall 773- 704-2663 for more inforight where Roscoe Street would pass through the river, but they may not be open at 2:00 a.m., or be willing to take a chance on you barfing in their boat.)

At the end of the day, what we have is basically a neighborhood that exists only in the wet dreams of real estate speculators. Therefore, I think it’s accurate to say it hasn’t “emerged” very far. What I am guessing is that wily developers saw an easy way to exploit the already blurry line between Roscoe Village and West Lakeview to make a quick buck in Avondalemost likely the same dopes that can’t spell Lake View properly.

Regardless, the fact that the only people using this new name are ones doing so in the course of building, buying, and selling (or “flipping”) housing geared towards the upper-middle class and upper-upper-middle class says it all.

The stupidest thing is that it’s not even necessary.

Only the dullest knife in the drawer is oblivious to the fact that demand for Chicago real estate has been marching steadily west from the traditional “ports of entry” for Big Ten graduates and other newcomers; there’s also the demand from all the rest of us as we’ve grown up and started looking for homes of our own. There’s really no need to lie about a location in order to attract potential buyers.

It is beyond dispute that developers are intentionally misleading people in order to raise their profit marginsthe purchasers of these properties are often being taken for a ride, and they aren’t necessarily happy about it (so those of you dismissing this article as just another malcontent Chicagoan stuck in the past can kiss my Avondalian ass).

The Chicago Tribune’s dumbed-down free daily paper, the Red-whatever, has wised up. In the May 4 story “Neighborhood name game. Chicago’s neighborhoods face an identity crisis as their boundaries shift with every new real-estate trend” (no longer accessible on-line), we see this:

At least two newcomers to Chicago moved to Humboldt Park because apartments listed on craigslist.org said they were in West Wicker Park or Wicker Park/Bucktown. Bartender Jared Dreyer said he didn’t figure out the deception until he had already moved from Cincinnati. "After a while, I realized it’s Humboldt Park," said Dreyer, 27. Reese Mitchell’s listing said Wicker Park/Bucktown.

Hmm. Sound familiar? Now this is one article, describing one neighborhood, but this has been going on for a decadethere is no doubt that far, far more people have been burned than simply these two. As the article’s author observed, “The fallout is confusion among neighbors and a street-by-street battle between old standards and new labels.” Brilliant! Just what we need in Chicago: more street-by-street battles and confusion. Why didn’t I think of that earlier!

On a side note, I do believe I have discovered the opening the hucksters pounced on: it’s a hot dog jointand a fine onenamed Hot Doug’s.

Hot Doug’s, which does all of their business over the lunch hours, used to be quite squarely in the middle of Roscoe Village, but a fire forced them to relocate. So they chose west of the river on Roscoe, a smart location which positions them to get business from Gordon Tech High School, Lane Tech High School, and a plethora of “vintage” industrial workers and people who work at the Com Ed plant. See a good history of this at the Chicagoist. Of course, one good hot dog joint does not a neighborhood make (although they regularly have lines down the block).

I should also note that the most excellent Roscoe Village coffee house (which features regular live music), Mojoe’s Café Lounge, recently opened a new location, Mojoe’s Hot House, on Belmont just west of California Ave. Mojoe’s is the real dealjust an awesome placeand I hope to god Starbucks doesn’t go anywhere near them. We need more coffee houses with live music, owners who hang out in their own stores, and a sense of welcoming and community.

To illustrate my point that all this neighborhood confusion is getting out of hand, the review at Metromix lists Mojoe’s new location as Logan Square (not unusual). However, the review at Yelp.com calls the “district” Avondale (district?), while a reviewer on Yelp.com calls it “Belmont’s Antique Row” (wrong). The Centerstage.net reviewer calls the location “Near the California/Belmont/Elston triple threat,” which is an odd choice of words, but did make me laugh, as I commute by bicycle regularly down Belmont and that intersection is most certainly a triple-threat to life and limb (see my note on Hummers earlier).

Now, I’m not a total crank. There’s been a lot of good development in this city in the past decade or two. Parts of the city that used to be neglected and ignored, places that had nothing to offer past 6:00 p.m., are humming with new life, and I’m certainly glad to live here in what is still a great town.

But much of what I love has been here for agessuch as this beautiful wooded river walk, coincidentally along the river between Roscoe and Belmont. This river walk is old. It’s been here for decades, like many of the other amenities used to “sell” Chicago to the kids just out of college and people relocating due to work, family, etc. The hucksters have seen opportunities to exploit other people’s hard work and long-term vision, and in the process they’re turning this city into exactly what people move here to get away from: a boring strip-mall monoculture kept hopping with weird, fattening coffee drinks.

So I write this with the possibly delusional hope that I can shame people into not using this stupid neighborhood name. With any luck we can nip this fraud in the bud before it ever gets off the ground.

It’s worth a shot. So West Roscoe Village, I say BE GONE!

If you want to go west of Roscoe Village, welcome to Avondale.

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