In Search of North Center
By Carter O'Brien
I drive, bike, and walk up and down Lincoln Avenue in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood on a daily basis. Until recently this area was known as "North Center." But as the city has undergone substantial gentrification over the last eight years or so, I have noticed that the name "North Center" has been slowly but surely going extinct. In my endeavor to document the few remaining signs identifying North Center, I also found quite a few other choice "landmarks" along Lincoln Avenue that I felt were worth preserving.
Who cares about North Center, you might ask? Well, old-style cranks like me for one, as well as cagey realtors and home buyers and renters who can't figure out where they live even after they look at one of those real-estate-industry-approved Chicago Neighborhoods Map. Think I'm kidding? I quote from the Chicago Historical Society's description of the map: "This is the most thorough and comprehensive work ever done on neighborhood boundaries in Chicago history! Endorsed by the Chicago Association of Realtors, Chicago Chamber of Commerce, and the City News Bureau."
Notice who comes first on that list. But the real problem with this map is that it's factually incorrect for at least several parts of the north side I'm very familiar with. If you go to the Chicago Tribune's
Homes page for North Center, you will find that a huge part of the north side is technically called North Center, just as a huge part is called Lakeview and another huge part Uptown.
Of course, Chicago is a fluid conglomeration representing waves of new immigrants and arrivals, and I know a lot of people refer to a local park as their neighborhood for the sake of practicality. However, I find it distasteful if not questionably unethical that predatory con-artist realtors are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of home buyers and renters by telling them that a condo at Logan and Elston is in Lincoln Park or "West DePaul". A good rule of thumb: If someone tells you they live in a neighborhood with a coordinate like North or West in the name, it's usually fraudulent. They are trying to associate their community with a more desirable one, generally for monetary reasons.
This may seem like a petty issue, but believe me, it affects all of us via higher property taxes (or rent, as your landlord just passes those tax increases right on to you). And just because you pay higher property taxes doesn't mean you necessarily get any better or extra services from the city, which is what taxes are for, after all.
Unlike Uptown, which has been losing its real-estate identity due to a general association with junkies on the streets and heavy crime, North Center is going out of style simply because, well, it has a pretty damn boring name. It probably made a lot sense geographically back in the '20s, but now it's hardly what anyone would consider the center of anything (except Lincoln Avenue weekend gridlock), and the city has gone far, far north of Montrose for a long time.
I found this insight under "Community Info" on the Chicago Tribune's Home Search page:
The City of Chicago has 77 officially defined community areas. Many of their names will be instantly recognizable. Others aren't much used outside of official pronouncements. Instead, people use a traditional or informal neighborhood name, whether Streeterville, Wicker Park, or Back of the Yards.
Interesting. Even more so because when I searched for North Center on this page, I got the following profile written in 1996 (excerpted here):
Because census and much real estate data map to the official community names, we have used those areas to organize information on this site. That means that if you enter a neighborhood name, you will generally get data for the broader community of which it is a part.
North Center is missing in action.
Very interesting. For one thing, not even the Tribune's own "official" community map shows North Center at Diversey and Ravenswood, and I suspect the residents of the toney new "Wellington Park" subdivision (featuring single-family homes "from the $900,000's") or the "Picardy Place" gated-in monstrosity a block west of there (which I affectionately call the "Fortress of Suburbia") would NOT be pleased to know they don't live in Lakeview, but rather in North Center. Lakeview is a god-awful huge area that does differ from block to block, but it was one of the original suburbs that got annexed in the late 1800s, and the borders are written in stoneLakeview goes to Diversey and Damen, period. The residents of the Lathrop Homes (among the first, if not the first, public housing in Chicago) on Diversey between Damen and Clybourn might welcome the tag, but the neighborhood map approved by the realtors considers them a neighborhood in their own right.
"We think it's around here, somewhere," residents say, "but we're not exactly sure where. And certainly," they point out, "we're not North Center. We are Ravenswood, Lakeview or maybe even Lincoln Park."
According to the city's neighborhood map, the North Center community encompasses the area between Montrose Avenue on the north, Diversey Avenue on the south, Ravenswood Avenue on the east and the Chicago River on the west.
But the unit has broken down into separate camps.
Depending on where the boundaries are drawn, most residents identify themselves as a part of six to eight smaller neighborhoods, including Roscoe Village, St. Ben's, Ravenswood and River's Edge.
I would really like to talk to anyone living in North Center who seriously believes they live in Lincoln Park. I have a bridge and other urban infrastructures I'd like to sell them.
So… where the hell IS North Center?
I began my quest on a cold and snowy-turning-to-rainy Saturday. Starting at Wellington Avenue, I cruised north on Lincoln Avenue and much to my delight I saw that a graffiti-stricken advertisement for a bookstore was still defaced, in all of its Beavis & Butthead-esque splendor! I simply had to stop the car. It was funny enough when I saw it last year, but I never remembered to bring a camera, so this was my chance. The pressing issue on my mind, of course, was "Does Mayor Daley know this could be dragging down property values in Lakeview?". The city could be losing property tax revenues, you know!
My day just got better as I pulled off of Lincoln to park in the public library lot, and noticed the Belmont Alley Lounge. I mean, wow. What the heck is up with that? An old Outfit gambling den, bachelor party room, or bootlegging warehouse? Who in their right mind would 1. open a "banquet room" with an entrance off a typically rat-infested Chicago alley, or 2. eat there? Too strange. If anyone has actually been in this place, now gated up (presumably they don't have a large robbery problemwhat would anyone steal?), please tell me what the heck is in there, I'm dying to know.
Heading north on Lincoln, I zipped by the loftily named "60657" lofts, Betty's old slum/ junk/ crap market, and Dinkel's Bakery and Paulina Market (a few of the last German remnants of the neighborhood), and I found another gem: the North Center Rug Cleaners. Now this is an old joint! Notice the phone number's two-letter prefix, which you might remember from old TV commercials (Empire Carpet at 588-2300 used to have a rival, National Rug Cleaner at NA-2-1000). Looks like the place is doing OK, but boy-howdy does it look dated, especially since it's almost directly across the street from CB2.
And while I was at North Center Rug Cleaners, I theorized briefly why Mangi's, a fine Vienna hot dog establishment a half block north, had such a grisly name. I'm sure the name is short for an owner named Mangiano or something, but "mangi" to me looks a lot like "mangy", which in turn conveys the image of a wet, dirty animalnot exactly what gets me licking my chops for a hot dog.
I continued north on Lincoln and passed the six-corner intersection with Damen Avenue and Irving Park Road, which is where I've always considered the "heart" of North Center to be. There, I found two signs bearing the North Center name. Unfortunately, North Center Currency Exchange is on the chopping block.
However, North Center Eye Care is still carrying the torch.
There are also "official" North Center designations on the streetlight posts just south of the Sulzer Library at Lincoln and Montrose. And I'm pretty sure there are a few community organizations with North Center in the title, like the Chamber of Commerce, but as these were probably mandated by the official community designation they don't reflect the growing reality that North Center will soon be as extinct as the dodo, opening-day Cubs tickets, or a pint of beer under $4.
The future of North Center? Compare the architecture of the new Starbucks at Lincoln and Wilson (4600 N) to that of the old St. Alphonsus church at Lincoln and Wellington (3000 N).
That's progress for ya. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid….
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