Evocative Chicago Places

Back in July I wrote a piece titled Chicago’s Best Worst Block.  It was about the little stretch of urban decay known as the 400 block of South Clark Street.

People liked it.  A lot.  Enough that as of this writing it’s the third-most-popular article on this blog in the last two years.  It also got me invited onto The Afternoon Shift on Chicago Public Radio to talk about the city’s evocative urban spaces.  Places in Chicago that seem to be from another time, or another place.

Worried that the host would ask me to name other evocative places in Chicago, I made a list of some and brought it with me.  It wasn’t really necessary.  So here are my notes I didn’t use during the radio show.  It’s my list of places in Chicago that are not where or when they should be.  Feel free to add your favorite wrong spaces in the comment box below.

  • Astor Street between Goethe and North Avenue at night just before Christmas in the snow – It’s like a walk through Dickensian London, without all the soot.  If you’re lucky, a horse-drawn carriage on its way home from Water Tower Place will trot by. Think of leaded glass bay windows with candles, holly, twinkling Christmas trees, and baby grand pianos.  Bonus: Hit it the week before Halloween for a great collection of spooky decorations.
  • Edgewater neighborhood along West Bryn Mawr between Broadway and Sheridan at dusk – Because of the Bryn Mawr Apartments, the Belle Shore Hotel, the Manor House, the Edgewater Beach Apartments, and others.  You need a secret decoder ring for this one.  But once you understand that and “Apartment Hotel” didn’t always mean “flophouse,” it used to be classy — You can think of 1930s men in fedoras squiring dames by interurban to see the latest crooners.  Just remember Dunkin’ Donuts used to be the Bryn Mawr Theater.  The liquor store was the Illinois Akido Club Building.
  • West Van Buren Street, under the El at 5:00pm – Traders still wearing their number plaques   squeeze past the sidewalk newsstands rushing to a few cherished local bars or to the nearest liquor store before before grabbing a Metra train into the suburbs.  It’s a scene that doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1980s.
  • The corner of Polk and Carpenter in Little Italy on a hot summer day – There’s an Italian ice/beef joint on one corner, a deli on another, and an church that’s been abandoned since the 1930s.  Occasionally a 30-something woman with “Maria” stitched into her apron will drag her sobbing son down the block by the ear for who know what infraction.  Burly men in black Cadillacs occasionally park in the No Parking zones, conduct their business, and leave.  They either don’t notice or don’t care about the unmarked police cars frequently parked on the opposite corner (look for the special license plates).  Enjoy a watermelon ice while and imagine that you’re watching a scene from the Sopranos.  See also: South Oakley Avenue between West 24th Street and West Coulter Street in Heart of Italy. But there you’ll think “Godfather” instead of “Sorpranos” when you see a restaurant owner kiss every one of the six men sitting at the table (but neither of the two standing up), and then give them their dinner for free.
  • West 18th Street between Paulina and Blue Island – I know everyone thinks Pilsen=Mexican, but since I mostly look at the buildings and not the people, I see lots and lots of Czech and German influence.  Poverty has a way of destroying neighborhoods.  Borderline poverty preserves them because no one can afford to fix up or tear down anything.  Lots of buildings with castle accents, and the word “Bohemian” pops up occasionally in stone.
  • Lakeshore East at noon – This is what it would look like if Disney did Manhattan.  It’s a blueprint for future developments in Chicago.  Why move to the suburbs?
  • Downtown Lake Forest after school lets out – If can block out the mommy truckster SUVs, it’s like the 1950s town square in “Back to the Future.”

I’m still searching for the “perfect” Chicago intersection.  Each corner has one of the following: a McDonald’s, a Walgreen’s, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a currency exchange.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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