Revitalizing Neighborhoods: Wicker Park

August 13, 2012 5 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville continues its tour through select neighborhoods that have been allowed to densify without suburban parking requirements. Although locally we tend to overlook the impact of having vibrant urban core neighborhoods outside of downtown, today we highlight a Chicago neighborhood that is becoming increasingly popular: Wicker Park

About Wicker Park

Wicker Park is a Chicago neighborhood northwest of the Loop. Charles and Joel Wicker purchased 80 acres of land along Milwaukee Avenue in 1870 and laid out a subdivision with a mix of lot sizes surrounding a 4-acre park. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 spurred the first wave of development, as homeless Chicagoans looked to build new houses.

The Birth

Before the turn of the twentieth century, Germans and Scandinavians tended to live in the area's north and northwestern sections. Wicker Park became the abode of Chicago's wealthy Northern European immigrants. The district proved especially popular with merchants, who built large mansions along the neighborhood's choicest streets—particularly on Hoyne and Pierce, just southwest of North & Damen, known then as Robey. Hoyne was known as "Beer Baron Row," as many of Chicago's wealthiest brewers built mansions there.

In the 1890s and 1900s, immigration from Poland and the completion of the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Lines greatly boosted the population density of West Town, especially in areas east of Wicker Park.

The clustering within a compact pedestrian scale setting created the synergy for several ethnic shops, restaurants and banks and by the end of the 1950s, Division Street was referred to as Polish Broadway.

The Decline

Beginning in the 1960s, Wicker Park began to change radically. Completion of the Kennedy Expressway in 1960, whose construction had displaced many residents and torn holes in the sustaining network of Polish-American churches, settlement houses, and neighborhood groups.

By end of the 1960s, Wicker Park had become the home of the largest Latino gangs at the time, the Latin Kings.

Several urban renewal projects were undertaken to combat "urban blight", disinvestment in the community continued as banks redlined the area despite its easy access to the Loop.  During the 1970s, a decade when the city overall lost 11% of its population, hundreds of cases of insurance-motivated arsons were reported in Wicker Park.  To make matters worse, several small factories in the vicinity closed or moved away.

Revitalizing Wicker Park

Efforts by community development groups like Northwest Community Organization (NCO) to stabilize the community through new affordable-housing construction in the 1980s coincided with the arrival of artists attracted by the neighborhood's easy access to the Loop, cheap loft space in the abandoned factories, and distinctly urban feel.

In 1989, the "Around the Coyote" festival was launched to help the hundreds of working artists and micro-galleries in the neighborhood to gain a level of local and international prominence. This 501(c)3 non-profit was established with the mission to "bring to the art community a professional organization that will help artists network and exhibit their art." For decades, the festival centered around the Flatiron Arts Building and was typically held during the month of October, Chicago's Artist Month.

Wicker Park Today

Today, the neighborhood is best known for its numerous commercial and entertainment establishments and being a convenient place to live for downtown workers due to its proximity to public transportation and the Loop.
Crime has decreased and many new homes have been built as well as older homes being restored. This has led to increased business activity, with many new bars, restaurants, and stores opening to serve these individuals. The neighborhood is known for hosting local art stores and independent businesses. Property values have gone up, increasing the wealth of property owners and making the neighborhood attractive to real estate investors.

The Flat Iron Building (left) is located at the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue, North Avenue, and Damen Avenue, the epicenter of Wicker Park.  Since the 1980s, it has served as an artists colony, and features visual artist and musicians of all disciplines.

Also known as the Coyote Building, the Northwest Tower (background) was one of the first skyscrapers in Chicago to be constructed outside of the downtown area when it was completed in 1929.  In 2008, a proposal to convert the 12-story Art Deco office building into a 90-room hotel was approved.  However, the economy has led to this project not being able to get off the drawing board.

Milwaukee Avenue was once an Indian trail that connected Chicago with Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Today, Milwaukee Avenue is a popular route for bicyclists.  The southeastern end of Milwaukee Avenue is the most heavily bicycled stretch of road in Chicago, with cyclist accounting for 22% of all traffic there.

Reliable, fast and efficient transit connectivity is a major Wicker Park amenity.  Connectivity between Wicker Park, the Loop, O'Hare International Airport and other destinations is provided by the Chicago L's Blue Line, which parallels Milwaukee Avenue.  With an average of 161,191 passengers boarding each weekday in 2011, the Blue Line is the second busiest rail line in Chicago and one of only two currently running 24 hours a day.

Wicker Park is located in Chicago's West Town.  West Town is one of 77 officially designated Chicago community areas.  Covering 4.57 square miles, West Town had a total population of 81,432 in 2010, according to the US Census Bureau.  That adds up to a density in the range of 18,000 people per square mile.  By comparison, in Jacksonville, Riverside's densest census tract bounded by Edgewood Avenue, Park Street, King Street and the river had a population of 2,608 in 2010.  That equals out to a population density of 7,057.7 people per square mile.

W Grocer is located on North Avenue in Wicker Park.  W Grocer bills itself as a neighborhood tailored, locally focused grocery and deli catering to health conscious residents and underrepresented diets.  In addition, they support regional farmers, urban food projects and small batch producers.

The Noel State Bank Building at the intersection of Damen and Milwaukee Avenue dates back to 1920.  It is currently being renovated into a Walgreens, illustrating that modern uses can be seamlessly integrated into older spaces.

During the real estate boom of the early 2000s, hundreds of urban infill projects were constructed throughout Wicker Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Observations for Jacksonville

Wicker Park's Milwaukee Avenue features automobile, bicycle sharrows and sidewalks within a constrained Right-of-Way.

1. With 18,000 residents per square mile, Wicker Park's sidewalks appear to be getting the job done. When designing an urban street, sidewalk and roadway width should be balanced with the needs of other modes of mobility such as bicycles.  Wicker Park's Milwaukee and North Avenues should serve as examples of how to design a constrained urban street that balances modes of transportation equally.

The 'L' can be seen at Wicker Park's Damen Station in the background.

2. Don't underestimate the impact of fixed mass transit on the economic vitality of an urban community and downtown area.  The Loop would not be what it is today without being surrounded and fed by vibrant walkable neighborhoods like Wicker Park.  Looking at downtown Jacksonville, what happens in Springfield, Durkeeville, LaVilla and Brooklyn and how they connect to the Northbank is just as important than what eventually takes place with the Shipyards.

Pedestrian scale density and sidewalk interaction

3. Density and compact interaction at the pedestrian scale level plays an important role in the vibrancy of an urban environment.  Wicker Park is another example of a high density neighborhood where the landscape isn't dominated by skyscrapers.  However, each building tends to embrace the sidewalks and pedestrian instead of shielding themselves from human scale interaction.  Making our existing businesses and buildings more interactive and visible to the sidewalks they line should become a higher priority locally.

Article by Ennis Davis