It was the summer of 1986--August, to be exact--when Ronald Gan, the builder, got the news.
About 21 lots of land, almost an acre all told, were up for sale in Bucktown. It was Gan's big chance.
"The archdiocese was selling a church," he recalls. "I figured I could tear down the church and build some nice houses. I said to myself 'My God, this is big.' So I acted real fast."
The chance, as Gan saw it, was to cash in, at long last, on the Lincoln Park dream. Sure, the lots in question were located at the intersection of Wabansia and Paulina, a working-class community of worn-out bungalows and two-flats across the Chicago River from Lincoln Park.
But then, Gan is the creative type. He's an exuberant optimist, a master salesman. You say the land is actually in West Town; he says, well, boundaries are subjective, and at the very least it's close to Bucktown--which he believes has a more upscale ring to it. You say it's out of the way; he'll remind you that it's only a hop, skip, and a jump from the Kennedy Expressway, just around the corner from the Damen Avenue el, less than ten minutes from the hottest north-side hot spots. Why, with the right construction, the right promotion, and a little luck, Gan could get off the ground a development of "luxury housing" even in a low-rent district.
So Gan did act fast two Augusts ago, acquiring the land in a matter of weeks. And now, almost 18 months later, his 14-unit development, called Chicago Place, is under way. Four houses are completed, two are occupied, ten more will be built by next fall, Gan maintains. He's pricing the property above the local market (few buildings in the immediate area sell for more than $75,000), but below Lincoln Park: Gan says he's asking around $375,000 for the three-bedrooms, $210,000 for his two-bedrooms. To hear him talk, the deal's a steal.
"I'm known in this business as the eccentric," Gan says with great pride. "I'm the developer who has the ponytail. I'm the guy who likes to sky dive. Well, I can afford to be eccentric because I'm good. I know the market. I live in Bucktown. I'm telling you, this place will be hot."
As always, there's room for skepticism.
"He [Gan] is taking a gamble, all right," says one real estate dealer from the area. "Think of it as the old debate over whether the glass is half filled or half empty. Some people say Gan's building in no-man's-land. Gan will say he's extending the Lincoln Park boundaries. Whatever, he will be the lesson for a lot of people. If he is successful, he will extend the boundaries. If he fails, no other developers will follow him. It's fascinating, but the future of that area is in Gan's hands."
The debate has been going on since the early 1960s, when most of the land in Lincoln Park west of Clark Street was inhabited by working-class whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Many of these residents were displaced in the following years by redevelopment, which, ironically, was spurred by a massive influx of federal antipoverty funds.
Two migrations were going on at once. Pushed out of the north side, poor families moved across the Chicago River into Humboldt Park and West Town--communities that were losing their older, white residents to the suburbs.
While these communities starved for investment, Lincoln Park boomed. Suddenly, run-down cottages and two-flats valued at less than $30,000 were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For developers, it was a dream come true. It wasn't just Lincoln Park, but River North, Lakeview, and the Near North as well. Baby boomers, it seemed, were settling everywhere, and shattering all sorts of psychological barriers in the process. They were rehabbing bungalows in the shadows of Cabrini-Green, building alongside el tracks, and cramming almost every vacant lot in Lincoln Park with town houses.
"Everyone in the business figured it was only a matter of time before the development moved west across Ashland Avenue," says Gan, "and into Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square."
Alas, that has not happened--at least not on the scale developers would like. Sure, here and there all over the near northwest side there is evidence of individual rehabilitation. But many of the magnificently restored mansions sit beside vacant, litter-strewn lots and deteriorating apartment buildings. Few of the new residents send their children to public schools.
Yet land values in many parts of Wicker Park and Logan Square remain high--artificially so, critics charge--because of the persistent dream that wholesale renewal lies just around the bend.
"Nobody wants to give up on the dream," says Gan. "To survive in this business, you have to be optimistic. Maybe we're all kidding ourselves."
Gan and his wife Stephanie Evans moved across the Chicago River about eight years ago. At the time, he was a 30-year-old home rehabber and realtor who had worked on several successful projects but had not quite hit the Lincoln Park boom in a really big way.
"It's funny how I heard of Bucktown," says Gan. "I was working real estate in Lincoln Park mostly, when this guy calls and asked, 'Can you find me a place in Bucktown?' I said 'Bucktown? What's a Bucktown?' I don't even know about it. So, I drive over here, and I see this nice, peaceful neighborhood. I said 'My God, this is better than Lincoln Park.' See, I had been through that change. I was in Lincoln Park when Armitage was so dangerous you never walked under the el. And Bucktown wasn't that bad--it was cleaner and had less crime. I saw a chance to get a house for $25,000 that is going for $75,000 in Lincoln Park. And I took it."
He bought a home in Bucktown. At first, Gan and Evans had some problems. Twice their home was burglarized. A local community organization--paranoid about land speculators--spread rumors that Gan intended to push poor people out of the neighborhood. But that talk soon faded, and Gan became one of a rare breed: developers who happily live away from the north-side lakefront.
"We love it in Bucktown," says Evans. "Some people drive through and see a Hispanic face and get worried. They don't realize that these people are hard-working. Our neighbors are Poles, yuppies, Hispanics--everyone. They're good people."
Gan's business life, meanwhile, took a spill in the early 1980s with the condominium conversion of an apartment building near Wrigley Field.
"We bought it right after the condo crash," says Gan. "I couldn't get my buyers. I ended up paying more in interest than we could make. The people in the building hated me. There was a fire. I didn't start it, but they blamed me. They blamed me for everything. But the market crashed--what can I say? A lot of guys would have walked away. At least we didn't do that.
"It was horrible, we were broke. My wife and I were eating popcorn for dinner. We had no money. It took me five years to recover from that project. I started in 1979 and didn't pull out until 1983. But I learned something very important from that deal: on any given day you can go under. A lot of developers, they don't realize that. They think they're untouchable. Well, let me tell you--you're not. On any given day in this business you can go under.
"After that fiasco, no one would touch me. I was a persona non grata. I had done some great deals, but in this business you're only as good as your last deal. My dad tells me 'Ron, look for the angles.'
"So I started a business rehabbing the insides of elevators. OK, it's not a multimillion-dollar empire. But it got me inside again. I'm working on buildings."
By now, the itch was back. Together with architect Howard Goldman, Gan bought a vacant lot on Wrightwood in Lincoln Park for $42,000, built a house, and sold it. It was a complicated transaction that netted the partners $100,000 and another vacant lot--this one on Burling.
"That deal did two things for us," says Gan. "It kept us in the game, and it gave us cash. Because we sold that building on Burling for $485,000."
It was then that he got the word about the lots on Wabansia.
"A guy calls me and said 'Ron, they're selling 21 lots for $75,000,'" says Gan. "Well, we [had] just paid $100,000 for a single lot in Lincoln Park, so I'm going crazy. This is a great deal. I call my agent, I said 'Offer them $76,000.'
"But damn it, we were too late. Someone had bought it. So I called the archdiocese's broker direct. I said 'If that deal doesn't come through, I have $85,000 in cash.' Well, for some reason these guys with the contract--they must have been idiots--they let the deal lapse. Now there's a bidding war. The other guy has 90 grand; I'm offering 92. We're both dealing with the archdiocese's broker. He's a real nice guy, the brother of a priest.
"So the archdiocese decides to have one final sealed bid. We sit down and discuss it. I mean, we spent a day going over and over what we should do. Finally, I said 'To hell with it. Let's go for broke,' I offer 110 grand. And you know what? We blew everybody out. I mean, the next guy came in with 92. I got it; it was my land.
"So I call Ron Reichert--he's the principal at Prairie Development Ltd., a company that has financed me before. I said 'Ron, we gotta talk.' We go to Zum Deutschen Eck, right? and we're eating lunch, and I said 'Ron, I got this great project. This great plan.' And he said 'Save it'--just like that. He doesn't even look at it. He said 'I'll take a chance. I'll give you the $2 million.' Man, it was unbelievable. I could've kissed him. He was ready to back this project for me."
The project is now about a quarter completed. The homes are standard Lincoln Park models: arched windows, skylights, porch, and a garage in back. If all goes well, all 14 will be completed by September.
"These are luxury houses," Gan gushes, while leading a reporter on a tour of one uncompleted model. "Put down your pen, stop taking notes. Experience this building! You can't get anything like it anywhere else, at least not in Lincoln Park. We've got kitchens with full appliances, three bedrooms, whirlpools, two bathrooms, washer, dryer. I tell you, in Lincoln Park this house goes for $650,000--easy.
"I know you look skeptical. I know people have their doubts. You say the neighborhood's bad. But I tell you it's not. I've lived here for eight years. It's quiet here, even in the summer it's not so bad.
"And where you gonna go for peace and quiet anyway? Lincoln Park? They have gangs--ever see the gang graffiti in Oz Park?
"People say, that Gan, he's a good salesman. But I'm not a salesman. I'm a sales presenter. A salesman got all kinds of tricks. I know them 'cause I used to sell real estate in Lincoln Park. But me, I just present the deal to you. If you buy, fine. If you don't buy, that's fine.
"People say this land here won't appreciate in value--I won't make a killing selling this place ten years from now. Well, maybe not. But do you think you're gonna make a killing in Lincoln Park? Over there you'd buy a crummy little town house for $350,000. Who's gonna pay that much for it in five years? For that amount of money, I'll get you a full goddamn house.
"Eight months ago, you would have looked at this site and said 'This will never look good.' So I put in new sidewalks, new trees, grass, and it looks good. I call it electric vintage. That's a vintage house that's zapped by electricity. It's like a lightning bolt hit it. Your hair stands up. You're laughing. OK, fine. But just remember what I told you, man, this place is gonna fly."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.