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Changing Neighborhood

Six buildings on our block are under construction.



We live on a quiet, somewhat raggedy-looking street at the southern end of Lincoln Park, not quite in Old Town, not quite in De Paul. In other words, not quite expensive--yet. On our block six buildings are under construction. That's 18 percent of the block. Ripped up, empty, so at night the moon shines through holes that once were windows.

Each site has a Dumpster out front, along with three pickup trucks, the occasional concrete mixer or crane, and a long-bed piled with bricks or cinder blocks or two-by-fours--the artillery of construction. For a while a backhoe was parked inside the shell of a red-brick Victorian.

Now these aren't fancy buildings, it's not as though mansions were abandoned and just now rediscovered. It's just an old working-class neighborhood, near the el, near the lake, near the manufacturing district that's now filled with art galleries. These solid two- and three-flats--with the bay windows and the tiny gardens in back--are being transformed into homes for one family.

Our neighborhood was German, and it's still obvious, with its gingerbread houses and Bavarian cathedral. The sign still hangs for Schmidt's Mitzgerri, though it's closed, and the crests on top of the commercial buildings read "A. Schauss, 1884," or "H. Deppe, 1881." A few Germans still live here; we go to a neighborhood meeting on crime and find ourselves seated beside an old man named Otto, or Karl, or Helmut.

It's not as though construction in this neighborhood is new, it's been going on, slowly, for the past 15 years. It could be it's the new style, the attitude, that's alarming. Two-story frame houses are bulldozed into oblivion, because the lot is more valuable than the house. The three-story brick buildings--of which there are many, because of building codes established after the Fire--fare better: they're merely hollowed out, gutted, like a fish. And it's not couples doing the rehab anymore, or a one-truck contractor hired to do the work. No, the projects now are big business, with big signs listing the developers, the architects, the banks, the construction companies. An ideal single-family house, the sign says: five bedrooms, six baths, maid's quarters, sun deck, hot tub (hot tub? in the city of big shoulders?). A BMW slows, the driver reads the sign. Later we find out the house was listed for $650,000 but a bidding war sent the price to $695,000.

Mornings are the most comical time, when more than one impossibly large vehicle tries to get down this too-thin two-way street, clogged already with Dumpsters and double-parked trucks. We hear shouts and horns, and engines snarling, but hey, one of them has to--and eventually does--back up.

At lunchtime, an orchestra of sounds surrounds us--it's like being at the old Esquire movie theater--while we sit outside with the dog in our garden. Mostly they're identifiable sounds, even though they overlap: hammers, saws, drills, the thud of a steel beam lowered onto old but solid bricks. Cries of Uwaga! ring out, and even though we don't know what it means, we sense there's danger, that a beam is about to fall on a worker's head. Later, glass shatters, repeatedly, rhythmically, like some familiar but unresolvable domestic quarrel. When the pace picks up we all look at each other, even the dog, as if it were a nasty spat--should we call the police?

Last Saturday, we walked over to the project two doors from us, a brick Victorian similar to our house, though smaller. (We bought our building a few years ago from a chef who'd finished one-third of the place, slowly, on weekdays, with the help of an old carpenter and a teenager, before his wife divorced him and forced him to sell. The price we paid is still listed in real estate brokers' computers, so some days we walk outside and find a couple and their broker staring at our house. They're not even polite: "How'd you get your place so cheap?" We explain what the listing sheet does not: that the house wasn't finished, that we spent months covered in plaster dust while two workmen installed floors and bathrooms and a kitchen. "Even so," they say, looking up at the balloon curtains in the bay window, and the flower box outside the french doors. "Even so, you got it cheap.")

We walk through the alley to the construction site. We're more curious about this one than the five others on our block because we've noticed this new foundation extends nearly to the back of the lot. Where will the garden be? (Let's face it, gardens are coveted here, they're the reward for the long long winters. People act as though they've been shackled by the cold; the first few weeks of summer every backyard is a party, a celebration, everyone's saying "Isn't it great to be outside?")

Al, the Polish project manager, gives us a tour. "You have to imagine," he begins, and indeed we must, because all that's left from the original building is the facade and two side walls. Al waves his hand in a slow curve, as though describing a shapely woman: "The back of the house will be a wave," he says. "The garage, too, will be a wave, they'll fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. But they won't be together," he says, pointing to the four-foot space between the two foundations. "There," he says, "will be a patio, where they'll drink martini. A real yuppie house." (Yuppie with a Polish accent comes out something like yap-pee!) "And inside will be the very most special," he says, pausing for effect: "Four floors of glass-block columns, lit by neon."

What can we say? We ask about the outside.

"A classic Victorian," he says, "with a $65,000 copper roof. The most prettiest house on the block--besides yours, of course," he says diplomatically.

Any buyers yet?

"TV announcers," he says. "More than one. They are in a bidding war." (Though this sounds like he's said "biting war," and we picture two anchorwomen fighting dirty over this Victorian-cum-glass-block nightmare.)

We walk back home, a little amused, a little horrified: what's happening to our neighborhood?

Two old ladies used to waddle up to our house every day. Did they admire the tuckpointing? The balcony? The soft folds of the new curtains? No. Every day they loudly pointed out that our garden was a mess. And they always sounded surprised, as though this were new information, something they'd just come across. We wanted to lean out the window and say "We have more pressing concerns than that patch of dust: our only sink is a bathtub and there's a rat the size of a tomcat in the wall." But we didn't. We took their comments under consideration, and added Front Garden to the list of things to do. And indeed, we did do it, just the other day: evergreens, ivy, peat moss, cow manure, the works. People stopped, made suggestions, warned us that dogs would wreck it.

But our sense of accomplishment was incomplete. The two old women have moved away.

We'll think of them when we do the bulb planting, or cut back the ivy. We'll think of how they'd stop and maybe say something kind, anything, maybe only, "Look, this used to be a mess." They'd notice. The TV anchors won't; they'll be back on their patio, sipping martini.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Art Wise.

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