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The Disappearing Street

Searching for the Ghost of Ogden Avenue

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Ogden Avenue, named after William Butler Ogden, Chicago's first mayor, was at one time a major four-lane diagonal that sliced from Lincoln Park all the way to Naperville. Other than Archer it was the only way to head southwest out of the city: most of Chicago's diagonal streets--Clark, Clybourn, Elston, and Lincoln-- head northwest, away from downtown. But Ogden's status as a favored thoroughfare collapsed when the expressways came. Its northeast end has been vanishing, a few blocks at a time, for 25 years. A companion and I spent a couple of hours trying to retrace its path.

We found our first clue at Larrabee and North, where until the late 60s Ogden helped create a six-corner bustle. Signs for Ogden remain on lamp poles there--one points across a parking lot, another toward a wall of condos. The section north of North was closed around 1967, and various pieces of the road south of North have been disappearing ever since.

We pulled into the parking lot of Terry's Red Hots on the corner. Until the mid-80s the angled patch of blacktop that borders one side of the stand had been Ogden. I asked Suphot Chongulia, the Thai immigrant who's owned Terry's since 1968, if he remembered the road. He did. "In most countries the government wants to open more roads, to expand them," he said, looking at where Ogden used to pass under the Ravenswood tracks. "I've never seen any other country where they close down a road."

We saw more clues, disguised by improvisation and the passage of time: a baseball diamond separates the parking lot from a forgotten, weed-choked stretch of pavement; in the distance a raised drawbridge stands frozen in the sky.

Until the late 60s Ogden continued northeast to the intersection of Clark and Armitage, helping to form the Old Town Triangle District (with North Avenue on the south and Clark Street on the east). Buildings were razed in the early 20s so that Ogden could extend through Old Town to Lincoln Park, but houses and parks were later built back over it. Today the Triangle is one of Chicago's most prized enclaves. Saint Michael's Church, the Triangle's anchor tenant, dominates several blocks. Brick sidewalks and narrow, tree-bordered streets are tranquil despite their close proximity to the noisy intersection of North and Wells. Century-old row houses blend with newer town homes. Throughout the neighborhood, remnants of Ogden still hide: the oddly shaped park at Menomonee and Hudson, the courtyard on Lincoln, where Ranalli's serves pizza outdoors in summer.

Before Ogden's northeast end was built over, remembered Chongulia, the stretch of North between Wells and Halsted teemed with storefronts on both sides. Although renovation beautified North Avenue, the street's commercial vitality drained away during the 70s and 80s when town houses began to replace shops on its north side. "You used to be able to buy anything you needed along this part of North Avenue," said Chongulia. "I lost so many good friends on the north side of the street."

The closing of Ogden's northeast end dramatically altered the relationship between the north and south sides of Old Town; it created a barrier at North Avenue between elite wealth in the Triangle District and crushing poverty around Cabrini-Green. As the north side became more monied and exclusive, the south side slid into neglect and disrepair.

Official explanations for closing Ogden didn't mention Cabrini-Green. A 1964 Sun-Times article, written before the stretch that helped form the Triangle was closed, seemed to toe the party line when it called Ogden "ugly, largely useless, and divisive." The article advanced other City Hall-friendly ideas: Ogden's traffic was scarce, and because it ended at the park it was a road to nowhere. Among eyesores, Ogden was rated one of the worst. "Both at North and Clark where the diagonal runs into other streets, multiple-pronged, unmanageable intersections are created," the article said.

"I don't think it's any coincidence at all that [Ogden's closing] cut off west-siders," says Perry Duis, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "At one time roads gave people a sense of freedom, but now we seem to pride ourselves on not being able to get from here to there."

Ogden traffic that had once flowed freely from Division and Halsted--the foot of Cabrini--northeast to Clark and Lincoln Park West was now detoured at North Avenue. Drivers coming from the south on Ogden could continue north on Larrabee, but their momentum would sputter with the narrower street's lower speed limit and sudden stop signs. The east end of North Avenue had been closed into a cul-de-sac where it once met Lake Shore Drive, so drivers were coaxed to turn west toward the crummy industrial corridors along the river. Some of the north-south streets that had crossed into the Triangle were blocked by a median strip along North. And east-west streets in the Triangle were blunted into cul-de-sacs at Wells, making the neighborhood even more secluded. (The same sorts of tricks helped insulate the University of Chicago campus from the poverty that surrounds it.)

After getting a close look at the comfort and money in the Triangle, my driving companion and I ventured into the badlands on the other side. A segment of Ogden that once passed Cabrini north of Division now degenerates into a dirt road through a field. A brief segment of concrete road remains, but it's useless: it connects the field on the south to a baseball diamond on the north. There's still a traffic light where it intersects Clybourn.

Ogden continues to be eaten away around Cabrini. Last year the Ogden Avenue bridge was severed from its overpass at Division and Halsted, leaving a disconnected bridgemaster's station dead above the water that surrounds Goose Island. The Department of Transportation said that the estimated $40 million required to fix the seldom-traveled bridge simply wasn't justifiable. On the south side of the island, where Ogden used to meet Sangamon, a fence topped with concertina wire blocks access to the bridge. Weeds the size and shape of small Christmas trees grow through cracks in the pavement. Ogden resumes near the corner of Chicago and Milwaukee, heading southwest toward the suburbs, for now.

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

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