By Ben Joravsky
In less than a week the mayor will come to Howard Street and hold a press conference on a grassy lump of undeveloped land across from the el tracks. He'll make a speech, dig a ceremonial clump of earth, and make way for the construction crews as the long-awaited redevelopment of Howard Street finally begins. "It's coming," says Alderman Joe Moore, whose 49th Ward encompasses the area. "It is, I'm happy to say, a done deal."
The deal is a $60 million development on a triangular patch of land bounded roughly by Howard, Clark, Birchwood, and the el. It will have a name (Gateway Plaza) and several big-name tenants (Dominick's, Cineplex Odeon, LaSalle Bank, and, maybe, a major bookstore), as well as such local reliables as the Gateway Bar & Grill (the Greek restaurant formerly known as My Place For?).
It is, boosters say, as close to perfection as neighborhood development gets. It won't displace residents or send rents spiraling, but it will create jobs, generate tax dollars, and ignite other commercial development along Howard Street. "This is a community project--much more than sticking up a big-box development," says Mari Gallagher, executive director of DevCorp North, the local chamber of commerce group that's a partner in the project. "You know how long Rogers Park has needed a grocery store--and now we have a Dominick's! But it's more than shopping. We want to get people in our community on the path to skilled jobs. We want to get them on the career ladder."
If there are a few doubters ("Luddites," the project's backers call them), they're old-timers who remember what the stretch of Howard between Clark and Sheridan was like in the good old days. The dividing line between Chicago and Evanston, it was the quintessential neighborhood business strip in the 60s and early 70s, one of many that flourished in the days before highways, cars, and suburban malls strangled the city.
It looked the way a city commercial strip was supposed to look, with sturdy mid-rise buildings up and down the street. On the block between Clark and the el stood a bank, an insurance company, and an office building (now known as the Pivot Point building). The sidewalks swarmed with employees who spent their paychecks locally. You could find almost any product, any service at the storefronts on Howard. There were doctors, dentists, chiropractors, and podiatrists, as well as stores for boots, sneakers, shirts, slacks, even lingerie (a big deal for Evanstonians since, believe it or not, there was no place to buy undergarments in Evanston--but that's another story).
Some of the street people looked a little strange, a little seedy. Two or three drunkards always seemed to be staggering about muttering. But it wasn't nearly as dangerous as some suburbanites claimed. There was a great old bowling alley and a few bars and liquor stores, where underage teens from Sullivan and Evanston high schools used to gather, hoping to find a wino willing to slip inside and buy them Boone's Farm or beer.
Near the el was the Howard movie theater, which drew large and loud crowds--the kind that talk back to the screen--on Saturday nights. After the show you could walk over to the Gold Coin coffee shop (which some beautician at Pivot Point nicknamed the "Cold Groin"), eat apple pie, drink coffee, and watch the cabbies, cops, and hippies who sat side by side at the counter.
Around the corner on Paulina was La Choza, one of the first Mexican restaurants to cross over, so to speak. Larry and Laura Green gave it a favorable review in the Chicago Daily News, and soon people started coming down from Evanston. It had no liquor license, but on weekend nights you'd see long lines of middle-class white people waiting outside on the sidewalk, holding bags filled with beer. Jose Cardenal, then a Cub, once showed up. Someone got him to autograph a picture, which the owners hung on the wall.
The area started to falter in the late 70s. Many of the shops and services closed, as did the bowling alley and movie theater. The bank stayed, but the insurance company moved to the suburbs, and the Gold Coin changed hands and names several times. The vast parking lot behind the insurance company soon filled with broken glass, abandoned cars, and piles of junk. In the last few years the local papers have occasionally run gloomy letters to the editors bemoaning the decline and predicting that it was only a matter of time before Howard Street, like all of Rogers Park, became just another inner-city slum.
Yet Rogers Park never bottomed out, just as Howard Street never ceased to draw interest from developers, even during the worst recessions of the 80s. "We've had so many close calls, in terms of potential developments--there was always someone who saw the potential," says Moore. "In the 80s there was a developer with a big plan for mixed retail [near the el station], including a grocery store, which this area desperately needs. This was a time when banks were making very few commercial loans to places like Howard Street, and he had an incredibly complicated financing scheme of HODAGs, UDAGs, and other federal grants. At one point he had to prove to the feds that he was making progress on the plan, so he brought in some bulldozers and had them push around the earth in a vacant lot [behind the bowling alley]. He wound up creating three mounds of dirt, which are now covered with grass. I think of him every time I see those mounds."
In 1995 Governor Edgar had a bright idea that threatened to destroy future commercial development; he proposed tearing down the bowling alley and bringing in a welfare office. "I have no problem with public aid offices, but if you bring it here it would kill commercial development," says Moore. "Ultimately the state listened to the pleas of the community and backed off."
That same year DevCorp brought in Rudy Mulder, president of Combined Property Development Corporation, and it wasn't long before the Gateway deal was hatched. Moore, Gallagher, and their publicists hail Mulder as a man of great courage and vision. In fact, he's a savvy businessman who realized there was money to be made developing the city, particularly since the suburbs have been saturated with malls and subdivisions. "The psychology is starting to change--developers are realizing communities like Rogers Park have a lot to offer," says Moore. "There's a high number of people with some education, there's a lot of people making $30,000 or $40,000 a year. We buy things and spend money too."
Most of the project will be privately financed, says Moore, because the leases with Dominick's, Cineplex Odeon, and LaSalle attracted fair-weather lenders who'd previously written the area off. The final plan still isn't complete. It's not known, for instance, whether Las Palmas, a highly regarded Mexican restaurant at 1773 W. Howard, will remain in the area. ("We want them to stay," says Gallagher. "We're negotiating.") And the developers are still haggling with Pivot Point's owners over a fair price for their building.
But the ground-breaking ceremony is scheduled for July 31, and Dominick's and the movie theaters should be operating by the fall of 1998. By then the CTA may even have completed its Howard Street-station redevelopment. Within a year the block from Clark to the el will be free of the mid-rises, as the insurance company building, the bank, and the Pivot Point building will all be demolished. The developers want to clear the land, so drivers heading south from Evanston will have an unobstructed view of the new Dominick's.
In time only a few people will remember how it looked, and even fewer will care. "It's going to be a beautiful development, with plenty of trees and landscaping," says Gallagher. "It will be pedestrian friendly. When we're done you'll be able to walk directly from the train platform into the movie theater. We'll be working with local artists to incorporate local arts too."
The project has already triggered other development deals. There are plans to redevelop the Howard movie theater just east of the el, as well as the buildings that used to house Wisdom Bridge Theatre and the Lerner newspaper headquarters. "Believe me, there's near unanimity in the community on this deal," says Moore. "We're not talking about gentrification. We're not creating a new Lincoln Park, Lakeview, or Wicker Park. That's not what anyone wants. This is the most unique community in Chicago, one of the only truly diverse communities in the city. I'm not saying everyone in Rogers Park is holding hands and singing 'Kumbayah.' But we get along better than most. And now we will have some places to shop and see a movie right in our community. Howard Street will be better than ever--just you wait and see." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joe Moore photo by Jon Randolph.