Your article on Portage Park [January 5] emphasized a problem that plagues many neighborhoods in Chicago. Even in wealthy neighborhoods like Portage Park, commercial strips are dying because old businesses can no longer make money and new businesses do not want to invest.
I must correct one misconception in your article. Both your reporter and the Portage Park neighbors apparently believe that the Ravenswood neighborhood is a model for new, upscale development. In reality, Ravenswood suffers from the same problems as Portage Park--dangerous, abandoned commercial strips that do not serve the surrounding community.
In fact, Ravenswood and Portage Park have much in common. They are both neighborhoods with good housing stock and quickly escalating property values. Both Ravenswood and Portage Park are adjacent to other neighborhoods with some new commercial development--Lincoln Square in the case of Ravenswood and Old Irving in the case of Portage Park. Neither Ravenswood nor Portage Park, however, has its own nice stores, trendy coffee shops, or yuppie restaurants.
There are, of course, some differences between Ravenswood and Portage Park. Ravenswood has an alderman with a penchant for self-promotion and a well-publicized group of bubbling activists. In my opinion, Ravenswood's and Lincoln Square's local activists have done more in the last year to increase property values with their hyperbolic warnings of gentrification than real estate agents could have done in ten years. Thanks to these activists' efforts, both reporters and potential home buyers have serious misconceptions of Ravenswood.
It has become apparent to me that many reporters who write about Ravenswood have never spent much time in Ravenswood's commercial areas. The primary commercial areas in Ravenswood are along Clark, Montrose, and Lawrence. I challenge your reporters to find a single trendy restaurant on any of those strips. I live near a particularly fetid commercial strip at Ashland and Montrose. Within two blocks of my home are a payday loan store, two beeper shops, a liquor store, three job-counseling centers, and at least seven vacant storefronts. There are also several illicit businesses in the area, including what appears to be a garment factory in an area zoned for neighborhood commercial use.
I blame both the developers and the alderman for the sad state of Ravenswood's commerce. The developers, for their part, have a poor idea of what Chicagoans want from commercial development. Because driving in Chicago is difficult and parking is next to impossible, Chicagoans want and need adequate shopping and dining within walking distance from their homes. The developers on the far north side, however, have become wedded to a suburban, car-focused model of development. Instead of scattering commercial development throughout the city, developers have focused all development into a few tiny areas. People who do not live in these areas are expected to drive and park. This suburban model causes a number of problems, including increased rents on the tiny strips, depressed commercial strips elsewhere, and greater pollution and congestion.
Alderman Schulter has exacerbated these problems in our ward. Since I have lived in Ravenswood, the alderman has focused his sights on developing the strip on Lincoln Avenue between Lawrence and Sunnyside in Lincoln Square. This area now has some limited restaurants and retail. The alderman has encouraged this area to develop by creating three huge city-owned parking lots. My neighbors and I, however, rarely use the parking lots or patronize the Lincoln Square establishments. Lincoln Square is eight blocks away from my home and if I have to get in my car, I will go somewhere where there is more going on. For my neighbors and I, the few new businesses on Lincoln Square do not even come close to compensating us for the horrific state of our own commercial strip.