A Tale of Two Villages | Feature | Chicago Reader

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A Tale of Two Villages

Eastern Europeans, Latinos, artists, and aldermen all left their mark on the area real estate agents are calling "the new Lincoln Park."


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East Village development began in earnest around 1890, with residential buildings springing up between Damen and Ashland to create densely packed blocks. The streetscape was more diverse than it was to the west, beautifully ornamented Queen Anne two-flats cheek by jowl with frame cottages, brick tenements, and graystone three-flats. The Logan Square branch of the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad ran along Hermitage, stopping at Chicago and Division to carry workers to and from the factories farther south along Grand and Lake.

As in Ukrainian Village, a network of fraternal and religious organizations helped new immigrants get their bearings, chief among them the Polish National Alliance at 1520 W. Division (now the College of Office Technology), an affiliate of Holy Trinity Church—a champion of Polish nationalism that ministered to its own flock of 25,000 at 1118 N. Noble, only a few blocks from Saint Stanislaus. The first home of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, a Catholic order founded by a Polish nun, was on West Division. The sisters outgrew those digs and moved to Des Plaines in 1908, but the Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital Center, founded in 1894 at 1714-22 W. Division, remains, just up the street—albeit in a 1975 poured-concrete edition that one of my colleagues has likened to something sprung from Terry Gilliam's imagination.

Rainbo Club, 1940s
  • Gerald Grofman (Rainbo)
  • Rainbo Club, 1940s

Immigration accelerated during and after World War II—as many as 150,000 Poles are estimated to have arrived between 1939 and '59. Like the Ukrainians they clustered in established ethnic enclaves that offered shops, restaurants, and banks where people spoke their language. Division Street was the Polish Broadway, teeming with flophouses and gambling dens and polka clubs and workingman's bars like the Gold Star and Phyllis' Musical Inn. Down the street at Division and Wolcott stood the majestic Division Street Baths; around the corner on Damen burlesque dancers shimmied on the tiny stage behind the Rainbo Club's horseshoe bar.

The strip at midcentury was immortalized, for better or worse, by Nelson Algren, whose novels The Man With the Golden Arm and Never Come Morning told the grim story of junkies, gamblers, hookers, and drunks on the make in the Polish ghetto. Many in the Polish community took offense at the unforgiving depiction of the neighborhood, but The Man With the Golden Arm went on to win the inaugural National Book Award and remains a defining piece of local literature.

Rainbo Club, 1940s
  • Gerald Grofman (Rainbo)
  • Rainbo Club, 1940s

In the 1960s and '70s both villages changed radically. To the east, construction of the Kennedy, completed in late 1960, had displaced many residents and torn holes in the sustaining network of churches, settlement houses, and neighborhood groups. And throughout West Town demographics were shifting, as Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, themselves displaced by urban renewal in Old Town and Lincoln Park, moved in. In 1960 Latinos comprised less than 1 percent of West Town's population, but by 1970 that number was up to 39 percent; in 1990 it peaked at around 60 percent. The Puerto Rican community was (and still is) concentrated west of Ukrainian Village, along Division Street's Paseo Boriqua, between Western and Mozart, while Mexicans clustered in East Village.

It was a tumultuous time for the villages. Real estate values plummeted as landlords neglected their buildings and speculators sat on vacant land and abandoned property. Mom-and-pop businesses along Chicago Avenue fell like dominoes. The arson rate in the area was so high that in 1976 Mayor Richard J. Daley convened a task force to address the crisis. To the original Poles and Ukrainians, the suburbs—affordable and easily accessed by the new highway system—were looking pretty good.

Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital, 2233 W. Division
  • Robert Murphy
  • Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital, 2233 W. Division

Founded in 1962, the Northwest Community Organization tried to stanch white flight by promoting home ownership and integration between longtime eastern European residents and the newcomers, but it was a tough sell, and not just for cultural reasons. A sweeping 1976 plan to develop affordable housing "went nowhere," in the words of a 2001 study of gentrification in West Town conducted by the Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at UIC, because "it did not give [the city] what it wanted: community support for its upscale redevelopment schemes."

Meanwhile a different kind of crisis rocked Ukrainian Village when a tradition-minded faction of Saint Nicholas parishioners, angry at the church's adoption of the modern Gregorian calendar, decamped to build a new church a few blocks away. Saints Volodymyr and Olha, at Oakley and Superior, opened in 1974, emblazoned with an ornate mosaic depicting the baptism of Ukraine in 988 and adhering strictly to the Julian calendar. Irene Zabytko, author of When Luba Leaves Home, a collection of short stories set in Ukrainian Village, grew up in the neighborhood and remembers the split as "a tremendous schism—it got to the point where people wouldn't speak to each other . . . and it's not like there are so many Ukrainians in Chicago that they can afford to do that!"

the interior of Saints Volodymyr and Olha, 2245 W. Superior
  • by Myron Kuropas, available at arcadiapublishing.com or 888-313-2665
  • the interior of Saints Volodymyr and Olha, 2245 W. Superior

But once the wounds healed the new church turned out to be a boon. Taking up one square block at Oakley and Cortez, which Ukrainian National Museum president Jaroslaw Hankewycz remembers as once "the worst crime block in all of Chicago," the church enticed many who had fled to the suburbs to return. An adjacent cultural center added to the music, art exhibits, and literary events already on offer at Saint Nicholas and the new Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, founded in 1971. In 1983 Mayor Jane Byrne declared Ukrainian Village an "official neighborhood" (the first of many to follow), and much of the finely crafted vintage architecture is now landmarked as part of the Ukrainian Village District, which encompasses most of the property bordered by Damen, Western, Rice, and Haddon.

By contrast, in the 70s and 80s the institutional infrastructure that held Ukrainian Village together was in short supply east of Damen. Much of the Polish population had drifted northwest, to Avondale and beyond. The Latino community organized around issues of affordable housing and other redevelopment strategies designed to stave off displacement, but came into increasing conflict with the mostly white artists and other urban-pioneer types who by the early 80s constituted a minor but significant presence. Throw in confusing zoning, aging housing stock, and cheap mortgages and you had what Preservation Chicago president Jonathan Fine describes as "a perfect storm."

Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, 2238 W. Rice
  • Robert Murphy
  • Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, 2238 W. Rice

First went the vacant lots and dilapidated wood-frame cottages. Then, in the late 1990s, the brick cottages and the two-flats started getting snatched up and demolished, a process greased by the see-no-evil attitude of Alderman Jesse Granato, who, to paraphrase more than one neighborhood activist, never met a developer he didn't like. Within a few whirlwind years the once modest neighborhood was a crazy quilt of new construction: gleaming modern cubes, terraced brick ziggurats, and cinder-block three-flats dressed up with Juliet balconies and French doors to nowhere, shoehorned in lot line to lot line.

"Neighborhoods change," says Fine. "What concerned some of the activists in the late 90s and early part of this decade was that this 25-to-30-year cycle was being artificially compressed into a 5-to-7-year span. It was happening too fast, without any kind of oversight and without any master plan."

When the Huntley House, at 836 N. Paulina—built in 1858 and one of the few frame structures to survive the Chicago Fire—was slated for demolition in 2002, the East Village Association barraged City Hall with phone calls. Petitions were signed, meetings were held. The house was torn down anyway, but the following year Preservation Chicago named East Village to its annual list of the city's seven most endangered sites. Both groups were instrumental in securing, in 2006, landmark status for four clusters of blocks comprising 195 properties—a painful, acrimonious battle that for many months pitted the preservation faction against neighbors seeking to protect their own property interests.

Windy City Scooter, 2151 W. Division

Today both neighborhoods are more diverse than in their historic heydays. Though many second- and third-generation Ukrainian-Americans have stayed put in their parents' community, others—like Irene Zabytko, who now lives in Florida—have moved on, and as elderly home owners pass away Ukrainian Village has become more accessible to outsiders. The enduring Mexican influence on East Village can be seen in the taquerias up and down Chicago and Ashland, in the churches that offer Mass in Polish, Spanish, and English, and in the staggering array of cowboy boots and snap-button shirts on offer at Alcala's Western Wear, purveyors of ropas para caballeros for 36 years. But those taquerias are likely to have a record store or a vegan-friendly coffee shop as a neighbor.

The pace and scale of development remain big issues. Business owners fend off complaints about sidewalk-clogging cafes and wrestle with whether or not to lift a long-standing moratorium on liquor licenses. A shuttered Pizza Hut at the corner of Ashland and Division—formerly the site of a beloved YMCA—dominates discussion of how best to transform the historic Polish Triangle—home to an intractable transient population—into a welcoming gateway to West Town. What happens next will depend on who gets the right-of-way at the confusing six-way intersection of ethnic solidarity, pluralism, and the market.   

Nelson Algren on Division Street, 1949
  • Ar t Shay/Step hen Daiter Galler y (Al gre n)
  • Nelson Algren on Division Street, 1949

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