Chicago: That Neighborhood Feel

Let’s call this post “a tale of two neighborhoods.”

One is Andersonville. It’s a north side neighborhood. Its borders run roughly from Broadway on the east to Ashland on the west, and from Foster to Peterson/Ridge at its north end.

In terms of geography, it’s an unremarkable neighborhood – no close CTA stop or Metra stop, no rivers or remarkable parks, and one main bus (the perpetually crowded and slow 22 Clark) running down Clark Street, its main thoroughfare.

Photo credit: Patrick Erwin

Photo credit: Patrick Erwin

The second is my current hood: the West Loop. Or as I like to call it, WeLo.

(It sounds clever, right? Also, I’m a lazy typist and that’s way fewer letters.)

WeLo has a close proximity to the Loop. It’s got one main bus route (the perpetually crowded and slow 20 Madison), and a new, shiny Morgan Green Line stop. (Two more stops, both Blue Line, sit at the extreme southern ends of the neighborhood.)

The Bartelme Park at Monroe and Peoria is an entire city block of amazingness. And WeLo is also known for “Restaurant Row” on its northern end.

But for all the amazing things happening in WeLo, it still hasn’t reached that point of coalescence as a neighborhood. Andersonville, on the other hand, is the textbook definition of a neighborhood, and all the pluses of one: tight community ties and people filling its shops, stores and restaurants.

Why isn’t WeLo every bit as cozy and inviting as Andersonville? I’ve wondered why for a while – and figured I’d try to use some urban planning ideas and metrics to compare and contrast these two areas.

It can’t be a lack of money keeping WeLo back. We know that can impact city neighborhoods in many other ways, but you’d be hard pressed to find a Chicago neighborhood to rival WeLo in terms of money being invested. The condos, apartments and houses in WeLo are filled with people, primarily younger twentysomethings and thirtysomethings.

And that might be the first hint why WeLo doesn’t have deep neighborhood roots. It is mostly condos and apartments, and mostly younger people who are moving on to new places after a few years.

And WeLo IS a relatively young neighborhood when compared with the bigger history of Chicago.

Old timers always tell me that the West Loop area used to be Skid Row. Oprah Winfrey’s show (and Harpo Studios) accelerated a process of renewal and gentrification.

But many of the homes in this area are less than twenty years old. The Green Line passed WeLo until just a year ago.

Andersonville has a small footprint and homes that are considerably older. But that established neighborhood means there’s a mixture of people – older, younger, renters and owners.

The business district has remained relatively intact for decades, so there’s clearly defined public space for people to meet and interact. Many of the shops on Clark Street have a loyal customer base, and draw crowds every weekend.

That’s a sharp contrast to the West Loop, where stores and restaurants along Madison have struggled to stay open.

There’s little diversity in the kinds of shops in the area – hair and nail salons and dry cleaners seem to choke out any other types of commerce in the area.

No large social meeting space for neighbors, and few spaces for people to really meet and interact with one another. It’s missing a few of the sweeter aspects of local economy – a full service bakery, for example, would be awesome.

There’s pluses and minuses to every area. WeLo is within walking and biking distance for Loop commuters and for hockey and basketball fans (United Center is less than ten blocks away). And I really love the home that my partner and I have here in the West Loop.

But I also love spending time in Andersonville – there’s something about it that’s so welcoming and seems so active and connected.

It’s a hard to define quality, and one that all the developers and urban planners in the world can’t create out of whole cloth.

What’s your favorite neighborhood, and why do you think it’s such an appealing place to you and to other people? 


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