Gentrification is a tricky thing—not only in practice, but even semantically speaking. As a way to describe neighborhood redevelopment, gentrification “oftentimes has a negative connotation for a lot of folks because it’s associated with class- and race-based displacement,” says Brian White, executive director of Lakeside Community Development Corporation, an affordable-housing advocacy group based in Rogers Park.
Nobody’s going to agree that any single neighborhood in Chicago is doing everything perfectly when it comes to community improvement, but here are a few examples of ’hoods that have done at least one thing right.
RACIAL AND ECONOMIC DIVERSITY: ROGERS PARK
Although the condo-conversion craze earlier this decade took away affordable rental units from lower-income residents, the Far North Side remains one of Chicago’s most economically mixed areas. In addition to its healthy income mix, “Rogers Park is more balanced in terms of its diversity—equal parts white, black, Latino,” White notes. “Most people I come in contact with are speaking in good faith when they say they value the diversity here.” A number of Rogers Park businesses and institutions encourage that diversity—from Mess Hall(6932 N Glenwood Ave, 773-465-4033), a cultural community center that offers all its programs (as well as food and drink) for free, to the Morse Theatre(1328 W Morse Ave, 773-654-5100), a live-music venue that’s held free public-viewing parties for recent events like President Obama’s inauguration and the Super Bowl.
NEW-BUILDING CONSTRUCTION: UPTOWN
New construction often signals gentrification, but can condos move in without pushing renters out of the area? It typically doesn’t happen without a fight, but housing advocate White credits 46th Ward Ald. Helen Shiller with being aggressive in securing “a higher percentage of those [converted] units as long-term affordable housing in this neighborhood. She’s been willing to publicly stand up and say: Uptown should be a place where these folks have a place to live and call home.” Case in point: Though not without controversy, the Wilson Yard project that recently broke ground will comprise two eight-story apartment buildings dedicated to affordable housing—one for seniors and one for working-class families making $40,000 a year or less, says Shiller spokeswoman Yvonne Odell. Wilson Yard’s projected completion date is 2011.
SUPPORT FOR SMALL BUSINESSES: LINCOLN SQUARE
Bargain housing disappeared long ago in Lincoln Square, but gentrification didn’t oust the indie shops and restaurants that dominate its bustling business district. True, there’s the ubiquitous Starbucks, but two indie cafés thrive within a one-block radius. Even the Davis Theater (4614 N Lincoln Ave, 773-784-0893) is a small-scale operation (and charges about $3 less per ticket than movie chains). Chicago Printmakers Collaborative(4642 N Western Ave) director Deborah Maris Lader relocated CPC to the area ten years ago from Ukrainian Village. The Lincoln Square business community, she says, “came out to our openings and they bought prints. We didn’t have that before…. I was asked to be on the [chamber] board, which was also really unusual for an artist.” A decade later, she’s still in love with Lincoln Square: “How many musicians and artists can say they love their gentrified neighborhood?”
INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENTS: GARFIELD PARK
This West Side neighborhood isn’t on too many people’s radar—yet. Its resurgence is coming, largely due to significant investments to the Green Line and other public facilities. The train line underwent a two-year reconstruction in the ’90s, and Garfield Park Conservatory(300 N Central Park Ave, 312-746-5100), which offers free admission (but encourages donations), got a $7 million face-lift that began in 1994. Along with the nearby gold-domed field house, the Conservatory is now a tourist attraction—one directly accessible by train, thanks to a new station that opened in 2001 where none had existed. “We need that kind of infrastructure,” says Connie Rivera, a key lobbyist for the station and owner of the garden center CityEscape (3022 W Lake St, 773-638-2000) in East Garfield Park. She can see new businesses and residences slowly moving west, following the Green Line. “I think [the neighborhood is] being redeveloped in a positive way,” Rivera says.