The neighborhood of Wicker Park, located in Chicago’s West Town community, has been one of the most desirable areas to live in for many years now. It was hip before it was trendy and it’s been trendy for an awful long time. This area south west of the fashionable Lincoln Park community has been a magnet for those seeking affordable housing in a culturally diverse neighborhood in close proximity to downtown Chicago. As with its equally popular neighborhood to the north, Bucktown, Gen-X’ers and Millennials have gravitated to the area due to its preponderance of nightlife venues and its rich artistic profile.
Wicker Park is situated in the northwest corner of the West Town community, and is bordered on the north by the Bloomingdale Trail (although historically it went as far north as Armitage Avenue), on the south by Division Street, on the west by Western Avenue, and on the east by Ashland Avenue.
The Kennedy Expressway (I-94) runs just to the east of Wicker Park and gives its residents, like Bucktown’s, easy access by car to the greater Chicagoland area. Damen Avenue is one of two main arteries, continuing a chain of restaurants and entertainment spots south from Bucktown. The other is North Avenue, running east and west the entire breath of the neighborhood, where one can find an abundance of nightlife. However, there are many popular venues also along Milwaukee Avenue, which cuts transversely through the heart of the neighborhood. All in all, it becomes quite obvious that Wicker Park, with its numerous pockets of shopping, dining, and entertainment opportunities, is a highly walkable community.
What’s with the “wicker” in Wicker Park? Well, it’s not about basket weaving. What it is about is two brothers – Charles and Joel Wicker – who put down roots in the area in the mid-nineteenth century, and for whom the neighborhood is named. They were both businessmen, but Charles was also a City Council alderman (3rd Ward – Near South Side) from 1865 – 1869. During his tenure the city sought to build a park just west of Milwaukee Avenue and south of North Avenue, in an area which today is Chicago Park District land and is named Wicker Park. Being an alderman and being privy to the city’s proposal, Charles purchased 80 acres along Milwaukee Avenue with his brother Joel and began to develop the area into residential lots. It was also about this time that the neighborhood was incorporated into the city (1868).
Another piece of good fortune for them, financially, was that a few years later the city would suffer the worst catastrophe in its history – the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The northwest side in which Wicker Park is located was spared this conflagration and thus benefited from the influx of citizens looking to build their new homes. Germans and Norwegians would be the first ethnic groups to settle in the area and would be followed later in the early twentieth century by Poles and Jews. Such notable Chicago families as the Pritzker’s and the Crown’s lived in the area, and the literary giants Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren grew up around here. Wicker Park would continue to prosper until the Great Depression, after which it suffered a slow decline well into the 1970s and 1980s. At that point the neighborhood was rediscovered as a hip place to live – not to mention being quite affordable – and so began a long, slow gentrification process which continues to this day.
Only two miles from Downtown, commuting to Chicago’s CBD is fast and loaded with options. Public transportation is plentiful, with easy access to a number of bus routes (72 North Avenue, 70 Division, 49 Western Avenue, 50 Damen Avenue, and 73 Armitage) which connect to CTA rapid transit lines. There is also the 56 Milwaukee Avenue bus which goes directly into Downtown. There are CTA Blue Line stops at Division and at Damen which connect to Downtown, suburbs and O’Hare airport. Just to the northeast is the Clybourn Avenue stop on the Metra commuter railroad which connects to Downtown as well as the north suburbs. The nearby Kennedy Expressway is a great option fro drivers and, last but not least, there are numerous bike lanes along all the major streets if you prefer cycling.
Wicker Park is overflowing with great schools, both public and private, including three parochial elementary schools (St. Nicholas Cathedral, St. Stanilslaus Kostka, and St. Helen) and a Catholic High School of note, Holy Trinity, which has served the community for over 100 years. Among the public schools, to name a few, are the A.N. Pritzker and José de Diego elementary schools and the Roberto Clemente High School. As in most neighborhoods across the city, there is a healthy mix of public, selective enrollment, and charter schools in Wicker Park providing numerous options to families with children.
Cost of Living
Though there are pockets of expensive housing, Wicker Park offers much more by way of affordable apartments. With all the various shopping options in the neighborhood, it’s possible for one to live economically here while still being conveniently close to Downtown.
Shopping and Dining
Whether you’re eating out or eating in, you’ll find a plethora of places to patronize both in Wicker Park and in its adjoining neighbor, Bucktown. Of course there’s the old stand-by Jewel Foods, and there’s Aldi, but it wouldn’t be Wicker Park without some of the quality locals such as Go Grocer and Goddess & Grocer (technically in Bucktown but also serving the Wicker Park area).
Photo courtesy of Urbanbelly.
If cooking isn’t an option for you, there are plenty of restaurants of all types and prices to cater to every foodie’s dream. Urbanbelly is a Wicker Park staple which has been serving Asian casual food in the neighborhood for 12 years now. From dumplings and bowls, to pho and ramen, this charming eatery will delight your taste buds whether you want to enjoy their treats at the restaurant or at home, since the food travels particularly well (noodles and broth are delivered separately, for example).
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Finally, whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or just want to satisfy your sweet tooth, Alliance Bakery should be at the top of your list. Besides baking fantastic cakes and desserts, their European pastry is a neighborhood highlight — just grab one of their perfectly layered croissants and you’ll instantly become a regular.
Though Wicker Park shares many of the same urban qualities of its neighbor, Bucktown, there are more choices in the Wicker Park area for shopping and entertainment. They benefit from a joint Chamber of Commerce that works to promote them both, and of course the amenities of city living don’t stop at each other’s borders.
Wicker Park is nothing if not a wonderful arts community, and the variety of events and venues across the broad spectrum of music, art, and live theater certainly supports that notion.
The rebuilding following the Chicago Fire of 1871 continued after the turn of the twentieth century, and there are still structures from that era that dot the community. Many of the Norwegians and Germans who first migrated to the area built their homes of brick and stone to avoid the threat of another major conflagration.
As with most neighborhoods going through gentrification, it has also seen considerable new construction at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. So, today there is an eclectic mix of 100-year-old Brownstones and Greystones sitting side-by-side with modernistic condominiums. This mix gives you an opportunity to find whatever suits your style and your pocketbook.
There’s a wide choice of both affordable and high-end apartments in Wicker Park, and a variety of architectural styles to choose from, whether your inclination is toward vintage architecture or the more modern. You shouldn’t have a problem finding one that suits your taste and is within your budget. The average rent in Wicker Park is $2,483, whereas the Chicago average is $1,943, but be assured you can still find bargains!
Make Wicker Park Your New Home
It’s one of the Windy City’s hippest and trendiest neighborhoods with a history of great architecture and a location only miles from Downtown. It has great food, shopping, and all varieties of the arts. This is what awaits you if you choose to put down roots in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.
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Contributor: Don Gordon is an accomplished author and copywriter, having written two books, university course content, political speeches, and press releases.