Chicago is known as a city of neighborhoods, many of which are familiar even to those who visit the Windy City for business. The Gold Coast, close to downtown, is home to multimillion-dollar condos, chic restaurants and designer shops that peddle handbags with four-figure price tags. Hyde Park, on the South Side (where a certain new president hails from), is all about diversity, used bookstores and the University of Chicago. Can you spell intellectual?
But if I had to pick one neighborhood that’s more of an enigma—and just a hop, skip and jump off the business traveler’s usual map—it would be Bucktown, which lies about four miles northwest of Chicago’s downtown. According to legend, Bucktown got its name because Polish immigrants who lived there in the 1800s kept goats in their backyards. But even if that’s just a fable, the moniker is still apt: There are no longer any bucks in residence, but the young professionals and business owners who put down stakes here 10 or 15 years ago bucked some trends by choosing the area over more established neighborhoods that hug Lake Michigan. The result? An eclectic blend of artsy types, doting parents and old-timers.
It’s worth a visit if you’re looking for somewhere new to explore when an afternoon meeting is cancelled or you have a free evening while you’re in town this summer. Real estate agent Michael Long, who says that Bucktown appeals to folks who want to stay close to downtown but can’t afford Gold Coast prices, calls the neighborhood “a place where everyone can fit in.”
But as in most desirable neighborhoods, housing prices have soared over the last decade (though they have leveled off or dropped in this tough economy). The median price of a single-family home was $410,000 in 1999; today, Long says, it’s $826,000. New construction is even pricier, with some homes selling for $3 million or more. These mega-houses have managed to squeeze in among the rows of modest redbrick cottages that have lined the side streets here for more than a century.
This interesting mix is also evident on and around Bucktown’s main drag, Damen Avenue from North to Webster Avenues, where anyone can stroll from boutique to day spa to bar to restaurant—some decades old, some months old—with only the occasional intrusion by a national brand. “It’s sort of the SoHo of Chicago,” says Marlo Hoffman, co-owner of six-year-old Psycho Baby, which sells everything from camouflage diaper bags and tattoo-print PJs to wooden puzzles and fabric pizzas. “People came here because it was unusual and artsy, and we’d like to keep that uniqueness.”
Intent to do some exploring of my own, I descend the steps of the Blue Line’s Damen L station—the first stop after the train emerges from the subway as it heads out of downtown. I need some reinforcement, so I skitter past Starbucks and head for Caffè DeLuca, the kind of bohemian spot that practically begs you to sit and sip your cappuccino from a ceramic cup rather than grab it to go. While I nibble on an almond croissant, I take in the scene: a ponytailed Eastern European sits at the bar talking politics with an American pal while a pair of moms with babies sip coffee and relax amid the mismatched tables and distressed, paprika-colored walls.
Soon enough, I’m ready to wander. At the T-Shirt Deli, patrons can customize shirts, which are displayed like sausages in the shop’s “cooler.” Once the tee is ready, it’s wrapped in butcher paper, then packaged to go with a bag of chips. Up the block, Mongo Home is the place for all of life’s necessities—if those necessities happen to include a full-size skeleton model, an old pay phone, an art deco parking meter or a ’60s barbershop chair. Across the street, at Grasshopper 510, the wares are more down to earth—and earth-friendly. At this eco-boutique, you’ll find organic cotton napkins, recycled glassware and bowls made from vinyl records.
It’s lunchtime, and there’s no shortage of options. The Goddess and Grocer, a gourmet shop, is the place for spinach salad, “heavenly ham” panini and carrot-ginger soup. George’s Hot Dogs (Eat In or Take Your Dog for a Walk, reads the sign out front), which has been in business since 1948, is equally tempting. But instead I take a detour down Wabansia Avenue to enjoy some spicy penne arrabiata while seated in a cushy red booth at the retro-feeling Club Lucky, which occupies a corner on this otherwise residential street.
Afterward, I sneak a peek at a handful of the new homes that have risen among the older, more humble ones. Some blend in nicely, some are stylishly contemporary and others are utterly garish. Still, it’s a worthwhile jaunt because it brings me closer to a church I’ve been wanting to see. At the corner of Cortland and Hermitage Avenues stands St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, which the AIA Guide to Chicago refers to as a “Polish cathedral.” Built in the early 1900s in the neo-renaissance style, it boasts rows of stone angels looking down from its parapets and a striking tile-and-terra-cotta dome.
Sadly, it’s time to call it a day—but I’ll be back, and next time I’ll make it an evening tour. Many dinner spots, bars and clubs await.
JANET FRANZ is a freelance writer in Chicago.