The History of Wicker Park

The statue of Charles Wicker in Wicker Park

The statue of Charles Wicker in Wicker Park

 

Wicker Park, along with many of Chicagoland’s neighborhoods, can trace its beginnings back to the Great Fire of 1871. Before the fire, the area that is now Wicker Park was mostly prairie land.October 10, 1871- perhaps the most infamous date in Chicago’s history, saw the city turn to embers as a fictional cow stampeded through the streets. This horrific event led to one of the greatest revival stories American history has to offer: your modern day Chicago.

As the city began to rebuild itself, some citizens looked beyond what is now downtown to settle.  Many of them followed Milwaukee Ave. northwest of the city center. Only 20 years earlier the city of Chicago extended its boundaries to Western and North Avenues. German and Scandinavian immigrants quickly inhabited this area during the 1860s in search of jobs offered by the industrial build up of this newly incorporated area. For a few of these immigrants involved in lumber building and wholesale trade, the fire provided a chance to work their way into the merchant class. Thanks to the efforts of the Committee on Aid Society, cheap homes were constructed along Milwaukee Ave for victims of the fire.  

 Pictures and further descriptions of these mansions can be found on the previous page

 Wicker Park became a place for the prestigious as the area surrounding the park grew commercially. According to the landmark association, “nearly half the extant buildings in the Milwaukee Avenue District were built between 1877 and 1895." The diagonal Milwaukee Ave., slashes through the city, making 3-way intersections and six-point corners a vibrant area of human interaction and a lucrative opportunity for businesses.  Milwaukee’s disruptive nature to Chicago’s grid coupled with the growing stature of Wicker Park allowed this area to bloom into a significant part of Chicagoland. As this growth continued, the city recognized the lure of the new district. In 1895 the Northwest Branch of the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad (the “L”) was constructed alongside Milwaukee Avenue. The construction of the L solidified the arrival of Wicker Park as a new destination in outside of downtown, the Landmark Society justly boasts that the area had become “a city within a city.”

 

 

The beginning of the 20th century: Wicker Park is bustling. Immigrants from different parts of Europe now entered the area. Poles, Jews, Russians, Danes, and Brits flooded the area looking for work.  As the century turned, these immigrants found work in the various industries that also found their home in Wicker Park.

By the 1920s the architectural and commercial prowess of Wicker Park had reached its maturity. Large buildings, buildings that now house the local flair of today’s neighborhood, were being built rapidly. The early twentieth century saw the building of the Noel State Bank (now Walgreens), the North West Tower, the Flat Iron building (now a brilliant artist sanctuary), and the Home Bank and Trust (now another Walgreens). Furthermore, theaters that housed various forms of entertainment were scattered in between these large buildings.

Imagine: getting off of the Damen stop on the L in 1920. The streets, bustling with immigrant bankers, factory workers, and business owners from various parts of Europe create a stream of life and energy. The fortunate ones settle into their cafes and ready themselves for the theater. The first age of prominence of Wicker Park saw a diverse group of people turn the area into a thriving, enticing force that put the solidified the neighborhood onto the Chicagoland maps eternally. Excitement, opportunity, and diversity lined the streets, an energy that blows through the trees of Wicker Park today. As the great Mark Twain said: History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. 

 Wicker Park had arrived, but it was, unfortunately, short-lived. Wicker Park was not immune to the troubles of the Great Depression of 1929. As the financial crisis occurred, the industries and businesses that called Wicker home had to close their doors. As the great fire birthed Wicker Park, the great collapse ended the first glorious age of Wicker Park.

The second phase of Wicker Park, a rebirth of sorts, would not happen until the late 20th Century. This part of Wicker’s history is now, just barely history.

 After the Depression, Wicker Park became a hub for low-income housing. The neighborhood remained diverse as many ethnic groups called the area home. World War II saw an influx of Polish and other Eastern European immigrants to the area. The 1960-1970s were a time of flux. The Kennedy Expressway’s construction uprooted many of Wicker’s citizens. A large Latino influx to Wicker was caused by the gentrification of Lincoln Park. According to Martha Bayne, a Chicago journalist, the percentage of Wicker Park residents that were Latino in 1960 was 1%. In 1970 that number jumped to 39%. Wicker Park would remain a haven for the Latino population as emphasis on the area’s historic past came into focus.

 The largest collection of Victorian mansions in the city sat quietly, their history forgotten as their upkeep remained minimal.  It was not until 1973 that the Old Wicker Park Committee lobbied for national and local historic designation. In 1979 the National Register of Historic Places designated Wicker Park a National Historic District. By gaining this status, developers received tax breaks for their efforts to purchase and preserve the buildings that remained erect.

As buildings were being reserved and tax credits were being offered, many developers eyed Wicker Park as the next tantalizing place to cultivate into what Baynes called “the new Lincoln Park.” Development increases, property values increase and the cost of living skyrockets- thus the results of what has become a controversial trend: gentrification. The ethnic population of the area did not accept this fate. They created neighborhood groups, such as the Northwest Community Organization, to fight incoming developers. Eventually, as one may easily be able to tell, development won. As this continued, the area started to garner attention from the city’s artists. In the 1980s two developers who offered long-term leases to artists and non-profit organization for cheap prices bought the Flat Iron Building. This and many similar efforts allowed artists to leave their mark on Wicker Park. The 1990s saw increased development but the area remained an artist’s hub. In 1991, Chicago granted landmark status to Wicker Park. The area was on its way to full development, but the Wicker’s new citizens would oppose it as its old residents did.

Wicker Park entered the 21st century as a reluctant participant for a total revival. Residents fought a pure corporate take-over. The fight continues today. Since the redevelopment of the area that started in the seventies, many of the city’s most unique businesses and entertainment attraction call Wicker Park home. The historic homes are protected and remain a beautiful backdrop to the bustling area.  History writes itself everyday in Wicker Park. As development pushes for more, the residents push back.

The people of the past lay the groundwork for this beautiful neighborhood. It is with great pride that the current residents fight to keep Wicker Park unique. It was with great passion that the men and women fought to ensure the area’s history survived any kind of redevelopment or population influx. The current residents of Wicker Park work to live in harmony with one another. They do this by creating beauty with their paintbrush, instrument, or culinary prowess. They do this by protecting businesses dear to their heart. The residents of the area act with a progressive mindset within a neighborhood bustling with history. This history is not to be turned on; they are to be sustained, reinvented, and improved upon.

-Travis Kreashko, 2015

 

To the readers:

A full bibliography and cited document exists for this piece. Please contact me at tkreashk@gmail.com to acquire that document. I must give a special thanks to Nicholas Sommers and the work of the Wicker Park Committee in the seventies for acquiring historic district designation for Wicker Park. Without their efforts, I am unsure if any of this would have been possible. Lastly, the history of Wicker Park from 1940-1980 is a difficult piece to cover. Please contact me if you believe I did not give a fair amount of respect to Wicker Park residents of that era. I am open to amending this site to encompass all of the area's former residents, this is a community project for the community.

 

On gentrification:

Gentrification is a hard term to avoid in today's modern city. It is a very polarizing process and has major implications on large groups of people. This process is happening every day in Chicago, it is part of our urban world. As a historian, I am obliged to offer you an objective stance on this issue. Below are a few articles on Chicago gentrification, I encourage readers to dive into this topic as it is all around us.

 New Lines in an Old Battle: The Gentrification of Wicker Park by Ben Joravsky (1988)

The Panic in Wicker Park by Huebner (1994)

A Tale of Two Villages by Martha Bayne (2008)