Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Home is where the heart is.

I'm not sure that I can adequately express my fondness for the neighborhood that I live in. Rogers Park is a sublime combination of inner-city grit crossed with the atmosphere of a beach town. To get there, you head north along Lake Michigan out of downtown Chicago on the train. It's a fairly long ride, and when it's crowded, it can be pretty unpleasant. You'll pass through many neighborhoods on the way there, some wealthy, some not so much: Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, Edgewater, until the tracks angle slightly to the west, following the shore. Rogers Park hugs the lake, long and thin. Loyola is the first stop, adjacent to its namesake university. Morse is next, a commercial crossroads. Jarvis is mostly residential, Howard is the city limit.  

I moved here about 6 years ago, but until I did, I was a little afraid of it. The median income is around $39,000. That's not an especially low figure, but it doesn't adequately convey the sheer variance of the community's demographic. Walking around, you begin to see a fair amount of grand old city homes and rehabbed vintage apartments and condos, even some new construction. But the view from the elevated train has long been of blighted commercial strips and the rickety back porches of brick three flats. When you get off of the train, you see the community's diversity. There are a lot of low income families in Rogers Park, and a good many of them are immigrants. Poorer neighborhoods are often like that because they are affordable.  All big cities have their equivalent of a Rogers Park.  Heck, Chicago has more than one, although a few enclaves have already been extinguished through gentrification.  Somehow, though, RP has become a truly mixed neighborhood, economically as well as ethnically. Maybe it's the parks and beaches that line the shore, providing a soothing glimpse of nature on an evening stroll and a gathering place for families on summer Sunday afternoons. Or maybe we just got lucky when the real estate market crashed, slowing the pace of condo conversions and in the process preserving the neighborhood's character.

It has what urban planners call a high walk score: just about everything you need is a short walk away, and when more people are out walking, neighborhoods are safer. That's not to say we're crime free, quite the contrary, but most of it falls in the "oh, well, that's city life" property crime category.  I'd like to think that we're too far away from the action downtown (and that miserably long train ride) to ever fully gentrify. At the same time, I'm grateful for the positive changes that have occurred: crack houses wrested away from negligent landlords and converted to fashionable housing, new restaurants and nightspots, renovated streetscapes, farmer's markets. Friends, neighbors and merchants tell dark tales of "10 years ago", confirming my initial, outdated qualms about moving here.

Perhaps the best way to describe Rogers Park is a peek inside my local grocer. There's plenty of organic produce, but there are also ethnic staples like limes, 15 for a dollar. Lots of produce (chayote, plantains, jackfruit, casava) that you won't find at the supermarket. Tortillas share shelf space with kosher baked goods and Jamaican hard dough bread. Meat pies. Canned and bottled goods run the gamut from Hispanic to African to Caribbean. Dried chilis and Greek oregano. Chorizo and kielbasa. Free range chicken and cow foot. Yep, it's all here.

Clark Street is the main commercial strip, running parallel to the lake about a half mile to the west. It's not the prettiest of boulevards. Every block has a few vacant storefronts.  But what is there is fabulous. Packed with modest ethnic restaurants, it turns into an aromatic paradise around dinnertime. And there's not a Starbucks in sight. OK, to be fair, I don't think there are any cafes on Clark, but you'll find an indie coffee paradise just down intersecting Morse, Jarvis and Howard and along Sheridan Road by the University.  OK, maybe one Starbucks.

We (officially) gather on Clark Street once a year to celebrate our diversity with food, music, beer, art and kids activities. In recent years, Celebrate Clark Street's two music stages have turned this modest neighborhood street party into a de facto world music festival thanks to the energetic talents of David Chavez, a DJ and head of the fledgling global arts organization Sound Culture. This weekend, my neighbors and I will be out in force to dance, drink and, yes, celebrate. I can't wait.

You can come, too. We like to share.

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