Chi-(na)town

Dragon parade!

Chicago’s Chinatown is an awkwardly formed place. It can be difficult to find, for one thing. And once there, it’s easy to visit and come away thinking that the whole of it is contained on its main street, Wentworth Avenue. Certainly, it has most of the showstopper/predictably Chinese-styled architecture:

Chi-town meets Chinatown

Wentworth Avenue

Chinatown perspective

Chinatown detail

There’s a lot more to the area geographically, though. West of Wentworth, a fairly typical older Chicago neighborhood is all that’s left of the original streets of the area, severely hacked away by several surrounding freeways. Architecturally, it’s of little note, but pleasant enough.

Chinatown’s business district spills out along Cermak as well, though the street’s large size and busy traffic make it intimidating to cross and essentially make these blocks isolated and inert compared to bustling Wentworth.

Cermak Road, Chinatown

North of Cermak, a strangely underdeveloped triangle of land framed by Archer, Wentworth and Cermak is even more isolated, despite being a necessary bridge between Wentworth and the nearby Chinatown Square mall.

Chinatown Square Mall

The mall is a recent development, dating back to the 1980s. It thrives despite a somewhat fortress-like attitude toward its neighborhood. It seems to offer virtually no connection to the adjacent streets, but a large central plaza — maybe too large — invites visitors to cross Archer and come explore. And once you’re in, it’s a small city of its own, filled with bustling restaurants and shops of every stripe.

Chinatown mall

NO!  Panhandlah, PLEASE.

Chinatown Square Mall storefront

Empty land... for now

An entire new neighborhood has risen north of Archer in recent years, on former railroad territory. Of course, it wouldn’t be Chicago if it didn’t involve marching ranks of nigh-identical buildings, but there are some interesting and pleasant spaces among them, and the decorative tastes of the owners leaves no doubt as to what part of town you’re in.

Chinatown backyard detail

Chinatown courtyard

Chinatown backyard

And finally, there’s the lovely Ping Tom Memorial Park along the river. Surrounded by active and busy railroads on three sides (including one that regularly cuts off the only route in and out of the park), it’s not exactly a perfect oasis, but it has lovely views of the South Branch and the downtown skyline in the distance, and its winding paths are almost long enough to get away from it all.

Ping Tom Memorial Park

Ping Tom Memorial Park

Ping Tom Memorial Park

These photos and more can be seen large at my Flickr space.

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Berwyn National Bank

After a while, you know the look — the ancient boards, the removal of the surrounding plants, the fence. You look at a building, and you know… it’s coming down. That was my impression upon seeing the old Berwyn National Bank this afternoon, out west on Cermak.

Berwyn National Bank

It didn’t help that the rest of the block (known locally as “Superblock” for some reason) was vacant and covered with gravel, the mark of recent clearance.

Berwyn National Bank

And… gah! Look at that Coming Soon poster! Where’s the old building? Are they planning to tear it down? How can they tear this down?! This is an outrage! I demand justice! I demand accountability! Have they no sense of history? No appreciation of fine art?! No interest in developing the sense of place that defines —

....But where's the old building?!?

—oh, they’re not tearing it down? Huh.

Sure enough, renovation plans are in the works for this monumental old bank building. Huzzah! It’s a show stopper, and it’d be a terrible shame to lose it.

Berwyn National Bank

Security – Strength – Stability indeed. Long may they endure!

Links:
Superblock Redevelopment Agreement Approved by Berwyn City Council
Gaper’s Block – Berwyn’s Bank Building Battle

Three south side commercial streets

Years ago, I made one of my first trips to Chicago to pay a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio out in Oak Park. With that mission accomplished, my friend and I decided to see if we could make it down to the Robie House on the south side as well. I was driving, and elected to take a long, leisurely route through the city streets rather than jumping on a highway. It was on this trip that I discovered W. 18th Street.

W. 18th Street

I was sufficiently blown away by its endless ranks of 3- and 4-story commercial buildings, all seeming to date from the post-Fire years, that I made another trip down to Chicago just a week later, for the express purpose of paying a lengthy visit to this remarkable street.

Years later, the Pilsen neighborhood usually figures into my plans at least every few months. As a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, it’s home to scads of restaurants, and the Mexican Fine Arts Museum.

W. 18th Street

It’s also just a comfortable and friendly place to wander and photograph. The street is rich with details – signs, graffiti, ad hoc renovations, store displays, half-completed projects, murals, rusting fire escapes, and of course block after block of ornate vintage architecture.

Sacred and secular

Thalia Hall

In light of this commercially and aesthetically rich strip, I was surprised to find not one but two additional commercial streets nearby, both equal to W. 18th Street in architecture and culture.

The first one I encountered only this weekend. I was a bit tired and hungry, but the major buildings on this stretch of Cermak Road were just too amazing to pass up. I stopped the car and walked for an hour or so. The strip is west and a bit south from 18th Street.

Cermak Road

The prize find, and the building that compelled me to stop, was the old Marshall Square Theater, now called Apollo’s 2000.

"Apollo's 2000"

The building was, after a fashion, familiar to me from a striking photograph in Camilo Jose Vergara’s wonderful Unexpected Chicagoland, but not till I was standing in front of it did I have the “ah hah!” moment of recognition, when I saw the remorselessly vandalized goddess figure on the front facade, her face obliterated by a box beam ramming through it.

They punched that chick RIGHT IN THE FACE!!

A second theater, last operated as the West Theatre, stands a few blocks east. It’s not as ornate, but still lovely.

West Theatre

The neighborhood’s official names include South Lawndale and Little Village; demographically speaking, today it’s a westward extension of Pilsen, with a heavily Mexican-American population.

Cermak Road

Further west and south again from Cermak, W. 26th Street forms the core of the Little Village neighborhood. Founded and first settled by Eastern European immigrants, the area’s current name originated in the 1970s from its more recent Mexican immigrant population.

26th Street, Little Village

Pepe's Locksmith & Hardware

The street’s centerpiece is the former Atlantic Theater building, now converted to mundane commercial use.

Former Atlantic Theater

Mother Mary

Any one of these streets would be a marvel by itself; finding them all in such close conjunction is simply amazing.