When I’m not nerding out on Chicago history here at Chicago Detours, I have a second job life-guarding at what I think is one of the most surreal places on the north side of Chicago – the private pools of the Carl Sandburg Village. This complex, located in the Old Town neighborhood between North and Division, and Clark and LaSalle, consists of 9 high rises and townhouses with more than 2,600 condo units and 8,000 residents. After two summers of interaction with Sandburg residents, many of whom have lived there since the urban renewal project opened in 1963, I’ve discovered there is more than meets the eye of the quaint and classy Old Town.
Walk through the neighborhood of Old Town today and you will have a charming experience of boutiques, bistros, and historic homes on picturesque streets. The signature wrought iron gate south of North Avenue on Wells Street welcomes you to a neighborhood known for its upscale sophistication and cozy, historic feel. Ask what to do for fun in Old Town and its residents, typically older and middle to upper class, will proudly suggest notorious Chicago entertainment venues such as hilarious The Second City, the respected Steppenwolf, or the eclectic Royal George Theater for an evening of comedy or drama.
Old Town maintained some establishments over the last 40 to 50 years, such as Saint Michael Church (one of only seven buildings to survive the Fire of 1871), Frank Sinatra’s favorite rib joint the Twin Anchors, the Old Town Aquarium, the risque Bijou Theater, the Old Town Ale House, the Up Down Cigar, the Old Town School of Folk Music (now relocated off Armitage and Halsted), and the long running Old Town Art Fair. While these places add nostalgic charisma, in general Old Town has become a little less bohemian antique and a little more “Crate and Barrel.” Claimed to be home to the first sushi restaurant in Chicago in the 1960s at Kamehachi, the neighborhood is also credited the first of Chicago’s neighborhoods that have experienced “gentrification.”
Sandburg was built as an urban renewal project—intended to spur redevelopment of the diminishing near north side from its dilapidation. As families that were able fled to the suburbs in the 1950s, the near north side had become a densely populated area where immigrants, working poor, and minorities lived together. The area was labeled as “blight” or slums by developer Arthur Rubloff, mayor Richard J. Daley, city planners, and others who were afraid the unseemliness would spread through the whole city, especially the precious and protected Gold Coast neighborhood nearby.
The story of Sandburg Village and most urban renewal in city planning in the 1950s and ’60s took this approach: government takes the “blighted land,”government demolishes the homes and businesses of this area, government sells the cleared land to developers, developers make buildings with high rent and attract a wealthier, young urban professionals (sometimes abbreviated to yuppies) to the area, pushing previous inhabitants out. In this particular case, one of the largest minority groups in Old Town in the ’60s were Puerto Ricans, most of whom reportedly moved south and west to what is today known as Humboldt Park.
Urban renewal and gentrification are often controversial and the Sandburg Village is still debated. On the one hand, it revitalized the entire near north side, with surrounding neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and Lakeview following in its wake. Wells and Halsted streets in particular are dotted with high-end retailers and avant-garde restaurants. On the other hand, Sandburg Village displaced many and is accused to have been built without due process. It is also sad to see historic buildings demolished, such as the Red Star Inn (pictured above) to clear way for modern construction.
The architecture and layout of the Sandburg Village complex indicates the desire to be a secluded “village within a city.” Today, people have trouble locating the two swimming pools, the tennis court, and even front yards of townhouses. All hidden behind tall, dark brick walls, with little visibility from the street, it’s obvious that the complex preferred privacy and exclusivity from the outside world.
To me, that is the bizarre part of Sandburg Village and Old Town – there is no way to escape the poor population that was pushed out of Old Town; odd juxtaposition of the pristine shops at North and Wells versus the panhandling only a few blocks away at Clark and Division. What are your thoughts on the positives and negatives of urban renewal?