High Times in the Car Barn District

The past repurposed, yet again, in Chicagoland

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Come to the Car Barn District! Our bars resurrect vintage cocktails served in rare barware, all glistening in the bleak light of Edison bulbs! Our restaurants are ethnically inspired and chef-driven, filled with young and attractive staff who shall instruct you heartily in how to eat! Perhaps your evenings on these rustic streets will convince you to purchase a loft in a former factory building, with an open kitchen of black marble and high-end stainless steel! There, from a picture window, you may survey the proud working-class history stitched into these matured blocks, lined with noble century-old wood-frame three-flats, perfumed by the ghosts of a noble transit tradition, the cable cars and horse-drawn jitneys enjoyed by the common folk of a bygone age.

Of course, you can’t actually go to the Car Barn District, because it hasn’t been codified as such. Yet.

When my companion B. purchased her condominium last year on Armitage Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square, I was struck by the quiet, tattered elegance of the half-mile stretch between Western and California Avenues. Most of the buildings were wood-frame structures with a strangely similar boxy template and long rectangular bay windows. Working-class housing from around the turn of the century, many of the buildings had been re-faced in the 1960s or ’70s with asphalt siding and improved by the addition of intricate front gardens, often with a small reliquary for the Virgin Mary. These wood-frame structures were dominated by two hulking brick warehouse buildings that at first seemed generic, even ugly. Looking closer, one could see the intricate, crellenated stepped-in brickwork that derived from the years immediately following the Great Chicago Fire, bricks darkened oxblood over time. The low, imposing structures lent the neighborhood a sense of slumbering grandeur.

Later, I learned that these warehouses were actually car barns from Chicago’s cable-car system. In a city often defined by its transit issues, from the nomenclature of the “Loop” to the insidious role of expressway development in “white flight” and segregation, Chicago’s twenty-six-year experiment with cable cars has fallen down the civic memory hole.

Researcher Greg Borzo identified the two buildings on Armitage as among the last remaining smaller structures from the cable-car era. From 1882 until 1906, a network of routes and infrastructure spread through the city utilizing the novel technology, then prominent only in San Francisco, resulting in what Borzo calls the largest urban cable-car network ever constructed anywhere.

Yet, even as Chicago’s system was expanding, city planners were wiring its eventual obsolescence into the city grid, via the parallel development of overhead-line electric streetcars, which required far less massive infrastructure. When Chicago destroyed its old cable-car network, in the sort of spasm of public embarrassment that has become its unofficial civic trademark, it literally paved over every trace, interring its weighty iron wheels and pulleys beneath the streets. Only some enormous powerhouses (one of which housed Michael Jordan’s Restaurant in the 1990s) remained; and the car barns, just west of Western, sheltered silence as the decades tumbled past.

History on the Make

The real estate hall of mirrors made B. apprehensive, and understandably so, in terms both financial (“Am I a bad investor, as Chicago staggers in the general direction of Detroit, with our aged infrastructure, our embittered cops, our disliked mayor, and our enduring traditions of segregation and corruption?”) and spiritual (“Am I a bad urbanite, encouraging teardown and buildup in a quiet, principally Latino neighborhood?”). So I tried an optimistic suggestion.

“You know,” I said to B., as she fretted over her decision to step up to the green casino felt of North Side condominium speculation, “once this part of the neighborhood becomes known as the Car Barn District, gets a little touristy, gets some of those old-timey restaurants where the barkeeps wear sleeve-garters, this investment is gonna pay off.”

B. humored me. But then, there was plenty to preoccupy her—not least the inconvenient fact that some of the charming, serene post-Fire buildings along Armitage Avenue would have been erased to allow construction of her condominium six-flat. Like most residential construction over the last twenty years in many parts of the city, it evoked a strange collision between the clean, prim interior modernity of Design Within Reach, and the flat, affectless exteriors of glazed brick and painted cinderblock, most allusive to the Cabrini-Green aesthetic of brutish high-rise public housing. This was the default mode of Chicago’s post-”bad-old-days” gentrification, a subtly ironic style. As Luc Sante observed in Low Life, regarding the vanished history of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, when the quirky rot of antiquity is cleared away in our cities, it’s replaced by something inevitably much worse.

A month later, the smaller Car Barn was gone. Though separated by a bright, ugly U-Store-It facility, there had been a soothing echo in the pairing of the Car Barns: now the remaining structure seemed truncated, senseless, an efficient denial of history itself. As often happens in many neighborhoods, the century-old building of heavy brick was knocked down efficiently, safely, over several days. Since the structure lacked any dramatic ghost signage or gaudy commemorative plaque, much less an actual historical designation, few noticed when it went down. After decades of gentrification that drives and ebbs with the larger economy, many of our neighborhoods are a strange patchwork of the elegant old, the forsaken old, the forlorn industrial, and the jutting shininess of newer construction.

Once the car barn was demolished, the late light shone on Armitage Avenue differently, on the U-Hauls of new residents and the nice, clean cars of real estate professionals, through the ragged gaping of absence. Destruction reveals new and oblique views of the neighborhood past. This novel vantage itself disappeared as developers began constructing another popular condominium/investment template: the townhome development, in which several narrow “houses” with provided parking are crammed into a single former industrial lot. This has the virtue of resembling a miniaturized suburban slash within the convenience of the city neighborhood’s hipster hurly-burly.

We walked every day past the vanished car barn, watching as the prefabricated fiberglass- and aluminum-framed sections of the townhomes were craned into place, then watching the appearance of strikers and the ubiquitous giant inflatable rat, indicating a nonunion job (another common sight in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago). The fate of the car barns seemed representative of the gentrification of Logan Square, and the mechanism of forgetfulness which daily was re-making the fabric of Chicago with bloody brutality and flop-sweat absurdity.

Segregation by Service Denial

That Chicago was transformed by transit innovation is well known, as is how this process was carried out—with minimal civic input and attentiveness to segregation. (This goes back further than the first Mayor Daley, as attested by pre-1950 rail lines that still divide neighborhoods racially). Less known are the specific stories of how neighborhoods grew or withered, depending on these infrastructural changes. Lost tales of transit underlie the narratives of Humboldt Park and Logan Square—large neighborhoods, among the North Side’s oldest, roughly adjacent, built around the boulevard system that represented Chicago’s first aspirational attempt to elevate itself (selectively, for populations deemed deserving) via movement around the city’s space.

Humboldt Park was a densely populated Eastern European neighborhood through the post-World War II era. It had a highly functional shopping and business district, built around an independent El spur that ran along North Avenue as far west as Lawndale. Following the CTA’s 1947 consolidation, the El service was terminated in 1952, and the entire infrastructure pulled down within two years, despite community protest. It seems inconceivable that this denial of services could not play into the “white flight” era that followed: Humboldt Park became a densely Puerto Rican neighborhood and saw years of strife (notably the riots of 1966 and 1977) amid infrastructure decay.

While Humboldt suffered the psychic destruction of demolition, Logan Square was in for a stranger fate. Historically, the neighborhood represented an El line terminus as far back as 1895, allowing for stunning mansions to sprout up along the boulevard, alongside a sprawl of elegant apartment buildings, together with many small businesses serving a multiethnic middle class (some of the earliest residents were nineteenth-century Scandinavians and Jews who’d been barred from “nicer” areas).

The theme should somehow evoke history without being subordinate to its reality: the red-flocked bordello, or the factory-district bar serving a “ploughman’s lunch.”

This new construction clustered around the old terminal, a block-long structure that received elegant terra cotta facing in the 1920s, but in later photos appeared shabby and obsolete.

But here, too, the city’s larger transit machinations took a fatal hand in applying the narrative of “Progress” (for Daley’s white ethnic working class, that is) to the destruction of a neighborhood’s fabric.

Daley’s overall expressway plan depended upon a rail link to O’Hare; the mayor’s transit apparatchiks decided to plunge the trains into the ground in the center of genteel Logan Square. The result was years of demolition along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, ushering in entropy: many businesses shuttered, replaced by dollar stores and cheap grocers, while others settled into a well-worn decrepitude, lasting for decades, giant neon signs glimmering dead against old brick (including that of a 1915 movie theater, cut up into a quad in the 1960s, while a much grander movie palace just up the street was actually demolished for low-rise office space).

The net result was a depopulated, haunted-seeming neighborhood left with the grand infrastructure of the boulevard system (a complex turnaround anchors the neighborhood, around an ornamental pillar designed by Evelyn Beatrice Longman and Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial), rows of stately mansions, and numerous courtyard apartment buildings and SRO hotels. For years, Logan Square seemed to slumber, populated by numerous Latino families, older Eastern Europeans, and, eventually, the bohemian-musician types already priced out of rapidly gentrifying Wicker Park to the east.

Today, in Logan Square, gentrification seems more focused on a blasé hipster attitude of divorce and distance, as, again, the older signs of the neighborhood’s polyglot Latino/working-class disappear. The efficient dispatch of the neighborhood’s past marks an aspirational distance, one that justifies the bland erasing force of condo culture in all its excess, and blindly fills haggard space all across the city today.

Empty Calories

Here is where my fantasy of the Car Barn District is enacted, in hasty and ahistorical strokes. Armitage Avenue, we are told, is the city’s newest destination for daring dining. No less an arbiter of civic duty than Crain’s Chicago Business has done its part, noting in a goggle-eyed August 2015 piece “Chicago’s Other Restaurant Row” that “Those in the know are heading farther northwest for excellent eats. Over the past couple of years, Armitage Avenue in Logan Square has quietly started to steal a bit of Randolph Street’s thunder.”

Chicago loves its food, and the vibrancy of its restaurant industry following the staid 1990s is a source of suburban and tourist dollars and genuine creative pride. Still, newer drinking and dining establishments must adhere to certain lifestyle codes. The food is often scrumptious and the drinks quick and strong; the staff is generally friendly, if aloof in the manner of those privy to sensuous secrets. Most important, there must be a unifying theme, one that knits together menu fare, décor, floor-service uniforms and overall evanescent vibe. And that theme should somehow evoke history without being subordinate to its reality: the red-flocked bordello, or the factory-district bar serving a “ploughman’s lunch.” The Michelin-starred Longman and Eagle, an early innovator in Logan Square, whose carefully curated louche steampunk ambiance extends to a six-room upstairs inn, embodies all of this, though not yet to the point of a Stephen Crane-type songwriter expiring from opiates in the upstairs room.

The scruffy artifice of spaces like Longman makes the social snobbery of the restaurant business as it benefits from gentrification a subtle thing. In Chicago, no patrons are really unwelcome in a trendy restaurant, as long as they appear comfortable with $30 entrees. Still, unwritten codes exist that seem obtuse, given that gentrification entails the re-occupation of urban spaces inhabited by economic and racial groups who stayed in the face of real urban neglect and white flight—and who are now politely pointed toward far-flung neighborhoods yet again.

Gunfire on Restaurant Row

The long-established Mexican and Puerto Rican communities in Logan and Humboldt exemplify this perverse dynamic. As in the Latino communities of Pilsen and Little Village, on the South Side, residents’ commitment to these neighborhoods (and the warmth of many streets) is evident. But Chicago’s segregation has set up other barriers of a transparent apartheid, in a way that affects all our lives, shuffling us into drastically different pools of risk. One demographic that may have trouble grasping the genteel exclusionary intent of the “Restaurant Row” designation is the neighborhood’s dwindling but substantial population of young gang members.

At 6:49 on a Friday in early June of 2016, twenty-year-old Daniel Alcantana was shot dead on Armitage Avenue in the parking lot of a combination laundromat/cell phone store. His killers also wounded a luckless employee who’d been passing out flyers for discounted service, such a normal neighborhood sight that the assassins presumably did not “see” him.

Gang executions are now drifting into Chicago’s post-work, pre-weekend traffic congestion; Alcantana’s murder was elevated into grisly irony through its proximity to Parson’s, a popular fried chicken restaurant. Owned by the same consortium behind the Longman development, Parson’s was built out from the shell of a long-vacant sixties-era donut shop. A large patio was added, management foreseeing that many people, in fact, would wait in line to eat hush puppies in a Humboldt Boulevard facsimile of a Montauk fish shack.

Parson’s has received gushers of lifestyle-journalism coverage, praising its mildly decadent punk rock/Big Lebowski vibe and pseudo-Southern veranda food (including a valid take on the trendy “Nashville Hot Chicken”). Reviewers never fail to mention one novel low/high feint, purportedly developed on a whim: the “Negroni Slushy,” a brain-numbing 7-11 version of the conservative Italian cocktail staple, sharp and delicious, and a ridiculous money-minter at $9 a portion from a whirling carnival machine (no actual cocktail shaking involved). Thanks to its hipster renown, Parson’s has drawn a steady cataract of overflow crowds to the sidewalk, and has instituted a host stand that judiciously doles out wait times.

Chicago’s segregation has set up other barriers of a transparent apartheid, in a way that affects all our lives, shuffling us into drastically different pools of risk.

Thus, Alcantana’s murder literally occurred before a live frieze of Glamour Gentrification—a force that is usually treated as invisible. The happy sweat of after-work revelers, the warm humidity of cooking oil smoke throbbing from the vents, the cold stare of the Parson’s hosts, the smell of cordite and the small crack of multiple gunshots—all of this was made equally and distressingly real on that early summer evening. In this matrix of colliding visions of urban authenticity, Alcantana was just the runoff of one capitalist system being superseded by another.

The police termed Alcantana a “well known” gang member, observing that “unfortunately, he did not heed our warnings and declined our multiple offers of assistance to change his life.” Yet Alcantana’s home address was some forty blocks southwest of the corner where he died, suggesting an unsettling aspect of the underworld existing on these streets: for all the gangland bluster about protecting the hood, entry-level workers in the gang’s drug trade commute between neighborhoods, just like the service-industry workers running Parson’s, or the commuters in Armitage Avenue traffic who witnessed his death. As has long been true, many “perp on perp” murders in marginal or gentrifying neighborhoods will not be solved. This isn’t due only to police apathy but often to the very factors that are spiking crime in such neighborhoods right now and overwhelming the civil infrastructure.

Contrast, in this regard, Alcantana’s sad death with an even more senseless crime, three nights later and eight blocks away: the drive-by shooting of six-year-old Jaylene Bermeo as she played with sidewalk chalk in front of a house on Bingham Street, just off Armitage. Jaylene survived the attack—and the cause was easily identified: a feud between chapters of the Spanish Cobras (with whom Jaylene’s aunt was allegedly associated) and the Maniac Latin Disciples. Here the full wrath of the fabled Chicago Machine came down: a seventeen-year-old shooter was quickly apprehended (he was from Portage Park, a neighborhood many blocks away), thanks to eyewitnesses and the investigators’ gang database, and the aunt’s house was declared uninhabitable as a “problem house” associated with criminal activity.

It’s hard to sort out these differential studies in street-level crime-fighting without noting a fundamental class-driven myopia: much of Chicago’s white-collar population studiously ignores the city’s narratives of disorder, except when it interferes with their own habits and hedonism (a robbery in the drinking district of Wicker Park, for example). Still, these ugly crimes along the soft borders of gentrification reveal hard truths at the outset. For one thing, it seems clear that though the law of the streets (stop snitching) is surely real, witnesses will speak up when a child is cut down by an unaimed fusillade. For another, so many local youth get swept up in the romance of Chicago’s gang culture that they will never get the chance to develop stable lives in their twenties—and this grim demographic calculus is partly tolerated within their own communities. Like the Polish thug of Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning, living and dying in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village just before the war, there are hidden generations in this city that never expect to get old. The ethnicities change, but the downward trajectories against the same urban landscape does not.

And here, again, observers can descry the covert hand of gentrification: members of the gangs who claim they run these streets fall into hospital beds, jail cells, and graves, before their grandmothers wind up selling their family homes to accommodate the white hipsters who may be shocked from contemplation of fine fried foods and alcoholic slushies by the instantaneous violence of this urban capitalism we’ve all chosen.

“Do my neighbors resent me?” B. fretted one night, worrying over such itchy moral questions regarding her (duly completed) investment in Logan Square’s massive lifestyle upgrade. “Am I doing something wrong?”

“Let’s go get a burger at Table Donkey and Stick!” I might’ve responded. “It’s ‘Industry’ night.”

Journalists salivate over the ever-more exotic and chef-pedigreed concepts coming soon to the new Restaurant Row. The Humboldt Park El may be long gone, but the 606, an “urban trail” developed from a disused freight spur that once segregated ethnicities within the neighborhood, has pleased joggers and commuters, and elevated the value of surrounding real estate. It’s also sparked a modest wave of protests and humorous anti-“man bun” street art from anti-gentrification groups (and, predictably, a string of late-night muggings). And I continued to amuse myself by murmuring the joys of the soon-to-be-sanctified Car Barn District—that perfectly enjoyable, polychrome dream of the wonderfully reclaimed neighborhood—hospitable, whimsical in its historicity, efficiently preservationist, and, somehow, guilt-free.

Mike Newirth has received a Henfield-Transatlantic Review Award and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches composition and creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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