Chicago is famous for its diverse, lively neighborhoods. Many are worth exploring. But for one who has hiked up and down the city's streets for years, one community stands out as particularly comfortable: Lake View.
"Comfortable" has faddish associations; mashed potatoes and so on. Lake View has that kind of comfort in abundance. But "to be comforted" originally meant "to make strong"--and Lake View is also a place of strongly rooted institutions, organizations, and independent businesses, as well as mashed potatoes and Swedish potato pancakes. Thus it is a place where you can enjoy the essence of city life so much that it painlessly strengthens your desire to appreciate and help your own neighborhood.
To explore Lake View is to discover a truly urban neighborhood: diverse, stimulating, and sophisticated. Yet Lake View is also—in spite of some gentrification—a homey place where people are committed, as individuals and in groups, to creating and maintaining a true community.
As one resident recently put it, "This is not a mall environment" (quoted in Inside, the local newspaper; see below). The people of Lake View, organized into groups such as the Southeast Lakeview Neighbors and the Lake View Citizens' Council, keep busy fighting overly large apartment complexes that don't have enough parking, working to downscale proposed multiscreen movie complexes, and protecting historic buildings. The neighborhood of about 80,000 people seems to be a hotbed of organized support for the best that a city has to offer.
Lake View spreads west from Lake Michigan on the city's mid-North Side. It is a physically gracious yet unglamorous place of gentle, civilized streets. If you perhaps have part of a day or more to spare on a visit to Chicago, it's a fine alternative to touristy, glitzy haunts.
The neighborhood (see map) is bounded by Diversey Parkway on the south, Ashland Avenue on the west, Irving Park Road on the north, and the Lake on the east. Translated into geopolitics, that means south is mostly urban glamour and overpriced, overrun places, north is multiethnic funk, and west is the bungalow belt. Lake View is a crossroads for all these elements of the Chicago mix. And it's more, including Boys Town's gay life; Jewish, German, Swedish, and other national groups; and organizations committed to social service, including a branch of Hull House. From the elegance of Lake Shore Drive, to the funkiness of main streets like Belmont, Broadway, Diversey and Clark, Lake View is the kind of place where you can forget your troubles in the cornucopia of life.
You can eat trendy Italian food in an architecturally wonderful ristorante, shop at a Lesbian and gay bookstore, join in evening prayer at a magnificent Jewish temple, or wander quiet streets where people tend their gardens and dogs sit on the front porch. (The funny word "nondescript" suits Lake View.)
Along the Lake tower fancy apartment buildings. But just behind some of these are the comfy old mansions built by Lake View's German-American founders. The neighborhood was settled as an independent suburb of Chicago in 1837 and engulfed by the growing city in 1889.
The best way to taste Lake View is to explore on foot. You can easily get there by taxi or bus or el from downtown or wherever you're staying (see Logistics). Or you can stay in a homey small hotel right here (see Where To Stay).
In keeping with the wandering spirit, here is a free-form sample of destinations and diversions. You might want to seek one or more of them out, or you might want to string them together in your own path.
A Stroll Down Belmont Avenue
An easy place to start from is the Belmont Avenue El Stop. This is gritty city--at first glance: you must descend a mazelike stairway from the train platform to the sidewalk and the dark street under the elevated tracks. But right away you notice a welcoming restaurant: Ann Sather, a landmark of the city. The Swedish food here includes those potato pancakes and many other homey delicacies. The service is friendly. And the other eaters are a diverse group enjoying themselves, not worrying about what they're wearing or who else is there.
After eating comes the big decision: to head east or west? If you go west, you'll quickly reach Clark Street. And that's another story (see below). But let's say a Lake breeze caresses your cheek and you're lured east.
In the first few blocks after Ann Sather, there are several intriguingly nondescript row of stores Among them you'll find such places as:
Architectural Revolution offers gargoyles of the presidents as well as many other kinds of artifacts
People Like Us, gay and lesbian bookstore at 1115 West Belmont is a friendly, well-stocked community center
In the next couple of blocks, you'll come to two fascinating churches.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church soars over the north side of the street. Each day at 8:15 AM, there's a Mass in the living-room-like chapel (finding the entrance is a bit tricky) graced with charming modern stained glass depicting various animals, including a nice teal duck. Across the street at the other end of the block is Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, which you can visit each day for Eucharist (weekdays at 7 AM in the chapel entered through the parish house just west of the church, Saturdays at 8 AM, and Sundays at 10 AM). The friendly rector will invite you for coffee after the weekday service, and will be glad to show you the main church. He explained to me that the building, which seems wider than usual for a church, is actually a cast-iron prefab structure of a type common for various uses after the great fire of 1871. Saint Peter's has grown with Lake View--from a quiet village at the end of a streetcar line to the bustling urban district of today. Indeed, at 9 each Sunday morning the San Pedro community celebrates Eucharist in Spanish in the church.
We now reach the Broadway-Belmont intersection. Broadway is chockablock with shops and restaurants; more on that below. But if you need anything from groceries to hardware, not to mention medicine, here athe the corner is a 24-hour Walgreens. Then beyond is the Lake.
The lakefront is always a world of its own. It's the icing on Chicago's cake. Typically rimmed on the west by glamorous apartment towers and the east by parks, beaches, and the water, the streets of the lakefront have a relaxed yet patrician air that lifts one's spirits and helps you ignore the traffic rushing by.
Where Belmont Avenue ends at the Lake could be considered Lake View's front garden. You are greeted by verdant Lincoln Park with its elegant golf course, Belmont Harbor bobbing with fancy boats, and the Lake billowing with wavelets. Lake Shore Drive and its cliff of apartments heads north and south. To the south is also a fine view of the downtown skyline. Here Sheridan Road--the main drag heading to the city's far North Side and rich North Shore suburbs--disappears temporarily after starting several blocks to the south. The vanishing act is commemorated with a statue of General Philip Sheridan himself. So it goes in quirky Lake View.
Just north of the Belmont-Lake Shore Drive intersection are some unique streets, Hawthorne and Stratford places (see map). These quiet oases are a historic district of the kinds of comfortable large houses that once characterized the lakefront of much of the North Side. It's worth taking a few minutes to stroll here. And on your stroll, stop at Temple Sholom, the home of the North Side's oldest Reform Jewish congregation. The grand domed Byzantine-esque stone building can be visited each day for evening prayers at 5:45.
Perhaps it's time for a break. Head two blocks west, past gentle Pine Grove Avenue (many nice smaller apartment buildings, and lined with pretty trees, but where are those pines?) to Broadway, which, yes, was named for the street in New York City. And it's aptly named, for it's the main drag of Lake View.
Broadway has a delightfully funky, homey, low-slung feel that makes it a great place to stroll. Many unique and fun shops, restaurants, cafes, and theatres are on Broadway or its adjoining streets. Places along here to catch a quick meal or libation include The Melrose, which is always open, Coffee Chicago (one of a locally owned chain), and IntelligentsiA Coffee Roasters & Tea Blenders (no, that "A" isn't a typo, it's just that kind of place). The restaurants are really trendy and the action is especially hot a block west on Halsted Street, which is also the center of activity for the neighborhood's many gay people. It's known as Boys Town.
An aside on nightlife. Halsted and nearby on streets like Belmont is where to find it--at least gay fun. Roscoe's is a charming nice old standby bar, with dancing and a garden with food. The Vortex has dancing in foam or whatever the momentary craze. Berlin is an androgynous venue that I've heard goes through enough metamorphoses to keep it intriguing. There is also a host of theatres, including the established larger venues of the Briar Street Theater, the Ivanhoe Theater, the New Athenaeum Theatre, and many smaller ones.
If you want to stock up on fancy food or bring something back to your hotel room, stop at Treasure Island, at 3460. This store seems to have invented the gourmet/whole foods supermarket genre long before the currently trendy and rather cloying yuppie chains. It's just as unpretentious as any supermarket, but it has a huge selection of fascinating items from around the world and a staff who serve you with friendly panache. And you can bring home your treasures in sturdy, reusable plastic shopping bag decorated with a photo of Greta Garbo on one side and a painting of Napoleon on this charger on the other.
Before you have to think of getting back to whatever brought you to Chicago or catching your plane, here are a few more unique Lake View places and activities:
More vibrant commercial streets: Diversey Parkway, Clark Street, Halsted Street, and Lincoln Avenue—a truly serendipitous experience. You may find a Scottish restaurant, a home furnishings store that stocks "poo pets" formed out of manure for the garden, or a shopping mall hiding inside a grand old movie theatre. One thing that's really tops here is major bargain shopping at thrift stores. The queen of these is the wonderful Brown Elephant at 3641 North Halsted at Addison Street (773-549-3549). This clean, huge cavern of thrift benefits the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic for people living with HIV/AIDS.
More special houses of worship. A standout is the Lutheran Church of Saint Luke at 1500 West Belmont at Greenview Avenue, whose wild 1950s moderne structure is home to a large, diverse congregation committed to serving the city with a fine school and inspiring liturgy. We wandered in on Ascension Day to find a glorious Sung Eucharist complete with Bach, trumpets, and helium balloons. There are also beautiful smaller Jewish temples hidden on some of the side streets, including Anshe Emmet at 3760 North Pine Grove.
Sculptures that will play with your imagination. See the replica of a totem pole at Lake Shore Drive and Addison Street (the rare original—brought here by the founder of the Kraft food firm—was returned to the Kwakiuti tribe of British Columbia after being discovered by tribe members in town to help set up a museum exhibit). Stroll by a strange pair of stylized stainless steel giraffes guarding both sides of Elaine Place off Roscoe Street just west of Broadway. Gawk at the grandiose Elks National Memorial, actually just outside the boundaries of Lake View on the south side of Diversey at Sheridan. This phantasmagoria has to be seen to be believed.
A thriving cyberculture. While you're still at home, you can read news of Lake View in the online version of Inside, the newspaper for several North Side communities; on the Internet at http://www.insideonline.com/. Then when you arrive in Lake View, stop by the Interactive Bean, 1137 West Belmont, a very hospitable cybercafe offering a full range of food, drinks, and computer services.
This is all just a taste of Lake View. It's a place you'll want to return to. I kept thinking I could move there in a minute. Even old Chicago winter wouldn't be so bad with all the welcoming, comforting places in this comfortable part of Chicago.
Note: Logistics and other details to come.