Many years ago, Paul Bertsche sized up a number of Chicago neighborhoods as prospective places to do business and raise a family. Looking over Old Irving Park, he ticked off a checklist of essentials his adoptive community would have to possess.
Did it have good housing stock, well maintained and diverse? Check. Did it enjoy great access to public transportation and expressways? Check. Did it feature a conscientious alderman in the 38th Ward's Tom Allen, and a committed community organization in the Old Irving Park Association? Check, check.
Bertsche, wife Wendy Andrews and their company, CA Development, would go on to build scores of homes in and near Old Irving in the years to follow. They would also plant roots, moving there in 1996 and raising three kids. Today, he has no regrets. "It's not overcrowded, not overbuilt," he says. "It's a hidden gem."
Old Irving is arguably the best-known neighborhood in Irving Park, a Northwest Side Chicago community area bordered by the Chicago River's north branch, the Milwaukee Road railroad tracks near Kilbourn Avenue, Addison Street and Montrose Avenue.
But it's only one of the patches, including The Villa, Independence Park, West Walker and California Park, comprising the quilt of neighborhoods that is Irving Park. What ties them together are residents with a love of history and vintage homes, a desire to live close to transportation and, above all, a passion for civic betterment.
Bordered by Addison Street and Harding, Avondale and Hamlin Avenues, The Villa is a tidy triangular enclave tucked away on Irving Park's southwest corner, says resident Ruth Mugalian. Its uniqueness lies in its wide boulevards, spacious tree-lined parkways with gardens and eye-catching stone flower planters at intersections, she says. The Villa also serves up historic residential architecture, including arts and crafts bungalows and prairie-style bungalows, many of them built a century or more ago. The area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
"I love the architecture, and that our house is 100 years old," Mugalian says. "But what I really like about living here is the close-knit feeling. Neighbors all socialize, and there are lots of common interests. You walk down the street and you'll run into someone you know. Summers here are great; everyone's out and about."
East of The Villa is Independence Park, bounded by Pulaski and Irving Park Roads, Central Park Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway. Its anchor is the spacious city park with fieldhouse bearing the same name. The neighborhood and its park are both said to have been named for the giant Independence Day parades staged here years ago. The annual parade was reinstated two decades ago, said Patricia Clark, vice president of the Greater Independence Park Neighborhood Association.
Head north and you enter West Walker, a neighborhood bounded by Pulaski and Irving Park Roads west and south, and Central Park and Montrose Avenues east and north.
West Walker is perhaps best known for its support of the arts, says long-time resident Liz Mills. Fittingly, the neighborhood is home to many visual artists, writers and musicians, and began honoring its artistic legacy two years ago with a series called Art in My Backyard. "The goal is to bring art to empty storefronts, in a way that transforms the storefronts and promotes the art of local residents," Mills said.
Hers is an enclave where residents bond both formally and informally, she says. The West Walker Civic Association, where Mills is a board member and past president, has worked to maintain high quality of life in the neighborhood for 97 years.
But West Walker residents don't need an organization to keep them in touch with one another. "Within a two-block radius, I know probably 30 or 40 families," Mills said. "Those families are watching out for my kids, and I'm doing the same for theirs."
On the eastern edge of Irving Park is the California Park neighborhood, bounded by the Chicago River, Montrose and Kedzie Avenues and Addison Street. Sometimes called East Irving Park, it offers more than 70 acres of green space, as well as sweeping views of California Park, Horner Park and the Chicago River.
Most if not all Irving Park neighborhoods offer vintage homes, spacious yards and tree-lined thoroughfares. But the runaway champ in those categories is Old Irving. "You really feel you're living in a small town in the middle of a big city," says Anna Zolkowski Sobor, president of the Old Irving Park Association. "People move here for the larger lots, green space, mature trees and the friendliness of the community."
Many also are drawn to the stunning houses, including Victorians, American Foursquares, and farmhouses, as well as new construction homes in both frame and brick, says Heather Lange, sales associate at Chicago's Koenig & Strey. Homes here are priced from $400,000 to $2.5 million, Lange estimates.
Some Old Irving Park homes are like history museums. Real estate sales associate Peggy Brockhaus Shearer of Coldwell Banker lives in the Ropp-Grabill House, a pre-Civil War-era frame Italianate. "From the cupola of the home, residents could watch the Chicago Fire," she said. "The house was connected with tunnels in the neighborhood that helped slaves escape along the Underground Railroad."
You don't necessarily have to be rich to live in Old Irving. Two years ago, Irving Park Historical Society board member and long-time renter Laura Marie Sanchez bought her 1960s-era Old Irving townhouse for a price well under $300,000.
Irving Park offers many qualities beyond its historic homes. It's apropos that a community that first sprung up around a rail stop in the 1860s continues to draw folks who like fast commutes. CTA's Blue Line, a pair of Metra stops and the Kennedy Expressway can whisk residents downtown or to the airport quickly.
The community's schools, like Belding Elementary and Irving Park Middle School, continue to improve and create "quite a buzz in the neighborhood," said Lange, who adds the good schools are attracting new families. "The kid density in the neighborhood is huge. Every time I turn around, there's another stroller."
If there's a downside, it's the comparative dearth of commerce. The area is home to terrific, venerable eateries like Sabatinos and La Villa, and the Marketplace at Six Corners shopping center is near, but Irving Park could use more businesses. "The challenge is revitalizing shopping at Six Corners," Bertsche said. "To get a bookstore, a multiplex theater and some shopping would be great."
But few voice beefs, given all that Irving Park does offer. As Bertsche said: "It's a beautiful neighborhood, and a great place to raise kids."