You may not be able to sniff the 19th Century elsewhere in Old Town, but you can surely see it. It's there in the charming architecture, the quaint, narrow byways carved out when horse-drawn carriages plied the city, and carriage homes nestled in backyards. It's seen, too, in the short distances between residences and businesses -- the walkable kind favored when foot power rather than horsepower ruled the day.
It was once said that wherever you were, you were in Old Town if you could still see the St. Michael's Church bell tower at 1633 N. Cleveland St., said John Blick, executive director of the Old Town Merchants & Residents Association. But more accurately, Old Town's borders are Division Street to Armitage Avenue, and Clark to Halsted Street, he added.
Forty years ago, people descended on this urban patch, and particularly its hub at North Avenue and Wells Street, for its reputation as the Haight-Ashbury of Chicago. Today, culture has replaced counterculture as a neighborhood focus. And traditional button-down collars and ties have supplanted hippie beads as preferred neckwear.
"But when the ties come home, the jeans come on," noted long-time resident Alan Lougee with a laugh. "The artistic spirit is still here, both literally and figuratively."
That artsy ambience is a big reason residents and businesses alike tend to plant roots here and stay for five or six decades or more, Lougee says. But as a new generation of Old Town residents is discovering, the community is increasingly delivering the kind of family-friendly lifestyle once associated with outlying suburbs.
"We have a large preponderance of young married couples with children," says Shirley Baugher, administrator with Old Town Triangle Association, and an Old Town historian and author. "They have no intention of pulling up stakes and going to the suburbs. That's partly because the quality of the education in our schools is so good."
She points to Abraham Lincoln Elementary, the LaSalle Language Academy and Lincoln Park High School as particularly apt examples of the quality schoolsto be found in the area. Pam Rueve, who with her husband has lived in Old Town for 10 years, is among that wave of parents opting to raise children here, in part because of the schools.
"There are a lot of choices at the grade-school level," said Rueve, a sales associate at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, and the mother of two.
The education of Rueve's sons isn't limited to lessons learned in the classroom. "My kids go to the beach every day in the summer, they take public transportation, they get in cabs," she said. "Their cousins in the suburbs don't have the same concept of public transportation, or of being able to walk everywhere."
The pedestrian orientation is touted again and again as key to Old Town appeal. "It's one of the greatest neighborhoods in Chicago, because from the moment you step out your door, there's so much you can do," said Old Town resident Dino Lubbat, owner of Dinotto Ristorante, a North Avenue mainstay, serving Northern Italian fare since 1989. "I can walk down North Avenue or Wells Street and find everything I want to do."
Added Charles Huzenis, principal with brother Harry in Jameson Real Estate, an Old Town fixture for 27 years: "It's walkable, which is huge. It has its walking charm."
Though within walking distance, Old Town attractions tend to be anything but pedestrian. Second City and Zanies are world-renowned comedy meccas. Eateries ranging from Adobo Grill to Sinatra favorite Twin Anchors pack diners in year after year.
Busloads of folks arrive from distant ports for the comedy clubs and Tony n' Tina's Wedding at Pipers Alley. And it's a quick and easy stroll to the Chicago History Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
Just walking through Old Town and gazing at homes could consume days. "We have a neighborhood of very, very old homes from 1871 to the turn of the century," Baugher said. "There are even Louis Sullivan row houses, five of them on Lincoln Park West, some of the last residential structures Sullivan designed, from about 1890."
Speaking of homes, buyers will find newer, primarily red-brick structures south of North Avenue, while older, more historic dwellings showcasing an array of styles have been preserved north of that borderline, said Huzenis. Condos, townhouses and single-family homes range from about $450,000 to millions, he said.
It isn't easy finding people complaining about Old Town, but when they do, the gripe often has something to do with parking. Many Old Town streets have no alleys, which limits parking garages, Rueve says. "This is an issue when selling a home," she adds. "A place with a deeded parking space is more valuable than one without."
Some homeowners also grumble about already high property taxes soaring still higher, with one resident citing a threefold increase in the past 20 years.
Crime is not the concern it was years ago, Lougee said, noting "the nature of the crimes has declined. It's more property damage today. People watch out for each other. The Old Town Triangle Association has monthly CAPS meetings -- and they're well attended."
All of which results in a neighborhood many residents wouldn't dream of leaving. "It's a terribly trite word, but true: It's charming," Baugher says. "You walk down the streets, and you would never know you're in the heart of the city."