If you've never heard of Chicago's North Center community, you're not alone. Many who come to dine or imbibe here would be surprised to learn there even is a name for the area bordered by the Chicago River to the west, Addison south, Montrose north and Clark Street/Ashland Avenue to the east.
Maybe that's because North Center is encircled by some of the brightest stars in the North Side firmament, like bustling Lakeview, quaint and family-focused Roscoe Village, young and edgy Lincoln Square and stately Old Irving. From an outsider‘s view, all would seem to outshine North Center.
"It's not as well known as Wrigleyville or Lakeview," said Ed Kane, a resident from 1977 to 1997, who still works in North Center as senior vice president of one of its anchor entities, 62-year-old Lincoln Park Savings Bank. "But it's a nice little jewel. We call it the heart of the North Side."
Twenty-one-year resident Jim Bott was one of those who frequently drove through North Center on his commute to work, but never stopped long enough to explore its charms. Then in 1989, he was house-hunting on the North Side and his real estate agent steered him toward a cottage on Oakley Avenue north of Irving Park Road.
"I looked at it and loved it, and loved the neighborhood," he recalled. "I still do. It's urban, but it doesn't feel urban once you get away from the corners."
Born and raised here, Howard Wilcox went to school at St. Benedict, married a woman from the same school, raised four children down the block and opened his real estate firm, The Wilcox Co., around the corner in 1967.
"It's a true neighborhood," he said. "People on each block know who lives across the street and next door. Most blocks have block parties every summer, and the neighbors are all involved. It's a ‘porch neighborhood,' I think they call it. We all watch out for each others' kids. We've watched ‘em grow up, move away, and now some of these homes have second and third generations living there."
There's good reason families seem to be converging on North Center even more than they have in years past. That reason is improving schools. Bell Elementary School is thought to be one of the best in the Chicago Public Schools, due to its gifted programs and strong parent participation, Wilcox said.
St. Ben's, the name commonly used to refer to St. Benedict School for preschool through high school students, "is one of the jewels in the Archdiocese cap," Wilcox added. "It's one of their flagships." And Coonley Elementary School is drawing raves as an up-and-coming public school, he said.
Parks, recreation and reading are additional drawing cards. Revere Park is on North Center's western edge, while Horner and Welles Parks sprawl just outside its borders. Kids can ice skate indoors at McFetridge Sports Center on California Avenue, or play tennis on its indoor courts. When it's time for less-active pursuits, Sulzer Regional Library on Lincoln Avenue, close to North Center's northeast edge, is brimming with books, videos and CDs.
North Center is aptly named, for the neighborhood is near the North Side‘s geographic center. Being a North Side hub makes for great public transit, said Hildegard Haenisch, a resident since 1971. "Where I live now, I can walk over to Lincoln, and take the Lincoln Avenue bus practically downtown," said Haenisch, president of a group for German-American seniors in the traditionally German district. "You can take the Western Avenue bus wherever you want to go north and south, and the Irving Park bus wherever you want east and west."
You don't have to venture far for excellent dining, however. "There are all kinds of nationalities and menus," Kane said. They begin with the gemutlichkeit served up by German spots like Resi's Bierstube and Laschet's Inn. The dining selection extends to other North Center favorites like O'Donovan's, Orange Garden Chinese restaurant and neighborhood hangout Chicago Joe's.
Brad Rompza, who owns Chicago Joe's, suggests business owners are lured to the community for many of the same reasons residents are.
"You've got a little bit of everyone in the neighborhood, from the average Joe to the families to the working stiffs — and a lot of kids," he said.
Tying it together is a responsive 47th Ward office, Kane added. "We have a very committed alderman in Gene Schulter, and he's assembled a dedicated ward staff that takes great pride in servicing the needs of the residents."
North Center is regarded by residents as a relatively safe city community. "It's a very low-crime neighborhood," Bott said. "The most that ever happens is some graffiti gets put up. That's about it."
Most North Center homes are vintage structures built around the turn of the century. "For a long time there were probably 10 two-flats for every single-family home," Wilcox said. "But lately, because of the supply of and demand for homes, we've seen many sales of two-flats. . . . They gut the interior and completely redesign the structures to make them into single-family (homes)."
Very popular with homebuyers is the St. Ben's section of North Center, which Wilcox says goes from Addison Street to Irving Park and from Damen to Western Avenues. "What sets it apart is there are more single-family homes there than outside those boundaries, and very few multi-unit buildings," he said. "And where there are multi-unit buildings, they tend to be six units or less."
Throughout North Center is found a commodity in short supply elsewhere on the city‘s North Side: plentiful on-residential-street parking. People who move to North Center from, say, Lincoln Park "have a hard time grasping you can park in front of your home any time, day or night," Wilcox said.
It's evident that homeowners take pride in their property.
"There are well-tended lawns, and pride of ownership is apparent," Wilcox said. "Drive down the streets and it shows."
Home prices extend from $400,000 for older homes needing work to more than $2 million for new houses. Most single-family houses range from $650,000 to $700,000, with two-flats generally fetching $550,000 to $600,000, Wilcox said.
Perhaps the best housing news is that North Center has a place for older, downsizing residents. Within the last couple of years, both Bott and Haenisch have sold their homes and moved to condos at North Center's Belle Plaine Commons, a 2-year-old, five-story, 92-unit condominium development for buyers 55 and older at 2335 W. Belle Plaine. It is part of the larger North Center Senior Campus, a block-long senior housing campus that includes Belle Plaine Commons, the 104-unit Martha Washington rental apartments, and the 86-unit St. Vincent DePaul Residence.
That suggests North Center will go on offering the stability and continuity that are hallmarks of a great neighborhood. Haenisch speaks for old and young alike in North Center: "I don't want to leave," she said. "I like it here."