Chicago/Wicker Park

Wicker Park is the vanguard of music, nightlife, and fashion in Chicago. This article also includes the sly, enjoyable Ukrainian Village, immediately south, and pieces of the greater West Town area.

Understand

The Boring Store, Wicker Park

Among the most pointless topics of debate in Chicago life is whether Wicker Park has changed, is full of yuppies now, isn't what it used to be, etc. The answers are simple: yes, maybe, and who cares? Just like the Velvet Underground would have been playing stadiums if everybody who claimed to have seen them in 1967 actually did, if everybody who claims to have been there when Wicker Park was cool actually was there, it would be a city roughly the size of Cleveland. Wicker Park is uniquely well-served by transportation among West Side neighborhoods, with the CTA's Blue Line elevated train and the major arteries of North, Milwaukee, and Damen all converging upon the center of the area.

Wicker Park was founded by the Wicker brothers in the 1870s, and it became part of the row of prosperous immigrant neighborhoods on the West Side of Chicago — the German and Polish beer barons of Wicker Park were neighbored by the farmers of Bucktown, the Ukrainians in their titular Village, the Greeks and Italians of the Near West Side, and the Czechs of Pilsen. The brewery fortunes left two legacies that survive today: gorgeous, European-style mansions and apartment buildings, and a truly world-class set of dive bars. By 1900, Wicker Park had become Chicago's Polish Downtown. The city's oldest and most prominent Polish settlement, Polish Downtown was the political, cultural, and social capital of not only Poles in Chicago but for Polish Americans throughout North America. The area around Polonia Triangle at the intersection of Division, Ashland and Milwaukee Avenue played host to almost every major Polish organization in the United States.

After the economic decline of the West Side, Puerto Ricans became the majority population in Wicker Park. With them came the other two elements that would turn the neighborhood's commercial fortunes around: low rents in those great buildings, and an art scene that became known for exciting new work. Artists and musicians from outside the area moved in, finding cheap studios in places like the Flatiron Arts Building and good venues to exhibit and perform like the Double Door and the excellent Empty Bottle. Among many others, the Smashing Pumpkins were formed in the area, and Liz Phair's album Exile in Guyville re-cast the Rolling Stones' Main Street in Wicker Park; on the visual arts side, the long-running Around the Coyote festival continues as an annual gathering of the neighborhood's artistic highlights. (Years later, the John Cusack film High Fidelity attempted to capture Wicker Park in all of its elitist, obnoxious, trend-setting glory, and was generally well received. However, when MTV's The Real World arrived in 2001, it sparked off a memorable neighborhood-wide fit.)

Of course, all vinyl pants must split in the end, and by the mid-90s, real estate prices were on the rise, and bar stools were colonized by conversations about who had been priced out (the Puerto Rican artists, for one) and where the next hot scene would be (opinions vary). Demand for housing in proximity to Wicker Park turned its neighbors Bucktown and Ukrainian Village into hot residential properties, and the boundaries between neighborhoods have become less meaningful with time. There are still a few Ukrainians in what's affectionately known as The Uke, but there are only a few places where their paths cross with the condo conversion kids: aside from the sidewalks in front of the astonishing churches in the area and in line at the terrific old bakeries, all style becomes equal at the historic Division Street Bath House.

Today, a few national chains have settled in among the independent fashion boutiques in Wicker Park, but it still raises a righteous middle finger to the glossy shopping on the Magnificent Mile, still offers the best places to get a cheap beer, and still has residents who, per capita, care more about quality music and restaurants than anywhere else in the city.

Get in

By train

The O'Hare branch of the CTA Blue Line has stops in West Town (Chicago, Grand), Ukrainian Village (Division) and Wicker Park (Damen). The Damen stop is particularly useful, as it's right at the epicenter of Wicker Park and the border of Bucktown, and a short walk south to Ukrainian Village and the nightlife on Division.

If you're going further afield in Ukrainian Village than Division — say, to the Empty Bottle (see Drink) — get to know the relevant bus routes, as the CTA trains don't run particularly close.

By bus

By car

I-90/94, that shining exemplar of Chicago gridlock, runs close to Ukrainian Village — exit at Division and head straight west, or make a right off Division on Milwaukee to reach Wicker Park.

This isn't one of the worst parts of the city for parking, but it can still be a challenge, and there are no public lots or garages in the area. Be patient and circle the side streets. Many upscale restaurants offer valet parking for $10 or so. Permit-only parking is in place on many side streets, so check street signs. Damen in particular has some oddball no-parking hours.

See

While the art scene has largely moved on from Wicker Park, many of the galleries in the Flatiron Arts Building have First Friday open hours (6-9PM).

Do

Music venues are the main attraction here, particularly the Double Door and the Empty Bottle (see below).

Buy

Promises, promises: Wicker Park

The intersection of Milwaukee, North, and Damen is the indie Magnificent Mile. Start at the six corners and explore from there — you'll find plenty of cutting-edge fashion boutiques heading north on Damen, and more in both directions on Milwaukee, along with national chains like American Apparel and the Levi Store.

You're also liable to do well searching for vinyl records here, both in Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village.

Books

Clothes

Music

Others

Eat

Hipsters: A field guide

Residents of other neighborhoods in Chicago know Wicker Park by one word: "hipsters." Nearly every review of a bar or restaurant in the area will mention these dread creatures, who are known to viciously hang out at places in Wicker Park, relentlessly passing judgment on passers-by, possessing terrifying quantities of concentrated scorn that can destroy the self-esteem of anyone who crosses their path without a sufficiently ironic second-hand t-shirt. Their secret knowledge of music and the blue ribbons won by the Pabst brewery makes them effectively invincible on this, their home ground. Should you encounter one, retreat to the nearest bar with a fake-Irish name. Alternatively, just relax — as it turns out, hipsters come to these places to have a good time just like everyone else.

Budget

The twin low-price culinary delights around here are the bakeries of Wicker Park and the delis of Ukrainian Village, many of which have been in business for several decades. The Uke also has some great Ukrainian grocers, particularly on Iowa Street. Additionally, as Wicker Park is a bar destination, there is no shortage of cheaper eats, cafes, and chain restaurants.

There are also no shortage of cafes in the area. These are only a few that are down Milwaukee Avenue:

For people who have an inexplicable craving for bad things, there is a Taco Bell that serves beer at 1439 N Milwaukee Ave, and no shortage of fast food and Starbucks in the area. To be noted, these places have little in the way of seating. If you need a bit more than just one meal, there is an Aldi at 1767 N Milwaukee Ave.

Mid-range

Sushi is everywhere in Wicker Park — there's no shortage of style, but only a few places offer substance to match.

Splurge

A few of the places named above, particularly the sushi restaurants, could easily become Splurge affairs depending on how many drinks accompany your meal.

Drink

Phyllis' Musical Inn

Other parts of the city have their charms, but when it comes to drinking in Chicago, there's no contest: this is the place. And while there are plenty of places left for those-in-the-know, Division Street may have taken over from the more touristed (and generally obnoxious) Rush Street in the Near North for sheer numbers in nightlife.

Anyone on the wander in Ukrainian Village should be advised: "Zimne Piwo" is Ukrainian for "cold beer." Plenty of apparently nameless bars make themselves known with those words under an Old Style sign.

Dive bars

Music venues


Others

Sleep

Stay safe

Wicker Park keeps a slightly rough appearance, but that's mainly for the enjoyment of the younger residents. Use common sense while out and you'll have nothing to worry about. (Don't leave valuables in cars, though.) Ukrainian Village is much the same, but stay alert around alleys while walking on side streets. In that distinctly Chicago fashion of invisible barriers respected on both sides of the law, crime stays almost exclusively on the west side of Western Avenue. But if you parked on the west side of Western, take care while walking back to your car after dark.

Connect

The following libraries provide free internet access:

Go next

Routes through Wicker Park

O'Hare International Airport Logan-Bucktown  NW  SE  Near West Side The Loop


This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, January 27, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.