Tuesday, August 09, 2005

View from the street: Putting down roots

How did you choose your home? Your first impressions were formed before you ever stepped inside. You drove through the streets, walked past other homes, and pictured life in the neigborhood. Even if the home was going to get a complete makeover, you had to take its surroundings on its own terms.

That's no longer the case. Now many home buyers can come to an old neighborhood and envision it as a clean slate. The reason is that the road to a bigger house now starts with tearing down a smaller one. Putting down roots is not what it used to be. Today I'm taking you to my neighborhood for a tour of what's going up, what's coming down and their uneasy relationship.

Crain's Chicago Business this month marked my community near Division and Damen as something of a Teardown Ground Zero. It's where the the most demolition permits in the city were issued last year, and the most new construction permits. Crain's listed 62 addresses with both -- some down my street, some just around the corner.

Last summer, the Metropolitan Planning Council sent interns out to catalog the side streets of my immediate neighborhood, East Village, and they found new buildings on 1 out of 4 lots. Two thirds of the time they were as big as the zoning code allowed.

These are brick condominium buildings with spans of glass out front bigger than any drapery you could buy to cover them. So it's easy from the street to see some well-appointed and comfortable kitchens -- visit and you might never move from your chair at the granite countertop. The marketing studies I read at work call new residents in this ZIP code the "affluentials," and buyers responed to for-sale signs out front saying "Where luxury is standard." But beyond the kitchen, the rooms are large but simple.

The brick facade is all that hints about what stood there before. But the contrast with previous homes and previous generations is documented in a proposal for an East Village Landmark District. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks found three distinctions in the dwindling number of older homes, and the first was history. Before it was East Village it was Polonia, my Chicago relatives' old neighborhood.

Four out of five people were foreign born or children of the foreign born. They lived in small buildings with small apartments. The two-flat I bought had rooms barely big enough to fit a bed and hang a change of clothes. The simple facilities explain the presence nearby of an old park-district bathhouse, now converted to offices. The residents worked in factories along the river and traded with Polish shopkeepers on Division Street, or later Puerto Rican shopkeepers on Chicago Avenue. Some are still doing business among the boutiques. The L wasn't underground but rattled down Paulina Street en route to Logan Square.

The second noted feature is the architecture. No famous architects here, although you can walk few blocks to Ukrainian Village -- which is where East Village found its name, not in New York -- and see churches by Louis Sullivan. Here the worker housing is well crafted. Windows aren't floor-to-ceiling but they're still larger than any double-hung windows you could find to replace them. There's a course of limestone to mark each floor, a Victorian tin window bay or roof cornice, and iron fenceposts ornamented with flower designs -- luxuries you can't afford in new construction. New owners remodel inside -- there are granite countertops here too -- but the ceilings were always high and the old millwork details turn every doorway into its own Greek Revival forum.

After the history and the architecture, the landmark commission remarked on "distinct visual unity" from the street. Immigrants were building a neighborhood to impress relatives back in the Old Country -- the more modest two-story buildings often had a third course of brickwork just to make for good photos sent back home.

But as time goes on it's getting harder for the street to keep that cohesive look. The smallest houses on the street, cute worker cottages with gingerbread detail, were some of the first teardowns. The buildings that replaced them rose five stories high, dwarfing their neighbors. That brought a change in zoning citywide, too late for the cottage owner who now has a bathroom skylight with a condominium view.

The landmark district drawn early this year has grown smaller as the city eliminates blocks that no longer fit the late-1800s theme. My house is on one of the remaining blocks, but if the City Council approves it won't be forcing me to make historically correct quarter-million-dollar renovations. Repairs won't require more than a trip to the Home Depot, but getting a building permit would require that the changes visible from the street stay in character with neighbors.

As a reporter I wrote years ago about teardowns. By now you could write the story too, full of old-timers' regrets about the torrid pace of change ... and the McMansion that replaced the merely modest. After less than seven years back in the city, I don't have their familiar complaints about familiar places.

I like the new buildings and new faces. But this week I gave the district my duly notarized approval. The neighborhood's history, the architecture and the streetscape are as much a part of my life as are my neighbors, and I'd hate to lose either. I put down my roots alongside theirs, and now we're intertwined.

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