Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Reflections on East Village

Comments for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks at a City Hall public hearing later today:

I live on one of the last blocks of East Village where all the 19th century houses are still standing and the renovations have respected the 19th-century streetscape. That's why property values on this block were rising years ago, when homes were being priced for the value of the building, not the value of the land.

The streetscape may not remain intact for long, so my hope is that new construction takes a lesson from this older block that seems so comfortable in the postmodern era.

A decade ago when we moved here, East Village was already a hotbed for builders. The best of the new construction reflected its surroundings, literally. The new brick buildings with their multistory windows reflect buildings from the 1880s that were making what was then equally bold use of glass and masonry. The marketing appeal of the new homes is "Where luxury is standard," but the cornice and lintel details of their older neigbhors are a luxury they can't afford. These modern designs will lose their impact if the old homes disappear and strip them of their original context.

That's an artistic judgment but the loss would have a financial impact too. The historic districts that rose in Lincoln Park in the 1970s not only improved the older buildings there but the design of the structures that filled in around them. The marketplace has rewarded that foresight.

East Village is relatively late to preservation, and the evidence of that is in the shrinking size of the district. There's simply less to preserve. The two- and three-flats described in the commission's documents are largely gone, and the blocks that remain cohesive consist largely of six and eight-unit buildings constructed with two-flat facades, plus side and rear entrances.

These buildings tell the same story about the immigrant past of the neighborhood I used to call Polonia. They take well to rehabbing and are selling as condos for the same prices as their newly built neighbors. There's no reason not to encourage more such development under a landmark district.

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