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Small town with prices to match

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Over the years, they have been remodeled and remuddled — a front porch here, new siding there. But the rows of 1940s houses that gave its pioneers a Hobson's choice (Cape Cod or Cape Cod) still define west suburban Northlake.

Sold as empty shells by Midland Development Co., the "Midlands" provided housing for workers at a Buick plant in Melrose Park. Residents added electricity and plumbing and built bedrooms on the second floors.

"Northlake was built backwards," said Mayor Jeff Sherwin, whose parents and in-laws were Midland buyers. Instead of starting with an infrastructure, houses came first.

"Every house had a septic field, and we got water from a central well," he said. "Then we added a sewer system, sidewalks and curbs, paved the streets and got Lake Michigan water."

"North Lake" (from North Avenue and Lake Street) became "Northlake" after 561 people voted to incorporate the Cook County city in 1949.

"Election was tense but calm," read a local paper.

The "Proud Union Home" yard signs leave no doubt; this is a working-class town with hard-working folks. While it lacks leafy canopies that older suburbs enjoy, Northlake's streetscapes are tidy (no front fences allowed) and its lots generous.

The Northlake that commuters see from Interstate Highway 294 morphed from mom-and-pop businesses to goliaths, including Microsoft Corp.'s data center and a bottling plant that supplies the Chicago area with Snapple, 7-Up and Dr. Pepper.

Add the strip of big-box stores on North Avenue, and you have a solid tax base and commercial areas that buffer the residential section. The multiple trains and airplanes around O'Hare International Airport are "a blessing and curse," said Sherwin, because they bring business to town but generate noise.

Now the city's population of 12,300 is a mix of old-timers with Northern European roots who still own their Midlands and younger, mostly Hispanic buyers lured by prices of Midlands needing facelifts.

Buyers on budgets find housing at the 600-unit King Arthur Apartments and Condominiums. Those who want to share their digs with tenants own Northlake's two dozen two-flats.

Real estate taxes are $300 to $400 lower for homes in the unincorporated area on the city's northeast side, whose addresses also read "Northlake."

If a lot lacks sidewalks, it is unincorporated.

Northlake has plenty of housing for seniors who want to stay put, said Nancy LaPaglia, a retired medical researcher, who was playing Bingo with her husband, and their friends.

"My father built his house here in 1945, then built ours in 1956," she said. Many of their peers live in Northlake's senior housing, which includes Casa San Carlo Retirement Community apartments, Concord Place Retirement & Assisted Living Community and Villa Scalabrini Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

"Northlake is senior-friendly and safe for those of us who walk a lot," said LaPaglia. "If you have a problem and call city hall, they call you back."

At the other end of Northlake's demographics is Leandra Kozak, a 36-year-old engine assembler who bought a condo at the city-owned Wolf Ridge Condominiums in 2011. "I'm close to work in Melrose Park, close to Chicago, and on weekends I can walk to the library or park," she said.

Prices start at $129,900 and include two indoor parking spaces.

Wolf Ridge is an exception. Most condos are older and sell for under $50,000. Recent single-family house sales range from $20,000 to $190,000.

Missing is a downtown and a Metra station, but a stretch of North Avenue is the shopping district. The parks host annual events, including Eggstravaganza in the spring, Boofest in October and Winterfest in December.

The biggest bash is Northlake Days in June, when families flock to a carnival, car show and parade.

Baseball fields fill each spring as youngsters progress from Pintos to Broncos. In local taverns, allegiance is split between the White Sox and Cubs.

In addition to a dog park, Northlake's canine residents appreciate the city's "fire hydrant garden" (colorful old hydrants) — proof that city hall has a sense of humor.

"Meet me at Perry's" means you are headed for Perry's Pizza Joynt. Other popular eateries are Thai, sushi and Chinese restaurants; several taquerias; and Winking Dog Restaurant, where Sherwin suggested "two hot dogs and fries for $4.53 — how can you beat that?"

The city's Italian roots shine at Ancona Bakery. "On holidays, we're swamped because people buy the things their mothers used to bake, like cuccidati and tiramisu," said Cheri Buoniconti, wife of third-generation owner, Frank.

Northlake is split into several school districts. High school kids north of North Avenue attend West Leyden High School in Northlake, while the kids on the south side attend Proviso West High School in Hillside.

You can count on one hand the number of times the suburb has made regional news, including the 1960s escape by a circus elephant and the firing of the city finance director after the 2011 disappearance of $100,000 in cash from Northlake Days.

To curb violent crime, the police department's Neighborhood Enforcement Team warns gangs to take their business elsewhere and visits parents of gang members.

While city hall's cat, Ginger, watches from her file-cabinet perch, Sherwin, who is running unopposed April 9, ponders his upcoming fifth-term to-do list: street repaving, luring new businesses while keeping commercial residents happy, and adding mixed-use developments.

"Yes, there have been changes, but they've been for the better," said LaPaglia, as she flicked shut the windows on her Bingo cards. "We have crime, but not like in Chicago." Referencing the city's slogan, "City of Friendly People," she said: "It's true; it really is."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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