While the phrase "a city of neighborhoods" is widely used to describe Chicago, it could just as easily refer to West Town.
A couple of miles northwest of the Loop, the sprawling community is a mosaic of 11 neighborhoods, each with a distinct character, including Bucktown, Logan Square, Noble Square, the Clybourn Corridor, Fulton River District, Wicker Park, Goose Island, River West, Ukrainian Village, Humboldt Park and West Town.
At one time, each enclave served as a port of entry for immigrants arriving in Chicago. In the first half of the last century, Polish, Germans and Scandinavians settled and stayed. In the last half of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans did the same as Paseo Boricua attests. Two 59-foot-tall steel Puerto Rican flags mark this half-mile stretch of Latino dining and shopping on Division between Western and California. During the final quarter of the 20th century, 10 percent of the residents in West Town were African Americans who relocated from other parts of the country or city. According to the 2000 census, 22.8 percent of residents were foreign-born and women outnumbered the men, 108-100.
First they came to build the railroad or to walk to work in area factories. In more recent years, to find space for artistic expression or a bargain in real estate.
The neighborhoods dotting West Town's map are traversed by some of the city's most heavily traveled streets: Chicago, North, Milwaukee and Sacramento avenues, Division and Lake Streets, with Clybourn Avenue carving the eastern edge that includes the north branch of the Chicago River.
Going between neighborhoods may be as easy as crossing the street, but the process isn't exactly seamless.
Kara Hughes Salgado, executive director for the West Town Chamber of Commerce, said: "I think you see differences (between the neighborhoods]. Wicker Park on the north side of West Town has already arrived. It has not been 'up and coming' for years," she said. "Division Street has more recently arrived, and Chicago Avenue and Grand Avenue are on their way [as viable commercial destinations]."
"Ukrainian Village still has a lot of cultural elements and offerings," she said. Two landmark buildings are churches: St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral and the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, which was designed by Louis Sullivan.
"Milwaukee Avenue is a very exciting strip as well from Wicker Park through West Town to the Red Canary on North Milwaukee and Juicy Wine Bar (in River West)," she said.
Giving a nod to Grand Avenue, Salgado added that it is evolving as a design district and that the Chamber developed the Design Harvest street festival event to showcase its new identity.
The Chamber also supports a Web site, do-division.com, that promotes Division Street within West Town. "Division Street has a lot happening," Salgado said. "Lots of boutiques, bars, restaurants and especially sidewalk cafes."
With numerous community service groups, parks, eclectic shops, ethnic restaurants and a hopping bar scene, there's no shortage of things to do in West Town. Public transportation makes it easy to crisscross the area without the hassle of driving through the busy streets –– and finding a spot to park.
It was the ample amenities that influenced Rhonda Locke and her husband to stay in the city when they started their family. Five years ago, when they bought a new construction condo, there weren't that many young families in her neighborhood, she said. Since then, the couple have noticed a transformation.
Locke said the most noticeable in the area's parks. Of the eight parks in the community, she has a fondness for Commercial Park, which is part of the Chicago Park District. She and other volunteers organized a series of clean-ups, developed a survey for a wish list for the park and stayed active throughout the renovation of the park. "It has a definite community feel to it, " she said.
The sense of community is what keeps Erik and Igsa DeBat in their four-flat in West Town. The DeBats bought the building with plans to renovate one level at a time. "There's just one floor left," Erik Debat said.
"We chose to buy here because the housing stock was incredibly good," he said. "It has the feeling of Lincoln Square and Roscoe Village, but people have been [living] here longer. There are lots of single-family homes, and the boulevard provides green spaces."
Within its parameters, each neighborhood offers an array of housing from historic mansions in Wicker Park and single-family homes with fenced in yards in Ukrainian Village to mixed-use condos in River West and Humboldt Park. Two- and three-flats anchor these communities, especially within West Town neighborhood. Pride of ownership remains as homes are passed down from generation to generation or to newcomers.
Bruce Fogelson, president of Paramount Homes, has been in the real estate and development business for more than 25 years. His company recently finished a survey taking a look at real estate sales in Bucktown. "At the end of the study, I found it (Bucktown) to be a very active, healthy market," he said. As a result, Fogelson put one of his transit-oriented developments that had been off of the market for a while, Bucktown Station, back on.
The number of schools — 34 — continues to attract families. These include parochial, public, private and magnet, music and fine arts. Kendall College and College of Office Technology have campuses in West Town.
West Town is home to 48 churches and 45 community service organizations such as the Chicago Grand Neighbors Association, the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and the Eckhart Park Community Council. All help serve and represent the estimated 87,000-plus residents.
Salgado, who has lived and worked in Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park, says West Town's diversity in housing and commerce helps to attract and keep new residents and businesses.
"There's an energetic buzz," she says, and it stretches throughout the community.