If you're used to browsing Michigan Avenue or suburban mall stores, Albany Park's Lawrence Avenue might seem a bit like stepping into another world. Along a 12-block stretch, you can shop a Korean pharmacy, Mexican bakery, Middle Eastern dress shop and Latin American Christian store.
That's just to mention a few of the more than 300 businesses along the densely packed stretch from the Chicago River's North Branch to Pulaski Road.
"Get some belly dancing gear and Swedish clogs," said Liz Griffiths, Albany Park Chamber of Commerce director. "You can do that in an afternoon."
Say hello to the immigrant gateway of Albany Park, a North Side community bordered by the river's North Branch and Cicero, Montrose and Foster avenues, and embracing the neighborhoods of Albany Park, Mayfair and North Mayfair.
This is where folks from the four corners of the globe converge upon Chicago, ensuring it stands a world apart from many other city communities.
Albany Park was solidly Jewish for most of the 20th century's first half, after which Koreans and Bosnians moved in. Their numbers are now dwindling as other ethnic groups assume their place, said Radhika Sharma, director of Healthy Albany Park, a public health coalition at Albany Park Community Center. "Two winters ago, a medical student fluent in Gujarati accompanied me on a tour of the community, encouraging families to come to a health fair we were holding at the community center," she said. "We walked up to the second floor of an apartment building, and there was a mezuzah, the Jewish blessing of a home, on the door post. It'd been there for generations, and how many ethnicities — Bosnian, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, Iraqi — had lived there since? Now there was an Indian family from the western state of Gujarat."
There are many reasons to plant roots in Albany Park. If commuting, you can hop one of the CTA buses crisscrossing the neighborhood, grab a nearby Metra train or walk to the CTA Brown Line's Kimball and Lawrence station, a transit gem so attractive a recent survey found more suburban than city stickers on vehicles parked near it on workdays, Griffiths said.
Albany Park's housing, heavily weighted toward large and solid apartment buildings, is within most budgets. Once savings grow, there also exist single-family homes, among them the bungalows dotting North Mayfair. Homes fetch $175,000 to half a million, said Tom Leko, agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Lakeview.
Eugene Field Park on North Ridgeway Avenue is family friendly, and bike paths that begin at Lawrence and the river are fantastic, Sharma said. Hibbard, Volta, Waters and Haugan elementary schools have active after-school programs. Hibbard sees itself as an international community learning center. This is reflected in the school's free orchestra that serves 150 children and the Heartland International Health Center's on-site facility, which provides a range of services — including primary care, mental health care and dentistry — for up to 1,700 students.
Albany Park isn't immune to urban crime such as car theft, scams targeting seniors and graffiti, said Harold Rice, Albany Park Community Center executive director and CEO. He noted that the Chicago Police Department's 17th District "is very proactive in reaching out to the community and mitigating a lot of crimes that might otherwise occur, through an active CAPS program, National Night Out and activities here at the center."
The Albany Park Community Center is a neighborhood anchor, offering four service categories. There is a children's program; teen program; adult program with adult literacy classes, citizenship classes and family counseling; and a general community outreach program that includes a housing resource center, work force development center and veterans transition program.
Many who arrive in the community carry on its long tradition of owning shops below the second-floor flats in which they live. Albany Park Community Center's business planning and development arm helps, said director Jin Lee.
"We seek ethnically diverse new arrivals from India, Bosnia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and open doors to them to become entrepreneurs by offering them business education to help them start their own businesses," Lee said.
The mercantile spirit fuels a store occupancy rate of at least 95 percent on Lawrence Avenue, where 90 percent of businesses are mom-and-pop shops.
Across the whole of Albany Park exist some 1,100 businesses, many single-location enterprises wedged into 25-by-125-foot storefronts, Griffiths says. Those shops and the foot traffic they spur are a big reason the streets crackle with an electricity that has nothing to do with their countless neon signs.
Some of the vibrancy flows from efforts of Lawrence Avenue Development Corp., which has fixed up more than 200 storefronts on Lawrence Avenue over the years, said Scott Berman, president of the organization.
Albany Park is a culinary oasis, with shops such as Andy's Fruit Ranch on Kedzie Avenue and an ethnic buffet of eateries such as Noon-O-Kabab on Kedzie, Great Sea Chinese Restaurant on Lawrence, and 70-year-old gathering spot Marie's Pizza farther west in Mayfair, she said.
As it was for notable former residents Carol Marin, Steve Goodman, Shel Silverstein, George Gobel, Bob Sirott and innumerable others, Albany Park will surely be the first step to a better life for many of its current residents.
Said Griffiths: "The story of Albany Park is the story of Chicago."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun