N. MILWAUKEE COMMERCIAL CORRIDOR
Gladstone Park’s retail outlets and eateries can be found up and down on the N. Milwaukee Avenue Commercial Corridor that diagonals for 2-1/4 miles straight through the middle of the community. In addition, there are pockets of one-of-a-kinds on its other major thoroughfares: N. Northwest Highway on the western border, N. Elston to the northeast, as well as a few business concerns on the eastern edge on N. Central. The beauty is that many choices are within an easy drive – or even walking distance – of most residents, enhancing the quality of life in the community.
Since the great majority of Gladstone Park businesses are modestly-sized and locally-owned, there is a distinct small town feel to the community. It’s just one of the elements that gives residents the sense of having the best of both worlds…living in a major city with access to world class culture, sports, and services, all while retaining the kind of lifestyle that comes with simpler times. It doesn’t hurt that the community, along with greater Jefferson Park of which it is a part, has for four decades maintained its status as one of the four safest of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. And that its 10-11 mile distance from the Loop keeps residential as well as business properties much more affordable.
But because the main commercial corridor that supports Gladstone Park’s stores, restaurants and offices developed in fits and starts much later than the rest of Chicago, it has a very distinct appearance not seen elsewhere in the city. Its unusual physical structure makes it function very differently as well.
Part of that is due to its history. Before virtually any type of shop or pub rose out of the Far Northwest’s clayey muck, the city came in and altered the look of the community for all time. Implementing the road widening recommendations of the 1909 Plan of Chicago in one of the few undeveloped areas where it still could, it expanded Gladstone Park’s 2-1/2 mile long N. Milwaukee commercial corridor to four lanes with parking on both sides, creating its boulevard look. The widened road has a profound effect on life in the community. Unlike congested areas of the city, this stretch of Milwaukee blithely handles traffic. And despite its highway-like appearance, its speed limit is deceptively slow at 35 m.p.h.
The “broad boulevard” of N. Milwaukee that is Gladstone Park’s Commercial Corridor for all 2-1/2 miles as it runs through the middle of the community. One of the few roads in the city able to be widened to this degree based on 1909 Plan of Chicago recommendations, it has four driving lanes, a middle right/left turn lane and room for parking and bike lanes on both sides. Even though it looks like a highway, it has a posted 35 m.p.h. speed limit. Gladstonians traveling in the local community rarely encounter any traffic congestion or pedestrian road crossing problems. And since parking is so abundant both on the street and in dedicated parking lots, they do not have to put up with the parking meters so hated in the rest of the city. Photo by author.
The first wave of commercial construction in Gladstone Park occurred in the 1920s, spurred on when the 24-hour streetcar line first began operating down the full length of N. Milwaukee. Demand for goods and services came from passengers who wanted convenience as they got on or off at stops at the major crossroads in the community on the way to the big city or when returning home. Sensing opportunity, budding businessmen erected modest two-story brick buildings at those nodes following the architectural styles then popular in Chicago: a pastiche of eclectic forms ranging from neoclassicism to Art Deco. Often the small offices, stores and restaurants on their ground levels were complemented by owner apartments on their second floors. Where more people teemed, additional one-story commercial buildings were constructed to extend commerce down the street, creating the pattern of the “tall” buildings at corners with low-rise structures mid-block.
View of the northwest corner of N. Milwaukee where it intersects with Bryn Mawr. It shows the original pattern of commercial development in Gladstone Park with “tall” buildings on corners supplemented by one-story storefronts in the middle of blocks. The two-story neoclassical yellow brick building at the left (one section altered with modern stone columns) and the one-story dark brick building with the white ceramic tile trim next to it were built between 1927 and 1931, according to the Cook County Tax Assessor’s Office, when the streetcars first starting running down N. Milwaukee making stops at major intersections like this one. The next three low-rise midcentury modern structures in the middle of the block were not built until the late 1960s during the second wave of commercial construction. The picture is an apt illustration of the two architectural styles 30 years and worlds apart that have long been dominant in the community. Photo by author.
Because growth throughout America was stalled by the financial devastation of the Great Depression and the disruption of WWII, few new businesses established themselves anywhere, no less in the local community during the 1930s and 1940s. The original commercial buildings on the corners where the streetcars stopped continued to loom over vacant land in the middle of blocks. Wide swaths of land not near major crossroads sat undeveloped altogether.
It wasn’t until the postwar period that the second wave of commercial construction took place along the N. Milwaukee business corridor. As the community’s housing subdivisions were being built out between the late 1940s and the 1960s, the influx of new residents created more demand for services, shops, and restaurants. Business people responded, erecting storefronts and office buildings on one vacant lot after another. But it was not until the early 1960s that the entire Gladstone Park business district completely filled in, according to Chicago city planners who produced the Gladstone Park Corridor Study, Milwaukee Avenue from the Kennedy Expressway to the City Limits, January 28, 2017. Because of its delayed commercial growth, Gladstone Park was fortunate never to be subject to the forces of the postwar Urban Renewal movement that devalued significant historic buildings elsewhere, demolishing them to build bigger and more modern (some would say poorer) versions of themselves in its thirst for “progress.”
A representative section of midcentury commercial buildings in the upper 5400 block of N. Milwaukee in Gladstone Park. These brick and stone buildings reflect the spare nature of “modern” architecture that eliminated unnecessary ornateness in exchange for the directness that came with the unbridled technological and scientific progress of the 1950s and 1960s. Where unaltered, there is abundant glass to express the openness and optimism of the era. The buildings’ sturdy construction and easy adaptability makes them good candidates for small offices and specialty shops in the 21st Century. Photo by author.
Why was Gladstone Park’s business district development always kept it at least slightly out of sync with that of the rest of the city? One factor was geography. Its location in the Far Northwest corner of Chicago was simply of greater distance from the density and purchase power of the Loop than almost any of the other 76 city neighborhoods, greatly affecting its business climate. At 10-11 miles from the center city, the community might as well have been lightyears away. While one person might rue the dampening effect the distance had on land values, another would see opportunity. With comparatively inexpensive properties, entrepreneurs during this second wave found they were able to profit even when constructing small, low-rise commercial buildings on large plots of land. Echoing the economic prosperity and optimism of the 1950s, they built sturdy, low-slung midcentury modern buildings with an abundance of windows, distinctive angular forms, bright colors and singular geometric shaped accents.
With most of the commercial corridor finally built out, business activity again slowed. The limited commercial construction there was along the Gladstone Park business district in the 1980s and 1990s followed the mall-style design that was all the rage at the time. Some six small strip malls, each with a handful of stores and shared parking lots, were built with access off N. Milwaukee. Several large banks on generous pieces of property were also erected during this time. But most of the rest of the business district stayed untouched as if frozen in time.
Strip mall with parking lot accessible from the 5900 block of N. Milwaukee at its northeast corner near W. Ardmore. Online Cook County Tax Accessor information pegs the mall with a construction date of 1988. Of the six or so strip malls built during the last two decades of the 20th Century in Gladstone Park, none have more than 10 or so units for stores, offices and restaurants, depending how they are divided up and counted. The largest strip malls anchor the southern entrance to the community near N. Milwaukee’s intersection with W. Foster and the northern end where it crosses W. Devon. The two strip malls at the north sport most of the community’s national chain stores and restaurants such as 7-Eleven, Walgreens, Subway, U.P.S., and Dunkin’/Baskin Robbins. Photo by author.
How does this come together nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st Century? The traditionally low land prices combined with development on its own time schedule led to Gladstone Park’s business district assuming a most unusual presentation for an area of a major city. With its low-rise, spread out commercial landscape, it is a duck out of water when contrasted with downtown’s tall, dense buildings or even those in Lincoln Park, Bucktown, or the North Side. And because the community’s business development occurred during two distinct waves, it was left with only two main styles of architecture. Even today, the eclectic neoclassical/Art Deco two-story business buildings from the 1920s and 1930s and the one-story midcentury modern structures of the 1950s and 1960s predominate.
STORES THROUGHOUT GLADSTONE PARK
Gladstone Park may not be swank, but it isn’t generic either. The few chain stores in the community tend to be clustered at either end of N. Milwaukee at the major intersections at W. Foster in the south and W. Devon in the north. Still, there are no more than a handful of branches of national corporations such as Walgreens, U.P.S., AutoZone, 7-Eleven, and Dollar General. Big box stores are nonexistent with virtually the only one anywhere nearby (a Target) in neighboring Mayfair, a half to one mile east. Residents wanting the Walmart, OfficeMax, PetSmart, Cosco, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Bed Bath & Beyond experience can drive two miles north on N. Central to find them in large strip malls on W. Touhy in suburban Skokie.
Like all communities in America affected by the growth of online stores – exacerbated first by the Great Recession of 2008 and later by the COVID-19 pandemic – Gladstone Park businesses have suffered. While service industries and restaurants have filled in some of the spaces left by some businesses going under, there are many more vacant storefronts than anyone wants. Shopping is further inhibited by the difficulty of parking in one lot and walking to several stores on one trip with merchants threatening to tow cars of customers who go off site. This is one reason why it’s so important to protect the community’s abundant street parking (and shared parking at strip malls) that alleviate such problems. Too, the commercial climate is changing as the new mode of shopping sweeping the country features small brick-and-mortars with artisan products and specialty items that need to be seen and felt to be appreciated. These are just the type of physical storefronts the community has in spades.
No self-respecting report on stores in Gladstone Park could start without first giving homage to Andy’s Deli & Mikolajczyk Sausage Shop. Other stores mentioned below are some of its other standouts, either because they have particular significance for residents or because they draw numbers of customers from outside the community.