Less dense development on bigger pieces of property also affected functionality. The inexpensive property allowed business owners to cater to the growing postwar car culture by providing spaces for shoppers’ automobiles usually not found in other parts of Chicago…or any city. Gladstonians had the luxury of being able to pull into dedicated parking lots next to the larger one-story or two-story shops, restaurants, and offices and do their business with ease. That is, if they didn’t take advantage of the increased road frontage of bigger plots of land that made for plentiful street parking. The legacy is that Gladstone Park is one of the very few communities in Chicago with so much available parking in its commercial zones that has never had to regulate its streets with parking meters. It may not sound like much, but to many Gladstonians, the lack of parking woes is a huge point of pride.
Ironically, Chicago city planners writing the Gladstone Park Corridor Study five years ago were a bit flummoxed at what they found during their research. They described the community’s 2-1/4 mile long business district this way:
The wide street, overall low scale of buildings, shallow lots, unusual car-oriented architecture and the profusion of signs create an environment more similar to major streets in Los Angeles than older, traditional streets in Chicago.
While the same study had much to criticize about storefronts that have stood empty since the Great Recession, it did praise Gladstone Park’s relative wealth of old commercial buildings with apartments on their upper floors. Noting that there are not many of their kind throughout the rest of the city, planners recommended, “As much as possible these buildings should be retained [as affordable housing] whether the ground floor contains an active business or not.”
A late 1920s L-shaped Gladstone Park commercial building at the corner of N. Milwaukee and N. Menard showing the left wing at 5500 N. Menard. Its first floor offers storefronts for a wide a variety of businesses while its second floor has affordable apartments for rent. Distinct for its yellow brick construction with arched limestone doorways and decorative parapets, the historic Art Deco structure from the streetcar era is further enhanced by its red clay tile roof. This is just the type of building Chicago planners recommended preserving in its “Gladstone Park Corridor Study, Milwaukee Avenue from the Kennedy Expressway to the City Limits, January 28, 2017.” However, there is continual pressure in the community from developers who want to tear down smaller buildings such as these in the hopes of replacing them with new complexes of three, four, five or more stories that make more money. This kind of “upzoing,” not currently permitted without variances, is feared because it is sometimes promoted by powers-that-be. Photo by author.
As if in a time warp, many parts of the Gladstone Park business community look like they did 60, 70 even 100 years ago. Exteriors of original buildings, minus (perhaps) new windows and doors and perhaps signage, remain virtually unchanged. While some people might lament this makes Gladstone Park a relic that should be put to better use, others see the opportunity to preserve the unusual nature of what the community has before it loses it. However, there are hurdles to jump in order to do so.
CHALLENGES TO IMPROVING GLADSTONE PARK’S BUSINESS CORRIDOR
The complexities Gladstonians face when trying to do anything to revitalize the community’s business district may seem insurmountable. Because the one-square mile community is just one little cog in the huge wheel that is the city of Chicago, it has no legal or financial power to make changes on its own. There is no community planning board to forge new directions, nor a dedicated zoning board to adjudicate on building proposals within its borders. Plus it has no budget of its own to fund substantive beautification or infrastructure improvements. Every request is funneled through city channels with all the associated red tape.
Exacerbating the situation, the current administration has relentlessly pursued a course trying to deplete the ability of the Chicago City Council’s aldermen to use their local prerogative to turn down building applications that need variances (exemptions from legal codes). In an unprecedented action recently, the Council greenlighted a 297-unit apartment building with 59 affordable units in a Far Northwest community frighteningly close to Gladstone Park, even though it was opposed by the community and their representative, 41th Ward Ald. Anthony Napolitano, according to the December 14, 2021 The Chicago Tribune article Chicago affordable housing project headed to council vote despite alderman’s objection to ‘complete overstep’. This loss of authority further negates the ability of local wards to have much of a hand shaping their own destinies.
This is a particular issue because many of Gladstone Park’s goals are wildly different from those of the city at large or even most of the Far Northwest side. The bear was first poked when Chicago’s Department of Transportation announced it was bringing a “Complete Streets” program to Jefferson Park’s N. Milwaukee Commercial Corridor not ten years ago, splitting the neighborhood so that Gladstone Park’s northern 2-1/4 miles was isolated from the southern section leaving the community on its own. With the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association fighting its own proposed changes for its denser, more congested one-laned business district south, a newly-formed Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association fought for completely unrelated proposed changes to its broad 4-lane boulevard in the north.
Of the many discordances between where Gladstone Park and the city stand, none at the present time is as great as the issue of affordable housing. While laudably prioritizing of the need to provide housing for people of low income that is so lacking in many of its 77 neighborhoods, Chicago has a one-size-fits-all plan. Without acknowledging the fact that affordable housing is one commodity the community already has in abundant numbers, it is pushing for more here while slighting commercial growth (and other problems).
So when outside forces try to throw some of the community’s valuable commercial property under the bus to replace it with unneeded four-, five-, or six-story subsidized apartment buildings, residents naturally object. One reason is that densities and heights of such complexes are and always have been nonconforming for a reason: because they are so out of character in Gladstone Park’s singular low-rise, spread-out landscape. The second is that any proposed switch from commercial buildings to apartment complexes would wrest away the opportunity for residents to have their stores, offices and restaurants, robbing them of their “downtown” conveniences and pleasures. Put together, such a move would change the entire fabric of Gladstone Park from a working village-like town to a soulless bedroom community with all the stresses of traffic congestion and parking woes that go with it.
Worse, to get its way, the city runs with the false narrative that residents of the Far Northwest don’t want huge apartment complexes going up like sore thumbs in their communities because they’re “against affordable housing.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot made just such a accusation, lambasting communities 10 miles north of the center city as “racist,” as reported in the December 15, 2021 The Chicago Tribune article Mayor Lightfoot: Northwest Side affordable housing vote a win against ‘grip of segregation’. The next day an editorial in The Chicago Tribune reiterated the misconception, maintaining the Glenstar housing project is “exactly the kind of approach Chicago should have” in the “white neighborhoods” on the Far Northwest Side.
To a community that is diverse already, these false accusations of racism are a low blow. Gladstone Park is practically the epicenter of Chicago’s Polish diaspora as well as home to a Hispanic population that has more than doubled in the last 20 years to 25% according to August, 2021 data issued by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Community Surveys. It has also recently welcomed congregations of Moroccan Muslims, Ethiopian Christians, and Philippine Evangelicals into new religious centers. The Serbian National Defense Council of America has been a member of the community since 1941. As if that’s not enough, the Agency’s survey also revealed 15.6% of households in Jefferson Park, of which Gladstone Park is a part, have incomes under $25K and another 16.9% have incomes between $25K and $49,999. So the community is already housing many low income people of its own, most at market rates.
Maybe it has to be pointed out that today’s Gladstonians are a new generation who, along with the rest of Chicago, rue the city’s segregated past. The community wants a future that goes along with the “Hate Has No Home Here” signs that its many residents have put in their lawns. They just don’t want their stores and restaurants demolished so that tall, dense apartment buildings can tower up on their business corridor instead.
There are other threats to Gladstone Park’s commercial district that are not as obvious. Because so many neighborhoods south and east of the community have been gentrifying with land values skyrocketing, speculators have bought up many commercial properties here. Because the intent of some of these investors is only to make an easy profit, they don’t bother improving or even maintaining their storefronts or office buildings (or second floor apartments if applicable), instead letting them sit vacant and deteriorate. With the winds that have been blowing in Chicago, their bet is that they can hold their properties without investing a dollar in the community and then “upzone” them for more money by selling them as teardowns to big developers who will get variances to erect much bigger nonconforming apartment complexes in their place to make quick profits of their own.
The Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association and Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce have known for years that the answer is in strengthening the vitality, attractiveness and resilience of its business district, and they’ve aided and celebrated every new business that has moved in. But encouraging owners of some of these small-scale commercial buildings to improve and adapt them for new uses has, as a strategy, been difficult and sometime a losing battle. Getting the city to invest in new infrastructure to increase the attractiveness of the Business District has also been near impossible. The community hasn’t even been able to get the CDOT to maintain the dangerous, litter-catching planting bed bumpouts the deparment put in as part of the “Complete Streets” program. Fourteen of these beds as large as 6 feet by 10 feet sport weeds up to four, five feet tall, cause car accidents (particularly when snow obscures their presence) and are regarded as a complete eyesore to nearby business owners and residents alike.
So how does a community literally fight City Hall when it has virtually no legal power of its own to do so? How can these advisory groups gain any kind of voice for the kind of action they need here? One aspect they’re seeking is identity. What is Gladstone Park as a community? Who are its residents? What are they all about? What is their vision? After defining itself, maybe then it can gather the facts to more easily deal with false aspersions cast against it by setting the record straight. It’s just too hard having to go on and on in crisis mode, playing whack-a-mole every time a developer floats a nonconforming building project by the community, just hoping the community’s outcry will be enough to kill it.
Then perhaps the community can find a new path that can give it a new kind of strength and energy. What if Gladstone Park could start by documenting the location, ages, and market rates of all the two/three flats, two-family houses, and small apartment buildings in the Gladstone Park community so it knows exactly how much affordable housing it actually has? Can it get professors or PhD candidates at one of Chicago area’s prestigious universities interested in coming in to study our dominant forms of architecture? How our commercial (and industrial) districts work and don’t work? Would the prestigious DePaul Institute of Housing Studies be convinced to look at specific market indicators here?
Two nearby groups have made successful efforts in this regard. Neighboring Norwood Park’s Historical Society has just been given National Register designation by the National Park Service to protect a section of homes west of N. Nagle. In hopes of preventing tear downs of historic residential properties, the status conferred by the award conveys financial incentives for preserving 1880s Victorians to 1950s ranches with matching grants and low-interest loans for homeowners. Meanwhile, Chicago’s own Workers Cottage Initiative has partnered with Preservation Chicago to take a field survey of residential buildings of its type in Logan Square.
Because it turns out that historic preservation is about much more than protecting an old ivy-covered building with rules and regulations. In fact, it’s not that at all. Since the early days, preservation has evolved into surveys and studies to find visions for the future. It has tried to protect architecture of note by supplying funding to owners to improve them. It is mostly carrot…not the stick. Besides local, state, and national preservation programs, there are private foundations that can provide workarounds for unwanted development issues. Preservation Chicago, whose slogan is “Love Your City Fiercely,” has experts who will come into any community for the asking and outline all the possibilities.
Maybe, like Apple Computer’s ad campaign from 20 years ago, it’s time for Gladstone Park to “Think Different.” Continue with what it’s been doing, for sure, but forge an identity around its history, architecture and culture with some preservation measures that give governmental authorities and developers pause before blindly proposing projects that aren’t to the community’s benefit. Give a reason for people to sit up and notice. Develop a cachet as a historic architectural site of note so that its Business District stands out as a destination, attracting more shops and restaurants. By paying respects to our history by honoring what people did and built in the past, we can only benefit in the future.
People might say Gladstone Park has no great churches or historic theaters. Who cares about modern architecture? Why bother with industrial buildings? Because while it has become trendy to preserve big neoclassical and Art Deco buildings from the early Twentieth Century, there isn’t as much appreciation for small midcentury commercial architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. These low-slung, sleek buildings that utilized geometric shapes and space age design to express a period of American optimism and economic prosperity were often as likely to be derided as admired at the time. Many such styles have failed to develop much interest even today.
Yet there is much to admire both in Gladstone Park’s neoclassical/Art Deco commercial buildings as well as its post WWII construction even if we are almost too close to see it. They are rare survivors of two periods of architectural design 30 years and worlds apart. Carol J. Dyson, Chief Architect and Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer for Illinois, has worked since 1999 to promote the preservation of midcentury commercial buildings with their open-front facades and asymmetrical angles. Her Midcentury Commercial Design Evaluation and Preservation: An Opportunity for Commissioners (2017) makes a solid case for accentuating the importance of commercial buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, allowing they can be refreshed and updated at minimal cost for 21st Century use. They are excellent candidates for adaptive preservation, enabling owners to improve on them to increase their usability and financial worth while maintaining authenticity.
If any large building in Gladstone Park could quality as classic midcentury, it would be the two-story Esquire Motel, built in 1959 at 6145 N. Elston (where it merges with N. Milwaukee). Each room presents a brick and glass geometry facade of angular planes, a feature duplicated in its large triangular sign, as seen in its photo in the Business & Industry gallery. Others are Habetler Bowl, Superdawg (of course) and wide swaths of shops and offices in the business district just south of W. Bryn Mawr. One such streetview shows many such small storefronts below.
Midcentury commercial buildings in the 5400 block of N. Milwaukee of Gladstone Park. Note the slanted facades with abundant glass, reflecting the openness and optimism of the economically prosperous period of the 1950s and 1960s. Flat-roofed and absent the decoration of the decades that proceeded them, the small brick and stone storefronts are solidly constructed and easily adaptable to the current era without destroying their unique characteristics. Chicago city planners in 2017 called the appearance of the commercial landscape in Gladstone Park as “more similar to major streets in Los Angeles than older, traditional streets in Chicago.” Photo by author.
Ironically, the value for old storefronts of the type that some investors are holding out of the pool of availability may be intensifying, as the Chicago Chicago city planners pointed out in the Gladstone Park Corridor Study. Pressure for new small restaurants with rooftop bars, for instance, as well as commercial space for specialized stores such as Herbaland, 5433 N. Milwaukee, is increasing and the community has perfectly-sized small commercial spaces to meet the demand.
Would preservation efforts to save the buildings these desirable businesses are in help keep them in the community? Would it create an atmosphere that would foster efforts to bring in other businesses of value for Gladstone Park? Would protecting the uniqueness of the commercial landscape and pave the way for a healthier business climate in the future? We will only find out if we try.