Saturday, March 21, 2009
The evolution of a commercial district is usually a subtle, slow-moving thing. You have to watch for clues as buildings lose tenants or gain them over a period of decades, which is what I've been doing for many years on long walks through Rogers Park and Edgewater.
What I'm seeing lately is a long-dormant strip of Clark Street, between Bryn Mawr and Devon, coming back to life.
It's been a good spring for this wide stretch where Ashland and Clark converge into a four-lane speedway through west Edgewater, just north of the wildly successful Andersonville retail zone. In the former Clark Furniture storefronts north of Hollywood, Joel Hall Dancers and Center just opened an expanded studio. Next block up is Community Auto Parts in the space recently vacated by La Raza newspaper. On the block after that, a long-vacant funeral home now sports the snazzy brown awnings of Know No Limits: "Your Neighborhood Gym."
How did this happen, especially in this economy? Here's my theory.
First, you've got long-time institutions anchoring each end of the strip: Clark Devon Hardware on the north, which attracts hundreds of janitors and fixer-uppers each day and recently installed a very clever hardware-inspired clock on the building's corner; and Gethsemane Garden Center on the south, which over the years has purchased one adjacent lot after another and filled them with flowers, bushes, trees, statuary and fountains (and they do a beautiful job maintaining the traffic island where Clark and Ashland split).
But that's not enough to bring back a half-empty, mile-long stretch. Eight or nine years ago Raven Theatre converted a grocery store at Granville into a theater and proclaimed themselves with a bold stainless steel sign. At Peterson, the Chicago Fire Department built a new fire house where a tire shop and used-car dealers had been. Other old-timers, like the Uni Mart Philippine Plaza and Minas TV & Video, kept things going on their blocks.
Another driving force: Community Auto Parts, Joel Hall and Know No Limits all moved north from high-rent Andersonville, finding larger spaces at lower prices.
None of these companies is new. They've been around for years, serving customers well enough to not only survive, but grow. And with enough growing businesses, even a worn-out, half-empty business district can turn into something new.