Mark Dobrzycki recalls the Avondale of decades ago. At Northwestern Savings & Loan, a financial institution of the era at Belmont and Milwaukee Avenues, lines stretched out the door Friday evenings, he said. Customers, many of them Polish immigrants, were queuing up to deposit hard-won paychecks into their passbook accounts.
"You opened a passbook account, and you'd get a percolator or a cutlery set," said Dobrzycki, executive director of the Greater Avondale Chamber of Commerce. "It seemed people outfitted their entire kitchens with those rewards."
Generations later, the recollection still neatly sums up the down-to-earth nature of this Northwest Side community. Ethnic, hardworking and none-too-fancy, Avondale is a little corner of Chicago where thrift trumps ostentation, and where new arrivals to this country plant their initial roots, striving to build better lives for their children.
Bordered by the Chicago River east, Pulaski Road west and Diversey Avenue and Addison Street south and north, Avondale is a checkerboard of ethnic enclaves, residential streets, industrial sectors and bustling shopping strips. Uniting it all is a largely working-class populace that gets along with and watches out for one another, residents say.
"The community works together to help each other out," said attorney Robert Groszek, a resident since 2005. "It's a very tight-knit community."
"It's a real interesting neighborhood, culturally," added Merrie Star, director of Northwest (Copernicus) Regional Center, part of the senior services division of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, and the leading Avondale social services agency. "We have the mix of the Latino culture with the Eastern European culture. You can walk down the street and see a supermarket with Eastern European delicacies and a taqueria, standing side-by-side."
At the same time, Avondale is changing. Its long-time Polish stronghold is slowly diminishing, while its Spanish-speaking populace grows. Along the fringes, near its bookend neighbors Old Irving Park on the west and Roscoe Village on the east, more and more affluent younger people are moving in to newer and renovated homes.
"It's a neighborhood in transition," Star said. "Its future is yet to be written."
Avondale has always been a family-centered community, albeit a hardscrabble one. More than ever, it is today luring growing numbers of younger families, said Ald. Ariel Reboyras, whose 30th Ward covers the western part of the community. The influx of children in the past five years has contributed to serious school overcrowding.
"We probably have the most overcrowded schools in the city of Chicago," he said. "It's a very kid-populated area. The new census will indicate that very strongly."
With schools bursting at the seams, Reboyras is delighted a new Chicago public school at 3231 N. Springfield Ave., Avondale Irving Park Elementary, is slated to open in the fall of 2010. "Many of the kids in the area are being bused," he said. "This will eliminate the need for busing. They will be able to walk to school with their parents."
Contributing mightily to the vibrancy of Avondale is a business community distinguished by its wildly varied, locally-owned, mom-and-pop neighborhood stores and eateries. Strolling the streets and sampling wares is like taking mini-vacations to places like Warsaw, San Juan and Guadalajara, Dobrzycki said. Few can resist Pasieka Bakery on Milwaukee Avenue. "It probably has the best paczki in the city, and also has great breads, cakes and pastries," he said. "Walking in there is like walking back into a 1930s or 1940s Polish neighborhood. The smell will overwhelm you."
Then there's the nearby landmark Red Apple (Czerwone Jabluszko ) restaurant, 3121 N. Milwaukee. "Whether you're a vegetarian or out-and-out carnivore, you always find something good to eat there, and the prices are very affordable," Dobrzycki said.
Farther east and north stands an American success story emblematic of today's Avondale. Some 18 years ago, Mexican-born Ramon and Elisa Iniguez opened La Finca ("the country getaway") restaurant on Elston Avenue, said daughter Lorena Iniguez. At the time, Elston was a non-stop stretch of factories and car repair shops, and the Iniguezes were told they would never make it in such an industrial area.
"But over the last seven years, the neighborhood has really changed," Lorena Iniguez said. "There are a lot of condos, young urban professionals are moving in, and there are bars and restaurants coming in that are known throughout the city. The good thing is we were here before, so we're very well known to all our neighbors."
Across the street at Century 21 M.B. Real Estate, managing broker Blair Brozynski knows all about the changes, and the new buyers arriving in Avondale. "It's nestled between Roscoe Village and Old Irving Park," she said. "If you have a person who can't quite afford Old Irving or Roscoe Village, then Avondale becomes an option."
These buyers often opt for the new-construction condominiums on Belmont and Elston near the edge of Avondale, selling for $315,000 to $420,000, Brozynski said. Deeper into the community, brick and wood-frame two-flats are commonly seen, priced from the $190,000s to a quarter million, she said. Single-family homes, most of them frame two-story designs, start at about $280,000 to $350,000, depending on how much renovation they need. Renovated single-family homes sell for $400,000 and more, while new construction single-family houses carry price tags above a half million.
Avondale isn't thought of as a treasure trove of vintage homes, like Old Irving. But in fact, many Avondale residential structures are a century or more old, Brozynski said.
For various reasons, Avondale has challenges to surmount. Said Star: "The negatives have sometimes outweighed the positives" in the area.
Besides school overcrowding, the community has a problem with homelessness, due to its traditional status as a gateway community. There is also some "fringe gang activity," Star said.
Her Copernicus Center is doing what it can to help its 60-and-older clientele, providing hot meals, fitness and wellness programs, and classes ranging from yoga and Latin dancing to computer learning and English as a second language, she said.
Avondale will likely never become a Lincoln Park, Old Town, Old Irving or historic Kenwood. It's too far from the lake, and doesn't have residential palaces. But it always will be a bedrock community of hard work and family focus, Dobrzycki said.
"Over time, the community has changed," he said. "But you still see people with their roots in the community."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times