t's a sweltering summer evening, and the Damen Avenue streetscape north of North Avenue is pulsating.
There are walkers, joggers and bicyclists. There are parents pushing infants in strollers and pulling toddlers in wagons. There are al fresco diners, couples sipping cool beverages, Italian ice aficionados and unabashed people-watchers.
This is Bucktown, which with its next-door neighbor, Wicker Park, may represent one of the hippest neighborhoods in Chicago. If you ever tire of its options in dining, nightlife, shopping and the arts, you can amuse yourself by joining the lively debate as to what street divides Bucktown from Wicker Park.
Some say Bucktown's parameters are easily delineated, extending from Ashland to Western Avenues east and west and Fullerton Parkway to North Avenue north and south. Those simple 1-mile-long, right-angled borders both longitudinally and latitudinally would make this hip community perfectly square.
Elaine Coorens, a 30-plus year resident of Wicker Park and author of "Wicker Park from 1673 thru 1929" and "Walking Tour Guide," isn't having any of it. "The whole concept of everything north of North Avenue being Bucktown doesn't jibe with the fact Wicker Park's historic landmark district, as defined both by both the nation and the city, goes north of North Avenue to Bloomingdale Avenue," she says.
The point seems to be which neighborhood gets to claim the eclectic Damen, North and Milwaukee intersection, an argument state Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago) finds amusing.
"I grew up in the city and remember when that stretch of North Avenue was hubcap shops and liquor stores. No one wanted to claim it then, and now everyone wants to claim it," says Fritchey, who believes North Avenue is Bucktown's southern border.
A nightlife mecca
There's little argument among outsiders about Bucktown's distinguishing characteristics. Many visitors make a beeline to Bucktown from around the metro area for those very qualities, including dining, dancing and other diversions.
"You have Cuban, Puerto Rican, South American, Italian, Mexican, French, traditional American and gourmet cutting-edge restaurants," says Paula Barrington, executive director of the Wicker Park-Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, ticking off just a few ethnic cuisines among Bucktown's more than three dozen eateries.
The community also beckons shoppers, boasting a 95 percent retail occupancy rate, of which other shopping hubs can only dream. "Most of the retail you see along the streets is independently owned, Chicago-based shops," Barrington said.
Those who make Bucktown home list myriad factors in their decision to plant roots, says Bucktown Community Organization (BCO) president Scott Trotter, a 12-year resident who describes himself as a "trophy husband" and stay-at-home dad. One of the area's long-time selling points is transit services, he notes. Easy access links residents to the Kennedy Expressway, and CTA Blue Line trains stop at Damen, North and Milwaukee Avenues as they enter Bucktown from the Loop, and Western and Milwaukee Avenues as they depart.
Metra's Clybourn stop, on Ashland Ave. between Cortland Street and Armitage Avenue, is a jewel for those heading out of the city. "I can literally walk to that stop, get on the train, not think about traffic and be at Ravinia in 40 or 50 minutes," Trotter said.
One doesn't expect to hear schools cited as a major draw in a city neighborhood, but they are in Bucktown, where a community-wide grassroots effort to lift the Chicago Public Schools by their bootstraps has paid off in a big way, Trotter said.
"It's an exciting time to be in Bucktown, because people feel the public schools are an option for them," he said. "There's more work to be done, but the community has pulled together to take over ownership of the public schools."
The glittering star in the scholastic firmament is Drummond Montessori Magnet School on West Cortland Street. Another success story, according to Fritchey, is Chicago International Charter School.
Fritchey added: "Bucktown has a large number of families with school-age kids, and families wanting to stay in the city. That puts pressure on the schools to raise their performance, and local schools have done just that."
Community involvement has also sparked revival of Bucktown's "pocket parks," places where neighborhood residents congregate, said Eva Bergant, a real estate agent with @Properties, and former BCO president. Funds are being raised for renovation of the fieldhouse at Holstein Park, home to Bucktown's signature event, the Bucktown Arts Fest, an annual fine arts festival scheduled for this weekend.
Bucktown residents also savor the children's playground at Ehrler Park, as well as the T-ball fields, dog-friendly spaces and monthly outdoor movies at Churchill Field Park, among other neighborhood pockets of green, Bergant said.
Another of Bucktown's strengths is its array of housing stock. The neighborhood has everything from rowhouses to newly constructed single-family homes and condo buildings, as well as manufacturing facilities converted to condos.
"Most everything is really well maintained," Bergant said. "The homes people have rehabbed and renovated are really quite incredible."
David Wolf, real estate agent with the Wolf Residential Group of @Properties, says he's not seeing as many new-construction or conversion projects in Bucktown as he did a year ago. "But the good developers are still developing," he said.
One of the more noteworthy projects Wolf is representing is the PAC Lofts in the old Paulina Art Center building, 1735 N. Paulina Ave.
The flip side
Not everything is rosy. Bucktown's growing reputation as "Bucks-Town" makes it a prime target of the light-fingered.
"Property crimes seem to be way up," Trotter said. "That's very concerning now. We're told at CAPS meetings by the police it's because it's an affluent community, and people from other communities want what we have. . . . It seems everyone knows somebody who has had their home broken into in the last two years."
Fritchey counters that property crimes in Bucktown are not "out of line with other neighborhoods." And he said for all the changes Bucktown has undergone in the past few decades, most of the evolution has been for the better.