Cartographically speaking, Chicago is pretty neat. There exists a grid of streets occasionally bisected by diagonals to create six-cornered intersections -- the proverbial root of the Chicago "hard left" versus the "soft left." There are abandoned railroads in the midst of being adopted into nature trails; there are pedways that exist exclusively underground. And on the North Side, spanning about five miles from end to end, there's an avenue that's split evenly down the middle by the Metra tracks, creating two parallel corridors bordered by prairie-like bunkers and lined with a fascinating cross-section of industry.
This is Ravenswood Avenue, the north-south artery of the eponymous neighborhood that's stamped confidently in the middle of the Lincoln Square community area. And in part because of its unique geography, the resulting corridors are like nothing else in town: all genuine bricks and mortar abuzz with industry and creativity, housing beehives of crafty Chicagoans making and doing work unlike that of any other business district.
Ravenswood is a microcosm of production, a modern village of craftspersons who are as at home behind a sautering /soldering/ iron as a professionally poured cappuccino. Find me another Chicago neighborhood -- let alone avenue -- in which a boutique distillery, an arts education theater and a school of woodworking exist within a tenth of a mile from of one another.
Is it any wonder this neighborhood claims Chicago's mayor-elect, Rahm Emanuel, as one of its own?
For the community of Ravenswood, named for the industrial avenue that courts the Metra tracks for a few miles on the North Side, progress is marked by participation.
Last week, for instance, the neighborhood's Lillstreet Art Center received the highest number of new-session enrollments ever in a single day. By the end of enrollment period, about 1,800 Chicagoans will have signed up to become more creative over the next few months, all under the same roof in a 40,000-square-foot former gear factory.
Lillstreet, which this year celebrates 35 years as a multipurpose arts center, has only been on Ravenswood Avenue for the past seven. But those seven years have been some of the most formative in the neighborhood's history. That organization's establishment in 2003 at Ravenswood and Montrose avenues sparked what has become a second wave of industry for the neighborhood, justifying owner Bruce Robbins' unique sort of gentrification, replacing industry to bring in art.
Ravenswood's namesake main drag is now dotted with working outposts of every creative venture under the sun, from microbrewing to woodworking, each of them helping to build a bona fide community of artists and artisans.
The proof is in the parking lot.
"The corridor used to be kind of dirty and abandoned, and you had to worry about your car getting broken into," said Liz Finan, of O'Shaughnessy's Public House (4557 N. Ravenswood Ave.), which she has owned and managed along with husband Michael Finan since 2008. These days, she said, all of the parking slots are full: "I think that always happens when a neighborhood improves."
Stuart Grannen, owner of Architectural Artifacts a few blocks south, doesn't even lock the doors to his sports cars anymore. He's been in business there for 24 years and considers himself a pioneer of the corridor's revival.
"I was pretty much the first business — other than the giant manufacturers — to come over here, and it's worked out very well," Grannen said via telephone last week. "When I moved to Chicago from Nashville, (Tenn.,) I didn't know one single person. I was just looking for warehouses and rented one down the street. I always, to this day, have considered myself very lucky that I ended up in Ravenswood. It's just a nice community: not too busy, kind of fun, and the residential element is there, which is nice."
From that little rental on Ravenswood Avenue, Grannen has expanded his retail business of salvaged architectural artifacts to two massive warehouse buildings — one erected in 1901, the other in the 1920s — and joined them with a light-flooded, modern atrium. Over the years, he said, he's seen the changes. He's caused them too: He helped Lillstreet's Robbins find the gear factory building.
"It's a really nice mix," Grannen said of the revived corridor of artistic businesses, which range from print and ceramics shop Oak Gallery to Barrel of Monkeys, a theater arts organization that caters to underserved youth. Local indie label Touch and Go Records was there from 1995 through 2009; others established themselves more recently.
"There are a lot of artistic bents up and down Ravenswood (Avenue)," Grannen said, "but it's pretty professional, as well — not just a bunch of folks with paint on their pants hanging around. I really like it here, and I've never had any interest in being anyplace else in Chicago."
For some, the corridor is simply an economical means to an end. Shaun Devine, teacher and founding partner at the Chicago School of Woodworking, said she and co-founder/partner Mark Hamester moved the school to Ravenswood Avenue in January, because they were able to score 10,000 square feet of workspace in a safe area with good transportation.
For others, such as longtime Ravenswood residents Tracy and Doug Hurst, establishing a small business along the corridor was a pipe dream come true. The Hursts founded Metropolitan Brewing in June 2008. A handful of months later, another boutique booze company, Koval Distillery, opened next door.
As Tracy Hurst explained via telephone last week, small businesses create diversity in the neighborhood.
"I don't want to insult the businesses that were around before us," Hurst said, "but I think the businesses now are a little more neighborhood-friendly. It's making the neighborhood more beautiful and diverse, and it gives us great bragging rights: Ravenswood is now home to the city's only distillery, and a bunch of great bars and restaurants."
Those lie beyond the industrial corridor, alongside well-edited vintage shops on Damen Avenue. Modest eateries, such as Over Easy, pop up here and there. Fountainhead, the newish craft-beer tavern, sits at Damen and Montrose avenues. But for sweets, Angel Food Bakery, which makes mud pies to die for and recently baked a birthday cake for Dolly Parton, is the place. The bakery landed on Montrose Avenue two blocks east of Lillstreet a handful of months after it opened. According to owner Stephanie Samuels (who counts herself among Lillstreet's artists), the neighborhood transitions haven't let up since.
"First, there was the Brown Line closure," Samuels said on an afternoon break in her funky storefront, an amazing-smelling batch of cakes wafting from the kitchen behind her. These days, the transitions are more social. Across the street, Ravenswood Elementary School recently received magnet status. It used to "just bus kids in," Samuels said.
"I think the families around here are very supportive, and that was a goal when I came in — was to help create and maintain a community," Samuels said. "We have a lot of regulars, women who came in when we first opened, when they were pregnant with their first child, and now they have two kids. I think they want to be able to walk and get something of quality in their neighborhood."
Ravenswood is far from all bright and shiny new businesses. Two blocks north of Angel Food, on Wilson Avenue, the American Indian Center was established in 1962. With 33,000 members, it serves the third-largest American Indian population in the country, according to Catheryn St. Germaine, the center's membership coordinator and receptionist. It's hardly an exclusive club: St. Germaine says the doors are open to the North Side community.
"We're a cornerstone of the Uptown/Ravenswood neighborhood," St. Germaine said last week between greeting each person by name who passed in front of her. "Within the community, the natives are my first priority, but I serve all walks of life. I see a lot of people coming in here looking for all kinds of services: problems with documentation they can't read, problems with notaries, employment, housing. I always try pointing them in the right direction."
For the Ravenswood residents who are thriving there, that direction is forward. O'Shaughnessy's Finan, who admitted that her and her husband's inauguration as tavern owners three years ago met with "disaster," stability is settling in.
"I think it's starting to become a more cohesive neighborhood, both businesswise and with residents," Finan said. "We still have a ways to go. We're getting it all together. Even in the bad economy, we're pretty stable."
Three years in, Metropolitan Brewing's owners are starting to think long-term about expansion. But moving beyond Ravenswood isn't in the picture. "We'll eventually outgrow this space," Hurst said of the brewery's current location, "but we don't want to leave. We want to buy a house here someday. We're here to stay as long as we possibly can."
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Ravenswood's best bets
American Indian Center 1630 W. Wilson Ave., 773-275-5871; aic-chicago.org
Angel Food Bakery 1636 W. Montrose Ave., 773-728-1512; angelfoodltd.com
Architectural Artifacts 4325 N. Ravenswood Ave., 773-348-0622; architecturalartifacts.com
Barrel of Monkeys 4432 N. Ravenswood Ave., 773-506-7140; barrelofmonkeys.org
Chicago School of Woodworking 5104 N. Ravenswood Ave., 773-275-1170; chicagowoodworking.net
Fountainhead 1970 W. Montrose Ave., 773-697-8204; fountainheadchicago.com
Koval Distillery 5121 N. Ravenswood Ave., 312-878-7988; koval-distillery.com
Lillstreet Art Center 4401 N. Ravenswood Ave., 773-769-4226; lillstreet.com
Metropolitan Brewing 5121 N. Ravenswood Ave., metrobrewing.com
O’Shaughnessy’s Public House 4557 N. Ravenswood Ave., 773-944-9896; oshaughnessychicago.com
Oak Gallery 4415 N. Ravenswood Ave., 312-658-8554
Over Easy 4943 N. Damen Ave., 773-506-2605; overeasycafechicago.com