Greetings again my lovelies! So apparently our travel through time continues, this time let’s bring it back to the Gilded Era. Picture it! Chicago, 1880! Two northside boys who ventured to Beverly for an architectural tour hosted by Chicago for Chicagoans took a detour down Lake Park Avenue and ended up in a gentleel section of Chicago. Jared and I were those boys and the genteel section of Chicago was the Oakland neighborhood.
A brief history of Oakland is a history similar to most neighborhoods of Chicago. It was originally on the outskirts of town—far away from crime, pollution, immigrants (those damn Irish!) and overcroweded apartments that made up of so much of Chicago. It lured middle class, white-collar workers seeking attractive homes near a train line (the Kenwood Branch of the El was a few blocks away before being torn down in the 1950’s) and flourished as an exclusive, white-only neighborhood until the Black Belt exploded, whites flocked farther south, and this area being all black by the 1920’s.
I can’t say enough how much I am crushing on Berkeley Avenue in Chicago’s Oakland neighborhood. This area is a hidden gem in the city! (at least for most non Southsiders) Not as exclusive as North Kenwood, not as historic as Bronzeville but truly a section of Chicago’s southside that is still stuck in the 1880’s. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of 41st Place and Berekely you must stop by, the whole Oakland Historic District is a Victorian architecture lover’s wet dream. It has a high concentration of cottages designed by my FAVORITE British architect, Cicero Hines!(Berkeley Avenue was Hine’s first solo commission of homes in Chicago.) These cottages are ABSOLUTELY darling, wonderfully painted in Queen Anne colors and appearing like something out of a British well-to-do suburb. If you’re interested in other of Hine’s work, check out the Claremont Cottages, which basically are a working-class version of the homes on Berkeley.
Although Berkely Avenue it’s an incredibly short street (just 4 blocks long) this stretch of Chicago takes you back to when the crème de le crème of Chicago flocked to Oakland (which originally was a separate suburb) to live a bucolic lifestyle a stone’s throw away from the lake.
The homes here are straight out of a storybook; with decorative gingerbread trimming, onion domes, ornate gables, bay windows, beautiful stained glass windows, inviting front porches and detail upon detail. Berkeley as well as the rest of the Oakland neighborhood was quiesentially the perfect Victorian suburb, it’s residents were almost living in a fairytale village.
Was it always good times though on Berkeley Avenue and in Oakland? Of course not, Oakland, like much of the southside was subject to massive white flight, black middle-class abandonement, drugs, crime and violence. By the 1990’s Oakland was the poorest neighborhood in the city. Tall government housing projects only temporarily fixed the blight in this area. It wasn’t long before the projects became as delaptiated as the housing they razed to build them. Berekely Avenue was not sheltered from such blight, it simply spilled over onto this former tony street. Where once happy families enjoyed lakeshore living, hookers were doing tricks in burned out homes. Backyards where once Victorian ladies grew nasturtium from seed now housed junkies were shooting heioron in barren and unkempt former backyards. It was not a pretty picture, Oakland’s fall from grace was quite hard.
In this last decade however we see a monumental growth of interest in Oakland, particularly on Berekely Avenue. Homes are being loving restored, the neighborhood is being intergrated (at the time of writing thise, sections of Berekely Avenue are between 15-20% white) and we see the return off the middle/upper middle-class after such a long absence. This renaissance comes with mixed reviews, many lifelong residents are thrilled with the rise of their property value but also rapid gentrification will ultimately change not only the economics of the neighborhood but the racial make up as well. Hopefully the inevitablegentrification that will come will not strip the area of the residents who have cared for these properties for so long. We as Chicagoans have seen far too many neighborhoods gentrified, become basically suburban enclaves in the city and inhabited by one too many yoga moms who are about that rosé all day” life but I digress.
Again, stop on by, get out of your car and take a stroll! A man taking care of his lawn watched the two of us walk up and down the street and asked if we were doing an architectural tour. We chatted with him for awhile and he said how now was the best time to invest in property on this street, before “it gets fully gentrified”. Houses on Berkeley Avenue are already well above the price of a starter home (at the time of writing, the one single house on the street was selling for over $500,000). Would I love to able to afford one of these homes? You bet you sweet candy ass I would! But alas, unless I get a sugar daddy (Tom Skilling, I’m looking at you) or win at a scratch off I will have to settle for a periodic stroll down this street lost in time.