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Getting to Know: North Center

What’s the Appeal? North Center has become one of Chicago’s most desirable residential communities thanks to its Victorian streetscape, top rated schools, its central location, excellent public transit, and ample dining, shopping and entertainment amenities. It offers an appealing array of housing alternatives, but single-family homes dominate the area.


Where Is It? Bounded by the North Branch of the Chicago River on the west and the Union Pacific/Metra tracks along Ravenswood Avenue on the east, North Center comes in two sizes. The North Center community area runs from Diversey Avenue north to Montrose Avenue, while the old core of the community, today identified as Northcenter, takes in that portion of North Center between Addison Street and Montrose. St. Ben’s, bounded by Addison, Western, Irving Park and Damen Ave., is part of Northcenter, while south of there are the sister neighborhoods of Roscoe Village, which runs from Belmont to Addison, and Hamlin Park, which stretches from Belmont south to Diversey.


What’s in the Name? Local businessmen dubbed the area North Center in the early 20th Century to emphasize its location half way between downtown Chicago and the city’s northwest and northern borders. But before that, the area was known as Bricktown because of all the brick making operations located along the river in between Diversey and Montrose. Brick making became a huge industry in Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 when the city was rebuilt with more fire-resistant structures. Ready access to rail transportation also attracted many factories to the corridor along Ravenswood Avenue.


Who Were the Earliest Residents? North Center was developed primarily as a working-class community for the German, Swedish and Irish immigrants employed in the factories and brick yards. That’s why much of the original housing consisted of two-flat apartment buildings, which were often shared by members of the same family. In recent years, many two-flats have either been converted into or replaced by single-family homes.


Aerial view of Riverview amusement park (photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum)

Claims to Fame: Along with its brick yards and factories, North Center did have a glamorous aspect to its early days. It was the home of one of the first movie studios in the United States. The Selig Polyscope Company, owned by Col. William N. Selig, built its movie production facility just south of Graceland Ave. (now Irving Park Road) and Western Ave, in 1896 and produced hundreds of early, widely distributed moving pictures, including comedies, travelogues, and industrial films. Two of its stars were cowboy hero Tom Mix and comedian Fatty Arbuckle. The Selig trademark “Diamond S” is still visible above the doorway of its headquarters building at 3900 N. Claremont, which now houses loft condominiums. The studio moved out of the area in 1918.


Two other claims to 20th Century fame came in the form of Riverview, Chicago’s favorite amusement park, and its hometown TV station, WGN, both of which took over sites along the river where brick yards once were located. Riverview was a staple of life in Chicago through the first two thirds of the 20th Century, closing suddenly in 1967, and then was a continuing source of nostalgia for thousands of Chicago children and adults who relished its slightly seedy yet exciting atmosphere. A few blocks north of Riverview, WGN-TV, then owned by the Chicago Tribune, built a state-of-the-art broadcasting facility in 1961 that remains in operation. Its address lives in the memories of those who grew up watching Bozo’s Circus, the city’s most popular children’s show for decades, because sending a postcard to 2501 W. Bradley Place offered kids a chance to participate in the Grand Prize Game.


For regular news about North Center, follow me on twitter @northcenterre.


What’s in the Name?


Have you ever wondered how your street got its name? Here are the origins of some North Center streets, information courtesy of Streetwise Chicago.


Berenice Avenue – 1880s real estate subdivider, Charles F. Ford, named the street for his daughter


Bradley Place– named for Captain Hugh Bradley, who arrived at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1816 to rebuild Fort Dearborn


Campbell Avenue – named for alderman (and post-fire land speculator) James L. Campbell


Damen Avenue – formerly Robey Street, named for Father Arnold Damen, S.J., founder of Holy Family Catholic Church and Loyola University


Grace Street – It honors Grace Gurnee, daughter of land developer and Chicago Mayor Walter S. Gurnee


Hoyne Avenue – Thomas Hoyne, U. S. attorney for Illinois, clerk of the circuit court, city clerk, briefly mayor of Chicago in 1875 until his election was overturned by the courts, and a founder of the Chicago Astronomical Society

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