Since 2008, there's been a particular stretch of road that I've taken from dropping off my oldest daughter at school to work. Though they now take the bus because we moved in the proximity area for this route, I still have the option to take N. Damen if I want to down to the Wicker Park/Buctown neighborhood.
I don't always because it's not the 2-Lane quickness of Ashland or Western, but when I do take it (like today) I realize how relaxing it is. Slower pace, fewer cars. It's actually not that bad unless you get caught behind a bus. Or there's an accident at the city's most dangerous intersection. And there's a familiarity that is so comfortable. I love it.
Thirteen things about Damen Avenue from Addison (3600 north) to North Ave (1600 north):
13. These little houses are so cute. I know some of them are apartments. I should live over here someday.
12. Corner of Damen/Roscoe. I love the sign on Riverview Tavern. It's this black lacquered wood sign with gold and red lettering. Very classy look--makes me think "one day I'll stop and get a drink when I don't have the girls some night" though I never have. Kitty corner is the oldest gas station in the world on the smallest corner lot ever. And no, I'm not stopping for you so you can pull out of the station.
11. A few blocks south, Damen/School. Stop sign. On the left (NE corner) there's this liquor store, but up top and in the back is a residential building. I imagine they own it, but don't honestly know. The residents are clearly diehard republicans, and have left there McCain/Palin, then Mitt Romney signs up in the window. Republicans in Chicago, ADMITTED republicans in Chicago are a special breed. It ain't easy, surely they're bruised and battle-scarred.
10. Over on the right is a store with a pink awning. It's some weird furniture store, but that's kinda new. There was an old school candy store there for quite awhile...the name already escapes me, but they had the globe style bowls and scoops, and all the old style candies. The only problem is they were new school hipster prices.
9. Damen/Belmont. In 2008 my favorite bakery "Bleeding heart bakery" (RIP) moved over here. The country's first official all-vegan bakery was owned by Michelle Garcia and her husband Vinny...she's on Food network still, sometimes. Another local homegrown foodie spot is there now, Black Dog Gelato, but I haven't been in...
8. South of Belmont, Damen between Barry and Wellington, is Hamlin Park. In nicer weather you'll see the "stroller brigade"--those stay at home moms and their thousand dollar strollers participating in a "mommy and me" exercise class. There's a nice "Cubs Care" baseball field. It's a nice park.
7. At the southern end of the park is a "ghost bike" in memory Liza Whitacre. She was so young, early 20's. It was a total accident and I'll never forget it, because as soon as I heard where it was on the news, I could picture the intersection. There was a CTA bus and a truck. She was between them (I think) and accidentally fell off her bike. The truck didn't see her and ran her over, dragging her. No one was at fault. It happened on 10/21/09 (an easy reminder with the plaque on the bike) and unlike some ghost bikes, people take care of hers year round with seasonal decorations. Some people hate it--think it's morbid. I don't one bit, and even though I don't know her, I find myself saying a prayer for her when I pass by there.
6. Not even a half block away, there was a terrible car accident that involved a drunk off-duty cop who broadsided two 20-something's. It happened around the same time as the bike accident. The kids (you know you're getting old when you're calling 20 year olds "kids") had run the stop sign, so the cop was off the hook. Someone regularly wraps a bouquet of flowers around a light pole. Life goes on, but I can't imagine having to handle the grief of the sudden loss of a loved one. Especially one so young. Heartbreaking.
5. Damen/Diversey/Clybourn. This intersection is not for the faint of heart, but it's nothing compared to the next one...it's prepping you. There's a Costco up ahead to the left, but otherwise this intersection is just for getting through it. The lights are too quick and if you dare try to go through a yellow light, be prepared to get that red light ticket in the mail. And good luck fighting it. So if you are a newbie and find yourself cursing out a driver because they came to a full stop as soon as the light turned yellow...don't. They just saved you $100.
4. Damen/Fullerton/Elston, the intersection from HELL. Ok...so north of here and south of here, Damen has striped bike lanes that are all lovely. But not at this intersection. Approaching from the north the street goes from one wider lane to two smaller lanes plus a left turn lane. But somehow bikes are supposed to make their way through also. And then bc of the 3-way intersection, you cross Elston but suddenly get stopped at the light for Fullerton. And GOD FoRBID you be in that right lane, bc the SECOND you cross Fullerton (the 2nd street) it goes down to one lane. Now the regulars know this and automatically let people in. Occasionally you have an ass who doesn't know the protocol and a game of "chicken" ensues. Who's gonna stop first, hit my car, I dare you. And GOD FORBID PART TWO if a CTA bus stops just south of Fullerton. It blocks the lanes and voila, you've earned yourself another red light ticket.
And seriously, your whole commute can ride on this intersection. "Alright! I'm making good time today. Green light, holla! NICE. The traffic gods are with me." BOOM. Suddenly your 10 minutes late to work. By all means, avoid this intersection on Friday evenings.
Good news, this shit-tacular intersection is getting a complete makeover next year. This article describes it...and how much it is needed. http://chicagoist.com/2013/04/11/work_to_begin_next_year_on_reconfig.php
But being able to navigate this intersection without batting an eye is akin to surviving subzero temps and wind chills in the negative 20's. It's a badge of honor.
3. Now you're approaching the edge of Bucktown and Wicker park...there's a bit of a lull. Watch out for all the impatient drivers turning left at Webster to hop onto the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94.) And if you call it the JFK, you've outed yourself as a non-local. Yes, even you, Thom (with a fancy "h"---strike 2) who subs some mornings on ABC 7 traffic coverage.
2. Damen/Wabansia. One of my favorite areas of the city. This neighborhood is like a tale of two cities from daytime to nighttime. Admittedly I'm hardly ever around at night, so all of this has been a "daytime commute" perspective. There's a mix of chain spots (Chipotle, Potbelly) and local spots. (Although technically Potbelly IS local.) Olivia's Market is a lovely neighborhood store that boasts a great soup and cheese selection, plenty of vegan products, and the most unique flowers ever. I love buying flowers for people from there. Goddess and Grocer is a great, slightly pricey deli. The same chef/owner runs Feast, the sit down restaurant a few storefronts down. Get the black bean burger, it'll be the best you've ever had!!! The butternut squash ravioli (maybe seasonal?) with its brown butter and sage is divine. And then there's the Silver Cloud, whose outdoor summer seating always makes me sad because I can still see myself sitting there eating lunch with Jan. Jan lived and breathed Wicker Park til she died in 2010. I miss her lots, still.
1. Damen/North/Milwaukee. This is where my trip ends. I hope you enjoyed it. This particular intersection, again, is very different at night. In the daytime I've seen a bank robbed (was actually IN the bank and 100% clueless and safe), I've seen multiple accidents, I've seen businesses come and go. I've seen Walgreens come in and rehab an old bank building to create this mega store, 3-level escalator having, gelato bar, gourmet foods "if Walgreens is in heaven, it must look like this" kinda joint. I've seen awesome shoe sales at City Soles, they're not $400, now they're $110! I've seen the rise of the $4 doughnut at "Glazed and Infused." The birthplace of Punk Rock in Chicago is here (Double Door.) The Subterranean is so underground (not literally) that I miss lots of awesome shows that perform there bc they don't advertise much. I know that NO restaurant in 9 years has been long-term successful just 1 block west of that major intersection--barring Sultan's, a great middle eastern deli. Not even the one with the James Beard-awarded chef. I've successfully copied $9 green smoothies at home because I can't afford that daily habit. I remain perplexed why a neighborhood that busy cannot seem to keep a cheap breakfast spot (RIP Half and half; Cold Comfort; and that hole in the wall Polish diner.) I've seen no less than 5 restaurants in that spot right outside the el station. It's a great neighborhood that struggles between gentrification and the good ol days, from hipsters to old school hippies...but somehow everyone gets along.
Destination Wicker Park/Bucktown. And the great thing is that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. There are plenty of places to get to know just like this one, all over the city.
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