For all the North Side’s talk of diversity, Albany Park is a neighborhood that really lives it.
It’s a place where posters for accordion-drenched Mexican Norteña bands get taped to the sides of Korean-language newspaper boxes. The walk west along Lawrence brings Ecuadorian restaurants, Indo-Pak grocery bazaars, barbershops with signs that say both “Se Habla Español” and “Free WiFi,” travel agencies with hand-painted signs promising low-cost trips to “India, Pakistan, Europe, Middle East, S. America & Africa.”
It’s a place where people work, live, breathe alongside each other.
El-Jeeb Hijab & Gifts has a window full of head coverings two doors down from the Admiral Theater, where women take their clothing off. One door down from El-Jeeb, a roomful of middle-aged Hispanic Christian men sit eating around a table at Sala Evangelica.
The smell of fried chicken wafts in from nowhere.
It’s a walk, a simple walk west. No reason, rhyme or campaign finance paperwork on this one of the 1K1 afternoons in the city. On a cold, bright day, taking sidewalk footpaths worn or chipped into wet ice, it’s just a walk west on Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park, Chicago, Illinois.
Across Pulaski, the signs blare into English with the arrival of a large, corporate chain plaza of Starbucks, Chase Bank, Petco. This side is called Mayfair, large orange metal pillars placed along the roadway say.
There’s the same diversity in Mayfair, the same mixture of Korean, Spanish and Arabic writing on the walls, of hookah bars and taquerias and State Farm and American Family Insurance agents with Asian last names.
But the streets seem wider here, the storefronts further spaced. It’s more suburban. Fewer businesses are shuttered.
It’s still the bungalow district, metal plaques shoved in the concrete claim. But the houses and families and increasingly large yards are back among the side streets. Developments start to line Lawrence farther west. Minty fresh apartment complexes and suburban-style townhouses that claim the neighborhood is the much more marketable Jefferson Park.
Chicago is a town of invisible barriers, where one side of the street gives friendly welcome to a person of your age/class/race and another seems angry and cold. Winding on worn paths in the sidewalk ice past lumberyards and jam-packed car washes, another barrier has been crossed. And another.
The walk continues past two highways and then past Cicero into the actual Jefferson Park, where the signs I can’t understand are once again in comforting Polish.
On this small side trip through Chicago, I saw a Plexiglas cow in the back of a pickup slathered in the Spanish names for cheeses. I saw a bakery with a massive Korean sign and a small English translation in the Gothic calligraphic font usually reserved for either “Thug Life” or “Chicago Tribune.”
An old Asian woman in a walker missed the bus. A young black man smoking a cigarette told me to watch the ice beneath an underpass. A white man with long strands of gray hair peeking from his wicking fabric ski mask waited for transit by the highway.
These are all people I will never see again.
On Feb. 22, 2015, I walked 2.6 miles from the Kimball Brown Line stop to the Jefferson Park Blue Line. I took the train back to write these lines in my own hipster haven of young artsy types where we tell ourselves we’ve found Chicago.