#68: Battle of Avondale

October 3rd, 2012

Someone scrawled “White People” in Sharpie on the highway underpass mural welcoming people to the northwest side community of Avondale.

“AVONDALE: Bienvenidos a White People,” the light blue mural on the underside of the Kennedy now read.

“AVONDALE: Welcome to White People.”

It wasn’t just the words hastily drawn in marker, but every brick and mortar of the neighborhood that screamed forced change. There was the Chipotle across a Jewel parking lot from Sunshine Restaurant, closed for the day but still full of old-timers they let hang. (When I went in to talk to a couple of the them that Sunday afternoon, the waitress said “We’re closed” so quietly I thought for a second she had just mouthed the words.)

There were the empty old storefronts next to magnificent empty apartment complexes built not in response to a demand but to make one.

There was the luxury store for babies down a block from the empty tax office with the hand-painted plywood sign. And down another half block from the cell phone tower.

Lines of identical brick apartment buildings with the glazier’s name still in the window. Streets of well-loved old two-flats, each a shape, size and color slightly different from the rest. A bar with a cursive neon sign saying “Free Wi-Fi.” Signs in Spanish. Signs not.

And a sprawling gated community smack in the middle.

Tucked on a side street between a mural lionizing the local firefighters and a massive Target store, the gated community was huge and gorgeous. Menacingly pretty, with its manicured fields bigger than most corner parks as effective as moats and parapets used to be in getting out the message “I’m rich. Fuck off.”

The townhouses likewise stank of wealth and oozed a sense of not wanting me around. It was a private gated community in Chicago, a city of neighborhoods and fences. A city where I’ve heard natives still describe themselves as “front porch people.” Nelson Algren’s broke-nosed beauty had put on her fancy coat.

Two young mothers — one black, one white — walked past as I goggled. Their children were playing together and, I could tell, would grow up together. I felt a twinge of guilt for hating the development so.

“Is that a park?” I asked, a quiet lie I hoped would get conversation going.

“It’s part of the complex,” one of the mothers told me.

I thanked them.

Later, I looked up the development online. It’s amazing what a little Internet savvy can net you — the $424,000 price tag, the $679,000 price tag just a few years ago. Even floor plans and descriptions of what the homes look like inside.

They have glazed metallic wall tile imported from Spain for $40 a square foot. They have Brazilian cherry wood staircases. And the home builder even hangs up your flat-screen plasma TV for you.

“Details differentiate the product,” the builder told the Tribune in 2008. “My developer friends say I’m crazy, but people appreciate the extra attention.”

With a little Internet savvy, you can find the name of the company. The name of the company that owns that company. Everyone’s legal counsel. Property tax info. A mishmash of LLCs, LPs and PINs, but nowhere the word “Avondale.”

It’s not in Avondale. It’s in “West Roscoe Village,” the developers say. Easier to market, I guess.

Avondale’s the latest battleground of the war that spiffied up and priced out Wicker Park, Lakeview, Pilsen, a dozen more old neighborhoods. The developer made a home for those little kids. They’ll get their clothes from the luxury baby shop, eat at the Chipotle and probably try to sneak into the Wi-Fi bar when they’re older.

But they won’t grow up in Avondale. They’ll grow up in what the developers think will sell.

There’s a battle going on in Avondale. Tensions are building. Something’s bubbling, even if right now it’s just some scrawl on the “Welcome to Avondale” mural.

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