Dominique Brown and Shane Calvin
For over two decades the smell of burgers and fries has overpowered the intersection at Ashland and Wabansia. George Mavraganis, the owner of Choppers, is responsible for this familiar aroma that has created a loyal following. And while he has not altered the look of his fast food joint for 27+ years, the same cannot be said for the rest of the neighborhood.
"But the change has been good," remarked Mavraganis. Once a factory town with low-income housing, Wicker Park and Bucktown have turned into a tourist attraction with pricey condominiums designed by major architectural firms.
“It was good that the neighborhood changed. It got rid of people who didn’t care about the property and it brought in good homeowners,” he said.
Mavraganis recalls the first signs of gentrification happening in 1991 on Wabansia street.
“I think people saw what happened in Lincoln Park and thought this could be the next great neighborhood,” he said.
Wicker Park/Bucktown went from having a slew of exterminator and sewing shops to having little choice in rent. It’s common to charge nearly two thousand dollars a month for a one-bedroom apartment remarked Jessica, a project manager for the Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce.
“I bought a condo in Logan Square. I couldn’t afford one out here,” she said.
Though gentrification has cleaned up the neighborhood, it does not create the perfect utopia. She went on to explain that with the gain, comes loss.
“It’s lost a lot of what made it unique. A lot of neighborhoods on the North Side are now exactly the same. It’s lost artistic value because it’s so expensive,” she said.
But Mavraganis doesn’t quite share her concerns. Prior to the neighborhood’s transformation his restaurant experienced multiple break-ins. He weathered the loss and kept a watchful eye on his investment by being a daily presence at his place. Eventually better times came for Mavraganis, and they came in the form of a new aesthetic.
Once the price of living went up, the crime rates went down. Ultimately, safety is about being able to afford it he concluded.
“This was a poor neighborhood. There was a lot of crime and lots of burglaries,” he said. “The gentrification brought a whole new genre of people.”
The blue-collar families were muscled out in order to make room for those who could bear the neighborhood’s climbing prices. According to 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, many of the homeowners were bought out cheaply by developers. And those who didn’t have the financial means moved further West.
“It was more of a Puerto Rican and Hispanic community at the time. There were families who had been there for 15 and 20 years. Also it used to be a Polish neighborhood. Then in the 1990’s when I moved in, it started to gentrify,” he recalled. “I think it happens as just a matter of fact. If you look at Bucktown and Wicker Park, most people can’t afford it… It’s 90% white.”
Coffee shop worker Mike Lewis is one of many employed in the neighborhood who caters to this younger 20 to 30-something crowd. He lamented that the once rough area has mostly been replaced by cosmopolitan restaurants with mission statements.
“Awfully white (here). It’s white-ifying the neighborhood. Here the connotation means white people with a presumably high income,” Lewis said. “A little bit of a pretension attitude comes with the way a latte’s being made...all we have to worry about is the amount of graffiti in the neighborhood.”