By Jamie Sokolik
Born and raised on Armitage Avenue, an elderly man of Puerto Rican descent has lived in Logan Square his entire life. His grandkids visit him in the same house where he grew into a young man and then a husband and parent, fulfilling his fatherly duties of playing catch and building tree houses in the backyard as his father did before him. But the neighborhood is different now. In some ways, it’s better: it’s safer, and when his grandkids come to visit, he can send them ahead to the new park, The 606, while he stays back and finishes packing snacks for later. There is also more to do. Coffee shops dot city blocks, and a few boutiques and bike shops have sprung up here and there, along with construction that will result in more retail, more commerce and more housing. So, what’s the problem?
According to some, there isn’t one. The recent development in Logan Square has certainly bettered the general quality of life. But to others, including residents and housing market experts, such as Geoff Smith, executive director of the Institute for Housing Studies (IHS) at DePaul, and Winifred Curran, gentrification expert and associate professor in the Department of Geography and the sustainable urban development master’s program, the influx of young, mostly white professionals is a warning sign of gentrification. It’s happening around the country—areas of disrepair are renewed and rebuilt, and people of higher socioeconomic status move in, driving up housing prices and rent rates and, perhaps unintentionally, displacing the poorer residents who have historically lived there. It’s true that change is inevitable; building and development feed a community, and more green space makes for a higher quality of living. But how do you improve a community in a way that serves the existing population who made it desirable in the first place? Is it possible?
The slow creep
“Many people think gentrification is something that happens quickly,” Curran says. “The process is almost always in place for decades before it becomes visible to the general public. In Logan Square, this has easily been happening for the past 20 years.”
According to Curran, gentrification usually begins with real estate developers who buy and develop inexpensive property in areas they predict will be the next hot neighborhood. These changes offer a lot of benefits, but as a result, the cost of living skyrockets.
“You can’t freeze a community in time and never attract any new investments,” Smith says. “That’s not good for the future of the neighborhood or really the current residents, either. But what you should do, I think, is use data and information about how neighborhoods have responded to similar projects to strategize how to preserve some stability going forward.”
IHS is among the go-to resources for data and data analysis that inform affordable housing policies and practices in Chicago and beyond. Using their data clearinghouse, IHS integrates public and private data that help guide the conversation about housing market practices and policies that have an influence on local and national levels. Using this information, it also generates tools that can be used in the fight for affordable housing and other hot-button housing issues. In its current project, funded by the Polk Bros. Foundation, IHS is studying the effects of The 606 on residential real estate prices and market activity in Logan Square, particularly in the area around the trail. The park and bike trail, built on the old, elevated Bloomingdale rail line, opened in June 2015 and spans Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. Smith agrees that though The 606 might have exacerbated the trend, the evolution likely started years before, with the sharpest changes in housing prices happening before and after the 2008 economic crash.
“Many areas of Chicago have struggled since the crash, but some, Logan Square in particular, have rebounded quite sharply,” he says. “There’s a huge demand for housing in the neighborhood relative to the supply, which causes competition and increases prices even faster.”
Smith and his IHS colleagues started the project in December 2015 and are still accumulating and analyzing data, but Smith can use similar instances and past data to hypothesize what happens next. “It’s not crazy to think that demand for housing and real estate will increase even more sharply now that The 606 is open,” he says. “The trail is an incredible amenity that, of course, a lot of people want to live by, shop by and own stores by. An understanding of the dynamics of supply and demand tells us that under current conditions, rent and single-family home prices are only going to continue in an upward trend.”
Change and continuity along The 606
From the beginning, The 606 has been a huge hit in the larger Chicago community and the communities through which it runs. Whether the temperature is a balmy 90 degrees or a cool 20, the bike trail, which lines the park, has a constant flow of bikers, runners, skateboarders and dog walkers taking in the views and enjoying the outdoors. Although the number of people varies based on the season, many residents use it as a safe way to commute throughout the year above the bustle and dangers of the street below.
“One of our tenants, who is a single mom, says she loves it and uses it as a transportation corridor for her kids,” says Juan Carlos Linares (JD ’02), executive director of the Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), which offers services for low-income residents of Logan Square and Humboldt Park. “She sends them down The 606 with their skateboards to school. They don’t have to cross the street, and she can go to work without worrying.”
Among their many functions, LUCHA is a provider of affordable housing in the area. Every day, Linares fields residents’ concerns, some of which involve the effects of The 606. But even the worried welcome the new green space in an area that previously had very little. “It’s been terrific for the community,” he says. “LUCHA and other organizations are working to find a way to ensure the current residents are among those who enjoy and benefit from it for years to come.”
The park has also influenced local retail. Tim Taylor, owner of Ipsento coffeehouse, and Harris Nash, director of retail, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to open a second location off the Milwaukee Avenue trail entrance. “You can walk from our first location, off the Western blue line stop, to The 606 location in seven minutes,” Nash says. “Usually, you would want your second location farther away so you’re not splitting your business, plus we had no intention of opening a second spot so soon. But being so close to The 606 was too good to pass up.”
The 606 location transitions into a bar at night that serves wine, cocktails and craft beer. This not only allows Taylor to incorporate more of his own passions into his business, but the extended hours and service will also help compensate for the higher rent. “The cost difference is significant,” Nash says. “But to basically have the trail as our outdoor patio, we were happy to get creative.”
Some longtime local retailers are also making changes to accommodate both established and new residents. John Mourikes, co-owner of Foodsmart, Logan Square’s neighborhood grocery store for upward of 20 years, is just steps from the trail, but he has been noticing changes in shopper preferences for some time.
“About 10 years ago, we started getting requests for different kinds of products,” Mourikes says. “Customers started asking for gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan and organic. That hadn’t happened before. Everything evolves, so we did, too.”
These days, Foodsmart’s shelves are still stocked with the mainstay La Preferida and Goya products, but next to them are freshly delivered cakes, pies and pastries from the new organic bakery down the block, as well as the kombucha tea he says he can barely keep in stock. “Everybody has the right to be in a nice neighborhood and to stay where they want,” Mourikes says. “We’ll continue serving all pockets of the community as long as the demand is there. That’s the goal—we serve everyone.”
A place for all
Many local organizations, including the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and LUCHA, are working hard to find ways for all residents to enjoy the new amenities without any one group becoming displaced. They depend on Smith and IHS to help them produce data-driven results. “Knowing the problem through data can help inform intervention,” Smith says. Linares wholeheartedly agrees. “IHS is helping LUCHA put forward longitudinal data on household income, demographics and other changes in the area,” he says. “Their work is directly helping us plan for new housing services as the population shifts and is supplying the projections that will help determine where our services are most needed.”
LUCHA proactively purchased six empty lots by The 606 in 2014, and Logan Square aldermen Joe Moreno, Roberto Maldonado and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa have committed a total of six city-owned lots, all of which LUCHA will develop as affordable housing. Linares concedes that maintaining affordability along the park is an urgent matter. “As much as we all love the trail, the reality is that property taxes will continue to rise.”
Curran supports building more affordable housing. She adds that providing real estate tax breaks would go a long way toward preventing longtime residents from being priced out of their homes. Additionally, she believes that incentivizing affordable development and thinking about affordability before development begins could be among the most effective strategies.
“It’s not necessarily the developers’ fault that displacement is happening,” she says. “Their job is to identify places where these kinds of improvements will be profitable. If we give them a reason to keep affordability in mind during the process, it will benefit everyone.”
Smith projects that the increase in housing construction might also eventually help stabilize housing costs. “Although the current construction activity along the trail and in Logan Square is more broadly targeted to higher-income households, the additional housing supply might take some pressure off the market, and the increase in rent will slow down. However, even with the new development, the affordability for lower-income families is still a concern.”
There are many possible solutions to the complex problems Logan Square and similar areas across the country are facing, but all of them take time, money and collaboration. The stakeholders are working toward finding a way to encourage development and serve all parties involved: the present community, new residents, real estate developers and the city itself.
“There’s a perception that displacement is inevitable, and, in my opinion, that’s just not true,” Curran says. “Development doesn’t just happen. The 606 is not a naturally occurring thing. Just as you have to work to produce these projects, you have to work to produce affordability and consider current residents. Let’s learn from the past and apply it before development on the next ‘hot neighborhood’ begins. Let’s act with intention. It will help a lot of people.”