History of Wicker Park

Wicker park was officially founded in 1870 by developers Joel and Charles Wicker. Charles was the older brother, and an alderman in the city, and Joel was a local businessman and developer. After a meeting at which the Chicago Board of Public Works announced that they wanted a park built in the area, the brothers decided the timing was right. Together they purchased 80 acres of land along Milwaukee Avenue and devised a plan to build a unique area around a 4-acre parcel they donated back to the city, for the park.

They envisioned a place where people from all economic backgrounds could live. By dividing the lots into different sizes, some big enough for mansions and others just a single family bungalow, they were able to achieve their goal. It turned out to be perfect timing, for what came next; the Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire brought a flood of misplaced Chicagoans to the area. It was a pivotal moment that proved to be the starting point of the Wicker Park we know today.

The borders of Wicker Park are as follows:

  • Bloomingdale trail to the North (although some sources stretch the northern border as far north as Armitage and as far south as North Ave
  • Ashland to the East
  • Division to the South
  • Western to the West

Wicker Park is a popular neighborhood in Chicago and continues to grow today. What makes this neighborhood special is the fact that It is colored with a history of many different ethnic groups which influence the neighborhoods current culture and architecture.

Beer Barons of the late 19th Century

Mansion on Beer Baron Row in Wicker ParkBeer was a major commodity and very culturally significant in early Chicago. In fact, in 1833 the first commercial brewery opened in Chicago, Haas and Sulzer Brewery, and Chicago wasn’t even a city yet, it was just a town. German immigrants dominated the early industry with their knowledge and expertise that they brought with them from the old country. Even though the population was still small, the beer industry was thriving.

Mayor Levi Boone viewed things differently and wanted to see a change in the city. After being elected on a temperance and anti-immigrant platform, he set his sights on the beer industry. He attempted to enforce a local ordinance stating that taverns are closed on Sundays and also increased the cost of a liquor license by 600%. In the opinion of German and Irish immigrants, drinking beer on Sundays was a great way to spend their day off, so they took this as a personal attack. This led to the first major civil disturbance in the City, the Lager Beer Riots of 1855.

A compromise was quickly reached and things continued on as normal, which meant the beer industry was thriving. Beer historian Bob Skilnik wrote that Lill & Diversey Brewery (formerly Haas and Sulzer Bewery) was “the largest brewery west of the Atlantic seaboard”. By the year 1860, Chicago even had a special school, the Siebel Institute of Technology, where different beer making techniques were tested and taught.

A lot of money was being made and after the Chicago Fire of 1871, many of the “Beer Barons” as they came to be known, moved to Wicker Park.

The first to arrive were wealthy Germans and Scandinavians who originally resided on Chicago’s northside. Armed with newfound wisdom of the effects of wood houses and fire, they built large mansions made of brick and stone on Hoyne street, between Pierce and Schiller that are still in the neighborhood today. They were very elaborate, with intricate detail, showing styles and craftsmanship from around the globe. The street earned the nickname “Beer Baron Row” because of the industry the owners were in and the impressive homes.

Ornate Victorian style homes, Second Empire buildings, stately red brick mansions…every home seems so beautiful, but also unique. No one would ever accuse this neighborhood of having cookie cutter homes. 2138 W. Pierce has very elaborate, complex wood carvings throughout the entire exterior. 1941 W. Schiller, affectionately referred to by locals as “The Wicker Park Castle”, is a Queen Anne style masterpiece with huge granite columns that are so polished they resemble marble. 1558 H. Hoyne has a house with a cannon in the front yard and 2137 W. Pierce has a front yard that is so nice they used to flood it in the winter so they could ice skate. The architects and owners of these homes spared no expense. America had a huge appetite for beer and the first movers in the industry were showing their wealth. The prime structures were so valuable that Hoyne eventually became one of the first paved streets in the city.

In the following years Wicker Park would quickly grow to become a place for many other well to do city dwellers as the area began to become more commercialized. It was slowly becoming a part of Chicago’s charm.

In 1895 the Northwest Branch of the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad (the “L”)  built stops that ran along Milwaukee avenue, one of which was Damen: where Milwaukee Ave, Damen, and North Ave intersected creating 6 corners. This geographical coincidence became (and still is) prime real estate for commercial business as the neighborhood began to embed itself deep within Chicago’s culture. By the start of the 20th century Wicker Park became one of Chicago’s hot spots and with the construction of public transportation cutting right through the middle, it was able to bring in a wave of newcomers seeking promising opportunities.

20th Century

At the start of the 20th century, Poles, Jews, Russians, Danes and Britts came into the area looking for much available work. The most influential of these groups were the Poles, who even today account for a significant contribution to the city’s culture. Today, the Polonia Triangle, bounded by a small triangle where Milwaukee intersects Ashland and Division, still holds remnants of Polish influence in the neighborhood’s past. Although the Polonia Triangle is geographically outside of Wicker Park’s boundaries, many neighborhood groups claim it as part of Wicker Park. Zygmunt Dyrkacz, the owner of the Chopin theatre located on Division by Milwaukee referred to it as “the gateway to Wicker Park.” The area used to be referred to as “the Polish Downtown” and has since deteriorated but efforts to maintain it’s historic elements are still in effect today.

By the mid 20th century the working class population began to grow as wealthy residents moved out of the area. The poor Latino population started to move into the area in the 1960s. The Latino population in 1960 in Wicker Park was 1% and by 1970, that number climbed to 39%. The mansions were divided into multi-family units and the neighborhood became a place for low income Americans.

Gentrification is a huge part of Chicago’s history and signs of it are wrapped in many of the neighborhoods history. Wicker park would go through a gentrification stage in the second half of the 20th century when issues of the neighborhoods historical significance came to light. In 1973 the Old Wicker Park Committee lobbied for national and local historic designation. This meant that if the neighborhood was approved, initiatives would be put in place to preserve Wicker Park’s history.

In 1979, the committee was granted their wish by the National Register of Historic Places and Wicker Park was designated as a national historic district. As a result, developers got tax breaks for their efforts to buy and preserve historic buildings that still existed, the most prized buildings being the mansions on Beer Baron row. In the 1980s the old houses were restored to single family homes and the domino effect of high taxes, development, and increased cost of living ensued. The poor hispanic population was driven out of the neighborhood and Wicker park began to see a new growth with an influx of artist that remains a big part of Wicker Park’s personality. You can see the artistic influence in the neighborhood, such as the Flat Iron Building, which is home to many of the neighborhoods art and performance events.

Today, Wicker park is considered an artist pub and a gathering place in the city for young, trendy, progressive Chicagoans with all that is has to offer. It is booming with a vibrant nightlife that includes trendy bars, live music, and nightclubs. It has set the standard with its unique shops and exquisite restaurants and it is without a doubt one of Chicago’s true gems and a place worthy off all the praises it receives by its residents and visitors.