River North used to stink. Literally. It was a haven for industrial factories. The pollution was so dense it actually blocked the sunlight, earning the neighborhood its original name, Smokey Hollow. Today, it is named for one of its more appealing features. River North references the banks of the Chicago River that mark its south and west boundaries. (Chicago and Michigan avenues frame the east and north sides.)

There is an onslaught of attractions within River North. There are ritzy rooftop patios overlooking the water. There are the Marina Towers, sticking up like corncobs grown out of a silver city. Themed restaurants, like Rock N Roll McDonald’s, Rainforest Cafe, and the Hard Rock Cafe draw tourists from all over the world. But getting to the heart of River North means navigating past the crowds, out of the tourist trap, and into its diverse, eccentric core.

At a local café in River North called Brett’s Kitchen, three line cooks work in plain view of  customers. The tabletops are covered in bright floral ceramic tiles. Sliding plates clank against the counter, and customers sling compliments at the chef.

“Best grilled cheese around.”

“Love that coleslaw.”

It looks, feels, and sounds like grandmother’s country kitchen. There are no Edison lightbulbs hanging from repurposed rope, no corporate signage, and just four employees. It is easy to forget you’re in a neighborhood where ten thousand people live within a third of a square mile.

The street outside is hushed; sheltered by statuesque, red brick buildings. The crunch and crash of nearby construction is reduced to white noise. You can hear your footsteps on this side of town. This is the gallery district of River North, an area so abundant with uniquely curated shops it is rivaled only by Manhattan. The women floating in and out of the gallery shops are on solemn, quiet missions. These are serious art collectors, designers, and artistes.

Local resident and business owner Bob Gottfried has been acquainted with River North since 1976. “If you’re coming down here for a rest home, this isn’t the place. If you want to have some fun, in a stylish, upbeat neighborhood, this is the place to go,” he said.

Gottfried’s family business, the Erie-LaSalle Body Shop, has been around since 1934. Outside the shop is a neon green-white-and-red-lit sign. The brick, two-story wall on the building’s east side is painted in the same colors. It stands stout against the nearby ten-plus-story corporate offices and hotels. Gottfried inherited the business in 1976, when River North was still in its Skid Row days. “Cabrini-Green was alive and kickin’ at that time. You wouldn’t go out at night,” he said.

He described Clark Street back then as a hangout for the homeless and Wells Street as strictly industrial. When a hundred-year-old artists loft warehouse at Orleans and Huron caught fire in April 1989, residential development ignited. Tuxedo Park, a condominium development spanning nearly the entire 700 block of Orleans, was first. It stood in contrast to the fifteen-thousand-resident low-income housing of Cabrini-Green, with brick and stone façades modeled in the style of London row houses. Today, its condos sell for approximately a million dollars. The change that followed pioneer developments like Tuxedo Park, Gottfried said, was gradual, but all for the better: “Things are meant to change, and when it’s ready, it’s ready. At that time, River North was ready.”

The self-proclaimed oldest tavern in Chicago, Green Door is a relic in a bustling, modern neighborhood.

The self-proclaimed oldest tavern in Chicago, Green Door is a relic in a bustling, modern neighborhood. (Photo by Owen Whisenant)

One establishment in River North that has not seen significant change is the Green Door Tavern, which boasts the claim of “Chicago’s Oldest Tavern.” Yes, the door is green—and the wood façade follows suit. Built in 1872, it is one of the only wooden structures that remains from its era. It was built prior to the ordinance that prevented wood structures in the city—passed after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Inside, neon signs light up the old-fashioned but expansive bar room, decorated with Americana antiques and Chicago memorabilia. Its name is in homage to the folklore that the presence of a green door indicated a speakeasy was inside. That is still true today. Hidden in the depths of the tavern, down the stairs and near the bathrooms, is the original speakeasy space, coined The Drifter. The Drifter serves up classic cocktails from bartenders who, as advertised on the website, “know how to keep a secret.” In place of a menu, drinks are detailed on the backs of tarot cards. Unique performances, including the occasional burlesque, are debuted on a stage in the back of the cozy, dimly lit space.

Mob history has its foothold in other parts of town, too. Infamous mobster Dean O’Banion’s flower shop, Schofield’s, was located at Chicago Avenue and State Street. The popular spot was a known bootlegging site during prohibition, and O’Banion was infamously murdered by Al Capone’s men in 1924, while clipping flowers in the shop. O’Banion was brought back to River North’s public eye in 1978 via the iconic punk rock club O’Banion’s, at Clark and Erie. The club hosted punk rock icons such as the Dead Kennedys, and local punk rock groups Naked Raygun and Strike Under. It is now an Irish pub called The Kerryman.

River North is known for its nightlife, with clubs like Sound-Bar, Cuvée, and Spybar. Sharon Romack, president and chief executive officer of the River North Business Association, said it helps feed into the energy of the neighborhood, especially during tourist-heavy seasons like summer, as well as spring and winter breaks. But her favorite time of year in River North is when it is locals only. “We’ve got all the clubs, restaurants, and shops, but it’s such an eccentric neighborhood, and sometimes you forget to look around,” Romack said. “We love tourists, but when it quiets down, you stop and remember the hidden gems of River North.”

River North is home to the likes of Motorola and ConAgra, as well as local businesses like printers and attorneys. It is a self-sufficient hub for companies to flourish, Romack said. That diversity makes way for innovation. High-rise condos covered in shiny blue glass loom with prosperity throughout the neighborhood. “You meet business people of all ages out on the street,” Romack said. “There’s a real energy in the neighborhood, a buzz. It permeates.”

The only thing Romack said the neighborhood needs is wider sidewalks in its business district. It gets crowded, she said, and it is getting more crowded. For a more peaceful stroll through River North, the Chicago Riverwalk allows residents and visitors alike to walk along the river from Lake Shore Drive to Franklin Street, and stop off for a bite or drink along the way.

Like Romack’s call for wider sidewalks, increased hotel developments and sky-scraping residential buildings have longtime residents concerned that the neighborhood will burst at the seams. But change is otherwise welcomed here. River North is ready for it, and flows in its direction as steadily as the river that runs through it.

About the author

Jamie Lynn Ferguson has lived on the west side of Chicago for nearly a decade. She serves as an advocate for anti-poverty nonprofits throughout the city, writes full-time for Catholic Charities Chicago, and is a freelance community reporter for DNAinfo-Chicago.

More From Chicagoly

JOIN THE DISCUSSION