Logan Square: Amid change, clings to its unique character

You’ve likely heard about the hipster side of Logan Square. It’s packed with bars where women in dark lipstick sip gin cocktails from wingbacks. It’s got Michelin-starred restaurants that sling bourbon and pork belly to dudes who dig bikes.

Let’s put that persona on the sidelines this time. Predominantly and historically a Hispanic neighborhood, Logan Square is drawing crowds and becoming one of Chicago’s fastest-growing neighborhoods. Let’s figure out why.

The heart of Logan Square is a three-sided roundabout intersection of Milwaukee Avenue, and Kedzie and Logan boulevards. At night, it’s lit with life. There are no high-rises here. Each building has a historical styling, some covered in limestone blocks, while others are encrusted with red or yellow brick. The walking paths along the boulevards are lined with black-post, frosted-globe street lamps whose soft light tickles the trunks of the towering oak trees and robust maples. Statuesque behind them glow ornate mansions and stately apartment complexes.

The bookstores, restaurants, bars, and pedestrian traffic reveal this triangle as the Square’s epicenter. In case you’ve only happened about town, the historic Logan Theater marquee tells you exactly where you are in glowing red letters piled five high: L-O-G-A-N. On street level, a young man walks through the crosswalk in shined oxfords. On the corner, a young woman bubbles on about plans for the night, earbuds tucked under her orange stocking cap. A bar’s facade is disguised as a flower shop. Hanging lights sway over a restaurant patio. This part of town exudes fine ambiance with a tailored blue-jean style.

The Logan Square Monument, also known as the Illinois Centennial Monument, stretches high as a single, marble column at the center of the intersection. On the steps of the monument are three male figures blasting Spanish music through handheld radios. Each has a bicycle lying on the ground in front of them, directly aligned to their respective shadows. From afar, they look like teenagers. As I walk up, I see they’re men in their mid-fifties, with arms crossed over heavy winter coats. Nelson is the first to respond to my introduction. He walks toward me and flashes a smile. His diamond earrings sparkle with his teeth.

“Nelson Andaluz,” he said. “A-N-D-A-L-U-Z.” He’s lived in Logan Square for about fifteen years and volunteers at a homeless shelter up the street. When I ask him how the neighborhood is changing, he tells me he hears stories of people being priced out all the time. “The working poor can’t work hard enough to live here anymore,” he said. “I know a lot of people out here in the streets. There’s a lot of new restaurants popping up, but not everyone can afford them.”

“There’s a mixture of all kinds of lifestyles here,” he told me, gesturing at bars and then senior housing. “It’s not just the young kids.” He asks me to hang on a second and takes an MP3 player out of his pocket and hits pause. He removes his headphones next, and I realize he’s been talking over music in his head during our conversation. He concentrates as we share one last thought. “The culture of the neighborhood is changing … in a good way,” he said decidedly, then pausing and adding an edit. “For some people it’s a good thing.”

I should pause here and divulge that this West Side neighborhood has been my stomping ground for eight years. I’m aware of what Nelson is talking about. Logan Square doesn’t want to lose its Hispanic culture or historic landscape. In the gentrification pot of Logan Square, there are two major developments stirring things.

The first is Logan Crossing development, taking over the Mega Mall space on Milwaukee Avenue at Sacramento. The Mega Mall currently looms an abandoned behemoth covered in street art. It was once an indoor flea market that stretched humongous across nearly three acres. Soon, it will be torn down and transformed into about two hundred fifty residential units, public green space, retail outlets, and a forty-thousand-square-foot grocery store, topped off with a rooftop pool. Once proposed with glass and steel, Logan Crossing will now be red brick to complement nearby buildings. Residents requested that, and developers listened.

The other up-and-coming development is the Twin Towers project, at Milwaukee and Fullerton. The towers, expected to be completed in 2017, will bring more density to the neighborhood with an eleven- and a twelve-story tower of residential units. To the pride of developers and its ward’s alderman, Joe Moreno, the towers will offer fifteen percent of its two hundred residential units as affordable housing. That’s five percentage points more than what’s required by the city.
Luis Salgado, one of my Logan Square neighbors, has lived just south of both developments for nearly thirty years—it’s where he was born. Luis is in between jobs and spends his days on our sidewalk. His home is covered with chipping white wood that runs under windows with sagging A/C units. Crimson bedsheets serve as curtains. On the top floor, there are no windows—just rectangle cut-outs that reveal the exposed brick of the attic inside.

Luis greets everyone who passes. You can tell by most people’s reactions that he doesn’t actually know them. He says, in no particular order:

“Hey, how’s it going, how are you?”

“How are you, what’s going on?”

“What’s up, nice to see you, how have you been?”

Every greeting followed by another. I like that about Luis. He gives you a chance to process that a stranger is treating you like a friend. Tonight, I walk up and share the usual greeting with him. “You grew up here, right?” I asked. “What was our street like when you were a kid?” Luis’ face lights up like he’s been waiting for someone to ask.

“I had friends who lived up in your place,” he said. “Third floor?” he points at the windows of my apartment. I nod. “Small place,” he said. I make a face like, “Are you kidding me?” as if he’s the one making the mistake. I tell Luis that I know from living there that it’s a fourteen-hundred-square-foot two-bedroom. It’s more than enough room. “For you, that’s huge,” he said. “My friend had five brothers and sisters living up there.”

I let that sink in. A family of eight lived in the apartment where I live in a household of two. I imagine how the second bedroom, which serves as storage for me, must have been the kids’ room. Maybe they had bunk beds to fit them all in there. Maybe they all slept in one bed. I picture my quaint dining table with just two chairs stretching out to host eight. I’m pulled back into reality as the wind slaps the vinyl banner advertising the building with a crack against the gates. It reads: “Totally rehabbed! Two bedrooms starting at $1,800.”

Changed since the last sentence, I look back at Luis. I tell him how much I love the place. That it’s really felt like a home to me, too. “Yeah, we had a lot of good times up there,” he said. He sits back down on the curb and lights a cigarette.

Comfort Station, a Logan Square institution, is an arts and community center that has free programming in a welcoming setting.

Comfort Station, a Logan Square institution, is an arts and community center that has free programming in a welcoming setting.

The final conversation I have is at Comfort Station, an arts center at Milwaukee Avenue and Logan Boulevard that looks like a Nordic cabin. I’m meeting with Emily Lofquist, who serves as Comfort Station’s volunteer administrative coordinator and has lived in Logan Square since 2012. Emily is wearing a black embroidered sweater with a black skirt and black tights. She has dark hair and thick-framed, animal-print glasses that rest just below her bangs. She warmly greets me from around the corner and leads me to Comfort Station’s rear entrance. She unlocks and removes a padlock from the back door to let us in.

Comfort Station looms dark and empty. It’s a modest-sized, singular space that winds just once and has two bathrooms. It originally served as a warming station for commuters in the nineteen twenties. Today, local artwork hangs on the walls, and a piano waits silently against a window facing the street.

Emily and I sit down on a wobbly church pew. She talks about the organization excitedly. “We try to be a hub,” she tells me. “We’re really a multi-disciplinary, accessible art space. Yeah. When I first saw ‘accessible’ I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ But it really just means that our events are free. We can’t necessarily create new programming all the time, but we’re really trying to make connections with community organizations. When I first moved here, we joked that you could find a 501(c)(3) in a backyard. It’s becoming over-saturated.”

With that in mind, Comfort Station is aiming to be more of a civic center than another art space, she said. “This is a historic building, in the heart of Logan Square,” she said. “It’s an active intersection between diverse communities, and it’s robust, and it’s growing.”

Emily moved to Chicago from Michigan and decided on Logan Square because of its proximity to the rest of the city via the CTA Blue Line. “The reason I stayed in Logan Square was the community. I liked my neighborhood, and I liked my neighbors. … All of us had dogs and hung outside and drank beers together. … Bonds are made through front yards and stoops,” she said, with a mile-wide smile on her face, courtesy of the nostalgic thoughts.

It’s easy to lose yourself in Logan Square. No matter who you’re talking to, the residents seem to know this neighborhood and resonate with it. For some, it’s the first time they felt at home in a city where they didn’t know anyone (Emily). For others, it’s the neighborhood where they’ve always known everyone (Luis, my neighbor). And still others watch carefully as the neighborhood evolves, skeptical of how it will affect their neighbors (Nelson, with his friends at the monument).

I leave Comfort Station and cross the street to the corner of Kedzie and Milwaukee. I’m facing a mural that cloaks the full side of a building in blue paint. It barely masks the bricks’ texture and says what everyone’s thinking about Logan Square: H-O-M-E.

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.

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