Milwaukee Avenue Commercial District – Safe from the wrecker ball

milwaukee-avenue-commercial-districtOnce a diagonal Indian path and early toll road, this vibrant, multi-faceted stretch of Milwaukee Avenue is one of the precious few Chicago neighborhood commercial districts that remains largely intact. It encompasses 50 structures that have earned a CHRS (Chicago Historic Resources Survey) rating, including multiple Orange-Rated buildings. The good news is that it is now a designated Historic Landmark District.

Known as “the immigrants’ path to prosperity,” Milwaukee Ave was a major contributor to the establishment and evolution of Chicago. Initially, Native Americans and early settlers traveled down the road into the heart of the city to sell their goods and services. As the city expanded, people moved up the Avenue as they climbed the economic ladder. Reflecting the Wicker Park District’s heritage of German and Norwegian settlers and the influences of the Jews and Poles that followed, the street is a rich mosaic of structures that served the ever-changing needs of the decades beginning in the mid 1800s. Businesses may have changed from cloak tailors to boutiques and from feed stores to neighborhood eateries and specialty shops, but it has remained the commercial heart of Wicker Park.

With only its residential sections established as a Chicago Landmark District in 1991, the entire northeast edge of the Wicker Park District runs parallel and adjacent to Milwaukee Avenue. Although part of the Milwaukee commercial strip was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1979, the remaining commercial district remained unprotected and vulnerable to teardowns.

Recognizing that the health and well-being of the entire District was dependent upon the preservation of this important strip Preservation Chicago listed the district as one of its Most Threatened places of 2007 and urged that the substantial number of remaining historic structures be protected.

As of April 8, 2009, this now protected collection of buildings is what adds vibrancy to the community. In creating the landmark district, then 1st Ward Alderman Manny Flores, with support from both the Wicker Park Committee and the Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, ensured that the strip will continue to provide a unique experience that mixes historical European influence with the contemporary. As a Chicago landmark commercial district, Milwaukee Avenue has already become a destination for Chicagoans and visitors – and another economic win for the city.