‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Old Town

Old Town is located within Chicago’s Near North Side community. It’s a historic district filled with Victorian-era buildings and stories of German immigrants who settled here in the 19th century.

The demographic has changed over time but keeps a unique charm from its architecture to some classic comedy clubs.

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The neighborhood was first home to Native American tribes and in the 1840s and ‘50s, Germans settled in the area and began farming.

Interactive map: More from our community reporting series

John Russick, senior vice president of the Chicago History Museum says as Chicago grew more urban, its agricultural roots started getting pushed out.

“There were Germans here that had quite a bit of agriculture activity going on,” Russick said. “They were on the edge of the city so there were different organizational issues related to how that community was formed at the time, but eventually the property got really valuable, and farming isn’t the kind of thing you’ll see spread out in urban limits, so they moved on as it became more residential overtime.”

Because of the German farmers and farmland, Old Town was once nicknamed the “Cabbage Patch,” Russick added.

The Second City and Zanies Comedy Club have long been staples in the community for decades, are considered to be the birthplace of modern American improv.

Brian Hicks, general manager at Zanies, said their comedy club has been making its mark for 44 years now. Big names like Jay Leno, Eddie Murphy, and Dave Chappell have come through their doors.

The pandemic was tough for business, but as city regulations eased, Hicks said it’s been exciting to host at full capacity again.

“This space is great because it’s not a huge club, but it’s the only remaining comedy club that started back in the boom,” Hicks said. “It’s narrow. People who come and perform here love the space and everything is right in front of you and it’s a perfect staple.”

Amidst rise in crime across Chicago throughout the pandemic, some Old Town residents have expressed concerns for their own neighborhood.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd Ward), chair of the City Council’s Ethics Committee, says her office is being “proactive” in addressing these concerns.

“Public safety is the most important issue an alderman can work on,” Smith said. “We’re actually having a safety meeting with the Old Town Triangle Association next week to address people’s concerns. The outcome of our huge amount of citizen involvement is that we have been very active in reducing our own crime here in the 43rd Ward.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Ald. Michele Smith

Throughout the years, new restaurants and shops have set up shop in the neighborhood, but there’s still a few classic bars and restaurants that hold the essence of the “old times.”

Brothers Frank and Tom Reda credit their late father for opening Topo Gigio Ristorante 33 years ago. When the restaurant opened, they say the corridor was nowhere near what it is today, and since then, the neighborhood has become home to a much younger population.

“There were tons of vacant lots on this street,” Reda said. “It was a little bit older clientele and the surrounding neighborhood was different. We had Cabrini-Green about half a mile away. Then you had the neighborhood on the north side. There were a lot of hippies as well.”

The Cabrini-Green housing project near Old Town has since been demolished by the Chicago Housing Authority. Some affordable housing projects remain, such as the Marshall Field Garden and Evergreen Terrace apartments.

Youth For a Better Future, a nonprofit organization that seeks to meet the needs of underserved youth in the area, used to be based in Englewood, but moved to Old Town four years ago.

They serve more than 100 kids who attend nearby schools. The program offers mentoring, community work and STEM support. Adem Aluka, executive director and founder of the organization says one of his biggest challenges has been obtaining funds to help the lower income community.

“I would encourage more collaboration,” Aluka said “If we are able to find ways to work together it could make the process a lot easier and less difficult for a lot of people. We need more resources. Volunteers are great, but it takes resources to be able to empower people. As I mentioned earlier, parents are busy working, how do you provide educational support for kids when there are very few supporters?”

Located a few blocks from Youth For A Better Future is Saint Michael’s Church. It was one of the seven buildings, including its walls and the bell tower, to survive the Great Chicago Fire and has remained a pillar in the community all this time.

The community worked together to rebuild the structure of the church to what it is today.

The Old Town Triangle Association has aided in preserving Old Town as a designated historic district to preserve the homes built after the Chicago Fire. Scott Early is past president and life member of the neighborhood association.

“In the Old Town Triangle District … There’s a congregation of architectural history, like much of Chicago, contained in the one pocket of the triangle neighborhood,” Early said.

Video: Watch our full interview with Scott Early

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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