‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: North Center

Chicago’s North Center neighborhood is a community where many city dwellers raise a family with lots of schools, parks, and public space. The Brown Line runs through the area, and the Chicago River marks North Center’s western boundary. Many residents and community leaders have worked for years to create a community feel and, to address infrastructure needs to improve transportation safety.

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North Center has long been known as a family-oriented neighborhood.

Northcenter Chamber of Commerce Board Member Simon Stein said that the group works not just to boost area businesses, but it also does philanthropy work, and has focused on bringing the community together through different events, to help neighbors feel rooted.

“People can choose to live wherever they want in a city,” Stein said. “We have people who have left the city for the suburbs. I’m a city guy so I think if we have activities, programming and a vibrant business community, that makes people want to stay as opposed to leaving.”

One of the things aimed at attracting and keeping people in North Center is its farmers market, which features live music and restaurant pop-ups, in addition to locally-grown produce.

“I think there’s something very special about knowing where your food comes from, knowing where your peppers or eggplants come from,” Stein said. “It helps our farmers from Illinois and Michigan too.”

Another longtime community-gathering space getting new life is the former Jeri's Grill at Montrose and Western, which closed in 2020 after nearly 60 years in business.

Its new owners are the family that runs the popular diner Alexander's in Edgewater, a restaurant Jeri visited as a customer.

The Mizhquiri family, owners of Alexander’s, said they’ve been hearing from a lot of North Center neighbors who are excited about their new restaurant coming to the neighborhood.

“They see what we do over there (at our current location). It really feels like you’re coming into a place where you know 90% of the people.” Erik Mizhquiri said. “You see them (customers) on a day-to-day basis. They grow to be an extended version of our family, or an extended version of us.”

Erik Mizhquiri's family bought Alexander's in Edgewater four years ago after his father, Luis, spent more than 30 years as its chef.

Mizhquiri said they want to bring the same family feel to their North Center outpost, which they're hoping to open mid to late September.

“It’s fun,” Mizhquiri said. “That’s the only way we’re able to do this, is doing it together as a family. Everyone handles what you gotta handle. And if you can’t reach out for help, somebody’s got you.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Matt Martin

Longtime music venue Martyrs’, located along Lincoln Avenue, is another family-run business in North Center and has been around since 1995.

The return to live events has been exciting for the small rock club amid the challenges of COVID-19, according to Brennan Quinn, Martyrs' manager and talent buyer.

“It’s been a pleasure to have people come back,” Quinn said. “People have been really excited to come back to live shows over the years. Even though we were closed on the inside for 15 months, we were able to partner with a neighboring business on the patio. Now things are starting to come back inside. People are ready to party. It’s awesome.”

The venue currently holds about 300 people.

Another longtime staple of the community is Thresholds, which has locations around the state.  In North Center, it has a residential program and a day school for young people ages 16 to 21 with mental health challenges.

Program Director Bea Sobel said many of those young adults are also trauma survivors and in the Department of Children and Family Services system.

“Those combinations can make it really difficult for them to navigate school, the community, work, relationships. We work with them to try to leave the world of adolescence services and move on to the adult world,” Sobel said.

The young adult program just received a $1 million federal grant for building renovations, which Sobel said will allow the nonprofit to create a space designed with the work in mind.

"(Renovating it) as opposed to managing as best as we can and trying to make it meet our needs. For our young people, it sends a really great message that they’re valuable, that they deserve to have an investment in them, in their futures," Sobel said.

Another way North Center leaders said they want to invest in the neighborhood's most vulnerable residents is through infrastructure improvements, aimed at making things safer for cyclists and pedestrians, particularly, children and seniors.

Earlier this summer, 75-year-old Peter Paquette, a longtime community volunteer, was struck and killed by a driver while crossing Irving Park Road.

His death came just days after 2-year-old Rafi Cardenas was killed by a driver in nearby Lincoln Square. But even before those deaths, the local alderman's office was focused on making streets and sidewalks safer.

"You can’t have a neighborhood community that functions normally if people can’t get to events, to schools, to parks safely. That said, this did highlight the degree to which we do care for how we do our infrastructure,” said Joshua Mark, development and infrastructure director for the 47th Ward office.

Video: Watch our full interview with Brennan Quinn

Along Irving Park road and in other parts of North Center and the 47th Ward, some of those changes include protected bike lanes, expanded sidewalks and pedestrian areas, and traffic calming measures, particularly near schools.

Alderman Matt Martin said pedestrian and cyclist safety is an issue that should be addressed citywide, rather than ward by ward.

“No one I’ve talked to ever thinks about the ward they’re in when they’re walking or biking somewhere,” Martins said. “Like ‘I’m going to be in this ward and avoid this other ward.’ That makes absolutely no sense. We should be building out infrastructure accordingly. It doesn’t make sense that in one ward you have a painted bike lane, or a concrete protected bike lane, and in another ward, nothing along those lines.”

Martin recently proposed an ordinance that would require upgrades to crosswalks, bike lanes and public transit lanes whenever streets are repaved.

“Say on Ontario Street, or here on Lincoln Avenue, when we dig up a street to put a fresh layer of asphalt, we should also be thinking about what other improvements we want to put in place. It’s great from a safety standpoint, but also good for the city’s bottom line,” Martin said.

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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