By Kari Skaflen
Drawing from its working-class immigrant roots, Division Street in Chicago's Wicker Park still exudes a colorful sometimes complex vibe, attracting a street-savvy crowd of independent-minded locals who prefer to eat, shop, and drink here far from the throngs of tourists that along Michigan Avenue. This area of Division Street, which runs from Ashland on the east to Western Avenue on the west, was formerly known as Polish Broadway and was once a grim stretch of poverty and crime. Immortalized in the 20th century by such authors as Studs Terkel with his book Division Street: America and Nelson Algren who set his masterpiece, Man with a Golden Arm in the 'hood, this alluring quadrant has long been a Chicago landmark. Lately, the area is under the spell of urban renewal, undergoing massive renovations, but it hasn't lost the charm and character that originally made it such an intriguing destination. The sidewalks were recently expanded for patio dining and people watching, quirky boutiques continue to open, wine bars are brimming with activity, and some of city's best coffee-houses are here, as well. Despite all the action, there are still remnants of the rough-and-tumble core that made Division Street notable. The much loved dive-bar cum hipster-hang-out Gold Star still packs 'em in nightly; and the traditional Turkish style bath-house at 1914 West Division Street is alive and well. It's this combo of past and present, international and local that makes Division Street so exciting explore. Here are a few of our favorites stops along this infamous strip of real Chicago.
This dramatic gallery-esque boutique with its matte black walls and stark, minimalist appearance is an international gem in the heart of Chicago. The husband and wife owners travel the globe, scouring international cities to find new, up-and-coming designers, bringing a treasure chest of labels back to Chicago. In addition to all the international designers, such as Aviu of Milan and Berlin label Firma, Gamma Player also features some of Chicago's own talent with lines such as Agga B.
This brand new, dress-specific boutique is the brainchild of two friends Eva and Robyn Anderson who also happen to be sisters-in-law. The two women partnered up to create their ideal dress boutique: Le Dress. The welcoming and airy store carries a large array of frocks at varying price points (starting at less than $100) and mixes well-known brands such as Betsey Johnson and ABS alongside indie up-and-comers. The pair are also hard at work on an in-house line of dresses that they'll be unveiling in 2009.
Opening in 2002 the boutique strove to pull a few of the owner's favorite designers out of the shadows of obscurity and into the bright store. The under-represented and lesser known designers that populate Penelope's share a crisp aesthetic with clean lines, interesting color schemes and adventurous, spirited looks with a frequent nod to vintage. Lines such as APC, Charolotte Ronson, Ella Moss, Sessun, and Hyden Yoo are featured. Penelope's is the perfect place to find charming wardrobe staples with unique detailing. And if you can't make it in, you can shop at the newly minted online boutique.
From the first step through the charming door of Porte Rouge, the Euro-flavored home boutique transports visitors to a provincial French farmhouse, complete with sturdy one-of-a-kind, antique tables, chests, and cabinets imported directly from Europe. While the aesthetic is decidedly French, the boutique stocks the creme de la creme of housewares from around the globe with Japanese knife sets, Staub cookware, Vietri and Juliska table settings and Voluspa candles.
After several years of living in Manhattan and selling her own line of clothing to independent-minded shops in Brooklyn, owner and designer Lindsey Boland returned to Chicago to open Habit, a design collective that works exclusively with emerging talent. The upshot is that the designs stocked here are rare gems and often unavailable elsewhere. The styles stocked here are fashion-forward and often sculptural with sophisticated detailing, this includes Boland's own label, Superficial Inc., and Chicago stand-out Abigail Glaum-Lathbury's namesake line.
This adorable shoe boutique is nothing if not feminine. Varying hues of pink, an opulent chandelier, and a centrally placed rotund are all perfect ingredients for lounging and slipping into some of the city's sexiest footwear. Flirty pumps, rockin' stilettos, and wickedly chic boots are all mainstays here. Owner and shoe connoisseur Maureen Longua knows her footwear, and shopping with her behind the counter is like hanging out with your BFF. To top it off, Longua is known for her seasonal in-store cocktail and shop parties.
Don't call Crust a pizzeria. Despite the name and the near identical appearance to a thin-crust pizza, this Division Street restaurant tosses a mean wood-oven flatbread. On top of flavorful selections such as the Shroom (wild mushrooms, goat cheese, baby spinach, and lemon vinaigrette) Crust is all certified organic. To accompany the menu, diners can give the house-made organic vodka infusions a go or sample from the organic wine and beer list.
This newly opened wine and truffle cafe is a vision of perfection under one quaint roof. The pairing menu suggests truffle and wine combos as well as small plates and other nourishment. But the real star of the show here are the truffles. Try the balsamic-reduction truffle or the champagne truffle for a post-work treat. With a seductive sidewalk patio shaded by umbrellas and a cozy interior marked by rich leather couches the vibe here is primed for a touch of hedonism.
This quiet storefront boutique is a guise for an astonishing amount of goodies from fun feminine accessories and relaxation services to a clandestine retreat. The street level space is a combination of three boutiques, and salon. But a quick jaunt beyond the shop front, through a narrow brick courtyard, proves there's far more to discover. This 13,000 square-foot multilevel space also pampers with a day spa, yoga lounge, and healing sanctuary for relaxation treatments. Want to linger on? Stay at one of the eight restful over-night guest-rooms.
The style of Division Street shines anew in the Windy City's Wicker Park.