Old Town, Chicago

Coordinates: 41°54′40″N 87°38′22″W / 41.9111°N 87.6395°W / 41.9111; -87.6395
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Old Town Triangle Historic District
Old town sign.JPG
An Old Town sign at Wells Street and North Avenue
Old Town, Chicago is located in Chicago metropolitan area
Old Town, Chicago
Old Town, Chicago is located in Illinois
Old Town, Chicago
Old Town, Chicago is located in the United States
Old Town, Chicago
LocationChicago, Illinois, U.S.
41°54′40″N 87°38′22″W / 41.9111°N 87.6395°W / 41.9111; -87.6395
Architectural styleItalianate, Queen Anne
NRHP reference No.84000347[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHPNovember 8, 1984
Designated CLSeptember 28, 1977

Old Town is a neighborhood and historic district in Near North Side and Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois,[2][3] home to many of Chicago's older, Victorian-era buildings, including St. Michael's Church, one of seven buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire.

Location and name[edit]

St. Michaels Church (center) in Old Town in 2015; the borders of Old Town have sometimes been described as the hearing distance of its bells.[4][5]
Klinkel Hall, a German beer hall in 1854 at present-day 1623 North Wells, was one of the locations for the Lager beer riot of 1855.[6][7]

In the 19th century, German immigrants moved to the meadows north of North Avenue and began farming what had previously been swampland, planting celery, potatoes, and cabbages. This led the area to be nicknamed "The Cabbage Patch",[8][9] a name which stuck until the early 1900s.[8]

During World War II, the triangle formed by North Avenue, Clark Street, and Ogden Avenue (since removed) were designated a 'neighborhood defense unit' by Chicago's Civil Defense Agency.[10] In the years immediately after the war, the population of "North Town" (as it had come to be known by the 1940s) sponsored annual art fairs called the "Old Town Holiday". The art fairs were popular attractions for the neighborhood,[11] and the name "Old Town" was used in the title of the Old Town Triangle Association when it was formed in 1948, by residents who wanted to improve the condition of buildings that were suffering from physical deterioration.[9][12]

In the 1950s, much of Old Town was an enclave for many of the first Puerto Ricans to emigrate to Chicago. They referred to this area as part of "La Clark".[citation needed]

No legal entity is known as "Old Town", but claims have been made as to the nature of its legally unspecified borders:

It is important to stress that there is no such legal entity as Old Town. Old Town is where you make it.

— Richard Atcheson, Holiday Magazine, March 1967[13]

This neighborhood is supposed to be as much a sound as a place, and it's from the bells of St. Michael's Church. The story goes you only really live in Old Town if you can hear them.

— Alan G. Artner, Chicago Tribune, March 29, 2008[4]

... it was said that all who lived within hearing distance of the church's bells were Old Towners.

— Donna Gill, Chicago Tribune, December 4, 1967[5]


19th century[edit]

A plaque about Carl Street Studios on the building itself
The former location of the Society for Human Rights at 1701 N. Crilly Court in Chicago in 2015

The land known as Old Town originally served as a home and trade center to many Native American nations, including the Potawatomi, Miami, and Illinois.[14]

Following the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, most of the indigenous people were forcibly removed, and the land was then settled in the 1850s by German-Catholic immigrants. Clark Street is a leftover of the culture, being an old road which followed a slight ridge along Lake Michigan.[citation needed]

Old Town is the site of many of Chicago's older, Victorian-era buildings, as well as St. Michael's Church, originally a Bavarian-built church and one of seven to survive within the boundaries of the Great Chicago Fire.[15]

Many of the streets and alleys, particularly in the Old Town Triangle section, predate the Great Chicago Fire and do not all adhere to a typical Chicago grid pattern.[citation needed]

20th century[edit]

People and art at the Old Town Art Fair in the 1960s
Anti-Vietnam War protesters in Lincoln Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention; the band MC5 can be seen playing
Hippies in Old Town in 1968
Vendors and pedestrians at the Old Town Art Fair on Wells Street in 1968

Old Town has one Brown-Purple Line 'El' station, at 1536–40 North Sedgwick Street. It is one of the oldest standing stations on the El, built in 1900.[citation needed]

In 1924, the first gay rights organization in American history, the Society for Human Rights, was established by Henry Gerber at his home, the Henry Gerber House, on North Crilly Court. The Henry Gerber House was designated a Chicago Landmark on June 6, 2001.[16] In June 2015, it was named a National Historic Landmark.[17]

In 1927, sculptors Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller purchased and subsequently rehabilitated a house on Burton Place, near Wells Street, into the Carl Street Studios. During the 1930s, an art colony emerged in the neighborhood as artists moved from the Towertown neighborhood near Washington Square Park.[citation needed]

In 1955, upon the first election of Mayor Daley, 43rd ward alderman Paddy Bauler, who kept a saloon in Old Town at North and Sedgwick Avenues called De Luxe Gardens,[18][19][20][21][22] famously declared "Chicago ain't ready for reform yet" many times over in his bar while dancing a jig.[23]

During the 1960s, the neighborhood was the center of the yippie and hippie counter culture in the midwestern United States. This was mostly because by the 1950s and 1960s, many of the original families that had settled in the neighborhood had moved to the suburbs during white flight, leaving older Victorian buildings with storefronts available to rent inexpensively. A community of Puerto Ricans formed along Wieland, North Park, Sedgwick and west on North Avenue. The Young Lords, then a street gang with Jose Cha-Cha Jimenez had a branch of their group at Wieland and North Avenues. This dense storefront-laden area (Wells and North Avenues) became also the nexus of hippie culture, (as well as the newly emerging out-homosexual culture) and gave rise to the boutiques (Crate & Barrel, for example) in the neighborhood today. Seed was a literary staple of the neighborhood at the time.

There is a little piece of Chicago Real Estate, west of Lincoln Park, that is the pride of urban conservationists and the despair of bulldozers. It is a community widely known as Old Town ... Old Town is full of conflict, full of life; a sometimes maddening but always exciting place to live.

— Richard Atcheson, Holiday Magazine, March 1967[13]

The violent events that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention transpired primarily in Grant Park, Old Town, and Lincoln Park, adjacent to Old Town.[24]

I pointed out that it was in the best interests of the City to have us in Lincoln Park ten miles away from the Convention hall. I said we had no intention of marching on the Convention hall, that I didn't particularly think that politics in America could be changed by marches and rallies, that what we were presenting was an alternative life style, and we hoped that people of Chicago would come up, and mingle in Lincoln Park and see what we were about.

— Abbie Hoffman, from the Chicago 7 trial[25]

The film The Weather Underground has a scene on La Salle Avenue in Old Town, which describes the Zeitgeist of the era.

Old Town was home to many gays and lesbians from the 1960s through the 1980s. There were numerous gay bars lining Wells Street (all of them closed as of 2013). This was the first "gay ghetto" in Chicago, predating the current Lake View neighborhood (which is the current epicenter of gay life); As the area gentrified, gay residents moved further north to Lincoln Park and then Lake View neighborhoods.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Old Town became the center of Chicago folk music, which was experiencing a revival at the time. In 1957, the Old Town School of Folk Music opened at 333 West North Avenue and stayed at that address until 1968, when the school moved to 909 West Armitage Avenue.[26] It has retained the name, although it is no longer located within Old Town. Singer-songwriters such as Bob Gibson, Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc, and John Prine played at several clubs on Wells Street, such as The Earl of Old Town.[27][28] The Old Town School of Folk Music was closely associated with these artists and clubs. One large and successful folk club was Mother Blues, which featured nationally known artists and groups such as Jose Feliciano, Odetta, Oscar Brown Jr., Josh White, and Chad Mitchell. It also presented comedian George Carlin, Sergio Mendez, Brazil '66, and The Jefferson Airplane.[citation needed]

A few of the institutions from the 1960s era still exist today, such as The Second City, the Old Town Ale House, Bijou Video, the Old Town School of Folk Music (which moved after the 1968 riots), the Fudge Pot, the Up Down Tobacco Shop (which used to be located just south of its current location), and the Old Town Aquarium (which moved in 2019 to Irving Park, while keeping its name).

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots, the neighborhood experienced a tense racial division during the 1970s and 1980s which left a segregation between Old Town north of North Ave. and Old Town south of North Ave. In the early 2000s, this trend had begun to shift towards a gentrification of the area south of North Ave. on Sedgwick, Blackhawk, Hudson and Mohawk streets, near the Marshall Field Garden Apartments. The area to the west of these streets, near the North and Clybourn Red Line stop had been dubbed "SoNo" by real estate developers. SoNo's boundaries are North Avenue, Halsted Street, Division Street and the North Branch of the Chicago River. Currently, Old Town south of North Avenue is a mixture of wealth and poverty, though the area is steadily gentrifying.[29] The demolition of the Cabrini–Green high rise housing projects to the south has led to significant demographic changes in the neighborhood. The original Francis X. Cabrini Row Houses still are standing. The Parkside of Old Town development was built replacing the Cabrini-Green high rises just south of Old Town.

By 1976, Wells Street in Old Town had many sex-industry businesses operating,[30] so many that Wells street was specifically named in Time Magazine's 1976 article "The Porno Plague".[31] It was thought that some of the businesses had mob connections.[32]

21st century[edit]

Current cultural amenities in the neighborhood include Old Town Triangle Art Center,[33] and the annual Old Town Art Fair. Noble Horse Theater stood from 1871 until a 2015 arson[34] forced a sale in 2017,[35] and the land was bought and built into condominiums.[36]


Chicago Public Schools (CPS) operates public schools for the area.

Manierre K–8 School is in "Sedville", a gang territory area in Old Town. As of 2013, it was considered a low-performing school.[37] In the 2010s, CPS considered merging Jenner K–8 in Cabrini-Green and Manierre together, but concerns involving students crossing gang territorial lines meant that both schools remained open.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. January 23, 2007.
  2. ^ "Boundaries – Community Areas (current)". City of Chicago | Data Portal. Retrieved May 17, 2020.
  3. ^ "Boundaries – Neighborhoods". City of Chicago | Data Portal. Retrieved May 17, 2020.
  4. ^ a b "Old Town". tribunedigital-chicagotribune. March 29, 2008. Retrieved March 26, 2015.
  5. ^ a b "Old Town: Gold Rush in a Cabbage Patch (December 4, 1967)". Chicago Tribune.
  6. ^ "1855—Beer Riot". chicagology.com. Retrieved August 19, 2020.
  7. ^ Gale, Neil (January 3, 2017). "The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™: The Chicago Lager Beer Riot of 1855". The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™. Retrieved August 19, 2020.
  8. ^ a b Baugher, Shirley (2011). Hidden History of Old Town. Charleston, SC: The History Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-60949-207-6.
  9. ^ a b "Old Town: Gold Rush in a Cabbage Patch (December 4, 1967)". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
  10. ^ https://www.oldtowntriangle.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/OTTA-Map-from-Facebook.jpg[bare URL image file]
  11. ^ "EXPECT CROWD OF 40,000 FOR OLD TOWN FAIR (May 29, 1960)". Chicago Tribune.
  12. ^ "Old Town". www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org.
  13. ^ a b Atcheson, Richard: "The Spirit of Old Town", page 67. Holiday Magazine, The Curtis Publishing Company, March 1967
  14. ^ "Native Americans". Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. 2005. Retrieved August 31, 2009.
  15. ^ "Chicago Landmarks – Old Town Triangle District". City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, Landmarks Division. 2003. Retrieved August 31, 2009.
  16. ^ "Henry Gerber House". City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, Landmarks Division. 2003. Retrieved June 27, 2007.
  17. ^ Sun-Times (June 19, 2015). "Old Town site of nation's first gay rights group designated national landmark | Chicago". Chicago.suntimes.com. Archived from the original on July 1, 2015. Retrieved June 28, 2015.
  18. ^ Baugher, Shirley (2011). Hidden History of Old Town. ISBN 9781609492076.
  19. ^ Sean Parnell. "De Luxe Gardens in Memoriam: Chicago Bar Project". chibarproject.com.
  20. ^ Lindberg, Richard (August 1998). To Serve and Collect. ISBN 9780809322237.
  21. ^ Chicago Tribune. "Alderman Mathias". chicagotribune.com.
  22. ^ "Life". google.com. March 31, 1947.
  23. ^ "Good Government Movements". www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org.
  24. ^ "Chicago Tribune – Historical Newspapers".
  25. ^ "Testimony of Abbie Hoffman in the Chicago Seven Trial". umkc.edu. Archived from the original on January 14, 2011.
  26. ^ "History – Old Town School of Folk Music". oldtownschool.org. Retrieved March 26, 2015.
  27. ^ "On the Town (December 21, 1969)". Chicago Tribune.
  28. ^ "Remembering Earl Pionke". Chicago Tonight – WTTW. Retrieved March 26, 2015.
  29. ^ "Gentrification". www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org.
  30. ^ Sandbrook, Dominic (January 6, 2018). Mad As Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right. Anchor Books. ISBN 9781400077243 – via Google Books.
  31. ^ "The Porno Plague". Time Magazine. April 5, 1976. Archived from the original on May 1, 2007. Retrieved October 26, 2010.
  32. ^ "Suspected Porn Boss Dies In His Apartment". Chicago Tribune. October 7, 1988.
  33. ^ "Old Town Triangle Association". www.oldtowntriangle.com.
  34. ^ "Fire Devastates Noble Horse Theater; 'Free the Horses' Graffiti Discovered". DNAinfo Chicago. Retrieved January 2, 2022.
  35. ^ Koziarz, Jay (June 23, 2017). "A final look inside Old Town's Noble Horse Theatre and Stables". Curbed Chicago. Retrieved January 2, 2022.
  36. ^ Koziarz, Jay (August 17, 2017). "Penthouse in unbuilt 'Equis' development asks $1.4M". Curbed Chicago. Retrieved January 2, 2022.
  37. ^ Konkol, Mak; PAUL Biasco (May 21, 2013). "Parents Win Battle, Manierre Elementary Won't Close". DNA Info. Archived from the original on December 22, 2016. Retrieved December 22, 2016.
  38. ^ Bloom, Mina (September 4, 2015). "For Proposed Merger, 'Help Us to Help You,' Jenner Official Says to Ogden". DNA Info. Archived from the original on December 22, 2016. Retrieved December 22, 2016.

External links[edit]