I’ve been freelancing in Chicago for two years now and it’s always about the hustle. If you’re not meeting new people every week you’re going to be looking cross-eyed come rent due time. So since I don’t have a million dollars for a Superbowl ad I have to attend a lot networking events. But the city of the big shoulders can also be a city of big price tags so going out to drink and eat every night can get expensive. So I troll around looking for freebies that allow me to promote my business while not going broke. A couple of days ago I was trolling (got a car payment coming up) and stumbled across my weekly missive from Eventbrite Chicago (LOVE THEM)!
They usually have a cool list of things to do for free during the week and I spotted a free coming out party for Time Out Chicago’s Guide to the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhoods.
Me being a south side girl I thought all my life that the city of Chicago stopped at Grand Avenue. North of Grand was like some foreign land that I didn’t have a passport to get into. Since I’ve returned as an adult from my travels around the world I’m discovering that the north side isn’t so bad after all. In fact, I’m a bit envious of its dense offerings of independent merchants coffee houses, avant garde theaters and art galleries and an over abundance of stuff certified organic.
So I jumped at the chance to experience Wicker Park wherever it was and get some free food and a drink to boot. Let’s digress historically for a minute.
Wicker Park was founded by the Wicker brothers in 1870s – Charles and Joe respectively – two land barons who purchased about 80 acres of property a year before Mrs. O’Leary’s cow set the town ablaze. The two grocers graduated to land developers, city leaders and Charles ascendancy to royalty was complete, at least in Chicago speak when he became an alderman. The brothers envisioned an eclectic neighborhood inhabited by the poor and rich alike and an ethnic enclave. Their vision remains largely true today with neat little apartments interspersed among three-story brownstones with beautifully cut stain-glass bay windows. But though its neighborhood dwellings are indeed a marvel it’s the steady stream of sellers that make Wicker Park and neighboring Bucktown unique. The Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce has nearly 300 members, not bad for a an 80-acre plot of land.
As a person currently too broke to pay attention some might think I would feel a bit weird about going to an above average-priced restaurant like The Bedford, 1612 W. Division street for my freebie. But I had no qualms! I wanted to explore it’s herald copper room made so by the hundreds of safe deposit boxes that adorn the walls of the nice party room that happens to be an old bank vault. Dressed casually for today’s unusually warm spring May day in blue jeans and cute blue shoes my mom ordered online for me and a long nearly shear long-sleeved shirt with white tank top underneath I was dressed not to impress but to please. With a smile on my face I walked through the heavy skinny door at The Bedford, which is situated around the corner from the humongous CVS Pharmacy on Division, walked down the stairs and was happily greeted by a hostess. She pointed me to the small check in table and smiling I showed my Eventbrite ticket.
“Are you a concierge?” a cute, slight, dark-haired young man asked. I scrunched up my eyebrows in confusion.
“No,” I stuttered.
“How did you hear about this event?” he replied looking even more puzzled than I felt.
“Oh,” I cooed, “it was listed under the freebie events on Eventbrite.”
“Oh,” he said softly, “Well, sign up right here.”
A woman was filling out a name tag in front of me and I asked her, “Are you a concierge?”
“Yes,” she replied, “i’m a concierge at Nordstrom.”
Mmmm….I thought just as Clover from the Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce was checking me in. I walked into the reserved bank vault party room to be greeted by a table-sized place setting of cheeses, bread, brie and other delectable edibles. I sat next to a gray-haired gentleman in a blue shirt. He was Fred the concierge at a residential building. Then there was David and Carlos, concierges at the John Hancock building. Then there was Terry, concierge at the Ritz-Carlton. Um, yeah it didn’t take me long to guess that the entire event was for people who made a living helping folk get what they needed in Chicago.
I had stumbled upon the Wicker Park/Bucktown concierge night walking right into a swag adventure filled favoritism, frivolity and fellowship with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
I munched on crab cakes and boneless wings, mini-burgers with quail eggs and some sort of beet thing that was a bit salty. But overall the food was good. And who could match The Bedford’s unique bank vault party room. The Bedford is located in a gynormous building that used to belong to MB Financial. Wall Street could learn a thing or two about converting all those abandoned banks that closed during the recession into fabulous restaurant and lounge spaces.
As I was sipping on my free Picso Fruit Punch (yum haven’t had Picso since my last trip to Lima), I overheard from Barbara Lee Cohen, head of Productions USA Inc., telling her friends about the trolley. Now when I signed up there was not mention of the trolley so I went back to the check in ladies to ask. It was obvious I wasn’t an intended guest at this shindig so I wanted to keep a low profile but Barbara Lee was so charming (not surprising considering her amazing bio and entertainment background) that I just wanted to hang around her a bit longer. Smiling my best adorable smile I asked Clover if there was room on the tour trolley. No problem, she beamed.
And I was whisked out of The Bedford onto an old-school trolley and off to the adventure to meet loads of quaint, hip, and independent merchants who call Wicker Park and Bucktown home.
First up, the Silver Room on 1442 Milwaukee, which has the baddest polycarbonate sunglasses for the raddest price of just $15. This open space Greenwich Villagesque shop sells jewelry made by local artists cool-guy hats, the aforementioned sunglasses and shirts for ya’ll who want to be down. It’s sound system alone is enough to have you coming back for more. It’s good time vibe is magnetic and you gotta love a place which features a black and white photo of Mos Def in a hoodie on its website. If you’re hip to the game you already know about its trademarked “Grown Folks Stories,” which happens every third Thursday of the month. Folks get five minutes to tell whatever and the place lit up last month with about 300 people attending the last event. I might take my freeloading behind right back there this week as they have an opening reception for Mike Schreiber a self-taught photography showcasing his book True Hip Hop.
From the Silver Room it was off to Chrome, a California transplant filled with messenger bags and other commuter gear and a blast through a couple of other boutiques then it was an awkward stop at the intersections of hell – also known as the six corners- where Damen, meets Division, meets Milwaukee, meets North Avenue, meets confused pedestrians not from Wicker Park. Go what I assumed would be north or maybe it was East and you end up in Bucktown. Anchoring all of this is the Flatiron Arts Building a beautiful artistic display of urban attitude and elegance.
One thing that amazes me about Chicago is how a neighborhood can change within a few blocks and get away from the six corners going toward Bucktown and you see the difference. Restaurants are abandoned there are more shops sporting for sale signs, less Greenwich Village more utilitarian but no less charming is Bucktown. And a walk into Pavilion Antiques let’s you know you’ve certainly haven’t landed in Kansas just yet.
Owned by Deborah Coleman a former Art Institute of Chicago student who turned her lost passion for art into a lucrative eye for decor, Pavilion at 2055 N. Damen Ave., specializes in “20th Century Design and Decorative Arts.” Owner Coleman says she scours Europe, mostly France and Italy and Scandinavia, looking for artistic design pieces that you can’t find anywhere else. A store like this does not have price tags ’cause if you have to ask, yeah, you know the rest.
With rope lights 39-feet long, chairs designed in the 1930s and elegant 1960s furniture so amazingly crafted you feel it would be sacrilege to put anything in its drawers and instead just want it as a conversation piece, Coleman shows she hasn’t completely abandoned her artistic touch turning decorating into an art form.
Then it was off to nirvana or what I called a fabulously sheikh boutique for the more formidable woman. About 14 years ago Stephanie “I didn’t get your last name girl!” decided enough was enough. Bigger women didn’t need to drape themselves in the sisters Polly and Ester and she set out to provide them beautiful alternatives and vive la femme, at 2048 Damen Ave., was born. Providing chic clothing for women sizes 12 to 24, vive la femme is heaven for us big girls who want to show our style. And a year ago Stephanie opened violette 2031 N. Damen Ave., a shoe store with sizes 7-11. Violette is sure to become my new home.
Stephanie jumped in with us and we went back to the trolley where we rode up Damen and finally saw Wicker Park and robber baron mansions with the coolest stain-glass windows. Then it was a step back in time as we all squeezed into Division Street Watch Co., 2017 W. Division St. Cue “Mad Men,” music as we listened to owner Steve briskly tell us about his specialized watch repair, band and battery business. He fixes up vintage watches so leave your Seiko’s at home. He also sells vintage watches so if you want a Rolex from the 1950s or 1960s give him a shout.
We cruised by the loud, brash and bold “Official Blackhawks Bar,” The Anthem though it was the Cubs playing on the huge flat screens when we were there. And finally we had a sweet ending at what is probably the coolest bakery I’ve ever been in.
Alliance Bakery and Cafe, 1736 W. Division Street, has some of the most elaborate cakes I’ve ever seen from the Sunday Hat lady to the tea pot, the Ghostbuster one and some kind of duck, these cake decorations defy description and win awards. They have fresh baked goods each morning and you can score them for 50% off at night. The bakery has an adjoining cafe with free wifi but it’s their cakes and pastries that are really the draw here. Yummy me.
All in all it wasn’t a bad night for someone just looking to network on a Wednesday. Woo hoo. Thank you lords of WP/Bucktown.