Albany Park neighborhood

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Albany Park is an immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side.  Its borders are the north branch of the Chicago River on the east and north (roughly California Avenue on the east and Foster Avenue on the north), Montrose Avenue on the south and Cicero Avenue (or the I-94) on the west. Lawrence Avenue and the Kimball Brown Line stop are the heart of the neighborhood.

A neighborhood of religious, political and economic refugees

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Albany Park took shape during the building boom that swept Chicago in the late 19th century, especially when the train line ending at Kimball Avenue was completed in 1907 and the north branch of the Chicago River was straightened and widened the same year. The neighborhood was almost completely developed by the 1920s, as Albany Park went from a population of 7,000 in 1910 to 27,000 in 1920 and 55,000 in 1930.

Albany Park has always been a neighborhood of refugees. During the first half of the 20th century European Jews fleeing religious persecution were the neighborhood’s primary residents. These families moved to Chicago’s suburbs during the 60s and 70s, leaving the neighborhood economy depressed as crime rose. The neighborhood was revitalized by a new set of immigrants and refugees, this time from military conflicts in Korea and Guatemala (in which the US Army certainly had a hand). The large number of Korean families, businesses and churches led to politicians to give Lawrence Avenue the honorary name “Seoul Drive.”

During the 90s these Korean families began moving to the suburbs, just as the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 began pushing Mexicans north into the United States as economic refugees. (Click here for more on this phenomenon.) Two decades later, Mexicans immigrants and their children are still most of the neighborhood’s residents. However, there are also many Ecuadorians and Guatemalans who participate in the Centro Autónomo, as well as a handful of Central and South American families. 

Today’s Albany Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, with many residents from India and Pakistan, from the Middle East, from sub-Saharan Africa, and also from East Asia and Eastern Europe. The students in Albany Park schools speak forty different languages.

Housing

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The housing in Albany Park was built in three waves. The neighborhood’s apartment buildings and two- and three-flats were constructed during the boom of the early 1900s. Most of the houses in the neighborhood are of this sort, and renting a flat or apartment in Albany Park is typically cheaper than in the surrounding neighborhoods. (Although it should be noted that the current housing crisis is pushing up rents across the city. More on this later.) The flats usually have three or four bedrooms, plus a living room that can be converted into an extra bedroom, making the neighborhood ideal for immigrants looking to cohabitate with another family or acquaintances in order to save on rent.


The second housing wave occurred after WWII, and this time single-family homes (bungalows) were the rave. They were built by people tired of having neighbors above and below them, and who had enough money to forgo sharing utility costs. As you’d expect in a working class neighborhood like Albany Park, there aren’t as many bungalows as two- and three-flats.

The most recent housing wave also has a class dynamic to it. During the housing and financial boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, gentrification became a hot topic in many cities. Albany Park is an attractive choice for a potential gentrifier: there are Northeastern Illinois University and Northpark University, the Swedish Covenant Hospital, numerous parks, a variety of ethnic food, cheap rents, access to the metro, proximity to the highway, and low crime. The classy neighborhood of Lincoln Square is immediately to the east and the hipster haven of Logan Square is a couple miles south. (Oddly enough, there’s still no Whole Foods nearby.) A number of condominiums were built during this time to capitalize on this allure. 

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Then in 2008 the bubble burst and the condo construction stopped, at least for now. And as Albany Park continues to weather the foreclosure crisis (click here for more on the crisis and community resistance), more and more people turn from looking to buy to looking to rent. What does this mean for the future of Albany Park? The answer is anybody’s guess, and it surely has to do with immigration dynamics and the world economy as much as the Chicago real estate market. But one thing is for sure: the families organizing at the Centro Autónomo will do all they can to make sure that, instead of transnational banks, it’s the hardworking people of Albany Park who steer the neighborhood’s future.

Transportation

The Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) Kimball stop is the end of the Brown Line and the heart of Albany Park. Taking the 81 bus east on Lawrence Avenue will get you to the Red Line (Lawrence stop) and taking it west will get you to the Blue Line (Jefferson Park). There’s a bike pathway up and down the North Branch of the Chicago River and there are also buses running north and south along Kimball and Pulaski Avenues and east and west along Montrose and Foster Avenues

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More

See the History of MSN for a description of the beginnings of the Centro Autónomo, a true pillar of the Albany Park community!

For more information on the neighborhood and its various institutions, see these links: Wikipedia, the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, the Albany Park Community Center, the Albany Park Theater Project, North Branch Projects, World Relief, Casa Guatemala, the Chamber of Commerce, Northeastern Illinois University, Northpark University, the Encyclopedia of Chicago.