Urban island

Surrounded by the South Side’s highways, two small blocks of businesses and residents manage the best they can

10/03/2012 10:00 PM

Igor Studenkov
Contributing Reporter

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Ricobene’s restaurant, sits in an island on the near South Side between two highways and two sets of railroad tracks.

David Pierini/Staff Photographer

At the cul-de-sac blocking the would-be intersection of 25th Street and Wentworth Avenue, the noise is constant. To the north, cars race along the Stevenson Expressway. To the east, Red Line ‘L’ trains barrel down toward the Dan Ryan. About two blocks west, an Amtrak train belches diesel smoke as it heads towards Washington, D.C. And on the southwest, cars race along Dan Ryan Expressway overpass, which towers above most surrounding buildings.

During the first half of the 20th century, the area was part of an Italian neighborhood that once spanned the area between 25th Street, Wentworth Avenue, 33rd Street and Halsted Street. The highway construction split it into several sections, and the residents of the northeastern portion found themselves in a highway triangle. And while living there exposes residents to constant noise, gasoline fumes and soot, the location gives its current residents advantages that help to mitigate it.

Because the neighborhood was never as high-profile as Little Italy, information on it is hard to come by. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the construction of the highway resulted a great deal of demolition, and the population shrank. In 1980s, the area saw an influx of Chinese immigrants who couldn’t find housing in the nearby Chinatown.

“For the Chinese-American population, there are two streams of migration,” explained Theresa Mah, policy consultant for the Coalition for Better Chinese American Community. “Folks with language skills and jobs skills tend to move out of the suburbs. The population that decides to move to Chinatown and other areas in the city come due to family reunification provisions.”

For those new arrivals, living near Chinatown offers several advantages.

“They have easier access to jobs, social services and amenities they can partake in without having to speak English,” said Mah. “Having access to buses helps them get a round without owning a car. A lot of schools in the area have resources for bilingual students.”

The area around 25th and Wentworth is doesn’t have many local businesses, but it benefits from being within easy walking distance of Chinatown. The No. 24 Wentworth bus puts the residents within the easy reach of the Red Line.

Dan Wong is a member of the first generation of Chinese-Americans to grow up in the area. He no longer lives in the neighborhood, but he still comes by during weekends to visit his friends. When asked about the area, he painted a positive picture.

“It’s peaceful,” said Wong, “I got my friends here. And you can grab anything you want from Chinatown. It’s hardly noisy.”

Leslie Osborne and his wife, Yoon Kit Osborne, live further south, in the Bridgeport neighborhood, but Yoon Kit Osborne has relatives in the area, and the couple occasionally takes advantage of the local businesses.

“It’s a mixed neighborhood now,” said Yoon Kit Obsborne. “It has Hispanics, Chinese. There are still some Italians, but less now.”

Indeed, according to the latest census data, the majority of the residents are Chinese immigrants. But the neighborhood still retains a few signs of its Italian past. Over on 25th Street, cul-de-sac poles and several streetlights have been painted with the colors of the Italian flag.

“Some Italian guy painted it a couple of years ago,” explained Leslie Osborne.

Ricobene’s Pizza started off on 26th Street in 1947. The contraction of the Dan Ryan expressway put it close to the constant traffic noise, but it continued to attract customers. Even now, after the restaurant expanded to several other locations, the original location attracts decent customer traffic.

Since Ricobene’s opened, a small cluster of bars and restaurants formed at the nearby buildings. The thickness of the walls helps muffle some of the highway sounds, and the music they play takes care of the rest.

When asked why they opened a business this close to a highway, a bartender at Sports 260 Bar and Grill shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It was cheap, I guess.”

Zweifel Hardware is the oldest business in the neighborhood. Originally opened in 1886 a few blocks further east, it moved to 345 W. 25th Street in 1960 after the original location was knocked down to make way for the highway.

“We were here before the Chinese, before the Italians,” said David Zweifel, the store’s current owner. “All of the Germans went up north. Don’t know why my family decided to stick around.”

The store is located a few feet from Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, one of the busiest rail lines in Chicago. Zweifel said that having a business close to the railroad doesn’t deter customers, but it does pose its own set of challenges.

“The soot clogs up the pipes,” he said. “So I sometimes have to go up on the roof and unclog it.”

In other areas, businesses near highways would be able to attract the passing drivers. That’s not an option in this area — none of the feeder ramps feed directly into it.

“The expressway doesn’t help us at all,” explained Krista Tuell, a bartender at Ethyl’s Party bar. “We used to get business from a haunted ghost tour, but the guy who ran it died last year.”

Still, the location is not without advantages. The bar is located near 26th/Wentworth intersection, which puts it within reach of the convention center.

“A lot of customers come from trade shows at McCormick,” Tuell explained. She then clarified that she meant the workers who help set the exhibits off rather than the well-off exhibitors to Motor Row revitalization efforts are geared toward.

None of the area businesses that were willing to speak to Chicago Journal showed any inclination to leave. When asked why he chose to keep his business at this location, Zweifel said that it mostly came down to location.

“It’s a nice neighborhood,” he said. “It’s got a lot of nice people. Every once in a while, it changes, but that’s just the way it goes.”

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By Harden Square Boy
Posted: 10/08/2012 9:04 AM

Few know that Chinatown was once all Italian. The cornerstone on St. Therese church on Alexander St still reads Santa Maria Incornata. My grandmother always held a grudge against Old Man Daley for knocking out the Italians there with the expressway. Grudge or no grudge, she still always voted for him and his son.

By Chicago Croatian from Bridgeport
Posted: 10/05/2012 2:32 AM

The area mentioned had a large Croatian Pocket as well. There is still a very active Croatian Catholic Church at 26th and Princeton. St. Jerome does to this day perform masses in Croatian for the Croatian immigrants that have settled into Bridgeport.

By BT from Hyde Park
Posted: 10/04/2012 6:46 PM

A very good friend of mine lives on 25th Pl. Outside parkers are not welcome; everyone reserves their own spot with cones and garbage cans 24/7. One of the other unique things about this small hood.