Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Backstage Spaces #1 (Estes, Clark, Touhy and the Metra Tracks)

There's a lot to be said for alleys and the hidden spaces behind buildings.  Many times this is where you see the true character of a street and clues about how it's changed over time.  The west side of Clark Street in Rogers Park is especially interesting, maybe because of the trapezoidal blocks created by the viaduct for the Metra tracks and the angle of Clark Street. Nothing like a good diagonal (or two) to shake up the grid.

Above is a panoramic view of the interior of the block bounded by Touhy on the north, Clark on the east, Estes on the south, and the train tracks on the west.  I first noticed this area because of the old residential frame building incorporated into the light industrial buildings behind it (center of image, with gable roof). The windows are all boarded up and it's been covered in tar paper, but there's a certain lingering aura of old Rogers Park.

Since it's difficult to place yourself in the frame for this kind of space I put together a handy "cone of vision" graphic to the left.  The gigantic eye is where the viewer is standing.  Hopefully the viewer will not actually look like a gigantic eye.

If you look carefully you can see that the paving angles up towards Clark Street.  This makes sense, since Clark is located on one of the ancient shorelines of Lake Michigan.  It's easy to overlook this just driving down Clark, but the buildings on either side gain bonus height in the rear due to the slope.

So why is this area so desolate and underutilized?  And why is it paved with gravel?  That's unusual for Rogers Park, which is fairly dense and developed. 

Luckily Rogers Park is well-represented on the old Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which I used for the graphic above.  The subdividers created an unusually complex alley for this block, probably because the large lot at the top of the block already had a home there and wouldn't agree to allowing the alley right-of-way to cut through to Touhy.   Eventually an alternate alley was inserted on the west edge of the lot.  The home itself was replaced by a filling station some time after 1914.  Up until at least 1905 the area developed residentially.  Most of the single family homes were located away from Clark Street, with its horse-drawn streetcars and later trolleys.

Several of these early residential buildings located on the small lots off the alley but facing Clark Street (shown in red to the right).  For a while  this must have given these small homes a real feeling of spaciousness.  But as Clark developed commercially they were locked away.  As late as 2008 all four of these homes were still there.  Suddenly they're demolished (apparently without a permit), leaving the one frame building which survived only through its earlier conversion into a machine shop.

So what's the next step for this area?  Were these buildings cleared in anticipation of some new development, or is a new parking lot just cheaper than fixing up the homes?  Maybe nothing is next. It seems like this area has been in an awkward transition for about 100 years...


  1. When is the book going to be published?
    Your drawings and writing Im sure will eventually fill up a very nice book.

    You would also do well as a comic book illustrator. Reminds me A comicbook I read called Torso, written by Brian Michael Bendis.
    He also wrote Goldfish, very moody photographic backgrounds for a comic. Torso was about a serial killer in the old days in Cleveland.

    Keep up the goodwork.
    Signed Jeffo.

  2. Thanks for visiting! I'll keep an eye out for those comics. A book may be in the distant future...

  3. At one point, the alley used to go through to Touhy, but the two old ladies that owned Affy Tapple closed it off. They even put up signs on Ravenswood stating that it was Affy Tapple parking only.
    That of course was illegal, but they didn't care.