Feb 26, 2023 - Business

Revisiting Milwaukee Avenue: Wicker Park's spirit is still alive

Milwaukee Avenue. Photo: Justin Kaufmann/Axios

Wicker Park has been a destination for tourists and Chicagoans alike for decades, but many of the businesses that defined the neighborhood's independent spirit are long gone.

What's happening: After Walgreens vacated the iconic old bank building late last month, I decided to spend a Saturday strolling Milwaukee Avenue to see how much it's changed since the last time I walked it, in 2021.

Why it matters: This stretch, between North Avenue and Division Street, is considered Chicago's independent heartbeat, birthing alternative rock movements and serving as a respite for generations who hung out at coffee and vintage shops like they were second homes.

Flashback: As someone who remembers the early days at Double Door and the 2001 protests against "The Real World" (when castmates lived in the former Urbus Orbis building), I know very well about what has been lost in Wicker Park.

  • I, too, bemoaned the chain stores moving into the neighborhood that fought so hard to keep them out.

Yes, but: Revisiting my old haunts, I found that many longtime staples, like Myopic Books, Bongo Room and Ragstock, are still in business. Reckless Records, too.

  • After-hours clubs like Debonair and Nick's Beer Garden are thriving too, though the Double Door has been a Yeti store for a while now.
  • And while there are several empty storefronts in the area — many a reminder of the pandemic's impact — the spirit of this stretch is still alive.

For instance: Earwax Cafe may be gone, but Wormhole was bustling.

  • Silver Room is now in Hyde Park, but I enjoyed browsing at Una Mae's.
  • We all miss Busy Bee (technically off North Damen Avenue), but you can still find great food from small businesses, like Bru Chicago's breakfast rice crepes.
Photo of a storefront and a sign that says Wanna Socks.
Wanna Socks opened last year. Photo: Justin Kaufmann/Axios

There were also plenty of new spots I hadn't yet checked out.

  • The plant-based restaurant Bloom is, er, blooming. The stretch also features the Neighborly pop-up and a new shop called Wanna Socks, which sells, what else, designer socks.
Photo of a display case full of socks.
Socks on display (up to $23 a pair) so you can feel them before purchasing. Photo: Justin Kaufmann/Axios

Meanwhile, the traffic is still horrendous. Milwaukee Avenue is a parking lot on a Saturday afternoon, but most Chicagoans already have their workaround (ahem, Wabansia).

The bottom line: Milwaukee Avenue will never live up to its 1990s billing.

  • But it still stands out as a unique stretch of Chicago, perfect for playing tourist in your own city.

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