All of Chicago’s buildings were not destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871 that left 100,000 homeless. St. Michael’s Church, for example, was heavily damaged, but its brick walls were still standing after the fire. Everything around it was destroyed. The church was rebuilt and remains an important part of what is now known as Old Town, which is still home to many of Chicago’s older, Victorian era buildings. They are scattered among its shops and houses like grandparents in the audience at a Miley Cyrus show. Many of Old Town’s streets and alleys were there before Chicago burned, so they do not follow Chicago’s typical grid pattern nor does Old Town look like a new neighborhood made to look old.
Old Town was historically an immigrant and laborer community. One butcher shop owner in the early 1900s went on to become a household name–Oscar Meyer. Another denizen became a map publisher–Andrew McNally. After the laborers and beer makers moved our up or out, hippies moved in and Old Town became Chicago’s Haight-Ashberry. Some of the incidents that marred the 1968 Democratic National Convention occurred in or near Old Town. When the hippies moved on Puerto Ricans moved in and called this neighborhood La Clark. Now the area is undergoing gentle gentrification. However, the stores remain more neighborhood-like (The Spice House) than chain store.
Ruth and learned about Old Town when I asked the concierge at our fun hotel, The Hard Rock, if there was anything new in Chicago to investigate and write about. He didn’t hesitate before saying, “Old Town and Bronzeville”. South of Lincoln Park and west of the Gold Coast, Old Town’s unofficial main street is Wells. On this street you will find a landmark Chicago institution, Second City, and a great, lively, inexpensive pub/restaurant, Benchmark.
Over time we have learned a valuable travel lesson…get to know and trust the hotel concierge and you’ll benefit. In fact, many of Chicago’s concierges contribute to a hospitality publication called Concierge Preferred that we found a great source of valuable info not available elsewhere.