If there were ever a neighborhood that fell between embodying gentrification (read: cafes and beer bars holding down the corners) and slightly sketchy local charm, it would be Lincoln Square. Welcome to the land of a thousand Laundromats (yes we realize we're prone to hyperbole), discount liquor stores, and...artisanal brunch joints. Case in point is Over Easy, a restaurant on Damen Avenue about a mile from the Brown Line and the main pedestrian walkway on Lincoln Street that we encountered as we meandered down the relatively clean and leafless tree-lined sidewalks. Not only did the place smell irresistibly like pancakes but it was overflowing with young families and their indistinguishably bundled up children, hipsters in infinity scarves taking advantage of the free coffee outside without scruple, and yuppies upon yuppies.
The mix of residents on Damen couldn't get much more eclectic: Windy City Liquors down the block was also charming, though it didn't exactly offer the competitive beer discounts we were hoping for. About a block farther is CPS Amundsen High School. Fun fact: the school is named after Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who led the first expedition to the South Pole. Not so fun fact: despite the beautiful brick façade of the building, the school has had trouble with academic achievement. Nearby Winnemac Park, though not so appealing in the dead of winter, looked to us like the perfect place to revel in summer; it underwent $2 million of renovations about a decade ago and offers playgrounds and dog parks. If ever there were a sign of stability, it's a park scrubbed clean of litter and used needles. We like that about Lincoln Square already. There's also the nicely sequestered River Park, on both sides of the North Branch. This will host one of four extravagant Jeanne Gang-led boathouse designs.
Traditionally, Lincoln Square has been an amalgam of different immigrant communities, the majority German, English, Polish, and Greek. Today there are sizable Latino and Asian populations in addition to descendants of the aforementioned ethnic groups. The neighborhood had never been a hotspot for retail or consumerism until 1978 when the Lincoln Square mall, a charming pedestrian-designated line of blocks that's all niche retail and cultural charm, opened. A statue of good ol' Abe Lincoln greets visitors to the strip. We appreciated the juxtaposition between Lincoln's engraved proclamation, "Free society is not and shall not be a failure", and the dirty Walgreens in the background. Lincoln Square isn't completely economically homogenized— walking on Western Ave represents an income divide between the people who live in the large-ish bungalow homes to the east, and low-rent businesses lining Western: McDonalds, Bedding Experts, Decorium Furniture, and a discount fashion store selling what we speculated to be prom dresses.
However, walking the Lincoln Square promenade and the streetscape to the south was like walking into another far more aesthetically pleasing, and slightly German-tinged world. It's easy to see why Lincoln Square has become popular amongst Chicagoans. The promenade plays up its kitsch, but we liked it. Lincoln Square has done the unique job of not letting its cultural roots get lost amidst the fray of gentrification: Gene's Sausage Shop boasts a larger selection of ground meat than we ever thought we wanted to see and a giant cow sticking out from the front of the building and the Chicago Brauhaus has specialties consisting of meat, meat, more meat, oh and we forgot, beer. Both are institutions and draw the same locals who have been coming for the Wiener Wurst for 40 years. The Square has its musical devotees, too, who come to scope out some quality vinyl at Laurie's Planet of Sound (our copy of Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation came inexplicably packaged in a pizza bag, but we didn't question). And the biggest cultural draw is, of course, the Old Town School of Folk Music (now with twice the hold on Lincoln Ave), with broad programmatic appeal to student and listener alike.
Other offerings include Timeless Toys where we were blindsided by heavy nostalgia (who knew Playmobile was still a thing?), and Café Selmarie where we had an unbeatable hot chocolate. If anything, visit the Davis Theater that opened as the Pershing Theater way back in 1918 after World War I— talk about a throwback. Another piece of history that is unavoidable is Lincoln Square Lanes, the oldest operating bowling alley in Chicago where the scoring is still manual and the beer is cheap.
Among active ethnic touchtones is the recently remodeled DANK Haus, a German American Cultural Center. Suffice it to say, Lincoln Square is a Chicago neighborhood that despite all impulses has held true to its cultural roots in its rocky transition to irrefutable coolness.
·Lincoln Square Entry [Encyclopedia of Chicago]
·DANK Haus to Unveil Renovated Facade in Lincoln Square [Curbed Chicago]