Trekking down Lawrence Avenue, Albany Park's main drag, a few things come to mind. The first is that the street really couldn't smell any better. The second is that there's more signage we can't read than we can. Don't worry, we're plenty literate over here at Curbed — Albany Park just happens to boast an easy multilingualism (public schools boast over 40 different languages). We most definitely do not.
It would be a gross understatement to say that Albany Park is diverse, and even more of a fallacy to say that this ethnic breadth doesn't create a unique, if not somewhat turbulent atmosphere in the neighborhood. An Jewish middle-class exodus from Albany Park to suburbs like Skokie and Lincolnwood after WWII cleared space for newer arrivals, but also for the infiltration of gangs and related crime. Despite such turbulence, this is clearly a neighborhood coming into its own.
Albany Park's rich diversity is part of its charm. Residents claim ancestry from all across Latin America and also from places as far flung as the Philippines, India, Korea, Cambodia, Somalia, Romania and Pakistan. Our initial observation on pleasing aromas is indebted to this mix along Lawrence Avenue, whose storefronts overflow with everything from freshly caught catfish to freshly baked tortillas. The avenues are compromised by litter and leakage: styrofoam cups play like specters over the gum-stained sidewalks and there's a heady mixture of spices and gasoline hanging over the streets.
Nevertheless, Albany Park has some of the best food in the city and the neighborhood doesn't skimp on authenticity. We were particularly enchanted by one restaurant called "Nick's Pit Stop" at Lawndale and Lawrence that was marinating and roasting enough chickens for a small army. One might question the safety of operating with large open flames, but it's hard to have scruples when fresh tortillas are being grilled in the other window. We also spotted a plethora of food trucks, but not of the upmarket variety (no mini cupcakes, gourmet bacon-infused-strawberry-honey-lavender-swirled gelato, or grown-up grilled cheese on the premises). More like folks selling food from pickup trucks. There was one particularly entrepreneurial fellow selling tamales out of his truck bed, another selling fresh fruit and produce from his, and enough ice cream trucks to feed the whole neighborhood and then some. Other notable food stops included Taximaroa Bakery and an Ecuadorian BYOB sushi spot called Galapagos (when have all those things combined together not been great?). One Middle Eastern market bragged about Zabhia Halal Meat while a Mexican market was selling "Muslo de Polo" (Chicken drumsticks) for the awesome price of 69 cents a pound.
True to form for a fast-evolving neighborhood, we noticed the interspersed presence of big name brands. A stark contrast exists between chain stores and those selling velour Justin Beiber blankets for $11.99. There is the ubiquitous street corner Starbucks looking whole-heartedly out of place against a backdrop of dangling soccer balls from the neighboring storefront. In the distance a distinctive McDonald's double arch blared at us. Unlike Lincoln Square, our last stop on Anchors Aweigh, Albany Park is far from predictable and we like it that way.
We also strolled by Haugen Elementary School which holds a Level 2 performance rating (Good standing) among CPS, impressive in light of the 95% low-income student body. Haugen isn't the only school around and the streets are teeming with children. Good thing Albany Park has ample space for outdoor play (and good thing we visited on the one day of the year that the sun was out). Spikings Farm Park surprised us with its charm on a corner a few blocks from a CVS. Jensen Park, meanwhile, was fully equipped with a community center, field, and an extremely active playground. We dodged children playing on the swings, running out of the small bungalows lining the streets (the residential standard), and rushing to catch up with the ice cream cart lingering on the corner. Albany Park is primarily residential, with long stretches of homes with alley access. The neighborhood isn't exactly well kept: signs are bent backwards and rusted over, the sidewalks are cracked, shoes are thrown over telephone wires, and, like we said before, litter is a fact. But Albany Park holds copious amounts of charm, and, like it or not, resides on the precipice of gentrification.
·Anchors Aweigh [Curbed Chicago]
·Albany Park Coverage [Curbed Chicago]