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Getting to Know Chicago's Smallest Neighborhood: The Villa

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Chicago truly is a city of neighborhoods, and its communities come in all sizes — even micro size. There are two ways to classify a neighborhood in Chicago, the colloquial way — that is by the way locals describe a neighborhood by word of mouth — and then there's the official method recognized by the city as a "community area." Chicago has 77 official community areas, usually larger in size than the neighborhoods locals or real estate agents identity with. Multiple pocket neighborhoods may fall within a community area, and neighborhoods also can overlap the boundaries of a community area or coincide perfectly with them. While neighborhood boundaries are often flexible, with changing definitions depending on the person describing it, designated community areas have rigid boundaries, commonly reinforced by physical divisions such as aerial streets, the branches of the Chicago River and railroad viaducts. For Micro Week, we explore the two smallest neighborhoods in Chicago, starting first with a walking tour of the historic Villa District.

Intersections on the boundaries of The Villa are marked with stone planters (originally stucco lanterns) and are maintained by one of the city's oldest operating neighborhood associations The Villa Improvement League (VIL). The VIL also maintains the medians and sponsors architectural guided tours in this district.

Tucked into a tiny triangle on the Northwest Side, The Villa is composed of a collection of 126 homes on seven distinctive blocks that together form their own collective identity. While thousands of commuters pass right by this hamlet, many might not even realize its existence. The neighborhood is bounded by Pulaski on the west, Addison on south and Avondale on the north and Hamlin on the east.

What makes The Villa District unique was its early planning. Initially envisioned in 1896, this was designed to be a quiet respite from the city with no commercial establishments, no flat roofs, no multi-unit buildings or front yard fences. Lots were to be 50 feet, twice the width on standard city blocks and all homes were to have a consistent setback of 38 feet. In 1902, the property was purchased by Samuel Eberly Gross, an early mass developer of Chicago who created multiple subdivisions including Alta Vista Terrace near Wrigley Field and what is now the suburb of Brookfield. Gross re-platted the property to include landscaped medians in the center of two of the streets: Avers and Harding Avenues.

The land was resold just five years later to local builders Haentz & Wheeler, who in 1907 actually began constructing the homes. Despite the laid back nature of the neighborhood, the design of the homes came with an additional requirement — they were to be built in the bungalow style. The end result was a collection of homes built with details in line with the Arts & Crafts as well as Prairie School architectural styles.

While the east end of the district along Hamlin is lined with a row of standard Chicago style prewar bungalows on average sized lots, the blocks immediately west take on a different look with uniquely designed homes on wider lots.

The larger lots with generous setbacks as well as the medians work to give this nook a very forested feel, something that was advertised in the neighborhood's earliest days as "A country home within 15 minutes of the city," a phrase memorialized in a mural under the railroad overpass at Pulaski.

The slogan also emphasized the proximity to transportation, namely the commuter trains of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad (now Metra's Union Pacific lines). Early streetcar lines along Addison and Pulaski have been converted to modern CTA bus routes and the Blue Line is just a short walk away as well with stations at the Irving Park and Pulaski intersection, as well as at Addison.

The enclave of The Villa District is an official landmark district and although the original intent was for no multi-unit housing, two handsome 9-flat buildings coexist within boundaries of the district, flanking Waveland Avenue where it intersects with Pulaski. Incidentally, this is also the only property in the landmark overlay which fronts onto Pulaski Road.

Directly east of the Villa District along Hamlin in a collection newly constructed single family homes as well as one new side-by-side duplex home.

To the south across Addison is typical Chicago residential housing stock.

It still remains a quieter area with very little commercial activity immediately nearby. There are however a few nearby restaurants along Pulaski including the famous Smoque Barbeque.

Shawn Ursini

·Villa District [Northwest Chicago Historical Society]
·The Villa Improvement League (VIL) [Official Website]
·Micro Week archives [Curbed Chicago]