Looking up the North Branch of the Chicago River from the Wilson Avenue bridge
Looking up the North Branch of the Chicago River from the Wilson Avenue bridge Credit: Jen scholz

We need to say frankly at the outset that the neighborhood is misnamed. The southern half may be shown on the maps as North Center, and the northern half as Lincoln Square, and since these names are now embedded in the city’s statistical compilations we may be sure they’ll endure. But the real name of the community is Ravenswood. It’s the ghost neighborhood of Chicago, whose presence isn’t acknowledged in any substantial way, only felt.

Neighborhoods whose names in common usage don’t coincide with the maps are common in Chicago. What’s unique about Ravenswood is that even people who live there hardly know where it is.

Oh, they’ve heard of it. For years what’s now called the Brown Line was known as the Ravenswood el. As you headed north, at the point where this branch diverged from what was then the Howard Line a large sign painted on the side of a building advertised the Bank of Ravenswood. It must have seemed reasonable on the basis of these clues to assume that the Ravenswood el eventually arrived at a locality of that name.

It didn’t, at least not officially. This sank in for me by degrees. My family and I moved into a house near Irving Park and Ashland in the early 1990s and discovered it stood in the East Ravenswood Historic District. City maps inexplicably showed the district as part of Lakeview, although Lakeview as commonly understood was far distant. But Lake View High School happened to be at Irving Park and Ashland, and I presumed the mapmakers didn’t want it known that it had been built in the wrong place. No matter; if we were in East Ravenswood, I felt certain that Ravenswood lay to the west.

Not so. If you crossed Ravenswood Avenue—which runs parallel to the Metra tracks at 1800 West—you ended up in North Center. In fact, as I eventually discovered, Ravenswood was not to be found anywhere on the official maps. Signs of Ravenswood, on the other hand, could be found everywhere. In addition to the el line and the bank, there was Ravenswood Avenue, Ravenswood elementary school, and Ravenswood hospital; there was a Ravenswood Community Council and a Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce; out past the river there was even a small community known as Ravenswood Manor, although on investigation it turned out to be part of Albany Park. This evidence was widely distributed and to my mind suggested a Ravenswood of epic scale, which had risen to prominence in some golden era and then vanished, leaving only traces, like the Acropolis or Chichen Itza.

For a long time I couldn’t tell if this vanished city had had a main drag or where its commercial center might have been. This last piece of the puzzle fell into place last fall when I went to see my friends Mike and Charlie. They’re architects who have a small office about a mile from my house in an old redbrick industrial building opposite the Metra station at Lawrence Avenue. While engaged there in solemn conversation one afternoon I heard the roar of an approaching commuter train; glancing out the window, I noticed the blue station sign.

The sign said Ravenswood. I had seen it before, of course, but for the first time its significance sank in. This is it, I realized with a shock of certainty. This is Ravenswood’s throbbing heart.

A bit of googling confirmed that this was the case. The community had grown up in the 19th century around a railroad station—a now vanished station at Wilson Avenue, a couple blocks south of the present one. The initial Ravenswood real estate development had consisted of 194 acres bounded by Montrose, Damen, Lawrence, and Clark.

This realization came as something of a letdown. Nothing against Metra, or for that matter Charlie and Mike, but one wanted something a little more impressive than a blue sign and an architecture office—some ruins at least. Say what you will about Wicker Park, when you stand at North, Damen, and Milwaukee, you say, By God, this is it! Ravenswood Avenue, which runs from 3000 to 7000 North, inspires no comparable emotion at any point on its length.

No doubt this explains Ravenswood’s present obscurity. One must suppose that when the University of Chicago surveyors organizing the city into community areas back in the 1920s arrived with their transits, stakes, and chains, they said, This can’t be it! and departed in search of something grander. One can’t fault the choice of Lincoln Square in this respect. As for North Center—well, the name is a bit generic, and the intersection it references (Lincoln, Damen, Irving Park) won’t make anyone forget Piccadilly Circus. But is it a hub? Sure.

I don’t know that the results would be any different if the U. of C. came through today. The community as a whole has prospered, but Ravenswood Avenue is an unlikely stop for the tour buses. I would have made the pitch, though. It doesn’t look like much, I would have told the surveyors, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

Take Mike and Charlie, for example. When not engaged in paying work—in these straitened times it doesn’t occupy every waking hour—they’re developing a scheme for heating Chicago with geothermal power. Their genius is such that they can make you believe it might actually work. Geothermal energy uses the differential between surface conditions and the constant temperature of underground water to provide heating and cooling. Like every other infrastructure improvement in Chicago, it would be installed in the alleys. It would ease our dependence on fossil fuels and make this a better world.

Granted, a good deal remains to be worked out. One feels obliged to express some skepticism about communal heat pumps in a town that can barely get the potholes patched. But Mike and Charlie are practical dreamers—anyone who can push a complicated building project through the permit process at City Hall isn’t someone you want to count out. Moreover, it seems to me they’ve picked the right place to try.

Partly that’s because this is a neighborhood of demon recyclers. But there’s more to it than that. Ravenswood—let’s say the name unashamedly—has become fertile territory for new enterprises. On Ravenswood Avenue one now finds, in addition to more traditional businesses, Threadless, the online T-shirt company; the office of the Web site Gapers Block; Lillstreet Art Center, transplanted from Lincoln Park; Enterprising Kitchen, which teaches women job skills while turning out soaps and spa products; and Architectural Artifacts, the salvage emporium. It may be deficient in cafes, sports bars, and trendy shops, but there’s a lot going on in the heart of invisible Ravenswood.

Credit: paul john higgins