"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Friday, May 6, 2011

Noble Square/Polish Triangle

The Breakdown
Downtown isn't far from Noble Square.
An overview: Noble Square is one of the many different smaller neighborhoods located within the West Town community area.  Immediately to its north, is what is often referred as the Polonia Triangle (or “Polish Triangle) at the three-way intersection of Ashland, Division, and Milwaukee.  The Polish Triangle isn’t its own neighborhood per-se, and is usually considered part of either Wicker Park or Pulaski Park.  However, since it is adjacent to Noble Square, and has its own unique identity, we felt it was worth sharing an entry.

The boundaries: Noble Square’s boundaries are normally considered the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94) to the east, Ashland Avenue to the west, Division Street to the north, and Grand Avenue to the south.
The Polish Triangle is a commercial corridor that is bounded by Ashland Avenue to the west, Division Street to the south, and Milwaukee Avenue to the northeast.  It is surrounded by four different neighborhoods: Pulaski Park to the northeast, Wicker Park to the northwest, East Village to the southwest, and Noble Square to the southeast.

Population make-up: OK, let’s try something here.  West Town is far too large and diverse for each neighborhood to share the same demographic characteristics, so we’re going to turn to the census tracts.  The great majority of Noble Square is located within census tracts 2420, 2433, and 2434.  The Polish Triangle makes up the southwest corner of census tract 2416.

In the census tract in which the Polish Triangle belongs, 2010 census figures list the population as 3,477.  White residents make up 60% of the area, and 30% is Hispanic.  The remaining 10% is split up among Asian (5%), Black (3%), and other races (2%).

In Noble Square’s census tracts the 2010 population was 9,952.  It’s a relatively diverse neighborhood.  The population was 52% White, 32% Hispanic, 11% Black, 3% Asian, and 2% from other races.  Currently there is no income data available.

As a whole, West Town has seen an increase in its White and Asian populations, while seeing decreases in its Black and Hispanic populations, between 2000 and 2010.  In the past ten years, the West Town community area’s population has dropped nearly 6%, from 87,435 (2000) to 82,236 (2010).

The Polish Triangle.
Where Ashland, Division and Milwaukee meet.
A brief history: Noble Square doesn’t get nearly the attention that its neighbors to the west get.  In West Town, most people think of Wicker Park and Ukranian Village.  However, Noble Square has a lot to offer.  Its major commercial corridor is Chicago Avenue, home to many restaurants and boutiques.  Two of Chicago’s newest highly acclaimed restaurants, Ruxbin Kitchen and Leopold, call Noble Square its home, as does legendary vegetarian fine dining establishment Green Zebra.  The neighborhood has beautiful older architecture, with over half of the housing units dating back over a century.

The Polish influence in Chicago is everywhere.  That influence still exists in places like Avondale and Archer Heights.  General knowledge has it that Chicago has the world’s second-largest Polish population, behind only Warsaw.  The Polonia Triangle however, is considered the city’s original “Polish Downtown”.  In the late 1800s, multiple Polish organizations located at the three-street intersection, and stunning Polish Cathedral style churches (St. Stanislaus Kostka and Holy Trinity Church) were erected just down the street.  Although the Polish influence on the neighborhood is far less than 100 (or even 50) years ago, it still lingers in several establishments, two of which we’ll cover in this entry.  Currently there is a movement to improve the visual appeal of the Polish Triangle, perhaps formally designating it as Wicker Park’s southern gateway.  Still, day or night, it doesn’t lack for activity.

Getting there: By elevated train, the Blue Line will take you there.  The Division stop drops you right off at the Polish Triangle and Noble Square’s northern boundary.  To access Noble Square’s Chicago Avenue commercial corridor, take the Blue Line to Chicago and it’s about a five-minute walk west, just over the Kennedy Expressway.

By bus there are a few options as well.  Going east-west: Division (70), Chicago (66), and Grand (65).  Going north-south you’ll need to take the Ashland bus (9).  Going northwest-southeast you can also take the Milwaukee bus (56).

The Noble Grape (802 N. Bishop Street)
Just one of the small shops beckoning you off the street in this trendy strip of Chicago Avenue in Noble Square.  It may just seem like another wine shop, but what they lack in space, they more than make up for in product quality.

Michael’s Take: Were this in my neighborhood, I would be a regular customer.  For a tiny little boutique it not only carries a great wine selection, but a couple terrific shelves of microbrews and spirits (many of which are hard to find outside of Binny’s).  Service is polite and attentive; they seem happy you’re there and eager to help.  Kind of a weird side note: the register prints out one the nicest-looking receipts I’ve ever seen.  Their logo is big and they break down your purchase clearly by price, city tax, and county tax.  I mean, you care about this kind of stuff, so I thought I’d let you know…

Laura’s Take: GREAT selection of different (read: non grocery store variety) wines for good prices.  And they do have the upper crust as well.  I wish I had a wine shop like this near home.

Anything Else We Missed: OK, on Wednesdays and Fridays they have complimentary wine tastings from 6-8pm.  Hey South Park P.D., whatdya think of that??

Podhalanka (1549 W. Division Street)
There’s a little dive on the Polish Triangle that’s every bit worth the stop.  Podhalanka doesn’t seem have a website, but going in blindly won’t have you the slightest bit disappointed if you’re a meat and potatoes person.
We meant to get a picture of when it was open,
we really did. 

Michael’s Take: Ahhh, just like Grandma used to make.  My mom’s parents both emigrated from Poland to Chicago shortly after World War II.  As a young boy if there was one thing I could count on, it was that I was never leaving Grandma and Grandpa’s on an empty stomach.  My grandma’s masterpiece?  Her sauerkraut-stuffed pierogis. 

They may not have the sauerkraut variety at Podhalanka, but you can choose among meat, cabbage, and potato & cheese.  My recommendation is to request them to give you some of each.  Not health food by any means, but these dumplings took me back to my childhood.  The pierogis are fat and covered in melted butter.  One serving is plenty for a full meal.  Also, the white borscht was fantastic.  The slightest hint of sourness with hearty chunks of sausage mixed in.

There might have been space left for one more pierogi,
but that void was quickly filled by a dollop of sour cream.
Laura’s Take:  My mistake was not being too hungry when we went.  Despite this unfortunate circumstance, everything still tasted awesome, which tells you how good it would’ve been otherwise.  The woman who hosted seemed to be the resident matron of the establishment.  She greeted me with which soups she had that day, and one of them luckily was white borscht.  I had never had borscht of any color before, and I have to say it was different.  There was a white broth made of something I can’t figure, and dill throughout.  The highlight that kept you going back for more was the unexpected sour taste and the sausage pieces. 

Everything was served with basic, humble ware and a humble manner to match.  No frills, just home cooking that you will recognize as such even if you have never eaten Polish food per se (as I hadn’t). You will not feel that you’re in a trendy place…. the décor is pretty astonishingly dated and old.  However, there is a reason its online ratings are almost perfect – what an unexpected treat near downtown Chicago.

Anything Else We Missed:  We were served a homemade juice on the house (referred to as “compote” on the menu).  It was blueberry with rose hips – it tasted vaguely like a dilute tea.  Not the most electrifying beverage, but charming in its honesty and a cute part of the visit for us.

Yes, that IS a musket hanging from the top of the wall.

Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division Street)
For the uninitiated, Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) is Poland’s greatest composer.  His piano pieces are today as widely performed as anything penned by Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart.  Back in Poland he has his name and face on airports, currency, and chocolate bars.  It goes without saying that his impact on the Polish psyche came over to America along with the hundreds of thousands of immigrants.  In the Polish Triangle there is a great historical theater that has gone through many changes in its history that bears his name.  The Chopin Theatre hosts a wide array of artistic events, and we saw The Hypocrites perform their take on Georg Büchner’s enigmatic Woyzeck.

"So you're here to see the play too, huh?"
Michael’s Take: First of all, the venue.  From the outside it doesn’t look like much, but the inside is stunning.  The interior bears multiple rooms adorned with antique chairs and mirrors.  Clearly the intention is to provide a mid-1800s European ambiance, and in this regard it’s very successful.  The main stage (there’s a smaller stage downstairs) hides behind two gateway curtains, but it’s shockingly large considering the outside appearance of the theater.  There is abundant seating, especially for a streetfront theater, and yet it never loses intimacy between the audience and the action upon the stage.

Although this was the first time I have seen Woyzeck live on stage, I am familiar with the work due to Werner Herzog’s masterful 1979 film.  The Hypocrites’ version is brief (just over an hour), yet powerfully disturbing.  It’s a story that doesn’t settle in with the viewer until well into the performance.  The acting is very good, but is trumped by its haunting, brutal imagery and often-manmade soundscapes.  Their work is a challenging piece, and for those with an aversion to blood should probably be avoided.  But for the curious, this interpretation of Büchner’s unfinished masterpiece is well worth the price of admission ($28 per ticket).

One of lounges within the Chopin Theatre.
Laura’s Take:  I walked into this performance totally unaware of what was coming.  In hindsight, I could have prepared by learning more about the original play.  I feel like anything to grasp for during the first half hour of the play would’ve helped!  It may be that I am not a seasoned theater-goer, but boy was I jarred for a while.  Thinking back, the interpretations worked out by the directors, and the extras added in, were intriguing solutions as to how to bring this play into modern times.  A few modern references were added (comic relief!) and the one thing I will not forget are the sound effects generated just with voices of cast members in the background of the set.

The play was rather violent at times, as evidenced by the fact that there was enough blood on the ground that the lead actor had to catch himself from a complete wipe-out toward the end of the play.  You will not leave with anything resembling a warm fuzzy feeling, or even that much more insight about humanity (in my opinion), but if you like these sort of challenging experiences, go for it.

Anything Else We Missed: The Chopin Theatre was built in 1918 and has served numerous purposes over the past century.  However, it was re-opened in 1990 under its current incarnation where it hosts music, film festivals, and other various artistic endeavors in addition to live theater.

Frontier Lounge (1072 N. Milwaukee Avenue)
So we stopped in for a couple drinks and didn’t get anything to eat.  Probably our mistake.  If you want whole chickens, rabbits, or even boar, you got it.  I think we’ll be back here at some point to actually try the food.  It’s a carnivore’s heaven.

Michael’s Take: If you’re just stopping in for a beer, there’s a good selection on tap and in bottle.  Also, the prices are reasonable.  I mean, a 16-ounce can of Half Acre Ambrosia for $5?  To quote the great philosopher John McEnroe, “you can NOT be SERIOUS!!!”  Only hitch, the place isn’t that big and since it’s the new kid on the block and has gotten some serious buzz, it gets PACKED.  Even if you just plan to sit at the bar, you may be expected to wait a bit.

Celebrity sighting: Brian Urlacher.
Laura’s Take: At about 9pm on a Friday night, we were darn lucky to find two the last two vacated bar seats.  We ended up spending quite a while there… it was a comfortable place to stay and sip.  I started wanting a second dinner when I saw the roasted chicken, green bean, and mac and cheese dinner show up at the spot next to us.  The cocktail list kept me quiet, though, and overall I would recommend the High Noon, which included gin, crème de cassis, and sparkling wine.  Make sure you like gin, though.
Couldn't even get the
whole list in one shot.
Our bartender was dressed a little more formally than you usually see, which I thought was a nice touch given that the place isn’t all that fancy.  He didn’t seem to mind us staying for a while, either.  Check back for updates on food; I’d definitely come back for it.

Anything Else We Missed: Yes, oysters.  Tons of them.  Lake Michigan may not be the hotbed of seafood that the Atlantic and Pacific are, but Chi-town can certainly get it, and here’s a place to have it (approx. $2 - $3 a pop, minimum order of 3).  However, if seafood isn’t your thing, we think you just might be able to find something else on the menu to satisfy your craving.

Noble Square/Polish Triangle: The Final Tally
Eckhart Park offers a great view of the skyline.
Many long-time Chicago residents have never heard of either Noble Square or the Polish Triangle.  Many of those who have heard of these neighborhoods probably are unfamiliar with them and what they offer.  If you’re one of those, you’re welcome.  In all seriousness there’s some great culture, shopping, and eating to be found within a pretty small area.  Oh sure, it’s tempting to say, “we’re out this way, let’s just go to Wicker Park or the Ukranian Village”.  Sure, they’re both great neighborhoods too, but please, PLEASE take a closer look at Noble Square and the Polish Triangle.  Eckhart Park in the middle of Noble Square offers beautiful views of the skyline, and architecture buffs will adore the Polish Cathedral style churches that overlook the area.  Plus, as long as you can jump on the Blue Line, it’ll put you right there.  Whether or not the neighborhood can be considered “hidden”, there’s no doubt that this area is an absolute gem.

A look from above.  Noble Square is in orange.  The Polish Triangle is the small purple wedge in the top left.
The beautiful, yet unoccupied,
St. Boniface Church
Holy Innocents Church

Holy Trinity Polish Church

The many neighborhoods that make up the West Town community area.  From west to east:
 East Humboldt Park (gray), Smith Park (pink), Wicker Park (red), Ukrainian Village (yellow),
East Village (green), Pulaski Park (light blue), Noble Square (orange), River West (dark blue)

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