Chicago is unquestionably one of America's urban miracles, but its hard-won reputation obscures its gloomy side and some even bleaker allegories. For virtually all the 20 years beginning in 1960, elevated trains-the city's infrastructural fixtures and a focus of Northeastern Illinois lore-didn't even stop at North Halstead Street and North Clybourn Avenue as the area was abandoned to blight, crime and a legion of desperate souls.
Leon Natker remembers those times in his hometown, and he's also quick to point out that Halstead's rebirth, begun in the early '80s, marks one of the most successful reclamation projects in the nation. The view from his 15-year residency in San Diego's North Park neighborhood, he said, makes it easy to draw comparisons. While the area sports nowhere near Halstead's infestations, it has shown considerable wear and tear over several decades, “with embryonic housing, struggling little businesses and so on. I don't think people felt that there was a real sense of community, yet they lived in North Park.”
That's only part of what makes the heavily hyped Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre dedication, set for noon Friday, Sept. 30, so special for Natker. As it happens, he's also general director of Lyric Opera San Diego, and he'll be helming Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado Oct. 14 through 30 as the venue's first event in more than 20 years. North Park Main Street, the North Park Community Association and San Diego City Council's District 3 head a roster of advocates whose years-long patchwork efforts have finally yielded the latest anchor for the 50,000-population area between Hillcrest and City Heights.
“Anybody that owns property anywhere in North Park is benefiting from this,” Natker gushed. “Anybody that's had a business and hung on through all the bad times is going to see their business improve because of the increased traffic.”
To be sure, the theater complements the area's trendy trajectory amid a glut of spit-shined old coffee shops and tidy art galleries. But that construction has also unearthed a few uncertainties as the Halstead phenomenon unfolds here. With dedication day only hours away, those cautionary tales have cast a mild shadow over the building's striking resplendence.
The 23,000-square-foot facility, named after the local Birch Foundation on the strength of a $1 million gift, first opened in January of 1929 as a movie house and vaudeville venue. It comes with an $8 million refurbishment-retrofit price tag ($7.65 million more than the original) following its groundbreaking in May of last year. The Italian Renaissance façade at 2891 University Ave. is set off by pristine burnt oranges, browns and magentas matched to the original paint; its generously scrolled frieze punctuates the building's renown as a registered state and local historical landmark.
Inside, eight chandeliers sport 58 light bulbs apiece; the space's original Wurlitzer pipe organ is set for refurbishment; the second floor is flush with rehearsal and office space, and the orchestra pit touts a retractable top. The tech crews look out over a total of only 19 rows front to back, with 736 rebuilt seats from the original theater's 1,200.
In the intermediate future, audiences will exit the theater to panoramas that feature new condos, upgrades to the Ray Street Arts District (where 1,500 now gather for the Ray @ Night gallery exhibits every second Saturday of the month), parks, traffic medians and a library. When the dust settles, Natker said, North Park will point to the theater as the watershed for its current boom.
But Jonathan Silverman, a Philadelphia native who's lived in North Park as long as Natker, is no less direct in his assessment. The neighborhood's investment in the theater, he said, might amount to a misplaced idealism.
“I just don't think it's going to have that big an impact,” he said of the venue's revitalization. “Don't get me wrong. I'm not against it-[the project] has provided jobs for people and will generate tax dollars, and... it's better to have the theater function. Theater in San Diego is active-but how many people out of the population really go? When you look at it that way, I'm not so sure the taxpayer isn't dying the death of a thousand cuts.”
“One hundred percent wrong,” countered Jay Turner, outgoing executive director of the North Park Main Street business improvement district. “Giving all the arts groups a location enlivens each one of them. That means Lyric Opera [San Diego] is followed by dance, which is followed by string quartets, which is followed by tap, which is followed by film, which is followed by high-school music events. Giving them a place to reside is giving them a chance to have a life.”
Joe Schloss, a third-generation North Park retailer, gets to weigh in by virtue of his tenure alone. His AB Sporting Goods has occupied the space at 3027 University Ave. since 1946-plenty of time to gauge the neighborhood's evolution and the elements that sparked its current commercial climate.
“For example,” he explained, “in the old days, the [annual December] North Park Toyland Parade brought thousands of people to our area, not like we have today. Would [today's] customers come back tomorrow to go to a play or an art gallery and then come in and buy a baseball glove? I don't know.”
But Turner, a veteran planner in a number of California cities, countered that the slate of improvements will actually enhance the commerce of stores like AB.
“There's always a fear by the old-time merchants,” he said, “that [revitalization] is going to put them out of business. And there's always the fear by the new business that people will stick with the old-timers. The truth is that a blended district, with old-timers and national chains and franchises and incoming independents, creates a dynamic pressure that makes the area crackle with energy.”
Any fear of Schloss' displacement, Turner concluded, is unfounded. After all, Schloss was tapped to throw out the first pitch at this year's Little League World Series in Pennsylvania-“and that,” Turner said, “is evidence of community-based business. When you walk into his store, it's like a trip back in time. It's loved in this community.”
So's the theater. As Natker pointed out, it was the neighborhood's flagship facility when it originally opened, decades before the community embraced the commercial co-existence concept Turner described. It's pretty much seen North Park come and go-and as the area comes again, the theater's potential galvanizes local aspirations even as a clunky el train lumbers its way into a resurrected Chicago outpost.