Hidden gems of the North Side

We may not be able to gather en masse this June, but we can explore Chicago’s vibrant history while biking or walking through our neighborhoods.

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Thunder-Maker Photo credit: Jenna Cohen.

In black and white  

Around the corner from Uptown's Aragon Ballroom and the Green Mill jazz club rests a little brick building that was once one of the foremost silent film studios in the United States. From 1907-15, the Essanay produced silent films by larger than life stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and Gilbert "Broncho Billy" Anderson.  

At the time, Chicago was one of the top three movie-making cities in the nation, keeping pace with industry leaders New York and New Jersey. In those days, the village of "Hollywoodland"  in California was still in its infancy; if you wanted to make it big, Chicago was the place to be.  

Kwa̱nu'sila, 'The Thunder-Maker'  

Ever wondered why there's a totem pole at Addison and Lake Shore Drive? It is a replica of a First Nations totem pole called Kwa̱nu'sila, "The Thunder-Maker," that was featured at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and was gifted to the city in 1929.  

Kwa̱nu'sila tells the origin of the "First Ones," the four beings--the sea monster, whale, human, and thunderbird--who founded the Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw tribe of British Colombia.  

There are many variations of this story; however, a theme that unites them all is the give and take between humanity and nature, and the power of that connection to create and destroy-a lesson the City of Chicago has been learning over and over again since its founding in 1833.  

Making a splash  

West of the Damen Blue Line station stands an apartment building with an ivory-colored façade and a steamy history.  

In the early 1900s, Bucktown and Wicker Park were predominantly Eastern European immigrant neighborhoods. In 1922, the North Avenue Baths--also known as the Russian Luxor Baths--were built to provide this community with a restorative meeting place. However, not all of the Baths' attendees where there for a refreshing dip.  

It is said that the Baths were frequented by prominent politicians of the day who needed a private place to discuss "delicate" political matters without being overheard-or wiretapped.  

A city on the rise  

When Chicago was incorporated in 1833, the town and shoreline of Lake Michigan were at approximately the same elevation, which hindered the construction of effective sewers and drainage channels. During the 1830s-1850s, Chicago was in a constant state of epidemic, with cholera and dysentery wiping out a significant percentage of the city's population.  

How did the city solve this problem? It got jacked. Literally. In 1856, entire buildings and city blocks were lifted several feet in the air with the use of hydraulic jacks and new building foundations, streets, and sewers were built beneath them.  

Land owners from lower income neighborhoods, like Bucktown and Pilsen, could not afford to raise the foundations of their buildings. So, when the streets rose around them, they moved the entrances to their buildings to the second floor.  

Lends a new perspective to "getting in on the ground floor," doesn't it?  

Ja, und…  

In 1959, Chicago redefined comedy with the founding of The Second City, a theater dedicated to improvisational comedy, the golden rule of which is to agree and build upon comedic scenarios by saying "yes, and…"  

The Second City façade is just as storied as the theater itself, and equally as committed to improv's golden rule.  

Its arched façade used to adorn the tallest theater in the world, the Garrick Theater, designed by Louis Sullivan and the Jewish Dankmar Adler--architects of the Auditorium Theatre--which, in an earlier incarnation, celebrated German artists.  

Four of those artists--Fritz Reuter, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gotthold Ephriam Lessing, and Giacomo Meyerbeer--can be found in relief among the white arches. Each time Second City has moved to a new location over the last 60 years, the façade embracing "yes, and" followed.    

 If you're looking for more self-guided tours, check out lonelyplanet.com and MetroWalkz.  

Jenna Cohen is a development professional and freelance writer living in Chicago.  

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