Tag Archives: neighborhood

Do you live there?

As you can imagine, this project is a big part of our lives. And we talk about it a lot. Not so much as to bore people, but our friends and neighbors frequently ask us for an update.

Just about every conversation includes the question, “Do you live there yet?”  Of course the answer to that is no. There is no electricity, no plumbing and of course no heat.  We’ll live there someday, but not anytime soon.

So where do we live?

You may recall that we had been working on a project in Elmhurst for the past few years. Last spring when we bought this building on 15th St. we clocked our travel to the city and back to Elmhurst at 45 miles, round-trip.  We did that trip many times in the spring of 2009.  That is certainly not sustainable, nor was it any help to our sanity.

We decided we really needed a place in the city … but how would we find a comforting home on a temporary basis?  One day we were at brunch with some very cool friends at their place, the HUB Housing Cooperative.  (HUB stands for “Housing for Urban Bicyclists.”)  As it turns out, they had a unit for sale and our friend Ted was interested in renting it to us.  So we moved in last Memorial Day weekend.

The HUB is a six-unit co-op right at 24th and Marshall Boulevards in the Little Village neighborhood. It’s an intentional community comprised of 11 people, 4 cats, 2 dogs, 3 worm bins and more than 50 bikes.  The group meets once a week to talk about business and there are lots of social opportunities.  I’ve known many of the people who live here for about 10 years through Critical Mass and other bicycling activities.  They are truly a great bunch.

The unit we’re living in right now is for sale.  It’s about 1,000 square feet with big windows and lots of light.  And lots of built-in friends. The kitchen looks out onto the boulevard. If you think you might be interested in buying the share of the co-op that is this unit, please let us know and we’ll pass your info along.


Price drop with catch

Remember that two-flat where we had the trouble determining the actual lot size (see 04/04/2009 post)?   While we were still pursuing it we’d received a call from the owner’s representative asking for our “final and best offer.” We were told at the time that they were giving us one more opportunity to adjust our bid because the seller had four other offers on the property. Once we withdrew our offer, we noticed that the property was promptly put back on the market. So much for the four other offers…

We kept monitoring the two-flat because we could not really find any comparables – and because we could not really put it out of our heads or hearts. Furthermore, we had been house hunting for close to a year and got increasingly anxious to buy.

Fast forward three months: Our two flat is listed with a huge price drop, of a whopping $35,000 – from the original $105,000 asking price down to $75,000. We were worried that this would be again one of those too good to be true situations. And I am sad to report that it was!

We went back to the property to take another look. My heart dropped to the floor when I walked up the front steps and saw through the window plaster and lath lying on the floor. Remember, this place needed a serious clean up, but was otherwise completely intact, including the heating system.

The old hutch in the living room was ripped out of the wall, probably to retrieve the lead from the stained glass doors. Some of the copper piping in that bathrooms and kitchens was removed; some of the walls were ripped open. The two furnaces in the basement were still there, but most of the copper piping was gone. We don’t own the place, nor do we have an offer on it. And still, it felt very personal.


But here is the good news: We have seen much worse. The more we started looking the more surprised we were to see material left behind, and walls only partially open. This was not a finished job. We learned from the neighbors that the vandals – excuse me – thieves, were interrupted by a resident down the street who came home from night shift. She saw someone standing guard, and the guard saw her. The thieves took no chances and were gone when the police arrived a few minutes later.

Here is more good news: This is a case were the neighbors actually look out for a vacant foreclosure on their block and call the police if something looks or sounds suspicious. This is a very good thing, another sign that this is a neighborhood where we’d like to live.

And here is the best news ever: That same week, the copper market collapsed. Whoever got that material out of the two-flat could now only get pennies for what he/she could have previously sold for dollars.

After we recovered emotionally from this shock, we decided that we should put another offer down, despite the damage and despite the smaller lot size. This two-flat in this neighborhood for the price of $75,000 is not something we want to ignore. Which presented us with a new challenge: How can we make sure no one is coming back to finish the job?


Drilling down

Beat meetings have been a wonderful resource to us in our neighborhood research (see also 03/21/2009 post). But there is more homework to do…

We continue to monitor crime statistics and reports around the properties that we have singled out. I basically have shortcuts in my browser so that I am only one click away from this information (i.e. CLEARMAP and Every Block Chicago).

Online or paper statistics are sometimes hard to interpret without having the feet on the ground backup research. This insight led us to drive by the various properties at a relatively frequent schedule, at various times of the day and night. Thanks to our friend Ann who joint us a couple of times, we quickly learned what to look out for.


The level of trash in the street, the alley, the yards or vacant lots is a very good indicator of community care, involvement and pride. Some property owners got so fed up with picking up the trash that gets dumped into their parkway or yard, that they tie a trash bag to their fence in hope of passers by dropping their litter into the bag, rather than on the ground. And it seems to work!


There are certain categories of trash (yes, this becomes a real science!). The bottles of booze on the ground or empty beer can collections were at an impressive scale in some locations. I quickly learned to spot drug paraphernalia, such as tiny Ziploc bags. Not what you want to see, at least not in great quantities. We also learned to check the power lines. A pair of shoes over the lines is an advertising sign for new or established drug sale operations.

Saturday night (live)

What we observe during our daytime drive-bys may have nothing to do with what is going on at night – in particular a weekend night, and specifically a warm midsummer weekend night! We’ve been advised over and over again to check in sometimes after midnight on a hot Saturday night – Sunday morning. That is exactly what we did to gauge our comfort level with the activities (or lack thereof) and the noise level.

The interesting thing is, we’ve found that the activities at night generally aren’t that much different than during the day.  The street corners that had groups of people hanging out during the day had large groups of people at night.  The streets that were quiet in the daytime were largely quiet at night.  The difference was the brazenness of the drug activity – rather than standing huddled on a corner, the person is now yelling in your car window about that offer you can’t refuse.  The thought crossed our minds that we might get picked up by the police for attempting to buy drugs.  It would be interesting to explain our way out of that one.

Services and Amenities


What services and amenities are available at what distance? To find out, we prepared maps with a quarter- and half-mile radius circle and plotted the various facilities within those circles. Another easy resource is Walk Score web site that helped us to determine and rate the walkability of any given location.

To back up our research findings, we walked the ‘hoods and looked at the bike routes. We visited the nearby stores, restaurants, coffee shops, other facilities, amenities and transit stops. The more we drilled down, the clearer the picture of the neighborhood. And we have been drilling now for over one year…


Beats and meetings

We found some interesting properties with the help of our Realtor. It’s now time to investigate their surroundings in detail, to start the serious research.

If anyone would ask us what our most useful research tool was, we could answer it in a heartbeat: beat meetings! – If you don’t live in Chicago, or you’re not involved in your community, you might ask “What are Beat meetings?”

“Beat Community Meetings involving police and residents; extensive training for both police and community; more efficient use of City services that impact crime; and new technology to help police and residents target crime hot spots.”

Source: What is CAPS?

In April of 1993 Chicago started in earnest with the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, in short CAPS (for more information, see also ClearPath). The principle idea was to develop and grow a partnership between police and community to increase the efficiency of community policing and crime reduction. The city of Chicago is organized into police districts (twenty five in total). Each district is organized into three sectors, while each sector is subdivided into police beats. Each police beat has a community meeting once a month, where a CAPS officer, beat officers and typically a sergeant sit down with the residents of the beat to discuss community policing, crime statistics, crime hot spots and to develop a plan of action.

We attended beat meetings religiously for the properties we were interested in. It is amazing how much we learned in such little time! We got a detailed picture of community interest and involvement. Some beat meetings were very poorly attended, while others were buzzing with people, activity and opinions. We learned about crime activity levels and hot spots. It is amazing how localized some of the problem areas were. We observed how the officers worked with the community to target crime hot spots, relying on the observation and reports from residents. We learned that “the most interesting time of the year” is when the weather gets warm after a long winter and cabin fever reigns.

It was and is a privilege to meet and talk to our potential future neighbors. Some of them had been living in the neighborhood for years, even decades . That wealth of knowledge was absolutely priceless to us. This was the most fun and effective way to learn about the short and long history of a neighborhood.

Same for the officers and sergeants, some of them long-serving veterans in the community. They were always – and I mean always – happy to talk to us and share the historic ups and downs in the crime development and control. Looking at crime statistics online is one thing. But having an active duty officer walk you through the details of a crime hot spot gave us the perspective we were looking for. And if some of the details were not at the officer’s fingertip, they called us within a day with the answers in hand. Talk about excellent customer service and dedication to the community – we found it in the beat meetings. Thank you!


Neighborhood research

We have our wish list and decided what we want, which feels like a nice accomplishment. Don’t be fooled! The real research is yet to come. What neighborhoods would actually meet our basic parameters?

One of the first tasks is to look at a public transit map and identify which CTA train corridors would be convenient and of interest to us. We talked to friends and friends of friends who live in the city and had knowledge of the areas we were investigating. The spread of opinion was quite remarkable, but we got nevertheless a much better feel for the various areas. To test the opinions we received, we drove through the neighborhoods to collect our first impressions.

We quickly learned what to look for, and I am not talking about the community assets such as retail and other service. No, it’s things such as the care that is given to the houses and yards and the number of vacant buildings on any given block. Are those buildings secured or broken into? Have the neighbors formed and maintain an active block club or other community group that would indicate they are looking out for each other? How many vacant properties are on the block? What is the zoning? What are the current development plans and schedules? The various aldermen and the Department of Zoning and Planning have knowledge of the latter.

We also tapped into a number of online resources. Just typing the neighborhood name into Google led us to descriptions and historic background information. Other good online resources were the Chicago Neighborhood Map and the Chicago Reader Ward Map.  The Chicago Tribune has a real estate section on their website that offers neighborhood statistics such an income levels and the ratio of owner occupied versus rental properties.

What is the crime rate and type of crimes in any areas of the city? This is easy research thanks to a couple of excellent websites. The Chicago Police Department CLEARMAP is a GIS based system that provides access to a large variety of crime statistics for various time frames. Every Block Chicago is another excellent resource. You can type in an address and have access to a whole range of statistics, including crime for an eight, three or one block radius, in a variety of time frames.

All right then, with all this research done, let’s look at some real estate listings to see what is on the market in those ‘hoods!