By David Byrnes, Courtney Jacquin
In Chicago’s Rogers Park, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The community surrounding the Morse Red Line stop knows its small business population to be highly mercurial, with different institutions coming into and running out of money almost with the seasons. However, other businesses in the same area, like The Heartland Cafe, Red Line Tap and Lifeline Theatre have stood for decades, with no sign of shuttered doors anytime soon.
So why have these businesses flourished for so long, while others seem to live on borrowed time?
According to some prominent residents, like Heartland Cafe owner Tom Rosenfeld, the answer lies in understanding the demographics of Rogers Park.
“This area has always attracted young … artistic types without a whole lot of money,” Rosenfeld said. “The people that come to live here … expect a certain kind of atmosphere and a certain price range. Some places just don’t always understand that.”
The artistic spirit of the community is mirrored on the ‘L’ stop itself — bright murals emblazoned with faces, shapes and the words “Welcome to Rogers Park” spanning the entirety of the stop on Glenwood Avenue. It’s a welcome block indeed.
The Heartland Cafe has been part of the community for more than 30 years. Though owners have changed over time — Rosenfeld took over in 2012 — the feel and many of the patrons have remained the same. The Lifeline Theatre, less than a block to the south, has been in its Glenwood Avenue location since 1982.
“[There’s] that new taco bar on Morse and Glenview which just opened up,” Rosenfeld said. “It seems nice enough, but this is a neighborhood with … a lot of little Mexican restaurants. Is a taco bar really what people want? I don’t know.”
Given the property’s history, his suspicions may not be misplaced. The taco bar in question is Bullhead Cantina, the Tex-Mex pub and grill’s second Chicago locale. Its flagship location is in Humboldt Park.
The corner lot has seen a slew of different business over the past 18 months. A brunch spot, the MorseL, was the tenant as recently as last fall, and not a year before that it was a thrift store. It remains to be seen if this new business — which must compete with the area’s numerous taquerias, ultimately proves to be more loved by the community.
The Bullhead Cantina’s locale isn’t the only storefront that’s been revolving recently. Since the Red Line stop was renovated in 2012, vacant lots have sat open under the ‘L’ on the Morse Avenue entrance.
Sherree Moratto, sustainability director for the Rogers Park Business Alliance, believes the issue stems from the CTA’s failure. When the stop was repaired, the CTA made the storefronts below rentable for the first time in years, but it proved to be a risky investment for business owners.
“The CTA wasn’t able to go beyond the most basic ‘vanilla box’ so there’s no heat, running water or toilets in any of them,” Moratto said. “As an entrepreneur you’d have to be willing and able to put that in yourself. And then upon your departure in the future if that were to happen, you’d have to leave all of that infrastructure there.”
Regardless of the CTA’s involvement in the storefronts in the area, Rogers Park may not be the ideal location for new businesses.
The area has an unfortunate reputation for violent crime, which as of March 1 was slightly above the city average and tends to ward off potential investors. Additionally, the sheer distance of Rogers Park from the city’s center means it is often overshadowed by other neighborhoods.
“The businesses here are always shifting because the area’s just too far away from the people who would like new things,” Nick Kuntzman, Rogers Park resident, said. “You end up with a little island of people at the city’s end that are used to just one way of doing things, and they don’t want anything different.”
The relative obscurity of the area, combined with a diverse, but often young population and a lack of new money, means that those businesses with a long presence in the area outlast their competition by sheer virtue of seniority. People flock to the places they know will provide good service at an affordable price, rather than take a potential risk on an unproven – and at times redundant – venue.
Of course, money is anything but static. One has to wonder if the current market truth will remain in years to come, especially as the economy begins to recover and Chicago’s financial growth slowly accelerates.
Rosenfeld believes that growth – and a fuller marketplace – is inevitable, especially as the Rogers Park local art scene begins to gain recognition.
“Lifeline Theatre especially is really starting to take off,” he said. “They’ve won some Jeff Awards over the years, and a lot of big talent is starting to take notice. I think we’ll see a lot of people wanting to come here to be part of that.”
Kuntzman echoed his sentiment.
“Part of what attracted me to this neighborhood was how much public art there is everywhere,” Kuntzman said. “Artists just seem to be able to make a mark here, and I think more people like myself will be drawn here in the future for that reason.”
Another recent addition to the area, which may yet bolster Rogers Park’s economic visibility, is the Glenwood Sunday Market. Founded in 2010, it boasts goods from many vendors around the area — none more than 200 miles away — and has attracted shoppers from across Chicagoland.
The market operates throughout the year and attracts a crowd mainly from the area, a new establishment that might have the staying power of some of the neighborhood’s strongholds.
Only time will tell what the fate of the Morse Red Line business community – and the Greater Rogers Park area – will be. But one thing is certain: through growth or decline, the neighborhood will always be home to a dedicated class of residents, happy to be cloistered away on the city’s northern border.
“I came to live here because me and my then girlfriend needed a cheap place to live,” Kuntzman said. “We stayed because we just absolutely fell in love with the area and its people. This place really is Chicago in a sun dress.”