West Town aims to retain artistic reputation

By Colin Shively

During the past 30 years, the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhood has seen drastic changes in the demographic and culture of the area. Originally a Polish neighborhood, the evolution of its culture and community has grown to a mixture of high-fashion, artists and young families. However, West Town is focusing to bring the artists back—and keep them.

In February 2009, the Special Service Area, an organization that funds services and programs for a community, of West Town approved a new Master Plan that is primarily focused on what the community desires to see their neighborhood turn into. To date, the Master Plan gives local artists and galleries the chances they need to return to the independence and creativity for which the neighborhood is known.

“We, as an organization, are trying to be more supportive of the arts that are here,” said Paula Barrington, executive director of the Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce. “We are working with organizations like Flat Iron Artist Association or Around the Coyote to really promote the fact that the arts are still alive in the neighborhood.”

Recently, the cost of living and renting art space has risen due to the influx of higher income families and large fashion companies in West Town. The increased expense has caused artists who once thrived in the area to leave because they could no longer afford the rising prices, Barrington said.

To date, the neighborhood has not seen a decrease in prices but has instead reached a plateau in living costs.

However, Barrington said the artistic groups in the area are working hard alongside the Special Service Area and the chamber of commerce to create affordable living and gallery spaces to help sway artists and art lovers to remain and return to the area.

For this to happen, Barrington said The Flat Iron Artist Association is reinventing its marketing strategy because even if there are less expensive gallery spaces, there needs to be a customer base.

“The Flat Iron said, ‘You know what Paula? We can throw all the art shows in the world we want, but we got to get customers through the door and get them to buy our art,”’ Barrington said.

All of this is part of the Special Service Area’s Master Plan to develop the ideas and identify the needs of the surrounding community.

“We wanted to do our Master Plan in line with some locally-determined priorities,” said Eleanor Mayer, a program assistant for the Wicker Park/Bucktown Special Service Area.

The community responded and it was decided that the neighborhood wanted to maintain some of the traditional gritty and artsy elements that make West Town unique, Mayer said.

A big part of the project, Mayer said, is all the vacant store fronts in the area and how to get art in these empty spaces while they wait for a store to take ownership.

The Special Service Area is in talks with local and possibly some national artists to help “reinvigorate” the streets of West Town.

“We really feel like our neighborhood continues to be a destination for the arts,” Barrrington said. “We just want to make it more top of the line for people and to make sure that there are really a lot of choices here, every single weekend.”