‘I Feel Like I’m Burying My Neighborhood’: Wicker Park’s Cultural Scene Is A Shell Of What It Once Was. Can A Group Of Artists Save What’s Left?

Alma Wieser, director of Heaven Gallery, wants to create a sustainable arts center in Wicker Park by using a Community Land Trust model.

WICKER PARK — When Heaven Gallery was founded in 1997, it was one of many local galleries that made Wicker Park the arts capital of Chicago.

Over the years, however, most artists and gallery owners left the neighborhood. They could no longer afford the skyrocketing residential and commercial rents.

Alma Wieser, 40, has managed to hang on to her gallery, but the thriving creative spirit that drew her to the neighborhood decades ago is all but gone. And she’s decided enough is enough.

In an effort to curb the displacement of artists in Wicker Park, the Heaven Gallery co-owner and director is attempting something unprecedented: the creation of a community land trust nonprofit to buy property in Wicker Park and establish a long-lasting arts institution.

The goal for the project, dubbed Community Arts Wicker Park, is to establish permanent affordable housing and work sites for artists, arts education centers and a rooftop garden.

“As cultural leaders we can’t back down now,” Wieser said. “Our city needs us.”

The community land trust idea is catching on. In cities such as San Francisco and London, neighborhood residents and business owners have invested in such trusts that have preserved arts and cultural institutions. Pilsen Alliance has explored the idea of creating a community land trust to protect the gentrifying neighborhood’s affordable housing stock, too.

If community-based developments like the Community Arts Wicker Park do not take hold in Wicker Park, Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) said he worries the neighborhood will end up becoming the “next Lincoln Park.”

“Do you want to become that? Where the rent has become so high, all you get are established concepts and franchises?” he said. “We are losing out on independent businesses that make Wicker Park a community where you want to come and do your shopping. I would hate to lose that.”

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) meets with supporters of the Community Arts Wicker Park project inside Heaven Gallery.
HANNAH ALANI/BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO

“Development can happen for the people, by the people,” he said. “And there’s a first time for anything in Chicago.”

Wieser said if she can raise enough money through community investors, she would like to buy a building in the neighborhood near the one that currently houses her gallery, the Lubinski Furniture building, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Records show the Lubinski building is not for sale. The Lubinski family declined to be interviewed for this story.

Currently, Heaven Gallery, Cinema Borealis and the LVL3 gallery call the building home, but all have lived in fear of it being sold for some time. Especially since they’re month-to-month leases. Vincent Uribe, director of LVL3, and Laura Weathered, director of Near Northwest Arts Council, join Wieser as co-organizers of the Community Arts Wicker Park.

“Let’s be mindful that it was artists’ buildings like this that brought the investment to this neighborhood,” she said. “It’s the artists that will revitalize it.”

Saving the soul of Wicker Park

A few weeks ago, Teresa Silva of Chicago Artists Coalition moderated a panel discussion between Wieser and representatives from art spaces including The FranklinApparatus Projects and Corner Project at Heaven Gallery.

The talk was titled, “Gentrification Without Artist Displacement.”

Conversation revolved around the “predatory practices of speculators” who rely on a neighborhood’s arts and culture to market real estate.

In the last two decades, that’s exactly what’s happened in Wicker Park, Wieser said.

Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave., in its early stages.
ALMA WIESER/PROVIDED
Signs posted at 1542 N. Milwaukee Ave. after the closing of Buddy gallery in the early 2000s.
ALMA WIESER/PROVIDED
A glimpse of life in Wicker Park’s artists’ community during the 1990s.
ALMA WIESER/PROVIDED

“Almost all the galleries have left the neighborhood and we are seeing a large increase in empty storefronts. Is it really wise to displace our art institutions?” Wieser said.

Artists were not the first group be displaced by changing tides in the neighborhood.

Polish and Ukrainian immigration fueled the neighborhood’s population at the beginning of the 20th century. By 1970, however, Latinos comprised 39 percent of Wicker Park residents. At the time, the neighborhood had the second largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the city.

During the 1980s, efforts to stabilize the community with affordable housing coincided with the arrival of artists.

David Dobie founded Heaven Gallery in 1997 inside the Flatiron Arts Building in Wicker Park. In July of 2000, he moved the gallery to a second-story walk-up above Lubinski Furntiture store, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Wieser, an avid soul, house and reggae lover, met Dobie at Heaven Gallery in the early 2000s.

“I grew up in the southeast suburbs and I came to Chicago every weekend to dance and feel the vibrancy we didn’t have in the suburbs,” she said.

Wieser moved to the neighborhood in 2008 and in 2011 she and Dobie married. Wieser often attended dance nights at the Double Door and events at The Silver Room, which at the time was located at 1442 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Eric Williams, the owner of The Silver Room, said he, too, was drawn to the artistic energy of Wicker Park in the 1990s.

“This was a creative hub,” he said. “You think of all the weirdness. It was fun, it was free. It was a place to go and be yourself and express yourself.”

Eric Williams, owner of The Silver Room.
ALISA HAUSER/BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO

But in recent years, Williams said, gentrification has displaced many of the artists and creative people who helped create the artistic brand that made Wicker Park so popular. In 2015, Williams moved The Silver Room to Hyde Park.

Other neighborhood staples followed.

RELATED: Former Double Door Building Sells For $9.1 Million To Downtown Real Estate Firm

In 2017, the Double Door music venue was evicted by its owners.

Earlier this year, Hollywood Cleaners, the place Wieser dry-cleaned her clothes, announced it planned to close after 71 years in business.

RELATED: After 71 Years In Wicker Park, Hollywood Cleaners Will Close Its Doors Next Month

And in April, Stanley’s Fruit and Vegetables, where Wieser grocery shopped, closed abruptly after 52 years.

“I feel like I’m burying my neighborhood,” Wieser said.

In June, CA Ventures — the company that bought the Double Door site — shocked the neighborhood when it abruptly removed the iconic neon and porcelain Double Door Liquors sign that had hung at 1572 N. Milwaukee Ave. since the 1950s.

CA Ventures plans to lease the old night club’s digs to Yeti, a Texas-based high-end cooler company.

But because the city had deemed the sign “abandoned” — and therefore illegal — CA Ventures was forced to remove the sign before Yeti could receive building permits, officials said.

RELATED: The Double Door Sign Is Safe For Now — And This Is Why Officials Say It Was Taken Down

After the sign was dismantled, Wieser said she cried inside Heaven Gallery.

“It was so meaningful because it reminded us what this neighborhood was,” Wieser said. “That sign was not only a landmark of Milwaukee, North and Damen but it was a tombstone that honored our cultural past.”

Alma Wieser, director of Heaven Gallery, wants to create a permanent affordable housing institution for artists in Wicker Park by using a community land trust model.
HANNAH ALANI/BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO

An ‘Alternative Wicker Park’?

Despite the challenges, Wieser said she is confident there is still a home for the arts in Wicker Park.

Each year, more than 16,000 people visit Heaven Gallery — that’s at least 300 people per art opening.

And in an effort to stay afloat, Heaven Gallery successfully added a retail vintage shop to its gallery, which currently accounts for 70 percent of the gallery’s budget.

In December of last year, Williams briefly returned to Wicker Park for a Silver Room pop-up holiday shop at 1302 N. Milwaukee Ave. After a month of successful sales, he decided to remain open in both Wicker Park and Hyde Park.

A permanent arts institution like the Community Arts Wicker Park could stabilize the neighborhood and maintain the culture that made it “cool” in the first place, Williams said.

“To me, it’s about preserving history, and why people are there from the beginning,” he said. “A symbol is important — what it can do for the folks to have the space and be creative.” 

This weekend, Heaven Gallery will team up with The Silver Room Pop Up to present an “Alternative Wicker Park Fest.”

The event coincides with the annual Wicker Park Festival and aims to “bring to back some of the culture and diversity of the old neighborhood,” Wieser said.

From 1-6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from 1-5 p.m. Sunday, Heaven Gallery will offer a 20 percent-off vintage sale while The Silver Room will host a series of live house and hip-hop performances.

Learn more by visiting the event’s Facebook page.

Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave., is a nonprofit arts gallery in Wicker Park. Director Alma Wieser wants to create a permanent affordable housing institution using a community land trust model.
ALMA WIESER/PROVIDED

What exactly is a ‘community land trust’?

A community land trust is a nonprofit organization that acquires and manages land through long-term, below-market leases or lease-to-own models. Once established, the spaces cannot be sold for profit.

CLTs are funded by the community, hence the name. Investors can come in the form of a neighbor with $25 to spare or a local business owner willing to pledge $10,000.

Generally, CLTs take the form of residential affordable housing complexes. If successful, the Community Arts Wicker Park would be Chicago’s first CLT designed solely as a community arts institution.

Under Wieser’s vision, the Community Arts Wicker Park would include the following elements:

  • Art galleries at affordable commercial rents
  • Artist studios at affordable residential rents
  • A rooftop garden
  • Arts education

La Spata represents most of Wicker Park and parts of Bucktown.

He said community-based developments like the Community Arts Wicker Park are key to sustaining arts and culture in Chicago.

“The artistic community in Chicago has been shuffled throughout this city, geographically, for generations now,” La Spata said. “For artists to stand up and reject that narrative, to say, ‘No, we are going to stay in place,’ and find an economic structure [that works] is really powerful.” 

The idea has already caught on in other cities. In San Francisco, for example, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) is a nonprofit real estate development and holding company that has raised $36 million since 2013 to secure space for arts groups.

And similar efforts have launched in cities such as London, Vienna and Seoul as they battle gentrification and displacement, according to the 2018 World Cities Culture Forum report.

“As the space has gotten increasingly expensive, we purchase property through subsidy and low-interest financing to make it possible for arts groups to stay here in our city,” said CAST’s executive director, Moy Eng, in an interview with KQED.

The need for affordable artist studios is not one that has gone completely unrecognized in Chicago. According to Curbed, here’s a list of projects in the works:

These projects, however, are either developer-driven, tax-payer funded or both. The CLT in Wicker Park would be the city’s first sustainable arts institution bought and paid for by members of the community.

To make the CLT model successful, La Spata said, a “critical mass” of residents of Wicker Park and Bucktown must be willing to invest in the idea.

“[Wieser needs] 40 people who say, ‘I want to put $25,000 of my equity towards this project.’ I know she can find those people in the 1st Ward,” La Spata said.

A handful of property and business owners have already pledged their support.

At a recent gathering of neighbors inside Heaven Gallery, one woman asked how much, theoretically, developers would offer for a space like the Lubinski building, which is located around the corner from the Damen CTA Blue Line stop. A transit-friendly location, if secured, would qualify the land trust as an Equitable Transit Oriented Development.

The building’s halls housed the galleries and the artists who settled in Wicker Park in the 1980s — Buddy, Highschool, Rick Reiner and Beret International Gallery to name a few.

Floorboards still show pairs of bullet-sized holes from where sewing machines had once been bolted in place. (The building was once a sewing factory).

The wooden floorboards of Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave., still have pairs of bullet-sized holes from when sewing machines were bolted into the floors about 100 years ago.
HANNAH ALANI/BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO

“Culture is an economic driver,” Wieser said. “Heaven Gallery and LVL3 bring people from all over the city to Wicker Park. Almost all the galleries have left the neighborhood and we are seeing a large increase in empty storefronts. Is it really wise to displace our art institutions?”

“Give the community a chance to preserve our artistic legacy and transform our neighborhood center.”

To learn more about Community Arts Wicker Park, click here or email cawpproject@gmail.com for more information. To donate to the creation of a land trust, click here.

Lumpen Magazine chronicled the era of artists in Wicker Park during the early 2000s.
HANNAH ALANI/BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO
David Dobie, founder of Heaven Gallery, sweeps the wooden floors of the arts gallery at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave.
ALMA WIESER/PROVIDED
The “Elevated Cinema” was a concert series on the back porch of Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave.
ALMA WIESER/PROVIDED