BY ZACH MORTICE
Argyle Street, on Chicago’s Far North Side, is a sort of small-town main street in the big city. It’s the hub of Chicago’s Southeast Asian community, which has built one of the city’s most welcoming and intimate ethnic enclaves. Vietnamese grocery stores, exuberant murals, gift shops, and community nonprofits abound; pho soup restaurants make the entire street smell like lemongrass. It’s also the first shared street plan in Illinois—and a single block away from my apartment.
Designed by Ernie Wong, FASLA, of Site Design Group and completed this fall, this three-block stretch of Argyle raises the street level up to the sidewalk and installs a series of high-curbed planters to slow and calm traffic, giving much of the street back to pedestrians. This is especially beneficial in a neighborhood that serves a high percentage of recent immigrants and residents who don’t drive. Served by a CTA Red Line stop, Argyle was a prime candidate for improvement because of its already high levels of pedestrian use. But the community and local leaders wanted a streetscape that could do even more to encourage outdoor street life and community programming such as the summertime Argyle Night Market festival.
Wong says his goal was to “make drivers a little uncomfortable.” The curbed planters that cut into the roadway require motorists to weave a bit to avoid them, so they keep their eyes glued to the road and on their surroundings. Conversely, subtle cues tell pedestrians that they’re welcome anywhere in the street. New pavers are arranged to resemble a traditional staple of Asian food: sticky rice wrapped in lotus or banana leaves, with diagonal bands of pavers crossing the street outside traditional intersections like the folds of a leaf, leading pedestrians to wander where they please. (A city ordinance passed in July formally establishes Argyle as a shared street pilot project, and gives pedestrians the right-of-way.) Strips of dark blue-gray pavers and matching bollards mark the definitive beginning of the pedestrian-only section of the streetscape. Most every curbed planter is paired with another across the street, but each one is irregularly shaped and asymmetrical to its twin, asking drivers to pay even closer attention as they pass by.
For streetscape renovations, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has been using water-loving plants to more effectively absorb stormwater, a key issue in Chicago. But this planting arrangement is also an intuitive fit for a streetscape plan in a largely Southeast Asian neighborhood. “It would have been cool if we could have put in rice,” says Wong, but given the climate realities of life on Lake Michigan, he made do with Echinacea, various grasses, and ginkgo trees, which are likely to retain an Asian sensibility when they mature. “We did start out with a palette of things that were originally native to Asia, and moved from that point into what’s going to survive,” he says. The project was aided by an existing Department of Water Management plan to install green infrastructure (such as permeable pavers and absorptive planter beds) along Argyle, which funded approximately one fourth of the project’s $4.46 million budget.
Wong says the approachably human scale of Argyle made it a perfect testing ground for a shared streetscape. It’s a two-lane road a few blocks from Lake Michigan, surrounded by small businesses in buildings just a few stories tall—a tried and true recipe for neighborly urbanism found in the town squares of any midwestern hamlet. “There’s a level of intimacy that lends itself to the success of the [streetscape],” Wong says.
And a level of intimacy that’s reflected in the wider neighborhood. Located in the Uptown community, Argyle Street is surrounded by a part of the city that’s known for championing social justice and equity, from roiling gentrification battles to the strong network of nonprofits. (The largest collection of social service nonprofits in the Midwest is located a few blocks away.) It’s also one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, an exceptional achievement in arch-sectarian Chicago. Shared street projects like Argyle Street work from this strength, offering a continuous, urban-scaled forum for simple acts of kinship and compassion across racial and economic lines.
The city administrators who planned the project suspect that this kind of unity can be good for your health, as well as good for the city. A pilot study by the Chicago Department of Public Health examining the usage rates of active transit modes (like pedestrians and bicyclists) on Argyle will run through the end of 2018, in the hopes of demonstrating lasting health benefits to residents. Luann Hamilton, Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Project Development at CDOT, says the study won’t just look at physical health. The psychological health of the neighborhood, “the sense of community, that people are coming together with their neighbors and others,” she says, will be what she hopes Argyle Street can share with its residents.
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. Listen to his Chicago architecture and design podcast A Lot You Got to Holler, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.