It has always been Glenwood Avenue, but you might have thought it was an alley, the kind where you had better not walk.

This was before the sidewalks were widened and trees were planted, and before a dive bar with slats for windows was reinvented as a friendly pub. This was before the theater company moved in and before sculptors and painters settled into sunlit studios.

Heck, this was before street lights.

EDITORIAL

Now if you walk down Glenwood Avenue, as we did on a recent morning, you might pick up on the urban charm and energy — the cobblestone street, the murals along the L line, the schoolchildren stepping off a bus to go see a play — and wonder how things got so right.

Sun-Times Video by Elizabeth Davidson  

The story here, which can’t be told enough, is that successful cities make their luck. Glenwood Avenue between Greenleaf and Farwell, as well as Morse Avenue where it crosses Glenwood, have enjoyed a significant economic and social resurgence in the last few decades because people have made it happen.

In doing so, they have also demonstrated the power of the arts to drive economic development.

A few days ago, the Chicago Loop Alliance released a study that concludes that arts institutions in the Loop, such as theaters and museums, contribute more than $2.25 billion to the city’s economy every year. That’s welcome news.

Lifeline Theatre, an original anchor of the Glenwood Avenue Arts District in Rogers Park, moved to the street in 1985. / Sun-Times Photo by Elizabeth Davidson.

But a big city is really only as good as the places where most of us live — in the neighborhoods. And so it matters every bit as much, if not more, that Chicago continues to push the kind of neighborhood economic development that’s shown results in what is now called the Glenwood Avenue Arts District.

Thirty-five years ago, this stretch of Glenwood in Rogers Park was probably best known for one off-beat, vegetarian-inclined restaurant, the Heartland Cafe, which today is a local institution. Many older businesses, such as a once-popular bakery and diner, had closed, and the neighborhood was feeling a little lost. Much of Glenwood Avenue was boarded up.

Then things began to happen.

A theater company, Lifeline, moved into a vacated Commonwealth Edison substation in 1985, first renting and then buying. The building’s owner, Paul Mulroy, an exuberant supporter of the performing arts, was all in.

Soon after that, another developer with a passion for the arts, Al Goldberg, bought a dilapidated office building on the block, sank a lot of money into renovating it, and began renting out studios and apartments to visual artists. Goldberg was sold on the block in part because of the theater, as were many of his tenants.

“We had a lot of little things going on,” Goldberg says, “and this is what I wanted to add to the neighborhood.”

The dive bar, covered in plywood except for six-inch-high windows, was bought and sold a few times over, and each time upgraded a bit. Today it is a sunny and welcoming bar and lounge, the Rogers Park Social, catering to a neighborhood crowd and the theater buffs from Lifeline.

Lifeline brought “a real special aspect” to the neighborhood, says Wally Andersen, the manager of Rogers Park Social, “and other theaters have popped up right around the area because there’s such a solid foundation.”

You’ll find a top-quality gift shop on the block now, too, and a Korean restaurant that doubles as a breakfast place, and several other theaters within a short walk. Of particular importance, as it has become another major anchor of the local arts scene, is Mayne Stage, a performance space on Morse that opened eight years ago.

How does all this happen?

For one thing, Chicago has a deserved reputation for supporting the performing arts. A little more than half of Lifeline’s income last year came not from ticket sales, but from contributions, mostly from local foundations. The city and state also kicked in a modest $10,000 each.

Equally important has been been the Glenwood Avenue Arts District’s inclusion as part of a Special Service Area in which an incremental property tax hike — up to an extra 0.6 percent — is charged to pay for neighborhood improvements. Thanks to the program, overseen by Ald. Joe Moore (49th), sidewalks and lighting have been improved and trees have been planted. A striking mile-long mural, which all but screams that this neighborhood is big on the arts, has been painted along the concrete wall of the Red Line L.

Also thanks to the SSA, the arts district gets supplemental street cleaning and snow removal, and support for a Sunday farmers’ market and annual summer arts festival.

There is an inclination during difficult economic times to run away from public support for the arts, which are seen as an indulgence. The story of Chicago — in the Loop and in the neighborhoods — says something different.

It says the arts — theaters, museums, concert halls and the rest — not only enrich the life of a city, but also can be powerful anchors of economic development.

We can make our luck.

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