How Sandburg Village Renewed Old Town

Sandburg's North Pool next to the James House

When I’m not nerding out on Chicago history here at Chicago Detours, I have a second job life-guarding at what I think is one of the most surreal places on the north side of Chicago – the private pools of the Carl Sandburg Village. This complex, located in the Old Town neighborhood consists of 9 high rises and townhouses. Sandburg Village has more than 2,600 condo units and 8,000 residents. Our tour busses sometimes cruise past on the Chicago Highlights Detour 101 Bus Tour. After two summers at Sandburg, I’ve discovered there’s more than meets the eye in quaint and classy Old Town.

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Old Town

Walk through the neighborhood of Old Town today and you will have a charming experience of boutiques, bistros, and historic homes on picturesque streets. The signature wrought iron gate south of North Avenue on Wells Street welcomes you to a neighborhood known for its upscale sophistication and cozy, historic feel. Ask what to do for fun in Old Town and its residents, typically older and middle to upper class, will proudly suggest notorious Chicago entertainment venues such as hilarious The Second City, the respected Steppenwolf, or the eclectic Royal George Theater for an evening of comedy or drama.

Old Town maintained some establishments over the last 40 to 50 years:

  • Saint Michael’s Church (one of only seven buildings to survive the Fire of 1871)
  • Frank Sinatra’s favorite rib joint, the Twin Anchors
  • the Old Town Aquarium
  • the risque Bijou Theater
  • the Old Town Ale House
  • the Up Down Cigar
  • the Old Town School of Folk Music (now relocated off Armitage and Halsted)
  • the long running Old Town Art Fair

While these places add nostalgic charisma, in general Old Town has become a little less bohemian antique and a little more “Crate and Barrel.” Claimed to be home to the first sushi restaurant in Chicago in the 1960s at Kamehachi, the neighborhood is also credited the first of Chicago’s neighborhoods that have experienced “gentrification.”

Urban Renewal on the North Side

Brochure for Sandburg

Sandburg was built as an urban renewal project—intended to spur redevelopment of the diminishing near north side from its dilapidation. The near north side had become a densely populated area where Latino immigrants, working poor, and minorities lived together. Locals referred to the area as “La Clark.”

Developer Arthur Rubloff labeled the area as “blight” or slums. Mayor Daley, city planners, and others were afraid the “unseemliness” would spread. They were especially concerned about the nearby Gold Coast neighborhood.

The story of Sandburg Village and most urban renewal in city planning in the 1950s and ’60s took this approach: government takes the “blighted land,”government demolishes the homes and businesses of this area, government sells the cleared land to developers, developers make buildings with high rent and attract a wealthier, young urban professionals (sometimes abbreviated to yuppies) to the area, pushing previous inhabitants out. In this particular case, Puerto Ricans were one of the largest minority groups in Old Town in the ’60s. They subsequently moved south and west to Humboldt Park.

Red Star Inn, 1956

Urban renewal and gentrification are often controversial. Indeed, the impact of Sandburg Village is still hotly contested. On the one hand, it revitalized the entire near north side. Nearby neighborhoods, such as Lincoln Park and Lakeview, followed in its wake. High-end retailers and avant-garde restaurants dot Wells and Halsted streets in particular. On the other hand, Sandburg Village displaced many and is accused of having been built without due process. It is also sad to see historic buildings demolished. I wish the Red Star Inn (pictured above) had survived the demolition push.

Architecture of Sandburg Village

Model of Carl Sandburg Village, white rectangles on the ground on the north and south sides are Sandburg's pools

The architecture and layout of the Sandburg Village complex indicates the desire to be a secluded “village within a city.” Today, people have trouble locating the two swimming pools, the tennis court, and even front yards of townhouses. They’re all hidden behind tall, dark brick walls. There’s very little visibility from the street. So it’s obvious that the complex preferred privacy and exclusivity from the outside world.

To me, that is the bizarre part of Sandburg Village and Old Town. There is no way to escape the poor population that was pushed out of Old Town; odd juxtaposition of the pristine shops at North and Wells versus the panhandling only a few blocks away at Clark and Division. What are your thoughts on the positives and negatives of urban renewal?


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


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Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


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Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

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I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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