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Ghost Town

November 3, 2010

The occupants had long since moved on, leaving behind plywood, peeling paint, and small mysteries. Everywhere I looked in Austin and its adjacent neighborhoods on Chicago’s far west side, I’d see them: abandoned storefronts, corner shops, and, sometimes, whole buildings, like this boarded-up hulk on North Avenue:

Looking like some forsaken Soviet-era People’s Hall, it gave few clues as to what it had once been. Other derelict sites hinted at histories of rapid succession or decline. The erstwhile owners of a Chinese restaurant on West Fullerton Avenue, its awning still fresh and new, hadn’t even managed to remove the neon sign in the window advertising “Seguros de Auto” before they, too, had thrown in the towel:

Like so many older storefronts in Austin and its adjacent neighborhoods, this one had a recessed entryway and display windows that, in their day, had invited passersby to step in off the sidewalk to gaze at the merchandise—whatever that merchandise had been before auto insurance and lo mein were sold here. Eventually, when a place had sat vacant for long enough, the plywood went up like armor cladding. This once-graceful storefront on West North Avenue had been empty since at least 2005, to judge from the “Hustle & Flow” poster still clinging to the door:

Some of these ghost shops had been abandoned more recently, and a few hinted at a quick or haphazard departure. Through the window of what had been a mom-and-pop hardware store in Cragin I could see half-empty display shelves and teetering stacks of paint cans:

With no one eager to move in, the owners had apparently said “To hell with it” and left it all to molder. What was the last thing they sold before locking the door for the last time? A can of paint thinner, maybe, or a roll of contact paper?

On long stretches of the main drag in Austin, there were few signs of commercial life, and what little there was transpired behind protective steel grating:

Around the 5200 block of West North Avenue, I walked past a cluster of barber shops and hair and nail salons, four or five right next to each other, that were thriving. And then, after that, nothing again for several blocks—just row after row of low-rise buildings marching off in ragged formation toward the horizon. That is, until I stumbled on this crisply painted facade, free of grates or bars and adorned with a cheerful, patriotic-looking sign that read “United Board-Up Disaster Relief”:

Below the sign was a single, small panel of plywood. In this case, I realized, the plywood was the merchandise. And by all appearances, business was good.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2010 1:25 pm

    I read in a book, *Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis* by Harold Meyer and Richard Wade, that Chicago’s decentralized neighhborhood shopping districts were doomed to fail. (The book was written in 1973.) As Chicago spread outwards, each new neighborhood was created with its own business strip. The authors estimated that the city alone had enough storefronts to serve a population of 50 million! Of course many mom and pop shops thrived until the big box stores with their discounted prices arrived and then the Internet finally did them in.

    • dmcaninch permalink*
      November 3, 2010 4:27 pm

      Thanks, Frances. I’ve often wondered about that. There often doesn’t seem to be enough density to support so many main streets here.

  2. Drake T permalink
    November 3, 2010 2:46 pm

    My old neighborhood – haven’t lived there in 30 years. Thanks for the photos!

    • dmcaninch permalink*
      November 3, 2010 4:29 pm

      Thanks for reading!

  3. WSCopic permalink
    November 3, 2010 4:55 pm

    Auto Insurance AND Chinese Food? How has this combo NOT taken over the world?

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