NORTH CENTER — In fairly short order, North Center has gone from "Where's that?" to "The place for RibFest."
Now, to reach the next level in Chicago's hierarchy of neighborhoods, North Center aims to up its game.
After all, it boasts the Trader Joe's that Logan Square would kill for, good schools and an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants.
"If we could turn Town Square into something like Lincoln Square's Giddings Plaza, North Center will pop," said Simon Stein, outgoing president of the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce.
Town Square, at 4100 N. Damen Ave. or "across from the CVS," currently plays host to North Center's summer farmers market and concerts as well as special events like the neighborhood's Easter Eggstravaganza.
Trouble is, "if you're driving south on Lincoln Avenue, you don't even know it's there," said Garrett FitzGerald, NCC's executive director.
Stein acknowledged that Town Square has been "a thorn in my side" throughout his five years as a member of NCC's board of directors (two as president, three as treasurer), calling it a "concrete slab." He noted that a number of obstacles have stood in the way of improving the space, including the street plan and real estate issues.
But at the Chamber's annual meeting earlier this week at Big Bricks, 3832 N. Lincoln Ave., Stein signaled that some progress had been made on upgrading Town Square.
"Things are moving in a positive direction," he divulged, but remained mum on specifics.
FitzGerald said he wasn't prepared to elaborate on Stein's comments until he had funds in hand to back up the Chamber's plans.
A 2008 consultant's proposal put the price tag at $1.5 million to re-imagine Town Square as a community hub.
"We've been lobbying the city" for the money, said FitzGerald, who added that a new study would have to be commissioned to update the original proposal.
In effect, Town Square symbolizes the challenge FitzGerald has faced since joining NCC nearly eight years ago — creating an identity for North Center.
Though North Center is one of the city's 77 designated community areas defined by the University of Chicago in the 1920s, its footprint as a neighborhood is much smaller and less well known, either confused with Roscoe Village or thought of as a no man's land between Lincoln Square to the north and Lakeview to the south.
"It's really an up-and-coming neighborhood that deserves a lot more recognition than it gets," said Elizabeth Pfeifer, a newly approved member of the NCC board of directors.
Pfeifer lives in Lincoln Park but her father grew up in North Center, and she works at the MB Financial branch at Lincoln and Damen avenues.
"We have families who've been with us for 100 years," she said. "I see generation after generation after generation. A lot of the people [who live] here were born and raised here."
Taking that tradition of family and community and labeling it "North Center" has been FitzGerald's mission from day one.
"We made a concerted effort to fix the problem," he said.
Branding efforts like North Center's street banners, philanthropy grants to local schools and major events like RibFest have helped put North Center on the map, attracting 15 new businesses in 2012.
A true Town Square, one that's visible and vibrant year-round, is another piece of the puzzle.
"We're a good neighborhood, but we're not great" — yet, said Stein.