HUMBOLDT PARK — Lynne McDaniel was tired of hearing "West of Western" used as a warning by folks who knew little about a part of the neighborhood that houses her vintage furniture shop.
So, she decided to go on a mission to rebrand a three-block strip of North Avenue from Western to Rockwell Street in Humboldt Park. Now, it's all about WOW.
"I know this neighborhood very well and there was always that stigma of 'West of Western,'" McDaniel said. "Nobody wanted to go, they'd say 'It's too scary' — then someone opened a coffee shop called Too Far West and it was on, baby."
McDaniel, who owns An Orange Moon, 2418 W. North Ave., with her husband, is now known as the "Goddess of WOW." She's united Humboldt Park business owners keen on changing the reputation of their North Avenue strip.
"When we decided to open our store in Humboldt Park I said, 'We need to do something — we need to be on point,'" she said. "I feel it's important, because we have to know our neighbors."
Reversing the stigma
McDaniel counts more than two dozen businesses in the district, many of which actively support and label themselves as part of the WOW District — the owners of Duet Dance Studio, Dreambox Foto Studio, Rangoli's restaurant, Tom Robinson Gallery and the newly established Cup and Spoon cafe and Richard's Fabulous Finds are among those popularizing the term.
But word of mouth is not enough. McDaniel said the plan is to buy and place signs, banners, benches, garbage cans, foliage and other beautification measures that will draw shoppers and foot traffic to the area.
"I want the same thing for this neighborhood as they have in Lincoln Park and Andersonville; I want it to be safe, clean, and I want the businesses to flourish. I want community," she said. "Some people get it, and some don't, but I don't even give a damn if they get it or not. If they're in the parameters, they're part of WOW."
The businesses backing WOW stretch from Western Avenue to Rockwell Street on North Avenue, but McDaniel said she'd eventually like to push the district farther west, to California Avenue and beyond.
The label hasn't come without some protest from Humboldt Park residents who question whether the WOW District will raise property values and distance the strip from the neighborhood's identity as a Puerto Rican hub.
The WOW District is "not a neighborhood, it's a district. It's not an exception, it's a feature," said Annie Passanisi, director of marketing and events at Polymathic, a research and development consulting firm that recently opened shop on the block. "Twenty years ago, it was the ultimate warning, 'Don't go West of Western.'"
So far WOW has the backing of 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno, whose remapped ward now contains the entire WOW lineup.
"To brand the district can only do good," he said. "To look at that district in a way that supports our local economy — I think that's the right approach to take."
Rallying the Troops
The rebranding success is evident as business owners, including Richard Biasi and Rosie Quasarano, both of whom have opened shops in the WOW District since March, continue to move to the neighborhood. There are still several empty storefronts along the WOW District, but both Biasi and Quasarano expect more people will be drawn in by the area's "renaissance."
"Next summer this'll be the ticket — first a district, then a destination," Biasi said. "WOW is definitely on the rejuvenating end of things."
The core operators of Cup and Spoon cafe quit full-time jobs separately, over the course of a year, to make the coffee shop a reality.
Quasarano, who owns the cafe, said she's wanted to own a restaurant since she was a child, creating pretend menus out of board games. It's was a "long-term dream" that she, her boyfriend, brother and, in January, her sister realized in Humboldt Park.
She found a kindred spirit in McDaniel and Iwona Biedermann, owner of Dreambox Foto Studio, which shares a space with Cup and Spoon.
"It's difficult to unite as small businesses, but talking about an identity for us as a way to unite WOW just naturally came to be," she said. "People can smell when something is inauthentic — this is unique and heartfelt."
Like she has with several other shop owners on the block, McDaniel had a guiding hand in helping Cup and Spoon buy its space — a cafe now frequented almost daily by McDaniel and other WOW District operators.
"If this block is going to be transformed it'll be because of her," said Margot Phillips, a member of the West Bucktown Neighborhood Association, which draws its boundaries in Humboldt Park.
Even though the area is part of a few neighborhood organizations, it's left out when it comes to doling out cash for community projects, she said.
"A rising tide lifts all boats, and that's what's happening here," she said, borrowing from President John F. Kennedy. "We have to do everything for ourselves, and there's nothing wrong with that, it's just going to make us a stronger, better people."
So while the design logo for WOW District banners and signage is complete, McDaniel is drumming up ideas on how to pay for materials. A set of benches, signs and banners could begin lining the street by the end of the summer for about $15,000, to start, she said.
"It's just very exciting to see this renaissance. It's a renaissance! People can feel it — I'm feeling the hell out of it, and I'm enjoying it and I'm appreciating it — West of Western."
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