Annie Howard is a freelance journalist and master's student in urban policy and planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They write about housing issues, queer culture, and Chicago history, with clips in the Guardian, Columbia Journalism Review, and elsewhere.
When you leaf through the thick matte pages of North magazine, you’ll discover beautifully photographed and carefully curated scenes of 21st-century urban life. The opening pages of the third and most recent issue set the mood: A woman in a hijab crosses in front of a jazz-themed mural. A tamale vendor flashes a smile. A low-rider bike leans against a street sign.
North, which launched in 2016, may seem like another Kinfolk or Monocle, seeking the same kind of jet-setting, high-income global readership so it can serve them ads for Shinola watches and Land Rovers. But the reality is stranger: North is actually published in Chicago by FLATS, a local real-estate company, and distributed for free via stores, restaurants, and cultural centers.
The magazine celebrates the diversity and history of city neighborhoods, even as its publisher reshapes their demographics.
FLATS is the residential arm of Cedar Street Companies, and it manages more than 1,500 units in five neighborhoods and one Chicago suburb. Cedar Street was founded in 2009 by the late Jay Michael and his childhood friend Alex Samoylovich. Before his death from cancer in 2016 at the age of 34, Michael made design central to the company’s mission, arguing that a “positive lasting impression is achieved by the perfect curation of all our senses.”
In practice, that meant top-to-bottom renovations of historic Chicago apartment buildings. FLATS has undertaken adaptive-reuse projects of abandoned structures, including a landmarked former piano factory in downtown Chicago. It has also redeveloped occupied buildings in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
The company’s flagship property, the Lawrence House, is an instructive example of the latter approach. Prior to its purchase in 2014, this Jazz Age building housed 183 tenants living in Single Room Occupancy-style housing. The subsequent $18 million conversion into market-rate housing sparked controversy among community groups, who have fought multiple purchases of SROs by FLATS in the Uptown neighborhood. Most recently, the company purchased the Bridgeview Bank building, home to a number of service-provider nonprofits that aid local immigrant residents. These groups are relocating and some will leave the neighborhood thanks to price increases.
Pressed on his company’s impact on the community in 2014, Michael told the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think gentrification is a bad thing,” adding, “we’re not gentrifiers as much as we are Brooklynizers.”
If FLATS and North both represent a form of “Brooklynization,” Chicago sociologist John Joe Schlichtman notes that North nevertheless eschews many familiar “urban pioneer” tropes, instead focusing on people and groups with deep roots in Chicago. For instance, the magazine’s latest issue showcases the work of a number of mission-driven nonprofits, while the second issue profiled a retired cop who became the caretaker of the historic Uptown Theatre.
Using language that puts old-timers and new city residents on an equal footing (“Some are born and raised, others are freshmen,” reads the introduction to Issue One), the magazine suggests that authentic urban living is a state of mind, available to those who know how to find it.
“There’s a story in each of these photos of people that have paid their dues,” said Schlichtman, who is a co-author of the book Gentrifier. “This whole thing is like, ‘We belong. We may not be from here, but we belong.’”
Cedar Street’s public-relations team did not respond to CityLab’s request for an interview, and FLATS employees who work on North did not answer emailed questions including whether there will be a fourth issue of the magazine. They did say by email that they hope to help residents connect with the city’s rich history and unique businesses. (Much of the magazine’s content is writeups of local stores and service providers; one way to look at it is as a very high-concept Yellow Pages.)
“Our goal is to engage anyone who’s excited about the projects we’re working on, whether it’s the people that live in the building or the people who have lived there forever,” said Liz Peterson, who edited the third issue. Editorially, “we choose things we feel strongly about, that have an important story to tell,” she said.
“It gets you a little closer to the humanity of the place,” said creative and marketing director Heather Fritz. The publication has hosted events that are open to the wider community and not just the residents of FLATS buildings.
But does it entrench a power imbalance to describe working-class Chicagoans, shown in one photograph sitting on milk crates, as “your back brace when yours is packed away”? While the magazine’s reverence for many classic Chicago haunts comes across as sincere, the language of gentrification still creeps in. “Abandonment is opportunity, and opportunity is wonderful,” crows one editorial.
North and the FLATS website boast about the company’s tenants, sporting appropriately creative-class jobs: actress, photography instructor, interior designer. One issue highlights Matthew Hoffman, creator of the ubiquitous (and banal) “You are beautiful” slogan, which has allegedly been printed on 4 million stickers worldwide, and features prominently in the Lawrence House and other FLATS properties.
Despite its attention to neighborhood old-timers, North is nevertheless “not locking arms with longtime residents, trying to accomplish some of the same goals; [it is] celebrating longtime residents as wallpaper,” Schlichtman argues. “That’s what allows you to say, ‘Abandonment is opportunity,’ and at the same time celebrate all of these things that are already there.”
The magazine’s name refers to the company’s origins in North Side neighborhoods. It also connects to how gentrification has reshaped Chicago. Just a few decades ago, the North Side had many of the same low-income communities of color as other parts of the city. Today, the affluent North Side has seen a near-total loss of the poor, while the city’s South and West Sides have seen mass disinvestment and depopulation. One issue of North highlights the musician ProbCause, who grew up in the nearby suburb Evanston but says he was “born and raised on the North Side.”
Like the city itself, North magazine isn’t just one thing. It’s simultaneously an aesthetic representation of a living, breathing place, a promotional vehicle for expensive apartments, and a unique cultural artifact in the unfolding narrative of gentrification.
CORRECTION: The original version of the article misspelled John Joe Schlichtman’s name and has been updated.