Track Star 

From the Brown Line the apartment with the big window is little more than a curiosity, but on the inside it all starts to make sense.

When Chicago's turn came for National Geographic's "ZipUSA" feature, covering a neighborhood nominated by readers, the magazine sent its correspondent to the steaming jungles of 60614--Lincoln Park to you and me.

The author, local boy Shane DuBow, focused on the el, in particular the "cozy and unharried" Brown Line trains trundling from Armitage to Fullerton to Diversey.

"For a fare of just $1.50, a ride on one of the last of Chicago's elevated train lines grants these trackside views: a young woman in a pink bathrobe steaming espresso; a young man in trim khakis feeding a baby...and then a long, slow blur of flower-box gardens and second-story decks, all passing so close that rider and resident might intimately converse--or even touch--were it not for the roar and rush of the 'L.'"

That roar and rush of getting to work on time, of heading home wrung out, can be offset some by the view the ride affords. And the view often gives us a sense of ownership over whatever we see rushing past our window.

Years ago there was a neighborhood bar I would see on the ride home to Ravenswood. It was somewhere along that east-west stretch of track between the Belmont and Paulina stops. In the early winter darkness, its homey entrance cupped in the glow of street lamps, it seemed a nest of light and warmth. One day out walking I came upon it and stepped in. The joint was a barren, bleach-smelling room with a fishing show on the tube and the beer doled out in cans. So much for that.

But the city rolls on, and other glimpsed scenes--someone's neat home office or a square of park--beckon. Which is how I met Mindy Sullivan.

If you live along the Brown Line north of Montrose, you may have noticed her property. Your best view is in the morning, Loop-bound. Pulling out of Damen the train makes a wide turn south, and there on the right of the curve is a massive window slanting inward as it rises from brick supports. A month ago if you looked down into the enclosed space you saw spare white walls, gleaming floors, and tastefully arranged plants. An air of "We don't really live in Ravenswood."

"A lot of people have told me they've noticed the place from the train," Sullivan says over the phone, and later there we are, in a room full of light despite the drizzle of the day. For the first time in the ten years she's owned the building this particular apartment is without a tenant, and she and a couple of workers are taking advantage of the vacancy to make some repairs. Her concerns are those of any landlord--tuck-pointing, new kitchen appliances--but they're informed by an artist's appreciation of beauty and a mother's pride.

Sullivan, the daughter of local artist Adah Siegel, who died five years ago, grew up in the city and went to Senn High School. Now she and her husband, John, live in Lincolnwood. They own a food distribution business and several pieces of residential property.

This one is a long two-story building on the north side of Wilson between Wolcott and Ravenswood. Ten apartments take up the second floor, but after climbing the stairs and winding through the hallway, you see that number three is clearly the flagship. With the main room's 17-foot ceiling and that massive slanting window, you get the feeling that one whole wall is missing. And where, in all these 564 square feet, do you put the couch?

Not surprisingly, the apartment's longest tenant was an interior decorator who's since moved on to home ownership--something that Sullivan insists upon. "I tell my tenants I'll rent to you, but not forever." She lectures me on taxes and interest rates as we head for the back of the house. But her speech is full of much else besides--art, old cars, Irish immigrants.

The dining area is on a more familiar scale, though still roomy, and Sullivan is remodeling the cozy kitchen. The bedroom opens onto another room with a walk-in closet, and she plans to put in a short wall and another closet to make this a true two-bedroom. Then it's time to see the loft.

What's a cathedral without the choir loft? Narrow stairs hook a right angle into a strange room that doesn't seem like a room at all. Head-high windows look south, and at first you see only roof. Then you realize you're in a part of the apartment poking above the rest of the building, an enclosure that looks like some sort of a pillbox when seen from the train.

It's all original to the building, Sullivan says. She guesses the whole thing went up maybe 80 years ago. Turn around and you're gazing over a low wall into the big room itself, and then through the massive window, now at eye level, into unchanging gray light.

Sullivan, protective of former tenants, says that the place has long been home to artists. It's certainly easy to imagine great canvases stacked along the walls in the northern exposure of the "Paris window."

"That's what I call it," she says. "Or a Friends window," referring to the sitcom's improbable crib. This loft space has lately been used as an art studio, and its plentiful electrical outlets and phone jacks testify that its most recent occupant was a Web designer.

The apartment itself and the train lumbering by have brought Hollywood calling. The apartment's most prominent gig to date was a 1997 episode of ER. Sullivan worries whether the production companies carry adequate liability insurance.

She worries for her tenants, too, and jokes with a worker, Jerry, about one of their favorites. Outside, lining Wilson and Wolcott, are a small restaurant, a copier repair shop, a new coffeehouse, a video store, an office cleaning service, and a pizza joint.

"It used to be the businesses downstairs supported the apartments," she says. "Now the apartments support the businesses."

Later, back on the train as it creeps past the great window again, I look into a place that--for all its massive beauty and furnished only with a stepladder and an old refrigerator--is more neighborly than that little bar ever was. Through the window I see Jerry leaning in the doorway to the dining area. No trim khakis or pink bathrobes for that guy.


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