Signs of the Past in a Forward-looking Chicago Neighborhood

While Chicago’s historic Lincoln Park envisions a future defined by new developments, “ghost signs” quietly tell a story of the neighborhood’s past. Cover image by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

The yellow-on-black block letters are faded, and for most of the year, it’s obscured by ivy. But southbound riders on the Red Line “L” train can still see, nestled between rooftops, the vestige of a past Lincoln Park: a painted advertisement for “The Chicago Daily News,” which closed four decades ago.

Known as a “ghost sign,” the advertisement is one of several that remain on building facades across the city, quietly preserving history. Some ghost signs are more than 100 years old, according to Forgotten Chicago editor Patrick Steffes, enduring for their lead paint that was common through the 60s. 

“It’s funny because people think in 2022, we’re always bombarded with ads,” Steffes said. “It was just as bad in the 1920s when you were walking down the street.” 

As Lincoln Park looks toward its future — which, according to the local chamber of commerce, “will be defined by major new developments that are shaping the neighborhood’s commercial corridors”  — ghost signs tell a story about what the neighborhood used to be.   

The “Chicago Daily News” sign’s placement, for example, offers context for Lincoln Park’s demographic shift. Today the neighborhood is among the wealthiest and whitest in the city, but until the 80s, it belonged to the working class. Gentrification ultimately displaced lower-income residents, notably the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican population, as so-called “rehabbers” restored old Victorian homes.  

“The Daily News was very liberal — very Democratic,” Steffes explained. “It’s probably safe to say you would not have seen a Daily News sign in an area like the Gold Coast, where there was a lot of money — but advertising along the clackety clanging ‘L’ in Lincoln Park made perfect sense.”

Another remnant of Lincoln Park’s working-class past stands on the building of the former residential Belair Hotel, which operated on Diversey Parkway through the 1900s and early 2000s. These kinds of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) emerged across Chicago in the late 1800s to accommodate transient workers, but came to more broadly serve low-income residents, including many with physical disabilities, diseases or mental illnesses. In 2014, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that SROs were the “difference between chronic homelessness and opportunity.”

Faded white paint outlines the Belair Hotel’s name, and much less visibly, its motto: “transients invited.”   

The former Belair Hotel, a single-room-occupancy hotel, is now an apartment building with a renovated interior. By Molly Taylor for Midstory.

Today the former hotel belongs to a real estate company that leases renovated, “modern” apartments — while leveraging the building’s “vintage mystique” to attract residents.  

“Ah, the 50s —a great era when Elvis was crooning and 424 W. Diversey was a booming hotel!” the company writes on its website.

Beyond their historical and aesthetic implications, ghost signs register a personal significance among local residents. 

Anne Ross, a high school teacher, grew up down the block from a sign for Gold Medal Flour in the late 80s and 90s. The sign was likely painted in the early 1900s. As a kid, she remembers rollerblading and biking by the sign, which used to be fully visible from the adjacent empty lot, and thinking of it as “a big, beautiful piece of art.”

Ross’ parents would tell her about the neighborhood’s past, and she learned the building with the ghost sign used to be a corner grocery. 

“It encourages you to reflect on how many people have lived through their joys and sorrows in all the same places where you’re living your life,” Ross said.

Since moving out of the neighborhood, Ross noted many of its cottages and bungalows have been replaced by modern homes. 

“Today, it’s heartwarming and nostalgic for me to see things that look the way they did when I lived there,” she said. “The sign is a reminder of the neverending change that cities go through, and yet, [also of] persistent consistency.”

Gold Medal Flour was first sold in 1880 and is now produced by General Mills. Several signs remain across the city and nation. By Molly Taylor for Midstory.

Ross is a member of the Forgotten Chicago Discussion Group on Facebook, one of many online forums where history enthusiasts share the ghost signs they discover. 

On a photo posted in the group of another Chicago Daily News sign, which was restored in 2010 by the School of the Art Institute, several commenters traded memories of delivering papers for the publication. 

“I miss the Chicago Daily News,” one wrote.  

“Daily News was the best paper in town,” another said.

This sign is on the facade of the Roger Brown Study Collection, operated by the School of the Art Institute. When the building was renovated in 2010, the sign was restored to what it looked like in the 90s. “It stands out more and more in the neighborhood,” Collection Manager James Connolly said, “as everything is updated or torn down to build condos.” By Molly Taylor for Midstory.

A post of a ghost sign with only the text “On the Park” mobilized commenters to uncover its origins, with one longtime resident ultimately recalling the sign belonged to the Days Inn that occupied the building before it became an upscale hotel. 

Now the boutique Hotel Lincoln, this building was a Days Inn during the late 1900s and early 2000s. Here, its ghost sign is juxtaposed with a mural for the new hotel. By Molly Taylor for Midstory.

And in 2016, when a Diversey Parkway building was demolished, a ghost sign on the adjacent wall became visible for the first time in decades. Covered once again — now by a new grocery store — the sign, for an old hotel and restaurant, is documented on Facebook through photos in the Forgotten Chicago Discussion group.

In the coming years, more historic buildings will come down in the neighborhood’s redevelopment. As a result, though, more ghost signs will be revealed. 
“When they’re found, they’re the definition of forgotten,” Steffes said. “It’s a fascinating story of rediscovery and understanding how people lived.”


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