This northwestern Chicago neighborhood is brimming with history, greenery, and beautifully maintained homes offering an idyllic spot for families, college students, young working adults and everyone in between. Sharing borders with Chicago's suburbs, the Dunning community holds a rather tranquil lifestyle. Much of that peace and quiet is attributed to the fact that Dunning is edged to the east by several city cemeteries. Acres of uninterrupted green space buffer the neighborhood from traffic, new development and other big city noise. While Dunning's core is strictly residential, you only have to go five blocks in any direction (except east that is) to find a corner cafe, friendly bar and grill, or a family restaurant.
Location: About 13 miles northwest of the Loop
Bordering Neighborhoods: Schorsch Village, Belmont Heights, Portage Park, Harwood Heights, Norridge
Boundaries: Irving Park Road to the north, Narragansett Avenue to the east, Addison Street to the south and Harlem Avenue to the west
Then and Now
Dunning wasn’t always the tranquil middle-class neighborhood it is today—in fact, the dark history of this area kept people from settling here for many years. Underbelly tales of insanity and intrigue make up the rich and storied history of a neighborhood that nearly wasn’t.
Back in 1851, an isolated stretch of prairie just northwest of Chicago seemed like the ideal location to build a much-needed mental asylum and almshouse. Cook County purchased 160 acres of land from Peter Ludby, a local farmer who managed to nab the land by squatter’s rights back in 1839. The almshouse grounds (a politically correct term for this is "poor farm") was home to many families who spent their time growing vegetables, washing clothing, and attending the school built on the premises. By 1870, the county constructed a separate building that would house the insane asylum—it was brick, three stories high, and the cost to build it totaled around $25,000. About a decade later the institution started to admit patients suffering from tuberculosis. The disease was widespread and soon more space was needed, so in the 1880s two more buildings were added.
After the Civil War, Andrew Dunning bought 120 acres situated just south of the asylum. Dunning intended to use the land to plant a nursery and establish the foundations necessary for a village. At the time, the transportation between the area and the city of Chicago was very poor, which was a deal breaker for many would-be settlers. Those that didn’t mind the lack of transport did mind the enormous mental asylum located in such close proximity. Needless to say, Dunning had a difficult time finding people to join his village.
Eventually, a three-mile stretch of rail track was laid to connect the psychiatric facilities to the city, and the line—warily dubbed the 'crazy train' by contemporaries—provided the infrastructure needed for Dunning to recruit his settlers. As circumstance would have it, the local station built to serve the area took Dunning’s name, and soon enough the hospital itself was commonly referred to as Dunning Hospital. This didn’t sit well with potential inhabitants of the new village, and by the 1880s, the small settlement remained sparsely populated.
Dunning had failed to build his dream community in the shadow of the looming asylum, and so in 1886 he decided to sell off some of his land to groups of immigrant families interested in burial plots. Sixty-five acres went to the Scandinavian Lutheran Cemetery Association, and was later called Mount Olive Cemetery. Forty more acres went to local Jewish families for traditional burials. The entire area—from asylum to grave—was plagued with an impenetrable air of gloominess, but by 1900 a man named Henry Kolze inherited a small tavern and some wooded acreage just between the hospital and the cemeteries. Determined to fight the dreariness of the region, Kolze turned his new land into a picnic grove, and refurbished the tavern into an inn. He called his brainchild the Kolze Electric Grove and for the first time, visitors began to realize how beautiful this northwest side setting was. Of course, Kolze’s business model added to the appeal; plenty of dancing space, a nightly orchestra, strings of gas lanterns, and nickel-beers made the area a desirable destination. As Chicagoans were making the trek to chill at the Grove, the corruption, misconduct, and criminal conditions of the nearby asylum were becoming apparent to government officials.
After a series of official investigations, the poor farm was relocated to Oak Forest in 1910, and just two years later the state of Illinois bought the hospital and property from the county for one dollar. The name was changed simply to Chicago State Hospital, but everyone still called it Dunning. At the time, the hospital’s population still dwarfed that of the neighborhood that surrounded it, but following World War I, an influx of Swedish, German, and Polish immigrants began to fill the neighborhood. In 1934, Wright Junior College was built nearby, which resulted in a large population of students and recent graduates. As for the State Hospital, that looming beast that had been a blight on the area for so long, fell into drastic disrepair. It was razed during the 1970s and replaced by the respectable Chicago-Read Mental Health Center.
The seasons of Chicago have their aches and advantages. Bitter winters that leave most sane people holed up indoors give way to mild springs and sweltering summers. Our civic forefathers were prescient enough to lay the infrastructure for an elaborate park system to help Chicagoans enjoy the outdoors before the icy bite of winter takes hold. Residents of Dunning are especially fortunate to have a beautiful neighborhood park that provides plenty of green space and a slew of activities for all ages.
When Henry Kolze turned his inheritance into an outdoor oasis, he inadvertently set the stage for Merrimac Park (6343 W Irving Park Rd, 773-685-3382). Located just to the east of Mount Olive Cemetery, this neighborhood park has a history as interesting as its facilities. Kolze’s original picnic ground, the Kolze Electric Grove, was a hotspot for dancing, gambling, and drinking. The destination was a major draw for visitors and new settlers alike, and we think it’s fair to say the wild-minded proprietor had a hand in making Dunning what it is today.
Despite the site’s popularity, the Grove was condemned in 1950. The dancehall, cafeteria, and gambling booths were demolished, leaving only a few old trees from Kolze’s heyday. An athletic field, playground, tennis courts, and basketball courts were installed and eventually, a modern brick fieldhouse was added. It seems that the park should have retained the Kolze name, but due to his unsavory reputation, the naming committee opted for something a little more politically correct: Merrimac, after a Native American term for sturgeon and as a nod to the nearby avenue and gardens. The present day park offers much in the way of recreation. Children love the spray-pool, basketball courts, and playground; athletes make use of the tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and gym; and the fieldhouse even offers a place for the entire community to congregate in its meeting rooms and assembly halls.
Dunning Real Estate
This northwestern Chicago neighborhood has middle-class written all over it. With an abundance of single-dwelling residences, open green space, and family-oriented businesses, Dunning is an idyllic sanctuary to raise a family, buy your first home, or settle down for retirement.
Property values in Dunning neighborhood range from the low $100,000s to the upper $600,000s with a wide variety of housing options, from condos to brick bungalows to new-construction homes. Well-maintained streets lined with mature trees cast a suburban air, but residents like that even with these serene surroundings, they are still part of Chicago city living.
Modern split-levels, raised ranches and two-story houses are all common in Dunning. Houses are close together, but neighbors tend to be sociable, so no one seems to mind the close quarters. Besides, most residences have separate yards with fences and back-alley garages, so you still have your own space, in case you want a little privacy from that overly-outgoing next door neighbor.
With Wright Junior College and the Chicago-Read Mental Health Center so close by, many students and medical personnel choose to make this cozy neighborhood their home. The presence of several sizable cemeteries and two large city parks make for an abundance of open space, greenery, and beautifully landscaped gardens. Maybe it’s this extra oxygen that makes Dunning residents so friendly and laid back!
What’s on the Menu?
Living on the outskirts of the city has its culinary advantages: no waiting for tables, a neighborhood vibe to every restaurant’s atmosphere, and our favorite perk—the fact that comfort food reigns supreme.
When we’re in the mood for some old-fashioned comfort food, but not the greasiness that usually comes with it, we like to head to the Bakers Square Restaurant (3649 N Harlem Ave, 773-777-2994). Sure, it’s a chain, but with a dessert selection this great, who cares? Keeping early and late hours, Bakers Square offers all the diner staples that you’ve come to love and is the ultimate destination for those late night pie cravings. Enjoying a hearty meal of Eastern European food can get pricey, but not at Jolly Inn (6501 W Irving Park Rd, 773-736-7606). This classic banquet/buffet space serves up all the pierogies, potato cakes, and sauerkraut you can handle—plus you get to go back for seconds (or thirds) without feeling guilty. The beautifully maintained banquet area here is also a hotspot for Dunning residents to book parties, weddings, and family reunions.
When you can’t decide between pizza and a greasy spoon, you can have the best of both worlds with Coluta’s Pizza (3239 N Harlem Ave, 773-283-4466). The extensive menu at this low-key Italian joint includes a wide array of subs, pasta dishes, and stuffed or thin crust pizzas. The best part? Nothing on the menu costs over ten bucks! And, if you don’t feel like it, you won’t even need to leave the house—Coluta’s delivers.
If you like your morning coffee with true European flair, Cafe Cappuccino (3719 N Harlem Ave, 773-725-9553) will become your new favorite neighborhood haunt. Shamelessly bohemian—right down to the cigarette smoke—this little cafe offers a great selection of bistro-style sandwiches and salads to compliment your espresso. The place fills up pretty quickly during soccer season with European 'football' games in constant loop on the televisions. It’s the perfect spot to get fired up on caffeine and shout 'GOAL!' with your neighbors. For the most authentic, no-frills Italian coffee experience around, you need look no further than Bar San Francesco (3815 N Harlem Ave, 773-283-1117). A genuine coffee bar, the espresso drinks here are brewed to perfection, and the prices are dirt cheap. Shoot, for one venti frappuccino at Starbucks you can get half a week’s worth of java jolts at this Dunning neighborhood mainstay.
Best Shopping Stops
Dunning is a far cry from the Magnificent Mile, but when it comes to the bare essentials, this Chicago neighborhood offers a couple of chain retail stores that will shelve the need for a trip downtown for that mega-shopping spree.
It might never be a shopping destination, but when it’s time to buy the back-to-school wardrobes, seasonal career pieces, or a gift for that special someone, you can find plenty of options without leaving the comfort of your neighborhood. Fashion Bug (6446 W Irving Park, 773-685-1185) always carries a great selection of trendy separates for women and juniors. If your tastes are a bit higher on the design scale, TJ Maxx (6456 W Irving Park Rd, 773-725-9400) stockpiles the best of designer fashions, and keeps a rotating stock that is bound to satisfy budding fashionistas looking to save some dough. When the holiday season rolls around, you can skip the downtown rush and head straight for Joseph’s Jewelers (6500 W Irving Park, 773-685-1286). This tiny, independently owned store carries the best in sterling, gold, and gemstones—and it even has a great selection of wedding bands for when it’s time to tie the knot.
Night on the Town
Although Dunning isn’t the kind of neighborhood that parties until the sun comes up, you will find one hot night spot here that offers a little something for everyone.
Whether you’re looking for a rowdy place to watch the game, a little live music, or just a quick bite and some cocktails, City Lights Bar and Grill (3809 N Harlem Ave, 773-777-9500) has got you covered. Twenty-one TV screens broadcast all types of sporting events, the kitchen churns out some superior bar grub, and the dance floor is packed each weekend with live bands and music-spinning DJs. The prices here are excellent, the full bar carries a little libation for everyone, and the vibe is casual and friendly.
Much of Dunning’s charm comes from its out of the way location; even so, it’s still a snap to get anywhere from your new home base.
Very much a commuter-neighborhood, the prevailing mode of transport here is certainly private vehicle. Most homes have attached garages, and street parking is always available, making car ownership a breeze for Dunning residents. The Kennedy Expressway (I-90) is just a short jaunt away, and O’Hare International Airport is about ten minutes west.
For those that prefer to make use of Chicago’s superior public transit system, there are plenty of options. First, you’ll have to choose which transit system you prefer; the Metra Rail’s Grayland or Mayfair stops are nearby, as are the CTA Blue Line’s Irving Park Road and Addison Street stops. From any of these four stations, simply hop on the #80, #80x, or #152 buses heading west and you’ll be in Dunning inside of ten minutes. (This distance is also absolutely walk-able for those who prefer to hoof it.) For north/south options, the #90 bus line running on Harlem Avenue or the #86 bus on Narragansett Avenue will do the trick. And, as far as getting around the neighborhood itself, walking and biking are our preferred modes of transportation.
School’s in Session
Dunning neighborhood’s school selection is limited—there’s one elementary school within the community borders. Now if visions of home-schooling are running through your head, relax, there are plenty of other nearby educational facilities to pick up the slack. For more information on Chicago area schools go to our Chicago Guide Schools page
Bridge Elementary School – 3800 N New England Ave – (773) 534-3718
You’ll have fun discovering the treasures of Dunning on your own, but we’ve compiled a basic list to get you started in your quest for everything from pies to pierogis.
Osco Drug – 6430 W Irving Park Rd – (773) 725-8900
Berbati Produce – 3956 N Narragansett Ave – (773) 202-8000
Jewel-Osco – 6430 W Irving Park Rd – (773) 725-8900
Wally’s Market – 6601 W Irving Park Rd – (773) 427-1616
US Post Office – 6441 W Irving Park Rd – (773) 736-0714
Alpha Shoes Gallery, Inc. – 6601 W Irving Park Rd – (773) 282-0710
Fashion Bug – 6446 W Irving Park Rd – (773) 685-1185
Joseph’s Jewelers – 6500 W Irving Park Rd – (773) 685-1286
Kmart – 4201 N Harlem Ave – (708) 457-0153
Rolling Stones – 7300 W Irving Park Road – (708) 456-0861
TJ Maxx – 6456 W Irving Park Rd – (773) 725-9400
Bakers Square Restaurant – 3649 N Harlem Ave – (773) 777-2994
Jolly Inn Restaurant – 6501 W Irving Park Rd – (773) 736-7606
Mr Beef on Harlem – 3917 N Harlem Ave – (773) 283-7444
Mr Zee’s – 3960 N Narragansett Ave – (773) 777-4676
Cafe Cappucino – 3719 N Harlem Ave – (773) 725-9553
Bar San Francesco – 3815 N Harlem Ave – (773) 283-1117
Coluta’s Pizza – 3239 N Harlem Ave – (773) 283-4466
City Lights Bar and Grill – 3809 N Harlem Ave – (773) 777-9500
Sometimes it makes more sense to view the city of Chicago as a bunch of separate neighborhoods, especially when it comes to real estate. Whether you are in the market for a loft, condo, townhome, or house, it is just as important to inspect the surrounding area as it is to inspect the home’s foundation.
Dunning is just one Chicago community with an abundance of residential properties, and a life all its own. From where you send your kids to school to where you dine at night, the information we provide is an essential piece of the puzzle when you’re trying to decide whether or not to buy that beautiful loft or adorable house in Dunning.