Back in the days before autos were common, most Chicagoans traveled by public transit. That meant by streetcar. If you were starting a business and wanted customers to have easy access, you set up shop near where the streetcars ran. By the 1920s commercial strips had developed along most of the car lines.
The city encouraged this development with zoning regulations. Blocks along arterial streets were reserved for commercial construction. The lots there remained vacant while the nearby side streets filled up with homes. Then, when enough people were settled in the neighborhood, businesses would be eager to buy and build on those commercially-zoned lots.
That’s what happened in my Portage Park neighborhood. Grandpa Price built the second house on the 4300-north block of Mason Avenue in 1922. By the end of the decade, the block was filled with bungalows and two-flats. Meanwhile, a few isolated stores had sprouted up along the commercially-zoned vacant lots on Montrose Avenue.
Then the Depression hit. Then World War II hit. Then the postwar auto-boom flight to the suburbs hit. By the time I came along in the 1950s, most of Montrose Avenue from Central west to Narragansett was still commercially zoned, and still vacant.
We called those vacant lots along Montrose “prairies.” This seems to have been a term used in all parts of the city, as readers’ comments indicate. In our neighborhood, the local boys would clear a prairie and set up a baseball diamond. There were at least five of them along Montrose. One of them even had a backstop. Looking back, I wonder who paid for it.
Our particular prairie was at what’s now 5919 West Montrose Avenue. Unlike most of the other prairies we weren’t a corner lot, so our baseball field was only about 80 feet down the right field line to the old Sinclair gas station. But like most of the other prairies, we had to deal with dog owners using our beloved ball field as a canine toilet—in those days, they weren’t expected to clean up afterward.
Sometime around 1960 the city relaxed the zoning along Montrose, and all those prairies were soon filled with yellow brick houses and apartment buildings. Today it makes for an interesting streetscape, bridging two eras.