Renaming a West Side Park

There’s a movement afoot to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Forrest was a Confederate general. More notoriously, he was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Ralph McGill

Ralph McGill

Numerous streets and public monuments in the South were once named for N. B. Forrest. (For that matter, so was Forrest Gump.) Many of those names have been revised in recent years—in Atlanta, Forrest Avenue is now called Ralph McGill Boulevard, after a newsman who fought segregation.  This type of change I applaud.

But I don’t agree with historical revision just for the sake of convenience.  Unless a person is a scoundrel like General Forrest, leave his/her name on that street or park or school.  If a more recent person deserves such an honor, don’t dishonor someone else in the process.

I’ve already written about this once—  Today the subject is Levin Park, a little pocket-park at Kinzie and Long on the West Side.

In 1866 the Town of Austin was being laid out.  This particular area, where the Lake Street trail crossed the Chicago & North Western railroad tracks, was known as Merrick’s Subdivision.  Railroad executive C.C. Merrick was a friend of local developer Henry W. Austin.

A line of cottonwood trees was a familiar landmark for travelers along Lake Street.  A seven-acre parcel of land just east of the trees was left vacant as a firebreak.  Residents began calling the lot Merrick Park.

The name remained in place after the City of Chicago annexed Austin.  Over the years the park district improved the facility.

Madison and Kedzie in 1934, with Little Jack's Restaurant visible

Madison and Kedzie in 1934, with Little Jack’s Restaurant visible

Meanwhile, in 1905, 18-year-old John H. Levin opened a restaurant at 3175 West Madison Street.  Known as Little Jack’s, it expanded over the years to include three dining rooms, serving nearly a million meals each year.  The place became a popular hangout for West Side politicians.

Little Jack’s closed in 1962.  The property later became the site of another West Side institution, Edna’s Soul Food Restaurant.

Little Jack Levin himself was appointed to the Park District Board in 1947.  He retired from the board in 1969, and died two years later.

In 1974 the park district dumped long-forgotten C.C. Merrick in favor of John H. Levin.  The new signs at the park read:  “John H. Levin Park—‘Little Jack.'” I taught a few blocks away at Howe School for many years, and the kids used to say they were going over to Little Jack.

Where have you gone, Little Jack Levin?

Where have you gone, Little Jack Levin?

However, the last time I was in the neighborhood, I noticed that the current park signs simply read “Levin Park.”  So now the City Powers have not only disposed of C.C. Merrick, they’ve homogenized Little Jack Levin.  Where will it end—numbers on the parks instead of names?

I’ll be seeing you at Airstrip One.



10 Responses to “Renaming a West Side Park”

  1. 1 Patty December 23, 2013 at 7:19 am

    I don’t understand the last sentence.

  2. 3 benson December 23, 2013 at 8:27 am

    As a tyke, my parents took me over to Merrick Park, where on my three wheeler, I’d ride, and then stop at my favorite big rock, and “fill-up” my bike.
    It’s been years since I’ve been to the old neighborhood, (our house was on the 600 block of N. Long) But both Howe and Merrick Park, and so many of the other landmarks, made it a great place to grow up.

  3. 4 Alzo December 23, 2013 at 10:51 am

    Your allusion to N.B. Forrest gives me the opportunity to once again float the idea of renaming Balbo to Obama Drive– a prominent location with few addresses to modify. And, of course, because History is written by the winners.

    • 5 Garry December 23, 2013 at 11:02 am

      I repeatedly said that Balbo should be renamed for Enrico Fermi.
      That solves a couple of problems.
      He was an Italian who came to America to protect his wife from the Nazis.
      He built the first nuclear pile in Chicago.
      He deserves a street more than anyone!
      And by renaming one named after a Fascist, it would be win, win!

      • 6 J.R. Schmidt December 23, 2013 at 11:49 am

        I like it!

      • 7 J.R. Schmidt December 23, 2013 at 11:50 am

        Both 7th Street and 39th Street were renamed after Balbo and Pershing while each man was still alive. However, more recently, Chicago has waited until a person dies to change a street’s official name. My own idea is to eventually rename Franklin Street after President Obama. This is an important downtown street, and Ben Franklin already has Franklin Boulevard on the West Side.

  4. 8 brian December 24, 2013 at 11:55 am

    I love the photo from 1934. Looking at the street view from now, I just find it amazing how the one corner building has survived all these years, while the other three are razed.

  5. 10 Bill Baar April 21, 2017 at 9:13 am

    I pass this park every day on Metra and have always wondered about it’s history. Thanks for filling me in.

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