Pucinski Square?

The neighborhood where I grew up was settled in the 1920s. Yet when I came along thirty years later, a full square block at the northwest corner of Foster and Austin was still vacant. It hadn’t even been subdivided.  Here was a real “prairie!”

The Board of Education owned the 4.5-acre plot. Someday they planned to build a school there. That didn’t stop nearby residents from using the land for their own recreation. So in 1965, the Chicago Park District leased the property from the school board, and began developing a rudimentary park.

aka Austin-Foster Park

aka Austin-Foster Park

Not much happened for a quarter-century. Since the school board still owned the land it was not considered an official park, and didn’t even have a name. Most city maps didn’t show it.

In 1991 title was finally transferred to the park district. Trees were planted and a new playground was constructed. The property was designated at Park #285. A few years later the designation became Austin-Foster Park.

Or maybe it’s Foster-Austin Park. That’s what the sign at the playground says.

I have my own suggestion. Let’s call it Pucinski Square.

Roman Pucinski

Roman Pucinski

Roman Pucinski (1919-2002) was elected to seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives beginning in 1958. When the city lost a House seat after the 1970 Census, he stepped down and ran a hopeless Senate race against Charles Percy. In 1973 Pucinski was elected 41st ward alderman. He remained in the council until 1991.

According to long-term residents of the area, Alderman Pucinski was the driving force behind getting the plot at Austin and Foster made into a real park. Putting his name on the property would be an appropriate honor.

And since even the park district is confused on whether it’s Austin-Foster or Foster-Austin, that would settle the matter.



13 Responses to “Pucinski Square?”

  1. 1 mkstichauf April 24, 2014 at 1:32 am

    Mr. Schmidt, I was born and lived my first 7 years at 6501 w. School St. Two streets west of my apartment building was, also, a “prairie”. That prairie holds a special place in my heart because of the great things us kids were able to do when we would go out to play. I remember catching “garden” snakes as well as my father teaching me to fly my first kite. He would also hit me fly balls in that prairie too. Like yours, our prairie was one square block. I always found it interesting how us “Chicagoans” called an empty block, a “Prairie”. Everyone I’ve ever met, who had an empty lot to play in that was overgrown with grass, called it a “Prairie”. I always felt that it was a truly Chicago “thing”.
    The prairie is gone now. It has some houses that were built around the mid- 70s on it. Yet, as I “walked” down the street again to that prairie, using Google Maps, it was nice walk back though time.
    Michael Stichauf- Writer.

    • 2 Alzo April 24, 2014 at 9:49 am

      I know what you mean. The ‘prairie’ of my youth had pheasants and possums and trails abuzz with mini-bikes. It’s now the CTA Orange Line terminal.

    • 3 J.R. Schmidt April 24, 2014 at 4:52 pm

      I wonder–does the current generation of Chicago kids still call an empty city lot a “prairie?”

  2. 4 Garry April 24, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    When Pucinski died, NBC had scheduled a TV pilot called “Poochinski”, about a dog that solved crimes.
    Due to complaints from Aurelia Pucinski, the show never aired in Chicago.
    She claimed it was disrespectful & the weasels running WMAQ-TV chickened out.

  3. 8 Garry April 25, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    The worst TV show ever, is probably “You’re In The Picture” starring Jackie Gleason.
    The object of the show was someone put their head through a hole, which had been painted as someone else: A cowboy, soldier, etc. They would ask questions of the other panelists who could see the painting & try to solve it.
    The show ran once & is easily the most legendary failure in television!
    The next week, Gleason spent the entire half hour apologizing for it.
    It’s available online, I think at YouTube in three parts, but here’s the Wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You're_in_the_Picture

    • 9 J.R. Schmidt April 29, 2014 at 9:30 am

      Ernie Kovacs was sponsored on TV by Dutch Masters Cigars. Some of the commercials included the portrait of the Dutch dudes from the cigar box, with Kovacs’s face among them. Supposedly, “Your in the Picture” was based on this concept, and Kovacs was offered the show–when he declined, Gleason accepted it. I don’t know if this story is true or not. But if anyone could have made the show work, it would have been Kovacs..

  4. 10 Ralph May 1, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    Back in the early 1960’s, there was a baseball diamond on the north end. Who took care of the field?

  5. 12 Marco Buscaglia May 2, 2016 at 12:30 am

    I grew up across the street from the park – from 1968 until I moved out in 1991. My mom lived there until 1996. It was a hub of activity. Three baseball diamonds, a large enough space in the middle for a football field, a decent playground (even before the new one was built in the 90s). It was Park 285, not 283, and it’s in the 45th ward, not the 41st. Pat Levar was our alderman, not Pucinski, but I don’t doubt he had something to do with the park becoming more “official.”
    We always knew it was owned by the board of ed, and not the park district, which explained no field house, one water fountain (and not even one of the good cement-base, run-all-night water fountains – just a green one with a knob or button for the water). Although there were no little leagues there – which made it always available for weekend games, etc.), the park was HQ for tons of 16-inch softball teams in the 70s. We couldn’t park on our own street (McVicker) most summer nights until the games ended. It was also an unofficial fireworks site on July 4 until it got too out of hand one year and the cops shut it down.
    I think the biggest deal was when the lights went up in the late-70s/early 80s. Changed everything – could play football at night; couldn’t drink and smoke pot unnoticed by the neighbors. It was also a dumping ground for a bunch of snow in 1979 and the ground didn’t bounce back for years. It was a cesspool when it melted. At some point in the 90s, the city wanted to build a soccer field (like the one near North Park U. on Foster) there but I think the neighbors put the kibosh on that idea.
    It’s a great park – probably my favorite place in the world, at least for the first 16 years of my life. I made it a point to propose to my wife there as well, and it’s the centerpiece of a bunch of short stories I wrote while I was a grad student at DePaul that I hope to publish one day.
    Anyway, thanks for the write-up – brought back some memories.

    • 13 J.R. Schmidt May 2, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Thanks for your note. I copied the number wrong, and will make it #285. You’re also correct that the park is actually in the 45th Ward, and not Pucinski’s 41st Ward. My point was that Pucinski used his influence to get the park improvements made. That’s what I was told by a number of people. However, this may be an urban legend, like “Rosty’s Curve” on the Kennedy—that was nicknamed after Dan Rostenkowski, even though he wasn’t the person who arranged for the curve.

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