The Prairies of Montrose Avenue

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.

Our prairie, looking in from center field toward home plate

1959—Our prairie, looking in from center field toward home plate

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.

Montrose Avenue, 2017---Where are the prairies of yesterday?

2017—Montrose @ Menard, and where are the prairies of yesterday?

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.



6 Responses to “The Prairies of Montrose Avenue”

  1. 1 Ralph January 23, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    That house was was built around 1961. I lived in one identical to these apartments on Newark Ave., just north of Devon and even the picture window is the same style. The glass block window in the front where the hallway is. It was nice building.

  2. 2 Garry January 23, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    I grew up in Rogers Park & never heard of empty lots being called prairies until I was an adult.
    We just called them empty lots.

    • 3 J.R. Schmidt January 23, 2017 at 3:23 pm

      Unless you were around before 1930, you probably didn’t have many large parcels of untouched land there. When I was a kid, we were out on the fringe, and thought civilization ended at Harlem Avenue.

      • 4 Garry January 25, 2017 at 12:15 pm

        There were lots of empty lots around here in the late 1950s & early 60s. Mostly from old wooden houses that had been torn down. Before S&C Electric bought out all of the land between the C&NW Ry & Ridge Blvd., we played in some empty lots that were almost a block long.

  3. 5 SWSIDEFAN January 23, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    The “prairie” (and that is exactly what it was called in our Ashburn neighborhood) may have only been a standard vacant Chicago-sized lot, but it was a convenient cut through with a diagonal path worn through it to get to the alley and the local CPS students used it regularly. After school, it became our football field (it was too narrow to play baseball). It was actually part of what was once a large farm that was developed after WWII at one of the farthest SW corners of the city (Evergreen Park’s northern border was just three blocks away). The farm owner still had his farmhouse and two other adjacent lots and this one that was not fenced in. He generally left us alone, but occasionally would shag us away. I never realized the term “prairie” was used elsewhere in the city. When my parents moved on the block in 1955, there were still wide swaths of open lots amid scattered farmhouses. Those farmhouses remain today and can be seen if one pays attention as they stand out amid all the other bungalows, Georgians, and cape cod style brick homes that dominate the Ashburn neighborhood.

  4. 6 Lisa Cee August 7, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    Yes! We spent our summers playing in the prairie on the 5400 block of west Congress Parkway back in the early 60’s. When we weren’t attending Chicago Park District day camp at Columbus Park, we’d be goofing around in the prairie. Totally a Chicago thing!

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