Posts Tagged 'Austin'

The Island

The Chicago neighborhood known as The Island is only about eight miles from the Loop.  But it’s the kind of place you won’t find unless you are looking for it.  And even then, you might miss it.

Go straight west out Madison Street.  Just before you hit the suburbs, you arrive in Austin.  This is Community Area #25, one of the city’s largest in both area and population.  The Island is the far southwest corner of Austin.

Why call this neighborhood The Island?  The name is explained by geography.

9-15--The Island map.jpg

First of all, The Island is cut off from the rest of Chicago.  To the north is Columbus Park and the Eisenhower Expressway—and even before the expressway was built, there were three rail lines at grade level here.  Directly to the east is a major factory area.

So much for the connection to Chicago.  What about the other two sides?  To the south is a suburb, Cicero.  To the west is another suburb, Oak Park.

The result is an isolated City of Chicago neighborhood totally surrounded by alien territory—an island.

Island Convenience Store (Roosevelt and Austin)

The precise boundaries of The Island are vague.  Some locals claim that only the five residential streets count.  Others want to include all of Census Tract 8314.  To make things simpler, I’m declaring that The Island is the area bounded by Austin, the Eisenhower, Central, and Roosevelt.

When the Town of Austin was annexed by Chicago in 1899, The (future) Island came with it.  Then the area was mostly vacant.  The ‘L’ came through shortly afterward, as did the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin interurban line.  The 12th Street (Roosevelt Road) streetcar line was also extended to Austin Boulevard.

California-style bungalows (900-south block Mayfield Avenue)

The 1920s were the years for building.  The first five blocks in from Austin Boulevard were filled in with bungalows and two-flats.  East of Menard Avenue the land was zoned for factories.  A ribbon commercial strip developed along the Roosevelt Road car line.

A monumental event in local history took place on April 27, 1926.  William McSwiggin, an assistant state’s attorney, was gunned down as he left a speakeasy at 5615 West Roosevelt Road.  The crime made national news and was never solved.  Technically, McSwiggin died on the Cicero side of Roosevelt—but the killers did drive by on the Chicago side!

Two-flats (1100-south block Mason Avenue)

It’s anybody’s guess when the neighborhood started calling itself The Island.  A friend of mine who grew up there in the 1940s said the name was already in use then.  The Island Civic Association dates its founding from 1956.

The population has held steady at around 1,800 for decades.  As late as 2000 it was a mostly White enclave.  Since then, African Americans and Hispanics have moved into the neighborhood, and it is now integrated.

Chicago Studio City (5660 West Taylor Street)

Today, the residential blocks of The Island are much the same as always—quiet, clean, and well-tended.  The major changes have taken place in the industrial zone.  Though some factories remain, many have been replaced by other types of business.

A small shopping plaza has opened at Roosevelt and Central.  The old Victor Products factory has been replaced by a new branch of Hartgrove Hospital.  Along Taylor Street, Chicago Studio City operates a 100,000-square-foot facility with three soundstages, the biggest movie-making plant between the coasts.

Olson Rug Company (832 South Central Avenue)

The Island is also home to the Olson Rug Company.  Older Chicagoans fondly remember the park which the company operated at its old headquarters on Pulaski Road.  Now that the industrial land is being revitalized, is there a waterfall in the future for The Island?

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Chicago Invades a Suburb (10-25-1899)

Today the residents of the Town of Austin woke up and found they had become part of the City of Chicago.  And they didn’t like it.

They’d wanted to keep their community of 4,000 people a separate town.  A referendum had been held, and a majority of Austin voters had been against joining Chicago.  But it had happened anyway.  The whole thing was un-American!

Austin Town Hall

Austin Town Hall

The story began in 1865, when the Austin subdivision was created along the C&NW railroad line, seven miles out Lake Street from downtown Chicago.  The area was part of Cicero Township.  Besides Austin, the township included the settlements of Cicero, Berwyn, and Oak Park.

Austin grew fast.  In 1870 the Cicero Township Hall was built in the community at Lake and Central.  Everything remained peaceful until 1898, when the Lake Street Elevated Railroad arrived on the scene.

The ‘L’ company wanted to extend its line from Chicago west to Austin Boulevard.  The Town of Austin favored the extension, the rest of Cicero Township did not.  But since Austin controlled township government, the extension was approved.

That did it.  The rest of Cicero Township was tired of being pushed around by those snobs at Lake and Central.  So they hatched a plan to get rid of Austin.

The City of Chicago was eager to add more territory.  Austin was a nice, semi-affluent community with an attractive tax base.  Petitions were gathered, and a referendum on the annexation of Austin was held April 5, 1899.

The law said a majority of a township’s voters had to approve any take-over by Chicago.  More than half the voters within Austin rejected the annexation.  But the rest of Cicero Township voted to let Chicago have Austin, by a huge margin.  That was just enough to tip the outcome.

The anti-annexation Austin group was furious.  They went to court and filed appeals.  The Illinois Supreme Court ruled the referendum was binding.  Austin was to become part of Chicago.

October 24, 1899 was the last day for an independent Austin.  Cicero Township police were withdrawn, replaced by 21 Chicago cops.  Five Chicago firemen settled into the Austin fire house and began playing checkers.  No local resistance was encountered.

Though over a century has gone by since annexation, the Austin community still calls its park field house the Town Hall.  And the ‘L’ line that started the ruckus now runs all the way through the Village of Oak Park.

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Then and Now, Madison-Central

1937--Madison Street @ Central, view west

1937–Madison Street @ Central Avenue, view west

2016--the same location

2015–the same location

In 1937 this stretch of Madison was one of the few Chicago streets with diagonal parking.  The northwest corner of this intersection is dominated by the massive Cinderella Building.  Two brand-new PCC streetcars are operating on Madison, while an almost-new trolley bus is stopped on Central.  That fencepost on the far right of the photo marks the playground at the Emmet Elementary School.

Today Madison features better landscaping, but fewer traffic lanes.  A strip mall has replaced the Cinderella Building.  Electric streetcars and buses are nowhere to be seen.  And Emmet School has been permanently closed.

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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— http://www.wbez.org/blogs/john-r-schmidt/2012-11/mark-white-square-and-mcguane-park-104103  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.

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Then and Now, Cicero-Grand

1973--Cicero Avenue @ Grand, view north

1973–Cicero Avenue @ Grand Avenue, view north

2013--the same location

2013–the same location

In the early 1970s, I took a few hundred pictures Chicago trolley buses.  CTA was getting rid of them. Cicero Avenue was one of the last three trolley bus lines, ending service in March 1973.

The Cicero-Grand intersection shown above has undergone some changes in the course of forty years. The railroad underpass has been widened to accommodate four lanes of traffic. There is also a Metra commuter station here, replacing two other, little-used stations. The Mobil gas station is now Marathon. Just beyond the viaduct, the factory has been replaced by a big-box store.

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