Posts Tagged 'West Side'

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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Then and Now. Madison-Ogden

1947–Madison Street @ Ogden Avenue, view west

2017–the same location

Chicago’s first stock yards opened near the triple intersection of Madison, Ogden, and Ashland in 1848.  After the animals moved south a few years later, a commercial district grew up in the area.  The 1947 photo is dominated by the Wendell Bank Building in the triangle between the three streets.  The building was later headquarters of the Turtle Wax Corporation, and sported a giant turtle statue on its roof.

Today the Wendell Bank Building has been replaced by a mini-park, and the other buildings in the older photo are also gone.  However, the Billy Goat Tavern now has an outpost on the southeast corner of Madison and Ogden, a few blocks east of its original site.

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Then and Now, Division-Western

1941--Division Street @ Western Avenue, view west

1941–Division Street @ Western Avenue, view west

2017--the same location

2016–the same location

Division Street: America was Studs Terkel’s first oral history book, published in 1967.  The older photo nicely captures the feel of the book, and the era when the street was the gritty crossroads of the West Side, at once a melting pot and a pressure cooker.

By the 1960s this stretch of Division Street had become the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican settlement.  Since 1995 two metal sculptures of Puerto Rican flags have spanned the street.  More recently, gentrification and the dispersion of the local Puerto Rican community have converted the flags into historical artifacts.

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Then and Now, Grand-Chicago

1972--Chicago Avenue @ Grand, view west

1973–Grand Avenue @ Chicago Avenue, view west

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

In 1973 electric trolley buses were in their final days on Grand Avenue.  The coach yards of the Chicago & North Western Railroad were just to the south of here.  The neighborhood was mostly small factories and light industry.

Today Metra operates the coach yards.  The large warehouse behind the trolley bus in the older photo now houses a recording studio and other businesses.  But Joe Boston’s Italian Beef Stand—now decked out in bright green—still feeds hungry patrons at the point of the intersection.

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Then and Now, Division-Milwaukee

1941--Division Street @ Milwaukee, view east

1949–Division Street @ Milwaukee Avenue, view east

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

The West Town neighborhood experienced a building boom in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1871.  Many of the new settlers were Poles, and in 1949 the few blocks around Milwaukee-Division-Ashland was the heart of the city’s “Polish Downtown.”  The white building at the far left was headquarters of the Polish Daily Zgoda newspaper.

Today most of the Polish population has dispersed.  The Zgoda building houses a sporting goods store.  Along the south side of Division Street, the 27-story Noble Square Co-operative has replaced the 1880-vintage buildings.  And subway trains now run under Milwaukee Avenue.

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Then and Now, Grand-Halsted

1956--Grand Avenue @ Milwaukee, view west

1956–Grand Avenue @ Halsted Street, view west

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

Sixty years ago, the area around the Grand-Halsted-Milwaukee intersection was a mostly-Italian enclave.  The famous Como Inn restaurant is visible at the far right of the older photo.  Also visible is the entrance to the Milwaukee Avenue subway, only five years old in 1956.

Today the Kennedy Expressway cuts through just to the west.   The Italian population has dispersed and the Como Inn is only a memory.  During most of the 1990s, the Grand-Milwaukee subway station was shuttered because few people used it.  However, in more recent years, new construction has revitalized the area.

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Judy’s Jolly Jaunt

QUESTION—How does an elephant travel?

ANSWER—Any way he wants to.

In this case, the elephant was a she. In 1943 Lincoln Park Zoo bought a 35-year-old Asian female named Judy from Brookfield Zoo for $2,500. The purchase price did not include shipping. So on the afternoon of July 2, two Lincoln Park elephant handlers went out to Brookfield to collect their new elephant.

The plan was to transport Judy by truck. But Judy didn’t want to leave Brookfield. Twenty zoo workers tried to load her. In the process, the 7200-pound elephant wrecked the truck.

"Any way he wants to"

“Any way he wants to”

A phone call to Lincoln Park advised the director of “the little difficulty” the crew was having with Judy. The director decided the reluctant elephant would have to be moved the old-fashioned way. “Let her walk,” he ordered.

In 1943 the most direct way to get from Brookfield to Lincoln Park was straight up Ogden Avenue. That idea was discarded because of the heavy traffic on Ogden. A more circuitous—but more sedate—route was chosen instead.

At 7 p.m. Judy left Brookfield Zoo and began walking north on First Avenue. Her party included the four handlers from the two zoos, a motorcycle police escort, three support trucks, and twenty armed attendants. Ahead of them was eighteen miles of suburb and city.

The caravan traveled up First Avenue to Maywood. At Washington Boulevard they turned right and moved east into River Forest. At Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park they stopped at a gas station so Judy could get some water. Then they were moving again, through Oak Park and into Chicago.

There had been no public announcement of Judy’s trek. Seven decades ago, there was no social media. Yet somehow, the news got out. Think of a guy in Maywood phoning a friend on the West Side of Chicago, saying “Hey, there’s an elephant walking down the middle of Washington Boulevard!” In any event, thousands of people turned up to watch the unplanned parade. The Tribune reported that the fans gathered along Judy’s route made it “a veritable victory march.”

Judy at home and at peace

Judy at home and at peace

By 10 p.m. Judy and her party had reached Garfield Park. They rested there for two hours while Judy snacked on some hay. Now at midnight, as they set off again, they were into the home stretch. Traffic was thinning when they swung onto Ogden for the final few miles. At 2:15 a.m. on July 3, Judy arrived at her new home. Once settled into her quarters, she promptly went to sleep.

Judy’s road trip had taken a little over seven hours. In the course of her 18-mile journey she’d lost 250 pounds. One of the attendants who’d walked along with her had his feet swell so badly he couldn’t get back into his shoes for two days.

Chicago’s Great Elephant Walk took place in the middle of World War II, and gave people a few chuckles in the middle of a grim time. Judy herself remained one of the star attractions at Lincoln Park Zoo until her death in 1971.

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