If you grew up in Chicago or have lived here for any length of time you know that the city is a collection of neighborhoods: Hyde Park, Ravenswood, Lincoln Park, and Pilsen to name a few. And when you ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, it’s often a neighborhood they refer to.
My Chicago neighborhood is McKinley Park on the city’s southwest side, named for the park it embraces (Which was actually named for the 25th US president.). The neighborhood is centered on the triangle bounded by 35th Street and Archer and Ashland Avenues, but extends as far south as the southern boundary of the park on Pershing Road and to the old Canal and Interstate 55 on the north.
I should start by saying I never lived in the McKinley Park neighborhood.
But my maternal grandpa grew up there, he and my grandma were married there and raised a family there. He lived there until he was in his late eighties. My dad’s family also has its roots in the neighborhood, and I’ve always felt rooted here too. It’s from this neighborhood that so many of the family stories come, where I spent holidays and enjoyed Sunday dinners. I was not at all surprised when my daughter, who is more than a bit of an historian, took a walking tour of the McKinley Park area (Although I may be pushing the point; she’s done at least a half-dozen other such neighborhood walks since moving back to Chicago.) I couldn’t go with her on the first tour, so she took me on my own a few weeks ago.
We began here.
My grandparents lived in this little workman’s cottage, one of a dozen on their short block and countless others in the neighborhood. This was the brick house built for the masses after the Chicago fire. They were small, but must have seemed palatial to people who had come from tenements and boarding houses. (There aren’t many Chicago bungalows here; they came later.)
We took a walk down 35th Street, the commercial heart of the neighborhood. The William McKinley Legion Post (my grandfather was a founding member) is still active.
Our other destination on this street was a house we think my father’s parents lived in, at least for a short time. Maggie found them listed on a 1910 census at this address. (Like I said, she is an historian.) The next census finds them just a few blocks away on Honore Street. However, when we rounded the corner to look for it, those houses had been replaced by Nathaniel Greene School!
Since this area was first settled in 1836, it has been a working class neighborhood. The first settlers worked on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Then came railroads, steel plants, and meat packing. There are new brick row houses and townhouses in-filling empty lots. Several buildings have been converted into condos, including St. Philippus Church where my grandparents and parents were married.
The new school, houses and condo conversions are understandable; the McKinley Park neighborhood has experienced an increase in population since the 1990’s. And that’s hardly surprising since it’s still supported by a healthy manufacturing area nearby and outstanding transportation, including Metra’s new (to me at least) Orange Line. The old housing stock is well cared for, and some original landmarks continue to serve the community, including a funeral home and St. Maurice Church.
Finally, we got to McKinley Park, 69 acres of green in the midst of the city, with a lagoon where my mom and uncle ice skated, a field house, and so many ball fields where Dad and my uncle spent a significant part of their lives. In fact, they met there and played ball, sometimes together and sometimes against each other, long before Mom and Dad met. It’s still a leafy oasis, popular with runners and walkers. On this September Saturday, there were soccer and baseball games. It’s still the magnet it always was.
We sometimes think of “old neighborhoods” as falling into serious disrepair or, conversely, becoming gentrified and even chic. Not so in McKinley Park. This “old neighborhood” never had the panache of the North Shore or the leafy, residential vibe of the suburbs. It has always been sturdy, a bit hard-scrabble, largely populated in my grandparents’ day by first- and second-generation German and Irish immigrants. Today it retains this sturdy, working class character, and the immigrant mix includes Hispanic and Asian residents.
It has adapted more than it changed. That’s what intrigued me as Maggie and I walked down one street and up another, peering down gangways and admiring pocket gardens. My daughter shared the architectural background gleaned from her walk, while I was filling in the anecdotal from my memories. I’m glad my daughter and I did this, but I must admit that for me it was a bit bittersweet. There are few family members left from that era to share this, to tell them the house on Damen is painted blue (!) and the Legion Hall has hardly changed.
So, I’m especially glad you came along with me on this “second” walk in the old neighborhood. See you again soon!