Development of Jefferson Park spotlighted in walking tour
by BRIAN NADIG
The development of roadways and residential subdivisions in Jefferson Park was highlighted during an Aug. 28 walking tour which commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Indian Boundary Line.
The boundary line runs along Rogers Avenue on the Far Northwest Side and resulted from the U.S. Treaty of Saint Louis. The 1816 treaty, which several Native-American tribes signed, ceded a 20-mile corridor of land to the United States, and it was intended to provide safe passage to those traveling from Chicago to the Illinois River.
The land north of the Indian Boundary Line remained a Native-American reserve for several more decades, while the city’s development grew south of the line. The Good City Group, which includes urban planners and architects, sponsored the “Walk The Line” tour.
One of the most recognizable characteristics of Chicago is its grid of parallel streets, which spawned a series of rectangular subdivisions built one after another, said tour guide Benet Haller, chief planner for the city Department of Planning and Development. This grid is absent north of the boundary line, where many side streets in Edgebrook, Sauganash and parts of Gladstone Park run on a variety of angles, he said.
The rectangular subdivisions made sense because developers could continue streets, alleys and sewers on a straight line as each subsequent subdivision was built, Haller said. “It helps the city to shape its identity,” he said.
Jefferson Park represented some challenges for city planners because of its four diagonal thoroughfares, Milwaukee, Elston, Higgins and Northwest Highway, he said.
Subdivisions built after 1920 tended to have the same architectural style for all homes because a single developer would purchase an entire block of land, which ran 266-feet deep, Haller said. It included a 16-foot-wide alley with a row of 125-foot-deep lots on either side of the alley, he said.
Blocks developed prior to1920 tended to have more variety because the developer may have purchased only few lots instead of a larger tract of land, Haller said. In addition, subdivisions next to parks often have higher density than other areas, but one noticeable exception is the single-family home neighborhood around Roberts Square Park, 5200 W. Argyle St., which is the area’s oldest park, Haller said. Nowadays higher density construction tends to be targeted for land adjacent to transit centers, he said.
The early development of Chicago area towns, including Jefferson Park, was often tied to the fact that it had a train station, in most instances the railway line ran about ¼-mile from a main roadway, Haller said. There also would be spurs running to industrial sites along the railway lines, but eventually it became difficult to have spurs as railroad tracks were elevated above ground for safety reasons, he said.
Starting in the 1960s, an increasing number of industrial companies abandoned their multi-story manufacturing plants in the city for larger, one-story facilities in rural communities, Haller said. In places like Six Corners, some of the industrial land became shopping centers that help anchor the business district, but neighboring Jefferson Park has struggled to have some of its industrial spaces redeveloped, he said.
One of the focal points of Jefferson Park remains its array of public transportation options, with Metra and CTA Blue Line stations and a large bus terminal, Haller said. “It’s by far the most transit rich district outside of Downtown,” he said.
At the same time the transit center appears to have done little to bring new retail development to the area, which once had several department stores near the Milwaukee-Lawrence intersection, Haller said. “How do you transform something like this and make it into something more than basically just a bus turnaround?” he said.
The construction of a 13-story apartment, retail and parking complex, is planned for a former industrial site next to the bus terminal, and the city is planning a $25 million renovation of the transit center in 2018.
The 50-minute tour took participants to the Ainslie Street bridge over the Kennedy Expressway, which was built in the late 1950s along the route of the previously proposed Avondale elevated roadway. The roadway was proposed in the 1920s, buts its development was stymied in part by the economic woes of the Great Depression.
The elevated roadway would have taken motorists from the Loop to Jefferson Park, from where they would connect to Milwaukee Avenue. At the time city planners believed Milwaukee was an ideal connecting point because it becomes a wide, four-lane street north of Jefferson Park, Haller said.
As a general rule of thumb, economics often played a role in decisions regarding the layout of Chicago’s streets, highways, railway lines and business districts, Haller said. “It was very much an mercantile imperative,” he said. “It had something to do with somebody making money.”
The Good City Group has created “Walk The Line” cultural walks for Jefferson Park, Forest Glen and Sauganash, and information about the routes can be downloaded from the iTunes Apple Store.