Avondale and Logan Square in 1994

In a vast and sprawling city like Chicago, local neighborhood history can get buried beneath the weight of heavier narratives like the Chicago Fire and Daniel Burnham’s plan. This 1994 Chicago Reader gem is a colorful exception, dispelling the notion that Chicago is “one huge city pretty much the same from end to end” and zooming in on the essence of what makes Avondale, Avondale. Set around Paul Pekin’s residence near the Avondale/Logan Square border, this nostalgic narrative takes snapshots of local businesses past (Ragin’ Cajun!) and present (Julio’s Auto Parts?) and homes which “are not likely to make anyone think of millionaires past, present, or future but instead of generations of owners hammering on siding and additions and dormer rooms.”

It’s like traveling through a time machine and trying to make sense of what happened. A New Orleans restaurant is now a private residence; a hot dog counter is now Rewster’s; J.J. Peppers still stands two decades later, but apparently had been an Amoco station not long before. Other passages recount the tragic fire at Milwaukee and Kimball, the author riding a bicycle down the Expressway before it opened, and the existence of a three story department store and bowling alley on Milwaukee Avenue past.

Read the whole story here!

An Eight-Lane Expressway Runs Through It

Avondale Park was originally conceived as a five acre park in 1929 by the Irving Park District, in response to a local construction boom in the 1920s. By the 1930s it featured a playfield, playgrounds, tennis courts, a sand box, and a wading pool.

Just a few decades later, in 1959, all but one acre in the southwest corner of the park was plowed over to make way for the Northwest Expressway (now the Kennedy Expressway, I-90/94). The forces of change in an increasingly automobile-centered society may have made the park’s demise seem inevitable. However, a closer look reveals that the path of the expressway clings to the Union Pacific Northwest rail line from Division to Bryn Mawr with the exception of one abrupt swerve to the southeast by Kimball and Roscoe. It almost looks as if the expressway were intentionally trying to run over the park.

There’s evidence that this may have been the case. According to Chicago residents at a presentation on the Building of the Kennedy Expressway (including a senior with a marvelous cane that folded out into a hat stand), the expressway was intentionally built around factories along Avondale Ave.  Though the factories had vowed to remain in the area after the expressway’s construction, most of them reputedly ended up leaving for the suburbs.

The 1953 Polk Criss-Cross directory lists a number of manufacturers on that stretch of Avondale, including Avondale Master Stations, Lindstrom Manufacturing, Coating and Chemicals, Globe Metal Specialties, Avon Steel Corporation, Mapes & Sprowl Steel, and Avenson Industries. The 1982 Polk Criss-Cross directory reveals that only Mapes & Sprowl remained open, joined only by the addition of Superdawg. Today, that pocket of Avondale nestled between Avondale Avenue, Henderson, and Drake seems to be an active manufacturing center once again, home to the likes of Novak Construction, Homemaker’s Supply, Carpet Cushions and Supply, Brook Electrical Distribution Co., Allied Building Products, Chicago Golf and Tennis Supply, and Granite Gallery. A true recreational area for people who like manufacturing!

Interestingly, a 1944 Chicago Daily Tribune article cited H. Evert Kincaid, the executive director of the Chicago plan commission, as claiming that “Block-wide strips of property will be condemned and cleared. The added costed for right of way will be justified by better construction and because the city will have valuable additions to its park system.” Not sure if that happened elsewhere, but it didn’t happen in Avondale.

As a paltry compensation, the city spent $15,000 in 1961 to “compensate for land lost to the Northwest Expressway,” to include outdoor volleyball and basketball courts and a swimming pool. The fieldhouse without a field remains in its original location.

Who Was Daniel Elston?

Daniel Elston (1790-1855) is not a prominent figure in Avondale history, and as of yet doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. But, his namesake street runs directly through the eastern edge of the neighborhood, supplying us with long stretches of bungalows, factories, a neighborhood tavern, and a former movie theater. As a resident of Avondale, I’m a fan of all things Elston… and hope to document this street so thoroughly that I throw up (i.e. ad nauseum).

A British merchant born in Lincolnshire in 1790, by 1830 Mistah Elston had purchased a 160-acre tract along the Woodstock Trail (now Elston Avenue) in what is now the River West neighborhood. Co-proprietor of Elston & Woodruff, which manufactured soap and candles in a log barn on Kinzie Street at the river, he was also a brickmaker and built a small brewery and distillery. The multi-talented Elston served as a school inspector, and reigned briefly as an alderman in 1842. In 1855, shortly after being denied permission to move his house across the Chicago River, he met the grim reaper and now lies underground in Graceland Cemetery next to his wife of 25 years, Blanche Maria Cull.

Today, his namesake street Elston Avenue runs 9 1/2 miles, branching off from Milwaukee Avenue a bit north of Peterson and rejoining Milwaukee Avenue just north of Chicago Avenue.

For future exploration:

  • Little is known about Daniel Elston. However, a collection of letters to his British friend Harry Surnam is available at the U of I Champaign-Urbana Illinois History Collection. Road trip!!!
  • Elston’s birthday is May 20. What better way to honor his 223rd birthday than to walk the length of Elston Avenue on May 20, 2013?

About this Blog

On this day, 10 June in the two thousand twelfth year of the lord Jesus Christ, I do solitarily swear that the purpose of this here blog, born today, is to document an exploration of the great neighborhood of Avondale in Chicago, Illinois. This great neighborhood, of which there is no equal, is bounded roughly by the Milwaukee District North Line rail and Pulaski on the west, Western Avenue and the Chicago River on the east, Addison Street to the north and Diversey Avenue to the south. The physical setting of this blog remains constantly in Avondale; and the only variable is time.

In addition to solitarily swearing, I reserve the right to also publicly swear, where appropriate or inappropriate, for there is no journalistic standard towards which I strive other than a discovery of the truth. As captain and commander of my own mind, I hereby order myself to write a thousand blog entries, following tangents where they may lead, just to keep the ink flowing steadily that many new things may be learned along the way.

If you’d like to follow along this journey, I would love to hear your own comments, stories, praise, and insults. As long as the topic remains Avondale, a neighborhood of which there is no equal, it is all worth discussing.