Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jefferson Park, or...

..."Jeff Park," as the locals call it, was the destination for last night's Urban Hike with Mike.

The five of us -- Jack, John, Michael, Alan and me -- left 1212 W. Flournoy at five o'clock sharp, as usual, and boarded the Blue Line train at Racine. About 45 minutes later we emerged from the "Jefferson Park Transit Center" (sounds more important than the plain ol' Jefferson Park Blue Line stop, doesn't it?) and walked the few steps to the Jefferson Park Grill where we had dinner. (FYI: the portions there are huge. One of my many rules of thumb is if there's a double cheeseburger on the menu it usually means that the single is too small. So I ordered it with a side of fries -- big mistake -- and it was enough to feed my whole family!)

As for the "Jefferson Park Transit Center," I remember a time when it was the end of the Blue Line. (That was before they had colors for the various el lines -- we had it rough, kids!) Before 1984, if you wanted to go all the way out to O'Hare, for example, you had to get off at Jefferson Park and catch a shuttle bus to the airport. It was a bit of a pain in the neck, and something tells me the Chicago taxi companies were behind delaying the extension. (Just a hunch.)

Jeff Park, on the Far North Side, is one of the 77 community areas that are officially recognized by the City of Chicago. Incorporated as an independent township in 1850, Jefferson Park was annexed by the city in 1889.

One of the most high-profile landmarks in Jefferson Park is the Copernicus Center, on Lawrence Avenue just south of the "Transit Center." (I guess everything up there is a "Center.")

The Copernicus Center is a cultural and civic center for Chicago's large Polish community. (While many Chicagoans think of the Windy City as the "biggest Polish city outside of Poland," it's actually a close second in the United States behind  -- again! -- New York.) The Center was built onto the old Gateway Theatre, which was the first movie theater in Chicago constructed exclusively for the "talkies."

The "Solidarity Tower" (above), with its matching facade, was erected atop the theater and modified to resemble Warsaw's historic Royal Castle. The tower is an exact replica of the castle's clock tower and its Baroque spire can be seen from the Kennedy Expressway.

At Lawrence and Milwaukee we turned left (south) and entered the community area of Portage Park, which actually has the largest Polish population in the Chicago Metropolitan Area according to the 2000 census. (It's also the childhood home of Francis Cardinal George.) So it should come as no surprise that this stretch of Milwaukee Avenue is positively loaded with Polish stores, including the Ideal Pastry bakery and Krakus Sausage directly across the street (which may or may not be closed). Krakus, as I'm sure you all know, was a legendary Polish prince, king and founder of Krakow, the second-largest city in Poland.

From there we continued on south, toward the area known as Six Corners. (I can't remember anticipating anything so much in my entire life; for several blocks banners along Milwaukee kept announcing "Six Corners." And at every intersection one of the guys would ask me, "Is this it?" "No," I would answer, "There are only one, two, three, four corners here.")

Just before you reach the Emerald City intersection of Six Corners sits the historic Portage Theatre, one of the oldest movie houses in Chicago. Opened in 1920 as the Portage Park Theatre (which you can still see in the picture above), it was the first theater built specifically for film (and not vaudeville) in the area.

After many iterations, the theater closed in 2001 only to reopen in the spring of 2006 as a single-screen, 1300-plus seat theater. It now hosts, among other things, the Chicago Silent Film Festival and the Chicago Polish Film Festival (surprise!) as well as live events.

When we finally reached Six Corners -- the intersection of Irving Park Road, Cicero Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue -- I was so disoriented (six corners is 50 percent more than the usual four, which I'm more used to) that we turned left (east) on Irving Park rather than continuing on Milwaukee as I had planned. But we're a resourceful bunch and discovered our (my) mistake a few blocks later and turned right (south) on Kostner Avenue, a charming residential street filled with pre-Depression era Queen Anne, Victorian and Italianate homes. The guys seemed impressed when I told them I thought most of the houses were about a hundred years old.

We were now in Old Irving Park, a neighborhood within the community area of Irving Park (I know, it's confusing). Originally a suburb named Irvington after the author Washington Irving, it was changed to Irving Park after someone discovered there was already an Irvington, Illinois. And in 1889 the community, along with the rest of Jefferson Township, was annexed to Chicago.

Just so you don't get the impression that Poles are the only ethnic group in these parts, during the 1990s Irving Park saw a dramatic influx of Serbian immigrants, and today there are several Serbian-owned cafes and restaurants along Irving Park Road.

We turned left (south) again on Milwaukee and walked past the massive Schurz High School. When I couldn't come up with its name right away (a senior moment?) I finally correctly identified it as Schurz, not Steinmetz. "Are you Schurz?" came the inevitable reply from my son. (Everyone's a comedian.)

The school is named after Carl Schurz, a journalist and Civil War general who was the first German-born American elected to the United States Senate.

The building, designed in 1910 by Dwight H. Perkins (who also did Lane Tech) and designated a Chicago Landmark in 1979, represents a combination of the Chicago and Prairie schools of architecture. The alma mater of such notables as former CBS executive William Paley and Hyatt Hotels founder Abram Pritzker, it's really quite impressive. While Schurz was originally built to accommodate 1400 students, it looks from the outside like it could easily house twice that number.

We turned left (east) on Addison, and before boarding the Blue Line again passed the Villa, which Mike Royko -- who grew up on Milwaukee Avenue -- dubbed the "Polish Kenilworth." A Chicago Landmark district, the tiny neighborhood contains many unique Craftsman and Bungalow-style homes fronting on boulevard-style streets. We had walked through here on one of our previous Hikes (in the dead of winter) but were too tired by this point to reprise our visit. So we hopped on the Blue Line again at Addison and made our way for home.

Next week is the 131st anniversary of the Haymarket Square Riot, and although the statue marking the affair has been temporarily moved to Union Park to make way for new construction at the corner of Randolph and Desplaines, I thought we'd pay a visit to this hallowed ground in the West Loop. (Weather permitting, of course.) Won't you join us?

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