Monday, July 3, 2017

My son and I finished...

...our "Western Avenue Project" yesterday by catching the inbound Rock Island train from the Blue Island-Vermont station.

The odyssey -- in four parts -- began in late February (can you believe it?) and took us until July to complete. (Click here to read Parts One, Two and Three.)

John and I left our new place at noon and walked west on 18th Street to Western Avenue where we caught the No. 49 bus to the 79th & Western Terminal, just a block or so beyond where we left off at St. Rita High School in April.

Does that mean we cheated by not walking the entire length of Western Avenue? (That'll keep me up at night.) And why does the Western bus stop at 79th? Why doesn't it go all the way to the city's southern boundary at 119th? I don't know.

While we were standing at the bus stop an older man (even older than me!) walked up and waited with us. He was on the phone with someone and although I was pretty sure he was speaking English it was with such a peculiar accent that it made me wonder. (John said he reminded him of Elmer Fudd.) He turned to talk to us after a couple of minutes and I really wish I had taken his picture. I don't normally take photos of people but I should have made an exception in his case. It would have been a good one for posterity.

After getting off the bus at 79th Street in the Community Area of Ashburn on the Far Southwest Side, we resumed our journey down Western Avenue, through the Dan Ryan Woods and into Beverly after crossing 87th Street.

In case you were wondering, yes, Ashburn got its name from the city's ashes, which were dumped here for many years. In fact, as recently as 1959 ash "heaps" were still visible in the area north of 79th Street. Ashburn was also the home of the E. M. Laird Airplane Company and the city's first airfield, which operated from 1916 until 1939.

Just across 91st Street is the Beverly Bike & Ski, which has this excellent sign outside. And, speaking of signs, Western Avenue is a veritable treasure trove of vintage signs:

Janson's Drive-In, at 99th;

Fox's Restaurant and Pub, at 100th Street;

Mr. Swifty Cleaners, at 110th; and

Beverly Woods Restaurant at 115th.

And even on into the suburb of Blue Island:

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Just beyond the Bike Shop is the Bridgeport Coffeehouse -- Bridgeport? -- which is housed in this excellent example of Mid-century modernism. The north wall has something for everyone:

Light blue glazed brick;

As well as these colored glass blocks.

As long as I'm not going in strict chronological order, here's some more light blue glazed brick, in this case on a beige brick background, a little farther down Western.

We were getting hungry by this point, but we resisted the siren call of the Original Rainbow Cone, at 92nd Street. I don't like to have my dessert before the main course, so we dashed across the street (to the suburbs!) to Firehouse Subs in the Evergreen Marketplace. In hindsight it was a mistake -- we should have waited until at least Janson's a few blocks later -- but we were positively starving by this time. (And we were going to need our strength; the mercury topped 90 degrees yesterday!)

After lunch we continued on Western, into the heart of the Beverly community area, which extends down to 107th Street. Sparsely settled until the completion in 1889 of the suburban line of the Rock Island Railroad, Beverly came to be considered one of the more prestigious neighborhoods in the city.

Although it now has the highest percentage of black residents of any white-majority neighborhood, Beverly still has the feel of an Irish Catholic enclave. Along with Morgan Park to the south, it's the home of the South Side Irish Parade, which is held every year on the Sunday prior to St. Patrick's Day. Winding down Western Avenue, past such Irish pubs as the Cork & Kerry, above, the parade is reputed to be quite the spectacle. I threaten to go every year, but one of these days I promise I'm actually going to make it.

Across 107th is Morgan Park, named after Thomas Morgan, the area's largest landholder in the nineteenth century. It extends, of course, to 119th Street, where the city ends and Blue Island begins.

While John and I had originally intended to catch the Rock Island train at 119th, we had some time to kill until the next one arrived so we pressed on into Blue Island. My friend Kevin had told me it had a charming downtown so we decided to walk the extra two miles or so to the station at Vermont Street.

Blue Island dates back to the 1830s and its downtown looks as if it hasn't changed much since then. Really, if you wanted to shoot a movie that took place at almost any time in the past, Western Avenue in Blue Island would be perfect.

But what I really wanted to know was, how in the heck did they come up with the name "Blue Island"? There was no water in sight, and, believe me, I was thirsty! According to Wikipedia, the Chicago Democrat described the area in February, 1834:

Nearly south of this town and twelve miles distant is Blue Island. This name is particularly appropriate. It is a table of land about six miles long and an average of two miles wide, of an oval form and rising some forty feet out of an immense plain which surrounds it on every side. . . The ridge, when viewed from a distance, appears standing in an azure mist of vapor, hence the appellation "Blue Island."


We hopped on the train at a little before six and high-fived each other for slaying the Western Avenue "dragon." This weekend I hope to see the young man who first inspired us to undertake this task, the guy who hiked the entire street in one day. Can't wait to compare notes!

To sum it all up, John and I walked about 25 miles over four Sundays. We hiked through 15 of Chicago's 77 recognized community areas -- Rogers Park, West Ridge, Lincoln Square, North Center, Avondale/Logan Square, West Town, Near West Side, Lower West Side, McKinley Park, Brighton Park, Gage Park, Chicago Lawn, Ashburn, Beverly and Morgan Park -- from the Far North Side all the way down to the Far Southwest Side. Not sure I'd recommend it (some of the stretches are "sketchy"), but I'm glad we did it.

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