Monday, January 04, 2010

Neighborhood Mysteries

I moved to the North Center neighborhood in Chicago in 1986, after rooming with a couple of guys in the far-north Roger Park neighborhood for a few months. With short breaks living in Edgewater, Lakeview, Roscoe Village, Logan Square, Avondale and Albany Park (where I'd also lived as a kid), I've lived most of the last 24 years in this neighborhood.

I've lived in the apartment I live in now for over 11 years. I moved in here with my now-ex-wife Cynthia. Like most couples, we had a lot of in-jokes. One of the big ones revolved around "neighborhood mysteries." Some examples: Why is the Sunnyside Tap, an "old man" bar near here, on Western Avenue and not Sunnyside, a block away? Why was Pilsen Auto Glass in North Center, and not in Pilsen, a neighborhood on the south side? Why was the tacqueria around the corner from our house always grilling up enormous mounds of meat, yet there were never more than a couple of people in the joint?

About ten years ago, another "neighborhood mystery" got added to the list when Cynthia and I took my son to the Illinois Rail Museum in Union, Illinois, near Elgin, Illinois. The museum is an amazing place. Not only does it have an amazing collection of rail trains, street cars, buses and trolleys, it actually operates some of them on days the museum is open, including one of the fabled "Zephyr" trains (the Nebraska Zephyr). For the price of admission, you can ride any of them all day long. It's operated by retired rail employees, including uniformed conductors on the trains.

While riding an old street car, I noticed a vintage advertising poster in the street car. The poster advertised the "Old Settler's Picnic" in Harm's Park in 1939-- at Western and Berteau. It picqued my curiousity-- there is no park at that corner, which is a block from my home.

Over the years, I would check the internet, with no luck, for Harm's Park. I began to wonder if it had been a fictional park, made up for a poster on the trolley. A few weeks ago, I hit paydirt. On a website called Forgotten Chicago, I found information on it.

Harms Park was a private park founded in 1893 by Henry Harms, who was responsible for many things, including building Lincoln Avenue (a major artery on the north side of Chicago), founded Niles Center (now Skokie) and worked as a farmer, a building contractor, postmaster, highway commissioner and other positions.

Henry Harms died in 1914, but his park continued, hosting the Old Settlers Picnic until the park closed in 1946. The Old Settlers Picnic was a celebration of Chicago's oldest citizens.

In the 1930's, a public housing project was proposed. Area residents petitioned against this, and it never came to pass. Finally, in 1946, Harms Park was razed to put up a car dealership and a subdivision with 29 houses. Ironically, I have been walking right by the subdivision every day on the way to work for ten years.

Looking back, I realize that there were clues about this mystery. One of the big ones is that the Colonial-style houses where the old park was are completely different from the rest of the buildings in the area, most of which were built between 1900 and 1920. Another is that the street was made into a cul-de-sac-- there are few cul-de-sacs in the city. Also, there are no alleys, a ubiquitous feature of most Chicago neighborhoods.

The auto dealership exchanged hands a few years ago-- it was known for decades as "Jack Hagerty Auto." It was one of many, many auto dealerships* on the entire 25+ mile length of Chicago's Western Avenue.

Besides a handful of crimes, unusual in this peaceful neighborhood-- the murder of two bar owners in the last year and a half that were apparently not motivated by robbery, and a Halloween hit and run that left a bartender dead-- there is one last mystery yet to be solved in this neighborhood: the origin of the name of Agatite Avenue.

In 1988, Don Hayner published "Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names." The author documented the origins of Chicago street names. Some are quite simple-- for instance, the names of Presidents that the downtown Chicago streets bear. They go from north to south from Washington to Polk in the order that the presidents served. Others, like Pulaski and Cermak, are for historical figures (Pulaski for Kasimir Pulaski, the Polish officer who was killed at the Revolutionary War battle of Savanna and Cermak is Anton Cermak, the Chicago mayor who was slain in an attempt on FDR's life in 1933).

Others are not, according to the book, what you might think; when I first read the book, I was living on Magnolia Avenue and assumed that it was named after the tree. It was not. It was named after a ship that ran up and down the Chicago River rescuing people trapped by the Great Fire in 1871.

Other streets changed names during World War I during the anti-German hysteria that was whipped up (despite the fact that Chicago had an enormous German population). Some had rather strange stories, such as the change from Robey to Damen Avenue.

The origin of the name of Agatite Avenue, which runs east-west just a couple of blocks from my home, defies explanation, remaining a mystery. Many assume it is named after a mineral, but the mineral is "agate," not "Agatite." This is one of the few street names that the author admits not being able to explain in "Streetwise." It may remain the last unsolvable mystery of the North Center neighborhood.

*Those auto dealerships have a rich cinematic history: one that was recently razed just a few blocks away on the 3900 north of Western was featured in the "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene in "Wayne's World." Also, the auto dealership James Caan's character owned in Michael Mann's terrific 1981 movie "Thief" also on Western Avenue.


Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

Churlita said...

Being a Chicago native, I love your Chicago history posts. Thanks for this.

Forgotten Chicago said...


Anonymous said...

i grew up in that nieghbor hood on the 4200 block of bell, there were stories of how that area was a park. We we little kids but it still made sense because the houses in that area were not the typical 2 flat bricks. Some kids called that spot the flying turns becuase we'd race our bicycles down the sidewalks as fast as we could. Looking back on it it doesn't seem like such a big deal, but we thought it was alot of fun back then. In the 60's kids had to find ways to amuse themselves with out electronics. Bicycle tag, catch one catch all, capture the flag, and variations of those games were what we did for fun in summer. What I was wondering is Berteau (street) named after a historical person?

Doug said...

I was researching Harm Park in Chicago and found your blog. It's mentioned in a sermon that was released as a 78 rpm record in 1927 called "Black Diamond Express Train to Hell". It's an incredible recording made by a Chicago preacher named Rev. A.W. Nix. In Part 2 he calls it "Little No Harm Park".