v25-4 What makes a neighborhood a neighborhood?

Vol. XXV No. 4 - WINTER 2014

By: Kathy Gemperle

Professor Ann Durkin Keating addressed the Edgewater Historical Society meeting at the Broadway
Armory on October 18, 2014 as the Wyman lecturer by posing this question. She stated a definition of a neighborhood as the basic building blocks of a city where my daily needs are met. She also explained that the line between the city and a suburb is fluid because suburbs also have neighborhoods.

In speaking of the Edgewater neighborhood as community area #77, she explained that the community designation of 75 areas was done by the University of Chicago in the 1920s, but that Edgewater pressured the City to designate Edgewater as Community area #77. She mentioned that neighborhoods are more about the centers of activity, but that governments like lines and definitions.

Her talk then reached back to 1830, and the two events which set up Chicago to become valued real estate and not simply land – the Blackhawk war and its resolution, and the beginning of the construction of a canal to connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi watershed. This canal would provide the means to transport goods in the future. In this period, settlements were often connected to water. In 1848, all this changed when the railroads connected Chicago to the hinterland and provided transportation for farm raised products. The first train through Edgewater came in 1855. By 1860, there were 12 trunk lines connecting to Chicago. After the rail connections came the industrial towns like Pullman. Also connected by the rail lines were towns around amusement parks and cemeteries like Niles and Rosehill. In this time period, a person would live in a community but be connected by rail to another place to work. The introduction of the automobile in the early part of the 20th century, and then the interstate highway system later in the 1950s, changed the dependence on rail lines. She then introduced the study that she did of the Norwood Park area in six points in its history.

The last question to address in discussing neighborhood is “who lives in a neighborhood?” A slide with information on Chicago in 1910 showed that 3/4 of the population was born outside the country or were children of immigrants. This was a change from 1850, when 1/3 of the population was foreign born (German, Swedish, Irish and United Kingdom). In 1910, the largest group was still German. In 1900, 1% of the population in Chicago was African American. Over the next 20 years this changed with the great migration from the south.

Changes to immigration quotas in 1960 brought to Chicago a large number of Mexicans and, in that period, the nature of the Edgewater population changed quite a bit. How the various forces acted in a community from within and from the outside can explain how Edgewater looks today. Since most of the data comes from the census, it was noted that the census categories changed over the 20th century, and that people are free to identify themselves by a category. This identification of the population can be by race, national origin or language. Many questions and comments were added by audience members in the last few minutes of the talk, and a suggestion was made that Prof Keating return next year after the opening of the Edgewater Immigration exhibit.