West of Western : A History of the Rest of Ravenswood

by Mark Dawson

Ravenswood-Lake View Historical Association

December 1995

A Name for a Neighborhood

Sandwiched between the Lincoln Square Shopping Center and the prestigious neighborhoods of Ravenswood Gardens and Ravenswood Manor is a nameless portion of Ravenswood. Some locals claim we actually live in the neighborhood called “Lincoln Square,” and I initially viewed this as a realtor's plot, similar to Sheridan Park's succession from bedraggled Uptown. Lincoln Square is a mall, after all, and some misguided federal bureaucrat's idea for the name of a census tract. Well, it turns out that the Chicago City Council officially designated the area from Damen to Rockwell and from Lawrence to Wilson as Lincoln Square in 1923.

But locals don't seem willing to submit to their aldermen in this matter. I tell people I live in Ravenswood. Ads for homes for sale stress great values to be had in Lincoln Square. Some people refer to the community as “the Rockwell area,” a reference to the Greater Rockwell Organization, the block club that represents it. Moreover, the confusion seems to be almost as old as the neighborhood itself. Lettie Van Greever, a resident of the area since the 1880s, said in 1925 “It was entirely logical for the land just west of Western to the Channel (the Chicago River) to be called West Ravenswood.” An anonymous contemporary of Van Greever, an 84-year-old woman who moved to the area in 1888, observed in 1928, “I have always said I live in Ravenswood, even after I moved over here on Western Avenue (4542). The people keep telling me I'm now in Jefferson (Jefferson township), but I say I have always lived in Ravenswood and I guess I still do. Anyway, I write ‘Ravenswood' on my letters just like I always did.” Both quotes are from the “History of Ravenswood Community” folio at the Chicago Historical Society Library.

Perhaps the neighborhood residents need to vote on a name for themselves, such as “Little Copenhagen” or “Extreme East Barrington.” But identifiable or not, the Ravenswood neighborhood from Lawrence to Wilson and from the Chicago River to Western has a unique heritage, and it is also graced with several residents who have lived here for 80 years or more, and who can remember its early days. A. J. Lange, for example, moved to 4759 North Western with his parents in 1914. Now 89, Lange still lives in the house at 4745 North Artesian that his parents moved into in 1924, and today is surrounded by boxes of photographs and other treasures from the community dating back to the Prohibition era. John Schwenk, of 2431 West Leland, was born in the neighborhood in 1918. He inherited his home from his grandparents, who built it around 1910, and quite literally has never lived anywhere else. Bob Colvin moved with his parents to his home at 2519 West Leland in 1915, when he was four years old. Colvin spent time in Corpus Christi, Texas briefly while doing training in the Navy, and at the end of 1948 he headed out west for 22 months when a linotype-operator's strike left him idle. Chicago's four daily papers, the Daily News, Tribune, Sun-Times, and Herald and Examiner continued to publish using typewritten text pasted up and photographed to produce plates. Colvin spent all of the rest of his life at 2519 West Leland Avenue. Lange graduated from Waters Elementary School in 1922, Colvin in 1923, and Schwenk, the youngster of the trio, in 1932. Finally, Helen Faul, of 4734 North Virginia, is 84 years old, and has lived in her home since it was built in 1924 and graduated from Queen of Angels School in 1925.

Western & Lawrence in the Beginning

A search of the resources at the Conrad Sulzer Library reveals lots of interesting anecdotes about the early days of Ravenswood. But this commentary--of the library's namesake, who homesteaded in the area in 1837, of the effects of the Chicago Fire on Ravenswood, of the beautiful Woods Nursery with its 40,000 pine trees, of the work of the Ravenswood Land Company of 1868--actually address what we would now call East Ravenswood. Little appears in the historical records about the area near Western and Lawrence until the turn of the century. That makes sense; the area didn't exist until then. In 1887 the community of Ravenswood, by then annexed to the suburb of Lake View, stopped at Leavitt Street. Seven years later, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company published a map of the north side that shows a big white spot for what is now the territory from Western to Kedzie and from Lawrence to Montrose. None of the side streets had been laid out at that point, and there was no bridge across the Chicago River at Lawrence. As late as 1909 the Lawrence Avenue bridge was made of wood, and there were almost no buildings at all along Lawrence Avenue from Western to Kedzie on either side of the street. Streetcar riders on Lawrence before 1909 had to get out of their seats at the bridge, walk across, and board another streetcar on the other side.

Still, a history of West Ravenswood properly starts before Ravenswood itself. Originally the area was a thick forest of oak, walnut, hickory, hazelnut, and butternut, and home to muskrat, mink, eagle, buzzard, and crane. The Potawatomi, the last native American tribe in Chicago, most likely camped in the area along the meandering banks of the Chicago River, before they gave up their home to white settlers and headed west in 1833. As Ravenswood expanded, most of the trees between Western and the river were cut for fuel and construction, and the area turned into a pasture for cows, with an entrance near Western and Lawrence. The land near the river remained heavily wooded, and it seems that the property was too swampy to be suitable as farmland. A wealthy investor and apparent speculator, Charles Macalester of Philadelphia, foreclosed on an estate from Lawrence to Montrose and from Western to Kedzie before the Civil War. Macalester died in 1874, and the land remained in trust for his heirs until the Northwest Land Association bought it in 1898 for $600,000.

Vintage sources from the 1920s disagree on some of the details of how the property was used. A man named Edwin Dymond (his name also appears as “Jack Diamond”) evidently leased this property from the Macalester estate. Dymond put in a half mile race track on the west side of the river, where Ravenswood Manor is today, surrounded by a plank fence. North of the track was a pasture where he kept horses for livery and for racing. It also appears that Dymond had another horse pasture between Western and the Chicago River and between Lawrence and Montrose at about the same time. Before 1905 the river formed a pond at Wilson and Campbell, with a shoreline that extended as almost as far west as Western Avenue. The pond froze each winter, so the pasture was a popular spot for ice skating. The property came to be known as “Diamond's Race Track” and “Diamond's Pasture” (again, note the difference in spelling) even though Dymond did not own the property. A man name Bradford ran the operation. Wealthy citizens from as far away as Lake Forest would come into the area on Sunday afternoons to race their horses. One source claimed that the locals were too busy to spend much time at the races; another said that young people liked to hang around Western and Lawrence and look at the horses during the week, even when they weren't racing. Several sources agree that the race track was abandoned sometime between 1888 and 1895 (most likely about 1891 or 1892), though only one gave the reason; the grandstand burned down and was never rebuilt.

At the end of the 19th century the Northwest Land Association held all of the land between Western, Kedzie, Lawrence, and Montrose, which formed the largest piece of unsubdivided real estate in Chicago, according to Lettie Van Greever. The more valuable land east of Western had been subdivided by 1890, and that area was largely built up by 1904. West of Western, the land lay idle until the river was channelized and until the Ravenswood elevated train service was completed. The first part of the company's holdings to be subdivided was the area from Lawrence to Montrose and from Western to the river, at about 1905. The rest of the association's holdings were subdivided between 1906 and 1910. However, according to Van Greever, the lots didn't completely sell out until 1924.

The Ravenswood L and the River

The principals of the Northwest Land Association, which included the notorious traction baron Charles Yerkes, who developed the Loop elevated downtown, saw the extension of the Ravenswood service from Western to Kimball as an essential part of their plans to develop the area. The company made sure to buy most of the land around the projected stations before the plans were made public. They paid for the station at Kedzie and for part of the terminal at Kimball, and covered the operating losses of the line for its first three years. This was a fairly common practice nationally at the time. Real estate developers would extend streetcar or rail service through their holdings at their own expense, and sometimes even with the expectation that the service would lose money, in order to make their subdivisions more attractive to prospective homeowners. The Ravenswood service to Western Avenue started in May of 1907, and went to Kimball by December of the same year. Soon the Ravenswood was handling 10,000 riders a day. Rush hour express service to the loop started in 1909. In the 1920s a rider could buy seven transit tokens for $1, and transfers were free.

Meanwhile, the Chicago River was channelized from Belmont to Lawrence from 1904 to the end of 1907. The result was a 2.2 mile-long river that no longer meandered or flooded, and that was 90 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The north shore channel from Lawrence Avenue to Willmette was completed in 1910. The old river bed was filled in, and eager developers put up new homes there, sometimes too quickly. Some of the bungalows along the River on Virginia and one two-flat on Leland have noticeably crooked window sills in back because their foundations later settled. One house on Virginia had to be virtually torn down and rebuilt about three years ago. The unfortunate owner was obliged to drive steel beams into the foundation to compensate for multiple cracks that were several inches wide.

Cabbage Patches and New Homes

As late as 1902 gypsies commonly camped in the woods at Western and Montrose. Some built shacks and spent the winter there, but most moved on when the weather turned cold. Between 1907 and 1909, Lincoln Square was “nothing but an acreage of cabbage patches,”according to the Northside Sunday Citizen, December 30 1927. More specifically, Emil Heidcamp, the president of the Bowmanville National Bank, said that in 1904 there were no houses from Montrose to Lawrence and from Western to the River, just “lots of cabbage patches.” Heidcamp and one other source at the Chicago Historical Society both claimed that, as late as 1912, the same area had expanded to lots of cabbages, three houses, and a drug store. Yet the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 1913 shows many houses, and just one empty lot on the 2400 block of West Leland. Thus while the community lagged in getting developed, once the houses started going up, the lots filled quickly. Many of the early streets in the area were cobblestone, including Wilson; the new Waters Elementary School had a cinder playground.

Waters Elementary was built in 1911. The school has always been graced by a grove of four massive burr oak trees at Campbell and Sunnyside, probably 300 years old or more given their size, and a remnant of an oak savannah that once grew in the area. A grove of bur oaks east of Lake Shore Drive at Diversey Avenue, next to the bike path, was planted in that area after the land was filled in between 1906 and 1916. That makes these lakefront trees less than 100 years old, and they are much smaller than the burr oaks found on the Waters School property. A fifth burr oak, just as towering as its neighbors, is found in the parkway at the corner of Maplewood and Sunnyside. As Maplewood south of Sunnyside is narrower than Maplewood north of Sunnyside (this is not true of Campbell a block away) it appears the developer who originally laid out the streets around 1910 decided to make this parkway a little wider so that he would not need to cut down this handsome oak tree.

Most of the smaller residences went up from about 1910 to 1914. Apartment buildings tended to take somewhat longer, as did commercial development. The north side of Lawrence Avenue went largely undeveloped until the late 1930s. The current site of the post office was a large onion field in the 1920s; there were also lots of cucumber and cabbage patches, though most of the greenhouses in the area were gone by the mid-1920s. North of the vegetables were woods, full of wild flowers, up to Foster Avenue and beyond. The south side of Lawrence Avenue was mostly vacant from Rockwell to Artesian almost to 1940. The site of the Burger King at Lawrence and Artesian, for example, was a World War II Victory Garden as late as 1946.

The Langes' home at 4745 North Artesian was built in 1910. The developer for most of the homes on Artesian and elsewhere in the community, a man named Heining, had his office in the basement apartment. It seems that the frame homes on Artesian and West Leland were not originally built as single family homes, but as two, three, and four flats. The Langes bought the property in 1917, but didn't move in until 1924. The senior Mr. Lange could charge more rent for the apartments in the house than he had to pay for an apartment for his family on the 4700 block of North Western, so they stayed there.

A separate developer named William Harmon built Ravenswood Gardens and Ravenswood Manor, laying these communities out as comfortable suburban-style communities of mostly large single family homes. The section along the river from the Ravenswood L to Lawrence and east to Rockwell was considered part of Ravenswood Gardens, though it isn't today. The L serves as a border, and a barrier, between the two neighborhoods. Also, the northern part of the original Ravenswood Gardens is mostly two and three flats and apartment buildings, matching the streets to the east but in stark contrast to the “real” Ravenswood Garden on the other side of the tracks.

Western Avenue south of Lawrence was a dirt road until 1905 or 1910. North of Lawrence the street went unpaved until 1924, and the early streetcar line ended there. The trolleys would stop, flip their seats over, and head south at Lawrence. Then, in 1924, Western Avenue was widened. Many of the lots along Western Avenue were still empty in those days, as Western was not as commercial a street as Lincoln. But there were some developments, and property owners of the time felt that tearing down these obstructions to progress was too much trouble and too expensive. Most of the homes and commercial buildings along Western Avenue in 1924 were shortened to make room, including the commercial building that stands today at the corner of Leland and Western and the Queen of Angels School near Western and Sunnyside. That's right--the first six feet or so of hundreds of buildings were simply chopped off, and the sidewalks were moved back to their doorsteps, so that Western Avenue could be 24 feet wider along most of its 22 mile length. This is why some of the frame houses on Western near Sunnyside are flat in front, lacking the characteristic bay windows. The Lange family had to move to their home on Artesian when their first flat at 4759 North Western got smaller. Helen Faul's aunt and uncle lived in a brick two flat at 4511 North Western that was similarly shortened, but apparently they didn't move out during construction. After the work was done, the steel pillars supporting the elevated train structure wound up in the middle of Western Avenue, like Wells Street in the Loop, provoking frequent accidents. These pillars were removed when the L station was renovated in 1978.

Growing up in the New Neighborhood

John Schwenk's mother died in the Influenza epidemic in 1918 (a contagion that killed 18 million people around the world), so he and his father moved in with his grandparents. Schwenk's grandmother was six years old in 1871, and had memories of the Great Chicago Fire; her father's coal yard, along the Chicago River downtown, was destroyed in the blaze. Schwenk graduated from Lane Tech High School in 1938. Bob Colvin's parents met at the Wilson Avenue beach about 1909. Colvin's father was 50, his mother, 35. They built the house at 2519 West Leland just after they were married, and Colvin was born a year later. “It was a nice place to grow up in those days,” Colvin said. “It was very uncrowded. We used to play for hours on the street, playing baseball and kicking a football and what not on Leland Avenue. There were very few cars in those days. We used to break windows playing baseball, so we got pretty good at glazing. One of the kid's father worked for a glass company, so we'd replace windows as we broke them.”

The river used to bisect Leland near Maplewood and flowed over what is now Lawrence Avenue for at least a block near Washtenaw. When the channel was dug north of Lawrence Avenue, the earth cleared to make way for the ditch was piled on the sides, forming a set of hills that were ideal for Bob Colvin and his friends to ride their bikes on as children. The Depression stalled development north of Foster; as late as the 1950s new drivers used to head for the side streets near Foster and the river, because those streets had no houses on them and thus no traffic to interfere with practice.

As the streets were laid out around 1910, the Northwest Land Association planted cottonwood trees on the parkways. These trees are almost all gone now, but their memory lives on in the form of the large cottonwoods that tower over the Chicago River on the western border of the neighborhood. The parkway trees started dying out in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as most of the elms that graced these side streets. The city replaced these trees with maples. With the elms and cottonwoods, hedges also eventually disappeared. Almost everyone bordered their parkways with hedges in the 1940s, and some people planted them in their front yards too. Today the only vestige of these hedges are on Leland Avenue and Western, bordering the parking lot owned by the Adinamis Funeral Home.

Lillian Augustin’s grandfather George Hoffman built the house at 2421 West Leland in 1910, and she moved there as a child in 1932. At the time the street was a dirt road; Lillian was delighted as a child to see Leland paved about 1936 as that allowed her to start roller skating. She could remember following the horse carts of ice and vegetable vendors in the alleys, collecting ice chips on hot summer days. Neighbors never locked their doors. Children in the neighborhood tended to roam freely but were expected to go home for the night when the street lights went on. They did not have a garage because nobody in her house had a car, either.

When the neighborhood was new it was mostly German and Irish. In 1923, according to Colvin, half of the students at Waters Elementary School had foreign-born parents, including Polish, German, and some Italian. The Irish children generally went to Queen of Angels School. “When I was a kid I would say that half of the residents were Catholic and belonged to the Queen of Angels,” Colvin said. Ethnic tensions throughout Chicago at the time were reflected at Western and Lawrence. During World War I an old German who apparently talked too much had a barn on Lincoln north of Western, where the McDonald's stands today. He made his living shoeing horses, until an angry local mob dragged his wagons out into the middle of Lincoln Avenue and burned them in 1917 or 1918. “I was about 11 years old at the time,” said Lange, who witnessed the event. He also attended a mock battle in Grant Park, complete with trenches, Chicagoans in German uniforms, flares, rifle fire, and suicidal charges into machine guns.

World War I also left an indelible impression on a veteran of Flanders Fields named Carl Wanderer. Returning from the excitement of combat, Wanderer settled down to work as a butcher and married a young lady named Ruth Johnson in October of 1919. They moved into a building at 4732 North Campbell that belonged to Ruth's mother. Coming home from the Pershing (now Davis) theater on the night of June 21, 1920, the Wanderers were confronted with an armed robber in the darkness of the apartment building vestibule. In the shootout that ensued, both the assailant, a skid row alcoholic, and Wander's pregnant wife Ruth were killed. Thus began the case of The Ragged Stranger, one of the most sensational crimes in Chicago history.

At first sympathy was poured out to the grieving widower, who had to be restrained at Ruth's funeral lest he throw himself in her grave. But Walter Howey of the Chicago Herald and Examiner had doubts. Why would a ragged bum from Madison and Halsted have a United States Army issue Colt .45, just like the weapon Wanderer himself carried? Hower told a reporter, Harry Romanoff (who happened to be A. J. Lange's brother-in-law) to trace the serial numbers of two weapons. Romanoff learned that one belonged to Wanderer, and the other to Wanderer's cousin! Later, while a police lieutenant named Mike Loftus kept Wanderer's mother busy, Romanoff sneaked into Wanderer's apartment and found the torn up draft of a love note Wanderer had written to another woman, and photographs of this woman and Wanderer together at Riverview Park.

The Herald and Examiner broke the story. When Romanoff tracked down Wanderer's mistress, he confessed to the crime. Wanderer gave the ragged stranger, an army veteran named Al Watson, $10 to have a scuffle with him on North Campbell so that he could drive him off and impress his wife with his manliness. Instead, Wanderer gunned down the ragged stranger, and then shot and killed his wife with a different weapon. Wanderer's war experiences had left him with a taste for adventure--and women. After just seven or eight months of marriage, he decided that the institution was too confining, and he sought to rid himself of his wife in what he thought would be the perfect crime. Bob Colvin remembers being a nine-year-old when Wanderer was still considered a hero. “As a kid, I went up there and you could see the bullet holes in the vestibule,” Colvin said. ”We went in the alley and Wanderer was on the back porch.” Wanderer was hanged for the double murder on March 19, 1921.

Property values have climbed slowly in the area throughout most of its history. Andrew J. Smith built a brick two-flat at 2425 West Leland in 1914 for $4700. As was common at the time, Smith financed the property by borrowing $4,000 on a three-year note. Before the Depression, home loans were generally for five years or less. Also, home notes were handled rather like balloon payments today, in that the interest was due once a month, but the principal was paid in one lump sum when the note was due. The Federal Housing Administration introduced 30-year mortgages as part of the New Deal in an effort to make housing more affordable, and thus jump-start the construction industry. After World War II the Smith two-flat would have been worth about $15,000. The house sold for $20,000 in 1970, and for $95,000 when it sold again in 1987. Property values began to climb quickly in the late 1980s after the area was discovered. A 1987 Chicago magazine cover story naming Lincoln Square as one of the next hot neighborhoods in the city helped.

The Business Community

The commercial district at Rockwell near the L stop developed before Lawrence Avenue did, and it was a lively place in the old days. ”Rockwell used to have just about everything,” Colvin observed. The street over the years had a shoemaker, a barbershop, a pharmacy, a vegetable market, a tailor, and an assortment of bakeries, delis, hairdressers, and other stores. Southwest of the tracks, where a roofing company is located today, the A&P Tea Company had a single store front. A&P sold about a dozen varieties of tea from metal cases. At the local meat market on Rockwell, the butchers wore bloody aprons, and cut meat to order from sides of beef and whole carcasses of sheep and hogs hanging in a refrigerator in back. The current site of the Leland Inn at Leland and Rockwell was formerly a cigar store. ”Just about anything you needed you could get within about a half block of home,” Colvin said. Colvin remembers deliveries and peddlers too--the ice man, the milk man, the knife sharpener, the vegetable vendor, the organ grinder with his monkey.

Residents could telephone their orders to Gouch's Grocery Store on Rockwell, who “supplied food for just about everybody,” Colvin said. Everything was behind the counter, and the merchant would use a long pole with a handle to reach cans and bottles on top shelves. Most products were sold in bulk from open barrels, including pickles, flour, sugar, salt, coffee, and tea. Customers paid their bills once a month. Self-service markets took a while to catch on. A Piggly Wiggly opened on the east side of Rockwell south of the L tracks in the 1920s, but it was ahead of its time and didn't last long. Customers preferred being waited on for their groceries.

Lincoln and Lawrence was, at the time, one of the strongest retail districts in the city. Two banks were on that corner, Bowmanville National Bank and Second Citizen's. Dieden's Department Store opened at Lincoln and Lawrence in 1908. In particular the use of pneumatic tubes to send orders to the cashier upstairs caught Bob Colvin's childhood fancy. John Schwenk's grandparents used to bring him to see Santa Claus at Dieden's during the 1920s. After Dieden's went out of business a Woolworth's and a Kresge department store shared the site. Across the street Abram's stood for many years, before closing in 1993. Abram's was one of the last examples of a disappearing breed, the independent department store. Schwenk worked at the Bertha Theater when he was in high school, and noted that the theater is today the home of a martial arts studio. The Bertha had 550 seats, and opened around 1915. The Leland Theater, across the street (a playbill gives the address as “Lincoln at Leland”), opened even earlier as a nickelodeon. Apparently it was located where the Merz Apothecary is today. In the building now occupied by the Chicago Brauhaus Restaurant, locals could play miniature golf in the 1930s. The building had nine holes each on two floors. South on Lincoln was the Pershing Theater, a movie palace now known as the Davis Theater.

Around the corner, on Western, was the Western Avenue Cycle Shop, a clock shop, a shoe repair store, LJ Schiller & Company Real Estate, and Acme Garage & Auto Livery, among other businesses. The Three Links Hotel provided single room occupancy units, and had a Swedish bath house in the basement. The property is now owned by the German American National Congress (DANK). The Western L stop had a retail arcade that featured several shops, including a restaurant and a card shop. Next to the L station was a fishmonger and Lyon's Stationary Store. The Northside Laundry stood where the now-defunct Horizon Federal Savings and Loan is today (formerly the Lincoln Square Savings & Loan). The laundry was noted for its tall chimney, as it used coal-fired boilers. Locals could save 20 percent if they picked up their own laundry. Large commercial laundries like this were popular in the days before washing machines and laudromats became common.

The Family House Restaurant, a popular Greek establishment, occupied the site of the current Cassanova's near the corner of Lawrence and Western. A bowling alley once stood on Lawrence Avenue at the current site of the Illinois Department of Employment Security, and a garage for delivery trucks for the Fair Department Store was next to it, where the post office is today. The parking lot next to Burger King was originally occupied by the North Shore Glass Company. An explosion there in the 1930s leveled the building, and the concussion was so great that windows were broken in homes as far away as Clark Street. No one was injured or killed, however, in the blast. The White House Grill, a small white frame building, stood where the Commercial National Bank is now ("For goodness sake EAT HERE").

The broader area was known in the 1920s and 30s for its automobile dealerships, especially along Lawrence Avenue just west of the Chicago River. Colvin said “Any kind of car you wanted you could buy there.” This was the site of C Zepp, the biggest Ford dealership in Chicago, and Northwest Buick. A. J. Lange's father bought a car in 1925 at the Cleveland dealership at Agatite and Lincoln. Further south, the guild hall of the Queen of Angels parish was the site of a dealership that failed during the Depression. The church bought the property, and had all kinds of activities there for families during the 1930s. The energetic priest who founded the guild hall went on to become a chaplain during World War II, and was killed in the Pacific.

Liquor, Right and Wrong

The community also had plenty of taverns. Apparently there has always been a tavern on Western near Leland, even during Prohibition. Filly's Saloon was located at the northwest corner of Western and Lincoln. There was a tavern in the L station at Western, another next door, below the apartments, in the building that was demolished to make way for the plaza. Next door to that was a building with a restaurant, with an attached tavern. A bar on Western just south of Lawrence in the 1930s, like many of the time, offered Prima beer for 5 cents, and sandwiches for free. The original owner of the funeral home at Western and Leland, a man named Ferguson, died in a shootout in a bar at Eastwood and Western in 1938. It was a previously lazy Sunday afternoon, and Ferguson got in the way of a group of robbers and an unexpected group of off-duty police officers. After the Bowmanville Bank failed during the Depression, an entrepreneur opened a place called the Queen Mary among the vacant tellers' cages. Later, for the culturally inclined, a Greek establishment at Leland and Western called George's offered belly dancing with drinks, as did the Athens Night Club across the street. "After Prohibition, there were a heck of a lot of taverns" John Schwenk observed. "You'd never go thirsty around here."

Even Prohibition itself didn't hurt business much. True, the taverns closed, or most of them. But this decline in retail activity did not ultimately provoke too much grief in the community. There was at least one speakeasy in the neighborhood, at 4662 North Western, which remains a tavern to this day, Leland Liquors. People who wanted to buy liquor could get it, or they could make it themselves in the basement. Local merchants cheerfully sold everything a housewife would need to make her own beer or wine at home, including yeast, Blue Ribbon brand malt, long necked bottles, bottle cappers, and still equipment. Lange's father made his own beer for sale, for example, though he didn't drink much of it himself. “Prohibition was kind of a joke, actually,” Colvin said. “We would have parties and somebody would always bring in some gin.” In fact, the neighborhood was so awash in booze during Prohibition that when Lange was interviewed for this article, he insisted several times (incorrectly) that it was legal for citizens to brew their own beer and make their own wine at home, as long as they didn't try to sell it to anyone else!

The Depression

In the early 1920s the Second Citizen's Bank built the property at the corner of Western and Lincoln, where Walgreens is today. This was a branch of the Citizen's State Bank of Chicago at Melrose and Lincoln. Bowmanville National Bank was built in 1922, on the site of a vegetable garden. This bank cost $200,000, and featured Bedford stone, a large community hall, and too much self-confidence. The bank failed in 1930, along with its neighbor across the street. Many local residents lost their savings when Bomanville went under, though not all of them. “My folks were smart,” Lange said. “They dealt with the Continental Bank downtown.” The Commercial National Bank stands on the site of the Bowmanville National Bank today. An advertisement for Bowmanville National Bank can still be seen on the wall of a building next to the Rockwell L stop.

The Depression hit the neighborhood as hard as any other middle American community.

In the 1930s less than a third of the residents owned their homes. Rents averaged $25 to 30 a month, and slightly higher near the L stop at Western, but this was still too much for many, so people doubled up or moved on. At 2425 West Leland, Stanton and Elsie Albright and their daughter Lois moved upstairs with Elsie's parents, Walter and Annie Bouley. A. J. Lange's father had to pay the rent for one of his tenants in order to get them to move somewhere else. Bob Colvin remembers that Lake View High School was considered college prep school in those days. The students there came from prosperous families and had high expectations, and about 80 percent of them graduated and went on for further education. But during the Depression, few of Colvin's former classmates could stay in college. Many people were out of work, and many storefronts were empty on Lawrence and Rockwell. Colvin noted that the owner of a hamburger shop on Western, near Leland, applied for a job as a streetcar driver, and was absolutely delighted when he was hired several years later.

When John Schwenk graduated from Lane Tech High School in 1936 he managed to land a job earning 20 cents an hour at a factory that made motion picture cameras. He traveled every day by streetcar to Cermak and State in order to earn $10 a week, and $1 of that went to trolley fare. His father was unemployed during the Depression, and died suddenly before his son finished high school. But the income from the extra apartment upstairs and Schwenk's earnings were enough for him and his grandmother to live on, if barely. Colvin spent most of the Depression working for the Chicago Daily News, where his father had worked as a typesetter. Colvin's father got him an apprenticeship there, with the respectable salary of $13 a week. In heartier times Colvin would have had plenty of work until he completed his apprenticeship in five years. Then, he would have been set for life as a union printer. But his timing was poor--he started the apprenticeship in 1929.

After the Crash of ‘29 Colvin found himself in a part-time job that lasted until he landed a regular position with the paper in 1937. Then as now the printing business depended largely on advertising. Newcomers to the trade worked as substitutes on an as-needed basis. Hiring time at the Daily News was 10 AM, and the foreman would take the men he needed from the top of the “slip board.” Substitutes were placed on the slip board in order of seniority, and were given regular positions with the paper in the same way. Before the Depression the work week was six days, but the union voted to reduce it to five in order to put more men to work. There still wasn't enough to go around. But Colvin's father received $50 a month pension from Daily News and another $50 from union, and his mother worked as a visiting TB nurse, so they had enough to live on. Colvin married in 1932, and his wife moved in with him and his parents on West Leland.

“Things were at a standstill,” Colvin said. “Luckily, I had enough work for a couple days a week.” Lange and Faul were lucky too. As a new college graduate, Lange first worked for an insurance firm, and then worked with his father in real estate. Helen Faul's father was a streetcar driver on Ashland Avenue. He managed to get his daughter a job as a proofreader at Loyola University Press through a priest who rode with him every day. She started working as a new high school graduate in 1929 and never missed a day of work. Neither did her father, and the family also had the rents from the two apartments upstairs. In fact, Faul stayed with the Press for 47 years.

The experiences of Lange, Colvin, and Faul reveal a facet of the Depression that is not often addressed. Most histories of the era talk about 30 percent unemployment, bank failures, foreclosures, hoboes, rent parties, and hoovervilles. But for many Americans the 1930s was a time of relative security. Those who were fortunate enough to maintain their income levels sometimes actually prospered indirectly, because prices fell during the decade, and because great bargains were available in real estate, stocks, and other investments. “I hardly knew about the Depression,” Lange said. “We ate regularly, bought cars, took trips.”

World War II

In 1942 and 1943, Lange worked testing air craft engines at the Buick airplane plant near O'Hare Field. He was a specialist, as he had aircraft experience, and thus got an unlimited gasoline ration so he could drive to the plant from home. At the time most people could get only four gallons of gasoline a week, so public transportation did a big business. Lange was a veteran sailor, and had joined the Coast Guard Reserve in 1939. In 1943 the Navy came to the Chicago Yacht Club to recruit, because while they had plenty of seamen who knew how to handle battleships and aircraft carriers, they saw a pressing need for skippers with experience in piloting small craft in heavy seas. So the 37-year-old Lange found the Navy eager to please. “They said, ‘If you want to volunteer, we'll send you wherever you want to go.' I wanted to go where it was warm.” He went to the south pacific, commissioned as a Lieutenant Commander ($100 a week) and skipper of the armed tug boat LT57.

Home port was Long Beach, California. Lange spent most of his time towing barges full of food and fresh water for troops on remote atolls. He and his crew also pulled Liberty ships off of sandbars or into and out of port, rescued ships that had been damaged by Japanese aircraft or warships, and scuttled one that was too badly damaged to salvage. Lange spent some time at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, but was disappointed to miss out on a trip to Okinawa. “I took the war as a sight-seeing trip,” he said. It wasn't all tourism, however. The LT57 capsized when a bomb dropped from a Japanese fighter plane exploded behind it. Lange and his crew, unharmed, were transferred to a refrigerator ship.

Bob Colvin also joined the Navy in 1943, and served for two years. After he was trained, he put in a request to be an electronics instructor at Wright Junior College, and his request was accepted. “It surprised the hell out of me,” Colvin said. “You never knew until the last minute what your assignment was going to be.” So Colvin's tour of duty with the United States Navy took him, by streetcar, from his home at 2519 West Leland to the remote corner of the northwest side of Chicago. Schwenk was also a commuter during the war, working at Taylor Forge & Pipe works in Cicero, where he remained for nearly 40 years. Taylor Forge & Pipe made fittings for Liberty Ships, a type of steamer that could carry 10,000 tons of cargo virtually anywhere in the world and travel 17,000 miles before refueling. Some 2700 of these ships were built during the war.


The community had a very early Greek presence that apparently served as a nucleus for the new Greektown that formed later. Greek merchants bought commercial property at the corner of Western and Lawrence as early as 1905, and had a variety of businesses in the area by the 1920s. About the same time the St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox parish was established near Carmen and Washtenaw. Helen Faul had Greek neighbors from 1915 to 1924 when she lived in the brick three-flat on Montrose that faces Welles Park. The daughters were her playmates, and their parents ran an ice cream parlor. This Greek family lived in another brick three flat at the corner of Montrose and Lincoln until about 1924 when the building was picked up and moved a block south, to the corner of Leavitt and Cullom. This made room for the much larger apartment building that stands at the corner of Lincoln and Montrose today.

Much later, when the University of Illinois Campus was built in the early 1960s at Halsted and Harrison Streets, some 50,000 Greeks lost their homes and migrated north and west to create a new Greektown near the corners of Rockwell and Lawrence. Many others migrated from Greece itself, fleeing political oppression at home and bringing their savings and habits of hard work with them. According to John Schwenk, the Greeks seem to have displaced a fairly large Cuban community. “All of the sudden, there were no more Cubans,” he said. “It was all Greek.” The 1980 census showed that 24,000 Greeks lived in the Lincoln Square area, out of 56,000 Greeks in the city. The Lincoln Square census tract was 22 percent German in 1980, 12.8 percent Irish, and 10 percent Greek. In the 1970s, the area from Leland to Foster and from the Chicago River to Western had the largest concentration of Greek citizens in the city. Today, however, most of the young people from the Greek community have moved to the suburbs, leaving behind a few Greek restaurants, men's clubs, and shops, largely run by Greeks middle-aged or older. Schwenk observed that the transition was swift. “It seems just as fast as they came, they left.”

"Improvements" to Lincoln Square

The L station at Western Avenue was renovated and expanded in 1978, and at the same time the City of Chicago Department of Transportation sought to improve traffic flow around Lincoln Square. Formerly Lincoln Avenue met Lawrence Avenue less than a block east of the intersection of Western and Lawrence. This lead to serious traffic problems, and the city decided to reroute Lincoln Avenue traffic down Leland to Western Avenue, and then north along Western through the intersection of Western and Lawrence. Lincoln was made one way from Lawrence to Leland, and the Lincoln Avenue bus was rerouted. Land was also cleared in the area for parking for merchants and, initially, for commuters using the L stop at Western. Lincoln Square itself was renovated with a new pedestrian plaza at Giddings, and with new sidewalk treatments, lighting, and diagonal parking. About the same time the old post office at Lincoln and Lawrence, deemed to dilapidated to save, was demolished to make way for an additional parking lot. A new post office was built in 1978 at the corner of Lawrence and Campbell.

The City of Chicago Department of Transportation still likes to brag about this marvel of traffic engineering, but the community hasn't joined in with praise of its own. At least half of the merchants on Lincoln Square fought the proposal, and a group of them, lead by Dean Adinamis of Adinamis Funeral Home, took their protest to the city council. They lost (the contracts had already been signed); eight buildings were demolished, displacing 19 businesses and creating three parking lots and a plaza next to the L stop. The retail arcade in the old L stop was also removed. Many merchants also feared that their business would decline when traffic was reduced in front of their stores and the number 11 bus was rerouted, and it did. Meanwhile, ridership increased at the Western Avenue L stop, but local merchants protested using the new parking lots for suburban commuters. The city made them two-hour parking only, meaning that they were often half full during the day, and people driving in from the northwest side to catch the Ravenswood at Western ended up parking on side streets.

Finally, the primary goal for this unpopular patch of asphalt was to improve traffic flow, but traffic problems have only worsened since. Maybe this isn't the city's fault. After all, traffic congestion has continued to grow throughout the region over the last 20 years regardless of (or because of) relentless efforts to relieve it. Today the intersection of Western and Lawrence is one of the most congested in the city. With some 25 to 30,000 vehicles traveling on Lawrence Avenue from Western to the Chicago River every day, the street is heavily overloaded. Western is also busy, with about 30 to 35,000 vehicles a day, but Western is much wider. Lawrence is not wide enough for four lanes of traffic and two lanes of parking; it compares in width to Damen or Montrose, which typically carry only 15 to 20,000 vehicles a day. This means that Lawrence is not wide enough to really work properly as a major arterial, but it is too wide and too busy to function comfortably as a pedestrian commercial district like Armitage and Sheffield or Lincoln and Fullerton. As a result retailers along Lawrence, from Western to the River, have suffered in recent years.

The Greater Rockwell Organization

The Greek community brought color and commercial vitality to the area in the 1960s, but it also ultimately spawned the Greek Popes, a street gang. In the mid-1970s large groups of young men decided that the corner of Lawrence and Rockwell was their property, and as many as 80 of them at a time could be seen hanging out there, according to Bob Colvin. Graffiti started to appear everywhere, and especially on garages under the L tracks, and it magically returned as fast as residents could paint over it. Colvin remembers having to paint over graffiti several times a week. Brawls between the Popes and the Latin Kings, or with rival Greek gangs, broke out on Leland Avenue and Maplewood. Gun shots became common. The police were kept busy arresting gang members at the Parthenon, a Greek tavern, where they were commonly armed with knives and firearms.

The people who had lived in the community for decades, however, refused to give up and move away. With the help of the Ravenswood Community Council (then known as the Ravenswood Conservation Commission), a group of residents lead by Harriet O'Donnell met in 1976 to start a new organization called the Rockwell Task Force. The Task Force members painted over graffiti, went to court against gang members, and even started hanging out on street corners across from gang hangouts in order to send some intimidation in the other direction. The organization offered a $100 reward for any victim who was willing to sign a complaint and testify in court. Within a few months, with the help of the police and the courts, the Popes were beaten into submission, both figuratively and, well, literally, by police, who were known to use their night sticks to whack errant shins.

In 1979 the task force decided to become independent of the RCC and was chartered as a block club, the Greater Rockwell Organization. David Clark served as the first president of GRO. Residents eventually learned to expect monthly meetings and a monthly newsletter, and captains were sought for each block in the community. The first meeting was at Bob and Marie Colvin's home, and A. J. Lange joined the board in September of 1979. Pat Pfaff, John Schwenk's daughter, was a founding member and early leader.

Much of the efforts of the members of GRO have, over the years, involved responding to gangs and crime. After suppressing the Popes, gangs were hanging out in the neighborhood again from 1983 to 1985, and once more from 1989 to about 1994. Each time the gangs were driven off by determined neighbors. Most recently gang members were chased away from Rockwell and Leland, and then from Gross Park. In 1989 and 1990, whenever a gang member faced a trial, as many as 15 adults would show up in court to show their support to the victim, to press the judge for action, and to intimidate the defendants. GRO's court watch program became a model for other community groups in the city, and on October 27, 1990, Cook County State's Attorney Cecil Partee recognized the organization's “Outstanding Contribution in the Fight Against Gang Crime” at a ceremony at the University of Illinois.

But even if the gangs were quiet, the Greater Rockwell Organization was not. Over the years the organization has worked with three different aldermen's offices, Peoples Gas, the CTA, the local police districts, courts, the Chicago Housing Authority, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the Chicago Park District, and other agencies and institutions. GRO members fought several times to block the CTA's proposal to close the L station at Rockwell, and was the first community group in the city to adopt a station. Members painted and decorated the station on a Sunday morning in 1989. In the summer of 1991, GRO members volunteered their time to help design a new playground at Jacob Park. Some 25 GRO volunteers also contributed to two work days at the park and raised over $4000 for new equipment. GRO members form the core of the membership of the Gross Park Advisory Council, and GRO has given equipment to the park and worked closely with the supervisor, Gary Kuzmanic. Currently 45 households participate in a neighborhood curbside recycling program sponsored by Uptown Recycling, Inc.

GRO members have repeatedly gone into Housing Court against negligent landlords, and have been successful in forcing several slumlords to renovate their buildings. Others have planted flowers at Jacob Park and at Rockwell, and over 100 trees have been planted in the area over the last 10 years. In 1988 the community received a grant from the city to restore the shopping district at Rockwell; the street was repaved, sidewalks were replaced, and planters were installed. When the school reform legislation passed in 1988, several members ran for local school council positions, with Harriet O'Donnell being elected to the council at Amudsen High School. Another GRO president worked with the Chicago Housing Authority in selecting candidates for apartments in two CHA scattered-site housing buildings in the community, one on Talman and the other on Virginia. Every year GRO sponsors a spring cleanup, and for 16 years GRO has held a popular neighborhood garage and yard sale, with 25 families commonly participating.

In 1994 GRO members started the Ravenswood L Coalition in response to the CTA's announced plans to close the Ravenswood line for up to two years, starting in 1996, for a massive renovation project. Coalition volunteers handed out 6000 fliers to riders at L stops, and received over 700 back. Leaders of the effort met with all of the local aldermen and with congressman Michael Patrick Flannagan, were interviewed on the radio, and were quoted in articles in the Chicago Reader, Sun Times, and North Loop News. A public forum about the renovation project, sponsored by the Coalition and GRO, filled the auditorium at the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library. The goal of the Coalition was never to block the project, but rather to represent the interests of the riders collectively to the CTA. The Coalition sought to prevent the permanent closure of any of the existing stations on the Ravenswood, limit disruptions of service, and see to it that the riders had a part in any decisions that were made.

After the CTA dropped plans to renovate the Ravenswood, some GRO members turned their attention to improving the sagging Lawrence Avenue shopping district. After several months of planning, GRO sponsored a charette for Lawrence Avenue. A charette is a gathering of people with ideas; the goal was to talk about how to make Lawrence Avenue a better place to live, work, and shop. The event was co-sponsored by the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce and the American Institute of Architects. Local merchants and businesses provided about $1000 plus lots of food and materials, as well as a vacant storefront on Lawrence Avenue. GRO volunteers--at least 15 of them--worked tirelessly gathering information, making drawings and diagrams, taking panoramic photographs of the area, writing letters, and seeking out donations for the charette. About 30 people participated in the event, which lasted for a day and a half, October 28 and 29 of 1995. Of this group some 15 were planners and architects, and the representative from the American Institute of Architects said it was the best charette he had ever attended. Currently the new Urban Design committee is organizing the results of the charette to make presentations and to help guide future planning decisions.

The Years Ahead

What will the neighborhood look like in the future? The old buildings are likely to remain much the same, as they were built to last. The ethnic makeup of the community, however, continues to change. In 1990 the census tract had about 3800 residents, an eight percent decline from 1980. In those ten years the white population of the area dropped by about one third, while the Hispanic population nearly doubled, making the area at least one third Hispanic. The rest is a remarkable mix of nationalities. Greeks, Germans, and Hispanics are neighbors to Filipinos, Thai, Chinese, Koreans, Pakistanis, Indians, African-Americans, Romanians, Cubans, Bulgarians, and members of other nationalities. Meanwhile, residents from other communities, like Lincoln Park and Lake View, are drifting in this direction, as they find here some excellent values in our sturdy brick two flats, especially considering the remarkable amenities of the community. Two houses on the 4700 block of Artesian were gutted and rehabbed in 1995. A once near-derelict apartment building next to Jacob Park was recently rehabbed into condominiums, which sold out quickly. New tuckpointing, siding, garages, fences, windows, and porches appear regularly.

The neighborhood from Western to the River was designed for people on foot or in streetcars. Considering that, perhaps the neighborhood will flourish again, especially if Americans grow sick of sitting in traffic, or find they can't afford to sit in traffic with the gasoline prices of the 2010s. Perhaps Americans will rediscover neighborhoods like this, with excellent public transportation, with everything they could possibly need within a short walk from home, and most of all, with a sense of community and heritage. Even with its litter, graffiti, gang problems, and other urban ills, West Ravenswood is more than a place to sleep at night, more than a collection of suburban boxes devoted to storing stuff bought on credit. This neighborhood is a place worth devoting a lifetime to. Just ask A.J. Lange, or John Schwenk, or Bob Colvin, or Helen Faul.

About the Author

Mark Dawson wrote this manuscript in December of 1995 as an article for the Ravenswood-Lake View Historical Association quarterly newsletter. The article was abridged for publication. Dawson lives at 2425 West Leland Avenue. He is a freelance technical writer and the president of the Greater Rockwell Organization.


Chicago Historical Society Library

“Modernization: Lincoln Square's Best Insurance,” by Helen Monchow, Real Estate, August 16, 1941.

"Athens in Chicago," Chicago Daily News, January 25, 1974.

“City's New Greektown: Residents Plan to Stay in Lincoln Square Area,”Chicago Sun-Times, October 18, 1984.

Folio edited by Vivien Palmer, “History of Ravenswood Community” produced by the University of Chicago and the Chicago Historical Society (volume two part two). At least a dozen sources within this folio were quoted.

Ravenswood Lake View Community Collection, Conrad Sulzer Regional Library

Ravenswood Historical Sketches Folio

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of 1894 and 1913

“Ravenswood Manor: Indian Prairie to Urban Pride” in Golden Jubilee by Richard Bjorklund, Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association, 1964.

Abstract of Title to Lot 29 in Block 57 in Ravenswood Manor, Chicago Title and Trust Company, 1923 (Abstract 1/6).

"Wanderer Dies Scorning Plea for Confession" in May God Have Mercy on Your Soul: The Story of the Rope and the Thunderbolt by Edward Baumann, Bonus Books, Inc., 1993.

"The Ragged Stranger" by George Murray, in The Chicago Crime Book, edited by Albert Halper, World Publishing Company, 1967.

Personal interviews

A. J. Lange, 4742 North Artesian

John Schwenk, 2431 West Leland

Robert Colvin, 2519 West Leland

Helen Faul, 4734 North Virginia

BJ Tersch, 4742 North Virginia

Harriet O'Donnell, 2449 West Leland

Other Sources

Some of the material about the Ravenswood elevated is drawn from TheL; The Development of Chicago’s Rapid Transit System, 1888 to 1932, by Bruce Moffat, Central Electric Railfan’s Association, 1995.