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Go on a Walking Tour of Chicago's Historic McKinley Park Neighborhood

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McKinley Park is a neighborhood with a rich history, diversity and a plethora of architectural heritage.

Located at the geographic center of Chicago and just a mere 10-15 minutes away from the Loop on a swift ride on the Chicago Transit Authority's Orange Line sits McKinley Park, a smaller neighborhood poised with much growth potential. Chicago's neighborhoods are defined by two ways, the more common methodology is through the collective wisdom from Chicagoans who define boundaries by word of mouth and realtor lingo, and then there are the official boundaries set forth by the system of 77 community areas dividing up the city.

Community areas were drawn up in the early twentieth century as a means to organize and cluster data obtained from census tracts. The boundaries lines were most often drawn along waterways, railroads and arterial streets which had already naturally divided the city into a series of enclaves. As such, some neighborhoods, such as Lakeview on the city's north side has its colloquial boundaries more or less aligned to the official borders, whereas, Wicker Park and Bucktown are actually within the Community Area of West Town.

McKinley Park is community area number 59, and is officially one of the smaller community areas within the city, standing in at just under one and half square miles.

McKinley Park's official boundaries reflect the tradition of being a natural enclave with a southern boundary set at Pershing Road (39th Street), a western boundary at a wide railroad viaduct, an eastern boundary at the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River, and a northern boundary at the Stevenson Expressway. The northern boundary at one time was a waterway — the Illinois and Michigan Canal. However, this canal was filled in and replaced with urban routing of the expressway in the 1950's.

Like much of early Chicago, the land at the time of McKinley Park's settlement was swampy and often covered with pools of standing water. A handful of farmers working a patchwork of small fields were some of the first residents to drain the land and put it to productive uses, but agriculture didn't last long as the area began subdividing and industrializing in the mid-1800s.

The famous Union Stockyards opened to McKinley Park's southeast in 1865 when a group of meatpackers and railroads joined forces to create the largest stockyard operation in the world. The stockyards were then ringed with various packing houses and other supportive industries feeding off the constant flow of livestock brought in by a efficient network of railroad spurs. Waste from the factories and leftover carcasses, blood, and urine from the slaughterhouses were then dumped into the South Fork of The South Branch of the Chicago River. The decomposing bio-matter produced methane gas which then bubbled to the surface of the waterway, giving it the name "Bubbly Creek". Although the stockyards closed in 1971, the creek still bubbles like a glass of champagne to this day. The waterway today stretches as far south as 38th Street, but during the era of the stockyards it indeed reached further, splitting into two branches that have since been filled in due to the excessive levels of pollution.

As industrial production in the area blossomed, the Chicago Junction Railway, which was the main carrier of rail traffic within the stockyards district, would again collectively develop more industrial property in a joint venture with the Union Stock Yards Company. This next tract of land was on the east side of the McKinley Park neighborhood, encompassing 265 acres from 35th Street on the north, Pershing Road on the south, Ashland Avenue to the west and Morgan Street on the east. While the development straddled both sides of Bubbly Creek, the bulk of it was located to the west of the waterway. Land purchases began in 1890 and by 1905, the area had emerged as the first planned industrial park in the world.

Known as the Central Manufacturing District (CMD), the area operated like a self sufficient city with its own governing structure setting up its own bank, police and fire departments, traffic bureau, real estate financing, street cleaning and private club for business executives. The majority of the district’s buildings were designed and built through the organization’s team of in-house architects who constructed them largely of reinforced concrete and facades that blended elements of the Chicago School Style with Arts and Crafts detailing.

The fireproof construction of many of the district’s structures allowed the organization to taut low insurance rates among the many benefits of locating a business there. A network of surface rail lines, underground tunnels and boat docks along Bubbly Creek, as well as close proximity to the stockyards allowed the seamless movement of goods through multiple modes of transportation. The district was able to attract many companies well known throughout Chicago’s history including the William Wrigley Jr. Company, Speigel, Westinghouse Electric, National Carbon Company’s Ever-Ready Works, and United (Rexall) Drug Company.

The booming district soon filled with 200 businesses and expansion plans were in play by 1915, with the district then taking on the south side of Pershing Road for a row of large loft buildings framing in the southern boundary of McKinley Park. Among the planned structures was a large series of warehouses constructed by the US Army in the midst of World War I. One of these warehouses located at 1819 West Pershing Road would later serve as the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools from 1979-2000, before the Board of Education decided to then relocate into the Loop.

McKinley Park's CMD would later have its concept duplicated for other planned industrial parks throughout the Chicagoland area, including the Clearing Industrial District alongside the clearing rail yard in Bedford Park, as well as Centex Industrial Park in Elk Grove Village. As buildings aged in the CMD, various companies began moving on to other modern facilities, often in the suburbs. While the district still hums with activity, a series of large buildings along Ashland have been lost due to vacancy, neglect and in one case, a spectacular fire in January of 2013, which left a temporary display of fire and ice within the ruins of the Pullman Couch Company's former furniture factory.

Just recently, one building within the complex that churned out Wrigley gum for almost a century has also been lost, purely for the purposes of initiating a quicker sale of the vacant property. While the CMD has been listed on Landmarks Illinois annual ‘10 Most Endangered Historic Places List’ there is no formal plan in place to preserve this important piece of Chicago’s industrial heritage.

The heavy concentration of industry as well as the nexus of railroad lines brought many workers to the area, some of whom settled in the neighborhood as it grew up alongside the factories. The residential blocks closest to the CMD tend to have the densest housing in the community with many two-, three-, and four-flat buildings, as well as a handful of larger apartment buildings holding street corners.

The neighborhood quickly filled up with immigrants from a variety of countries who then established micro-communities within McKinley Park around a number churches built throughout the neighborhood. A few of these churches even have their own funeral homes built next door.

Multiple intersections among the side streets had a collection of small business, a testament to the neighborhood’s history where many residents simply walked to work a few blocks away and shopped locally. Almost all of these side street retail spaces have since been converted into additional housing, although a few shops still remain.

While the neighborhood declined with the loss of nearby manufacturing jobs, the area never truly bottomed out, as evidenced by a significant lack of vacant lots. The residential blocks remain largely intact and offer the same vistas as a century ago, a streetscape of classic turn of the century housing terminating with the multi-story industrial buildings of the CMD. The neighborhood still remains a major port of entry of immigrants, largely from Mexico these days, but also an increasingly growing Chinese population as Chinatown expands to the southwest along Archer Avenue.

Housing options further away from the CMD tend to be lower density and were built up a bit later, with neat rows of single family homes and two-flats dating to the early and mid-twentieth century. A handful of small mid-century apartment buildings also dot the area not far from the 35th/Archer Orange Line Station which opened in 1993.

The area has seen a surge of new construction, much of it oriented along Archer Avenue, which parallels the transit line inserted into an underutilized freight railroad right-of-way. The new construction is almost exclusively residential in nature and includes single family homes, townhouses and small condo and apartment buildings. There have also been renovations of some older buildings as well, including a former bank building at Archer and 35th Street, as well as a small church that has been converted into condos. Much of the new housing stock is constructed with red brick, a symbol of Chinese prosperity.

The neighborhood’s namesake park is located in the southwest corner of the community area’s boundaries and was named for President William McKinely after his assignation. The park opened in 1902 on a mix of former cabbage fields, open prairie and the grounds of the Brighton Park Race Track. The park was experimental for its time, as it was a large planned recreational grounds constructed near the stockyards and the emerging Central Manufacturing District. At the time, nearly all of Chicago’s other large parks had more tranquil surroundings.

The park today spans almost 70 acres and is ringed with residential uses on the north and east sides while to the south stands the lofts buildings of the CMD extension, as well as its prominent, but vacant and deteriorating clock tower.

The west side of the park is aligned to Western Boulevard, a divided stretch of Western Avenue serving as a portion of Chicago's Boulevard system of greenways linking multiple inland parks. McKinley Park features a large lagoon, field house, swimming pool, tennis courts, athletic fields, as well as ice skating in the winter months.

McKinley Park is a neighborhood with a rich history, diversity and a plethora of architectural heritage. The neighborhood is served by two stations along the Orange Line, three grocery stores, numerous small businesses and restaurants and is certainly a neighborhood Chicagoans should know.

Aftermath: Some Say the World Will End in Ice [Chicago Architecture Plus]

Central Manufacturing District [Landmarks Illinois]

The architecture of Chicago's first office park [WBEZ.org]

Chicago's South and West Side [You Tube]