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This week's question was submitted by Craig. Thank you!

Q: Why does Division Street through Wicker Park have such wide sidewalks? ... What's the history of Division Street? What was Division's claim to fame?

Trying to write a history of a street is not an easy thing to do, especially when that street is Division. Historians are not even certain how Division got its name, although the best guess states that the street may have been named for the fact that it divides Goose Island on the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Division Street runs through the community of West Town, which encompasses the areas we know as Wicker Park, Noble Square, East Village, and the Ukrainian Village -- historically one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the city. But the history of the area really begins with another great Chicago street, Milwaukee Avenue.

Milwaukee Avenue was originally an Indian trail running between the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area and Chicago. In the 1840s, the trail was "paved" with wooden planks and reopened as the Northwest Plank Road, later renamed Milwaukee Avenue. This new thoroughfare led to the rapid development of what is now Chicago's Northwest Side.

In the 1850s, the Chicago and North Western Railroad line came through the area for the first time, bringing industry and more development. During this same time, horsecars, horse-drawn buses that pre-dated the streetcar, were also running along Milwaukee Avenue.

In 1886, the first horsecar turned off Milwaukee Avenue to travel a new route down Division Street as far as Humboldt Park. This was a major boon to an area that was already seeing rapid growth. Lots along the new horsecar line on Division Street were being advertised for $350, while single-story wooden cottages were selling from $1,950.

Many early immigrants to Chicago settled in shanty towns just west of Chicago's downtown business district. But with the opening of the Northwest Plank Road and the availability of transportation, some immigrants began to move north to the West Town area.

Manufacturing and other industries provided work for the new residents. Early settlers on the Northwest Side dredged the Chicago River for clay to make bricks. The Chicago Carriage and Wagon Factory, which was located near Milwaukee and North Avenues, employed many of the immigrant settlers during the 1850s, and a nearby rolling mill steel works also provided manufacturing jobs.

The escape from the crowded downtown slums was hastened after the Great Chicago Fire destroyed many of the West Side shanty towns. Polish, German and Swedish immigrants especially sought refuge on the Northwest Side. The Polish immigrants, in particular, settled in the area along Division Street in the Wicker Park area. (Wicker Park, by the way, was named for brothers Charles and Joel Wicker, real-estate developers who invested heavily in the area during its initial growth spurt in the 1860s.)

By the 1940s, Wicker Park was a predominantly Polish neighborhood, and that stretch of Division Street had earned the nickname "Polish Broadway" for the high concentration of Polish bars and taverns along the street. The Gold Star bar at 1755 W. Division is one of the few remaining survivors from this era of the street's history.

This era of Wicker Park is also immortalized in the works of Nelson Algren, such as The Man with the Golden Arm, which tells the story of Frankie Machine and his wife Sophie, living in the Polish community.

Unfortunately, by the 1940s Wicker Park was already a neighborhood on the decline. In 1910, the entire West Town area, bounded by North Avenue on the north, the Chicago River to the east, Kinzie to the south, and Kedzie to the west, had a population of nearly 220,000 people. If it had been a separate city, it would have been the 25th largest city in the United States at that time, just behind Louisville, Kentucky. Throughout most of the rest of the 20th century, West Town experienced a continual decline in population.

The Wicker Park community hit its lowest point in the 1960s when the area along Division Street became known for its prostitutes, drug addicts, and frequent violent crime. The Polish community mostly moved on, and the neighborhood transformed again as Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants began settling in the area in the late '60s and '70s. Yet the population still continued to decline.

Then, from 1990 to 2000, Wicker Park saw its first significant population increase in decades as young urban professionals began to flock to the neighborhood, initially attracted by the lower rents.

Today the neighborhood continues to transform itself again, while retaining its rich ethnic diversity. In 1995, the Division Street Gateways were erected at Artesian Avenue and Mozart Drive -- two abstracted Puerto Rican flags, each constructed from 45-tons of steel. Who knows what transformation will strike the neighborhood next, or what Division Street will look like in another 20 years.

As for the width of the sidewalks along Division Street, I have no idea, but I can point you to a few resources if you would like to explore on your own. The City of Chicago web portal includes a new and very cool Geographic Information Systems section that features an interactive Chicago zoning map, land use maps, plats, census maps, and much more. The site is very addictive, and you may find some clues as to why Division has such wide sidewalks, although you would probably have to compare the current data to historical plats and zoning maps.

Finally, if you are interested in learning more about the history of Wicker Park, check out a new book by local historian Elaine Coorens titled Wicker Park: From 1673 thru 1929 and Walking Tour Guide. I could not get my hands on a copy before preparing this column, but it looks like it is well worth the trouble of seeking out.

Have a topic you would like to see in "Ask the Librarian"? Send your suggestions to librariangapersblockcom and it may be featured in a future column.

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Comments

Craig / July 8, 2004 11:05 AM

Thanks for the write up! Eventually I will solve the mystery of the 25' sidewalks...

Mike / July 9, 2004 10:17 AM

Also, try Studs Terkel's "Division Street: America" for a good look into the 1960s era.

Alice / July 9, 2004 10:31 AM

Thanks, Division Street: America was going to be the "Chicago Authors: First Lines" selection this week, but I forgot my copy when I was typing up the column. However, you can actually listen to some of the Division Street Recordings at the Studs Turkel website using Real Audio. http://www.studsterkel.org/dstreet.php

The book is not specifically about Division Street, but, instead, Turkel choose the street for the title because Division has historically represented such a diverse ethic and cultural cross-section of Chicago.

brian / July 9, 2004 1:56 PM

Fascinating. Well done Alice.

Joann / July 9, 2004 3:30 PM

If you stop in some of the local Ukranian/Polish bars now (T&M on Leavitt and Augusta for one...very friendly people that have lived in the area forever), they can tell you alot about how the neighborhood used to be. Apparently, Division street used to be known as the "Bloody Bucket" 50 years ago or so (per Tyrone in T&M).

julie / July 14, 2004 4:48 PM

Does anyone remember the huge holes in the sidewalks on Division street c. 1990 - 1993 or so? Underneath was alot of cobblestone and stuff. I think, but can't prove, that Division street sidewalks are extra wide due to streetcars and/or the subway - either way they ended up filling in and building over. But, who knows?
I definitely remember lots and lots of drunk people falling into them and getting hurt (two in particular: one just west of PMI near Czar Bar and one v. large one in front of the Gold Star). When the "gentrification" started happening, the city put those horse barrier things around them, finally filling them in nearly a year later.

Alice / July 14, 2004 6:09 PM

Yes, another legacy of Chicago's vaulted sidewalks, a result of grading the street level. See my earlier column on the topic at:

http://www.gapersblock.com/airbags/archives/how_chicago_raised_itself_out_of_the_mud_and_astonished_the_world.php

:)

Tony Coppoletta / July 20, 2004 6:24 PM

Division Street did indeed have a streetcar. Its width is almost certainly a result of it being a busy throughfare with lanes of traffic and parking in each direction and streetcar tracks and platforms down the center.

When CTA ended streetcar operations in Chicago, the street was probably redone a few years later by the City. Law stated in Chicago that streets with streetcars down the center had to be maintained by the company operating surface system service (repairs, paving, snow removal, etc.). This was a daunting task.

CTA saved tons of money by handing all those street-maintenance responsibilities back to the previous incarnation of CDOT or Streets & San.

The city probably widened the sidewalks and narrowed the street once it didn't have to be so wide to accommodate all the traffic, creating that very fortunate amount of space that makes Division street a good place to eat outside today.

 

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