The Grid: Exploring the Auburn Gresham neighborhood
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Welcome to “The Grid,” our in-depth look at Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Today’s stop is Auburn Gresham. This neighborhood is about nine miles south of downtown Chicago. Like many of Chicago’s neighborhoods, the area that became Auburn Gresham was mostly rural until immigrants working at the 1983 World’s Columbian Exposition moved into the area and development followed including the creation of the Auburn Lake Lagoon which today is still a central focus of the neighborhood.
Auburn Gresham is part of Chicago’s so-called “bungalow belt” with hundreds of the Arts and Crafts inspired brick homes throughout the residential area. For more than 100 years, St. Sabina Church has been an important part of this working class community, especially for its work on social justice issues. Plus, there’s the food! Auburn Gresham has some of the finest soul food in the city.
“The Grid: Auburn Gresham” includes two videos with host Ji Suk Yi sharing insights about the community from local residents and a detailed article that includes:
This story on Auburn Gresham is one in a series by the Sun-Times focused on the interesting people and places in Chicago’s many neighborhoods, in hopes that all will be inspired to explore our city. We have engaging videos and a comprehensive story – all curated by the Sun-Times to help provide you with the most current and meaningful information about the important and best things to do in this and each neighborhood we visit.
We’re proud to welcome Baird & Warner as presenting sponsor of “The Grid.” Leading our video adventure is Sun-Times program host, Ji Suk Yi.
Ji explores Auburn Gresham
The beauty of one of Auburn Gresham’s hidden gems is impressive even in winter. When I walked through Auburn Park, it wasn’t in its full glory. It was chilly, the trees were bare and it was empty except for geese, but it was still so picturesque and lovely.
Auburn Park has three winding, irregularly shaped lagoons, edged with hand-hewn rock retaining walls. There are two romantic bridges and two islands in the midst of lagoons, surrounded by meandering walking paths, sturdy benches and beautiful Victorian-era homes along Winneconna Parkway.
In the summer, there are plenty of flowering shrubs and trees and fountain jets in the water. Locals still enjoy fishing in the lagoons. This peaceful and serene respite is a familiar one to those from Auburn Gresham but new to me.
History of Auburn Gresham
The park was originally situated on inhabitable marshland and developed as an alternative to the hustle and bustle of living closer to downtown. The eight-acre park was developed in 1872 on land that was formerly owned by Chicago’s first mayor, William Ogden.
Spurred on by real estate development and speculation, the first railroad line was constructed in 1852, and by the early 1870s, three other railroads ran through the community. The area of Auburn Gresham was annexed into Chicago in 1889.
Work on the railroads in the mid-19th century brought many European settlers including the Irish, who were the predominant population of the era. (German and Dutch farmers were the first European settlers of the area.) The city’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade started in Auburn Gresham, stepping off at 79th Street – known as the Southtown Parade.
There was a large Roman Catholic population and five large parishes existed to serve the community. Many Catholics lived close to their churches, with many were clustered near two of the largest, St. Leo and St. Sabina.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, Halsted and 79th Street became a major streetcar transfer point, and the nearby intersection became a busy commercial district. Currently, public transit is still a vital and major thoroughfare —the 79th Street bus line is the CTA’s busiest.
Auburn Gresham weathered the Great Depression and World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, restrictive covenants were struck down by the courts. These covenants that had prohibited African-Americans from living in most neighborhoods outside of the “Black Belt” were lifted, and many moved looking for better housing and less crowded neighborhoods. Many moved into Auburn Gresham. Unfortunately, this resulted in white flight.
“At one time in the early 1960’s, of 62,000 residents, 95% were of Irish Catholic or Dutch (descent),” said Carlos Nelson, Executive Director of The Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation. “Ten years later, of its 64,000 residents – 98% African Americans.”
African-Americans seeking better housing and schools for their children moved to neighborhoods that were formerly “off limits” were greeted by white neighbors and residents leaving for the suburbs. It happened so quickly and drastically in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood that it was devastating for its infrastructure and commerce.
“White flight is really the sociological term which is quite applicable here,” said Nelson. The lingering effects of white flight, decades of redlining and disinvestment created a decline in the community’s growth, infrastructure, safety and jobs. Businesses, churches and schools closed. Many empty lots and shuttered buildings were a physical reminder of the daunting economic challenges facing residents.
Despite the challenges, the spirit of the neighborhood has persevered, and residents have created safety nets and opportunities for the community. “The black folks that moved in here during that white flight or ethnic succession, they maintained their properties, and if you look around this bungalow belt, these homes are still very nicely kept,” said Nelson. “That’s one thing that makes Auburn Gresham unique – the strong African-Americans that moved here in the 1960s and 70s and still maintain it now.”
In recent decades, there is a redefined vision of Auburn Gresham gaining momentum. From highly visible community activists like Fr. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s to residents doing their part on their blocks, Auburn Gresham is continuing its efforts to build a brighter outlook.
“What I love about it is its families, its people that have lived here years upon years. It’s got this rich history,” said Pfleger. “Once we get the development and the investment that needs to be done, people will find out when they come here and they do business here, their business is successful. I think the neighborhood is a real hidden jewel.”
A form of neighborhood watch, block clubs, are hoping watchful eyes, community engagement and beautification will help keep Auburn Gresham safer. This is a form of grassroots community activism that has been present for decades and continues today. For example, Betty Jo Swanson, president of the 79th and Carpenter Block Club, has been vigilant for more than 30 years.
Many community leaders and activists are looking to the future and hoping to attract young families to the neighborhood.
“We have to make certain that young folks come back to Auburn Gresham to buy these homes that we are renovating. Put their kids in the schools that we’re financing because we invest in kids here in Auburn Gresham,” said Nelson.
Auburn Gresham community
St. Sabina Church
Many consider St. Sabina the rock of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. While many churches closed during the rapidly evolving racial landscape of the 1960s, St. Sabina welcomed a changing congregation. Pfleger is a community activist who leads church members in ministering to the neighborhood and for more than 40 years has remained a stalwart protector of the community.
St. Sabina has a vast array of free programs for youth and adults from ages 6 – 28 through “The Ark” initiative – a safe haven for at-risk youth. There is also the St. Sabina Academy for children from preschool age to 8th grade. It is also home to an employment resource center and various social service programs.
St. Leo High School
Another institution that welcomed the changing demographics of the neighborhood has served the Auburn Gresham community faithfully throughout the decades. St. Leo High School has been a source of pride for the community since 1926. Boasting a strong alumni network, outstanding sports program and academics, the high school has graduated 100 percent of its seniors in the last eight years.
Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation
The Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation is a local nonprofit economic development group spearheading revitalization for the Auburn Gresham community. For 16 years, it has been focused on comprehensive community development in the neighborhood. Carlos Nelson worked as a mechanical engineer before volunteering at GAGDC, later becoming executive director.
Its mission also includes increasing availability of quality housing to people of different income levels, while maintaining and improving existing affordable housing; and enhancing delivery of social services, particularly to senior citizens.
The nonprofit is also using art as a form of outreach. “We’re promoting Auburn Gresham as a place that has art and culture as the fabric of our community,” said Nelson. “So we’ve begun using art as an economic development tool. We’ve begun tagging vacant properties and buildings and turning the negative into positives.”
The signature revitalization project for the organization is converting an abandoned former furniture store at 839 W. 79th St. into a health and wellness lifestyle hub. The 55,000-square foot building will be anchored by a community health center, offices for community based non profits and local businesses and a restaurant and cafe.
The GAGDC hosts the Annual 79th Street Renaissance Festival the weekend after Labor Day. An estimated 25,000 people attended the block party in 2018. It features local food vendors, activities for children including a petting zoo, games and music.
“No one thought that anyone would come to a block party on 79th street, now we have over 20,000 people attend,” said Nelson. “We feed the first 500 seniors free. We have great entertainment, gospel, jazz.”
The centerpiece of Renaissance Park is a sculptural fountain designed by artist Jerzy Kenar. A pyramid-shaped pile of black granite spheres represents significant African-American figures who have made important contributions to society. Rev. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Chicago’s first black mayor Harold Washington and Maya Angelou are among the names carved into the stone. Water flows forming a river that represents a spring of positive change.
The Auburn Gresham neighborhood earned the distinction of becoming the 10th Bungalow Historic District in Chicago and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 250 qualified bungalows that help earn this distinction. The first bungalow in the neighborhood was built in 1918.
Target Area Development Corporation
Target Area Development Corporation is a regional grassroots social justice organization with offices in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and South Africa building power in communities to solve stubborn problems using “Research, Organizing, Mobilization and Education” (ROME). In Chicago, the focus is on criminal justice reform, re-entry and violence prevention.
“Whatever the community needs, that’s what we’re focused on. The people are beautiful here,” said Willamae Turnipseed, a case manager at Target Area and 20-year resident of Auburn Gresham. “You know, we have our share of crime, but the neighborhood itself is wonderful.”
The AFC Center (formerly Highland Theater)
The Highland Theater opened in 1926 as a one-screen theater with more than 2,000 seats. It was built by architects Newhouse and Bernham, the firm that also designed the third version of downtown’s McVickers Theater.
The Highland closed more than 30 years ago, re-opening as the Ambassadors for Christ Church. Now renamed the AFC Center, it’s a multi-use building that provides a venue for theater, churches and organizations and can be rented for private events.
Where to eat in Auburn Gresham
Haire’s Gulf Shrimp is located at 7448 S. Vincennes Ave. Bordering Englewood, the fried shrimp purveyor proudly displays a banner with Chance the Rapper giving an enthusiastic approval for one of his childhood favorite cravings. Owner Finnie Haire has been frying shrimp for more than 20 years and ensures his jumbo shrimp are delivered daily – fresh and never frozen. The shrimp are hand cut and prepped, marinated and then fried with a light bread coating. (Try it with a side of spaghetti.)
Jamison’s Soul Food on 1800 W. 87th St. is a cleverly converted drive-through bank. There’s an outdoor patio where the drive-through teller lanes used to be. In the winter, it’s really mostly a “to go” spot as the interior is standing-room only. The renovation isn’t the only ingenious part of the restaurant. The food is outstanding, made from scratch. I am pretty confident I haven’t had better black-eyed peas. The smothered chicken and turnip greens were also outstanding.
Owner Jamie Blunt describes the food at her restaurant as “back in the day, grandma food.” She adds, “Everything comes from the farm to the table, nothing is frozen.” She’s inspired by her team of employees and the community she cooks for. “I did it for the parents because they work 9 to 9 now, it used to be 9 to 5. So they won’t feel guilty.”
BJ’s Market is a favorite of the neighborhood for 26 years. It’s spacious with a buffet/cafeteria style food line to match. Turkey legs are a customer favorite along with two styles of fried catfish – cajun or regular.
Dan’s Soul Food and Bakery has been around for more than 25 years. Favorites include the smothered pork chop, turkey wings and roast beef.
For a cocktail or beer head to Reese’s Lounge at 1827 W, 87th Street. A neighborhood institution for 48 years and owned by the same family, the Burnsides. There’s also a restaurant next door where you can order wings, fried fish and shrimp, a salad or a sandwich. Servers will also take your order in the bar and deliver your meal to you, as well.
Where to shop and play
The go-to boutique in Auburn Gresham is Kham’ryn B. Boutique. The name comes from sisters Karyn and Khamiya Beard, the co-owners of the boutique, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of their family’s business. The boutique specializes in shoes for both men and women and clothing in all sizes – from petites to curvy.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park & Family Entertainment Center has long been the community’s favorite place for roller skating and bowling. The rink can accommodate 500 skaters. You’ll find a lot specials, including $2 skate nights on Wednesdays.
One more thing …
Auburn Gresham is truly the backbone of Chicago. Vincennes Avenue in Auburn Gresham was originally a trail used by Chicago’s first inhabitants, Native Americans. The land would often be so wet and marshy, it was impassable many times of the year before it was drained by real estate developers. In the 1890s, Vincennes Avenue then became one of the city’s first thoroughfares to have horse car lines (horse-drawn streetcars).
See you next time on The Grid!
Rubye Lane also contributed to this report.
This new Sun-Times video series showcases the best of Chicago’s neighborhoods by turning a spotlight on the people, places and things that make our city one-of-a-kind. Look for a new video episode each Wednesday on the Chicago Sun-Times website. We hope you will watch, read and share all of The Grid stories!
The Grid neighborhood guides
- Episode 1: Logan Square
- Episode 2: Andersonville
- Episode 3: Pilsen
- Episode 4: Hyde Park
- Episode 5: Ravenswood
- Episode 6: Printers Row
- Episode 7: Roscoe Village
- Episode 8: Bronzeville
- Episode 9: Rogers Park
- Episode 10: Chinatown
- Episode 11: South Shore
- Episode 12: Boystown
- Episode 13: Norwood Park
- Episode 14: Old Town
- Episode 15: Ukrainian Village
- Episode 16: Bridgeport
- Episode 17: Edison Park
- Episode 18: Pullman
- Episode 19: Little Italy
- Episode 20: Greektown
- Episode 21: Avondale
- Episode 22: Uptown