In the early 1870s, Cook County's first Superintendent of Schools John F. Eberhart purchased several acres of land south of 59th Street and west of Kedzie Avenue with the intention of starting a new community. Through his own investment and political string-pulling, he convinced the city of Chicago to help his project along by building a railroad across his property. Pursuing his 'if you build it they will come' mentality, Eberhart constructed a train depot next to the newly-laid tracks at 63rd Street and Central Park. That little depot, erected in 1876, was the first building in the new town of Chicago Lawn, or 'the Lawn' as it was popularly known among its residents. To this day, those railroad tracks define the western boundary of the Chicago Lawn neighborhood.
Eberhart's little town was annexed by Chicago in 1889 but remained a sparsely populated farming community until well into the 20th century. Nevertheless, in anticipation of the area's growth, a major project was started in 1903 to transform a 300-acre prairie south of Chicago Lawnâ€”known as Marquette Manorâ€”into a huge public park. Over the next fifteen years, a fieldhouse, lagoon and golf course were built, and nearly 90,000 trees and shrubs were planted, all to create a marvelous recreational resource that is still one of the area's biggest attractions: Marquette Park 'the playground of the southwest side.'
After World War I, German and Irish immigrants flocked to Chicago Lawn from the ever-growing neighborhoods to the north and east, followed by an even greater number of Polish and Lithuanian families. By 1930, Chicago Lawnâ€”and the former Marquette Manor, which was now considered part of the same communityâ€”had more than tripled in population. The streets branching out from 69th and Western came to be known as 'Little Lithuania' since it was home to more citizens of that nationality than in any other city outside of Vilnius, Lithuania's capital.
Over time, Little Lithuania and the larger southern portion of Chicago Lawn came to be identified more closely with the huge park that dominated the area, and today Marquette Park is regarded by most Chicagoans as a neighborhood distinct from Chicago Lawn. That's fortunate for Chicago Lawn in a way, since intense unrest during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s tarnished the Marquette Park name in the public eye for decades to come.
These days the area is so peaceful, quiet and culturally diverse that it's hard to believe it was the center of such strife forty years ago. Many of the old families have since moved on to neighborhoods and suburbs farther to the south and west, but you'll still find a few Irish, Polish and Lithuanian-Americans around here, along with a mix of Latin, Arab, African American and Caucasian neighbors, helping to make Chicago Lawn seem almost as cosmopolitan as one of the city's north side communities.