This southwest Chicago neighborhood may be right next door to Midway Airport, one of America’s busiest transportation hubs, but that hasn’t stopped it from maintaining its quaint country charm.
When speculators reached Garfield Ridge during the 1800s, they didn’t anticipate that the soggy marshland would foil their plans to cultivate the area. As quickly as they arrived, these early settlers quit the hard-to-farm terrain and only one man was left holding most of the land: William Archer, who was the commissioner of the Illinois & Michigan Canal purchased over 240 acres stretching from present-day Archer Avenue to Harlem Avenue. Archer held on as the largest landholder in the area until 1853, when former Chicago mayor John Wentworth bought up the territory just east of Archer’s. It became clear that the nearby city of Chicago intended to expand their southern border, and by 1921 the entire region (including both Archer’s and Wentworth’s property) had been annexed to the city.
With Garfield Ridge’s new civic status came new settlers. The 1920s brought legions of Poles seeking an alternative to the political unrest of their European homeland. As the population grew, the opening of Chicago Municipal Airport (now named Midway) provided more than enough jobs to go around. The land that previously failed at agriculture had become a central hub of aviation, and Garfield Ridge’s economy flourished until the Great Depression in 1929, when the thriving community screeched to a standstill. This plateau lasted until the post-war years, when people could afford to travel by air again and the city’s airfield became a bustling center for transit once more. Subsequently, Garfield Ridge neighborhood became popular with airport employees who could make their homes close to work. The population skyrocketed and single-family homes popped up all around Midway Airport and the southwest Chicago neighborhood began to thrive again.
While Garfield Ridge residents happily maintained the ever-growing Midway Airport, Chicago city officials were focused on a seldom-used airfield further north. Orchard Field had served for decades in the manufacturing of military planes, but civic leaders saw commercial potential in the site. First introducing passenger flights in 1955, the new airport added an international terminal just three years later. Within the very first year of operation, the airport that would come to be known as O’Hare hosted more travelers than Ellis Island did in its entire lifespan as an immigrant port. Still, it wasn’t until an ambitious expansion in 1962 that Midway employees began to feel like second sons. O’Hare became the busiest airport in the country, Midway became a lot less relevant, and Garfield Ridge residents found themselves at yet another lull.
This stagnant air didn’t begin to stir until the 1990s, when budget airlines prompted passengers to once again consider Midway for journeying to domestic destinations. The city laid rail to form the CTA Orange Line system, which extended from the Loop out to the south side airport. In addition to making Midway an even more attractive alternative for air travel (due to its accessibility via public transportation), the train connected the nearby neighborhood with downtown, making the little community even more desirable to homebuyers.
Today, the aviation business still dominates Garfield Ridge. Many residents work for Midway in some capacity, resulting in a sturdy middle-class neighborhood. The early Polish population is still well-represented, and a wave of new residents from Mexico and other Latin American nations have filtered in to further diversify the area. The tiny commercial district along Archer Avenue is comprised mostly of mid-century modern designs, fulfilling the rudimentary needs of the community with very little fluff. Built around the necessity of travel and a growing industry, this south side Chicago neighborhood is deep-rooted in fundamental duty, with the added bonus of being a lovely place to settle down and raise a family—especially if your little ones have aspirations of becoming pilots upon growing up.