Once known to locals as Cornell, the neighborhood of Grand Crossing was renamed in 1871, because of a dangerous train intersection that ran through its core, forever leaving its mark on this now predominantly residential community of Chicago.
A train accident may not be the most auspicious basis for a neighborhood’s identity, but back in the 1850s those railway tracks were certainly the name of the game. Two railroad lines, the Illinois Central and the Michigan Southern Railroad, had routes that ran through what is now the Grand Crossing neighborhood. The lines intersected one another at what is now 75th Street and South Chicago Avenue, a section that became known as the hazardous 'Grand Crossing.' It all started in 1853 when two trains collided at a junction, which both railroad companies claimed as their own. Eighteen people were killed and many more injured in the mishap, and in the following years there were plenty more accidents at the same spot until the tracks were elevated and signal lights installed in 1912.While the treacherous crossing was done away with, the name Grand Crossing remains.
The area started out as swampland, and aside from accidents, the railroad also brought growth and residential development to this once-barren Chicago neighborhood, which was populated for most of the 19th century and until mid 20th century by immigrant workers. There was an industrial base in the neighborhood with factories that made furniture, tacks and barbed wire. In the 1950s the neighborhood underwent a demographic and economic change as African American families moved in, while the immigrant population moved out. By the 1960s, the city of Chicago viewed Grand Crossing as a 'slum and blighted area.'
Despite some of the problems the neighborhood faces, it has had an active theatre presence since 1971, when ETA Creative Arts Foundation opened its doors, an organization that both fosters the arts and offers premieres of African American plays, musical evening and literary get-togethers.
These days, Grand Crossing is a community still working towards improving and reinventing itself. There is ongoing development on the east side of this Chicago neighborhood, which borders South Shore. Just a year ago, a stunning new youth center was opened through the philanthropy of a former resident of Grand Crossing named Gary Corner. Corner lived in Grand Crossing and attended Paul Revere School more than 70 years ago. He was the founder of Land’s End catalog and was a major philanthropist, who in his last years tried to reinvigorate parts of Grand Crossing, with a new housing project and youth center near the school he attended in his childhood. Mr. Corner passed away in 2006, but the youth center that bears his name is flourishing and bringing new life into a Chicago neighborhood that continues to strive for a better tomorrow.