The heart of the south side of Chicago, Gresham is a neighborhood in transition with a bright future ahead and a rich history behind it. Community groups and public parks are on the front lines of revitalization. Providing a place for Gresham residents of all ages to participate in sports and be active, the neighborhood parks offer numerous programs and even a 12-lane bowling alley – to cover every recreational interest. Adult social clubs, teen groups and day camps for kids all encourage community bonding and are a great way to meet the neighbors. Some of the park facility programs focus on personal fitness with aquatic exercise classes and workout centers, but mostly the Chicago Park District works to supply places where Gresham residents can hangout and have fun with fellow community members.
Originally, the neighborhood of Gresham (also known as Auburn Gresham) was a part of Lake Township with was a large community area that ran between 39th and 87th streets, and Crawford Avenue and State Street. With the opening of the Union Stockyard in 1865, the area’s population exploded and the local government was unable to provide residents with basic infrastructure and services. As a result, Lake Township was incorporated into the city of Chicago in 1889.
The original inhabitants of the area were small-time farmers from Holland and Germany who used the swampy terrain to produce enough crops to support themselves and their families while selling the surplus at local markets. However, it was a burgeoning railroad business that brought a change to the rural setting. Irish workers came to the Gresham neighborhood in the mid 1900s as did many other European immigrants from Italy, France, Poland and Sweden who also migrated to Chicago during this time. By the early 20th century, Gresham was a solid blue-collar community of construction and stockyard workers, police and firefighters.
The establishment of street cars throughout the south side made it very convenient for people to get to and from work in nearby neighborhoods. More and more of the local labor force moved to the area and the population of Gresham grew from around 19,000 in 1920 to over 57,000 by 1930. Gresham survived the Great Depression and World War II without suffering any great loss in population, but in the 1950s the neighborhoods demographics would begin to shift. Many African Americans from the region commonly referred to as the 'Black Belt' began to move into Gresham. The Black Belt was an area south of downtown Chicago which stretched along State Street from 22nd Street to 31st Street. Overcrowding in this small strip forced residents to seek housing elsewhere, many of them migrating further south to Gresham. To combat discrimination and ease racial tensions spurred by the influx of African American families, the Organization of Southwest Communities was formed with the goal of maintaining property value as well as the peace among the diverse group of community members.
With the 1960s came the Civil Rights Movement and national attention to racial issues, and despite the best efforts of local community organizations the power of the times swept through Gresham, as it did in many south side Chicago neighborhoods. Slowly, the black population grew, while the white population shrank with many white families moving to the suburbs. Today, Gresham is a Chicago neighborhood experiencing a significant resurgence and the cornerstone of this revival is St. Sabina Church. Under the leadership of Reverend Michael Pfleger the church has worked hard to transform Gresham’s abandoned buildings and empty storefronts into flourishing businesses with an interest in investing in the future of the overall community.
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