A unique fusion of rural and urban, it can safely be said that there is no place in Chicago like its southern-most neighborhood, founded in 1883 by visionary Adolph Hegewisch (Later accounts of the neighborhood’s history altered the founder’s first name to Achilles. Many believe this change was meant to eliminate public association with another well-known 'Adolph'). Then president of the United States Rolling Stock Company, a railroad car building business, Hegewisch bought 100 acres of land with the hope of establishing a town for his employees similar to 'the world’s most perfect town' that George Pullman had built a decade earlier.
It didn’t take long to open up shops and plants, but most of the area was reserved for the USRS rail yards. In 1889, the city of Chicago annexed the community as part of Hyde Park, and Hegewisch officially became Chicago’s southern-most community. At the time of its inclusion, the young neighborhood consisted only of a few homes, shops, and the massive USRS complex. Adolph envisioned the forming of two canals to facilitate industrialization. One was set to connect Lake Michigan with Wolf Lake, which is located just to the northeast of Hegewisch, and the other was intended to shorten the Calumet River to more easily connect with the two lakes. These canals were never built, however, and the chasm between Chicago and this far-south neighborhood grew. Rail lines were built between the heart of the city and Hegewisch, still the large lots of land to the north of the neighborhood remained undeveloped. Along with the lack of canals, the vast area of open prairie isolated Hegewisch from the Windy City, and left the area as something of an industrial island.
Adolph Hegewisch’s death in the 1890s pushed the neighborhood into decline, and his dream town wasn’t the only thing that fell short of the Pullman standard—his rail-car company proved unsuccessful too, and was sold in 1912. The new incarnation was dubbed Western Steel Car & Foundry, and made electric steel, gray iron, and malleable iron. The company, which eventually overcame its identity crisis and settled on the name Pressed Steel Car Company, was the only employment option around.
Because the area was too isolated to commute to downtown Chicago for work, the Hegewisch neighborhood remained sparsely populated until the 1920s when Polish immigrants began to arrive. Between the late 1800s and the late 1920s, many Polish people were uprooted from their homeland, largely due to civic unrest, changes in the economic structure of Poland, and the abolishment of serfdom that left them hungry, jobless and no longer allowed to wander their country side. The Russian Revolution in 1905 shook all parts of the empire, including Poland, and resulted in a wave of immigration, commonly referred to as 'Za Chiebem' or 'For Bread.' Refugees first fled to European countries like Germany, Denmark and France, but soon the displaced masses found their way to the eastern shores of America, and eventually to Chicago. During this decade, about 55 percent of Hegewisch residents were immigrant Poles and their influence is still apparent in the neighborhood today.
The steady increase in population screeched to a stand-still in 1929, when The Great Depression forced people to move wherever they could find work, which certainly wasn’t in the tiny southern Chicago neighborhood. The lull lasted until the post-war boom of the early 1950s, when housing development surged and Hegewisch found itself with a 25 percent increase in population. The neighborhood enjoyed a steady growth in residential construction, culminating in the early 1980s with nearly 12,000 inhabitants. During this time the populace consisted mostly of steel workers and municipal employees. By the end of the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœ80s, the steel industry was on the decline, the children of the Baby Boom generation were moving to the suburbs, and Hegewisch again experienced a dramatic population decline.
Chicago city officials had been watching the struggling neighborhood, and took this latest setback as an indication that the space could be put to better use. In February 1990 the city proposed to destroy over 4,200 homes, and to displace Hegewisch’s 10,000 remaining residents in order to build a new airport. The plans for the airport, which would have been the city’s third, were declared 'dead' by Mayor Daley after a two-year fight with Hegewisch residents, who had no intention of leaving.
Although its isolation from the city made it difficult for Hegewisch to grow, today that same seclusion is a big part of the neighborhood’s charm. Hegewisch is a bona fide 'rural, working-class town' inside the big city limits, retaining a luster that could only have come from rocky beginnings, decades of hard work, and fierce local pride. It may not be the dream town that Adolph Hegewisch envisioned, but to its loyal residents, it’s just perfect.
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