Once an elegant, Victorian-style suburb on Chicago's south side, Oakland neighborhood is making a strong comeback to reclaim its status as a prominent and flourishing community. Today, many of Oakland's quiet residential streets are sprouting manicured lawns with newly built single-family homes and multi-unit constructions. Full-on neighborhood revitalization is spearheaded by enthusiastic local organizations and community centers that have set up educational and recreational programs for Oakland residents of all ages and interests. Sports teams, exercise classes, head start pre-school curriculums, financial workshops, computer courses and networking events are all available to the public.
The Oakland neighborhood area is a mile-long strip hugging Chicago’s southern lakefront. This former swamp area was the original site for one of the city’s first soap and lard rendering factories owned by an Englishman named Charles Cleaver. Cleaver played an important role in establishing the neighborhood when, in 1851, he began building wooden homes, in addition to a general store, a place to worship, and a town hall for his employees between 37th and 39th streets. During this time the settlement was known as 'Cleaverville,' but within a couple decades the newly constructed Illinois Central Railroad boosted development in the area and it was renamed Oakland in 1871.
By the 1880s, the easily accessible cable cars and trains to downtown attracted many well-to-do businessmen and their families to Oakland. Mass production of single-family homes reached its peak by 1895, and no sooner had this south side Chicago neighborhood established a prestigious name for itself did it quickly return to its workers’ town roots. Wealthy residents left the area and working class Irish stockyard families moved in during the early part of the 20th century.
During the 1930s, new construction and economic growth were at a standstill. But ten years later, things began to change. Oakland’s population soared from 16,000 to 24,000 residents between 1940 and 1950—the majority of which were African American families, with a smaller community of displaced Japanese Americans who were forced to relocate because of a WW II policy. Through the 1950s, to better cope with the spike in population, the Chicago Housing Authority constructed a 150-unit building called the Victor Olander Homes at 39th Street and Lake Park Avenue. Several other large housing projects soon followed. In 2007, only half of these low-income housing developments remain.
Today, Oakland is boldly and steadily making its way out of hardship and deterioration. The neighborhood has witnessed rejuvenation in certain pockets with new construction and refurbishing of older buildings, but there’s still a long road ahead before it is revitalized to its mid 19th century glory.
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