Originally named Central Park but renamed in 1881 after President Garfield was assassinated, West Garfield Park has modest yet mildly sordid roots. Intrigued? Well then, read on.
West Garfield Park started out as simply a place folks traveled through—a turnstile on the way to Chicago or from the city to get somewhere else. Other than that, no one gave much notice to the area itself as a potential setting for anything more than a trail to other destinations. That was the case until Scandinavian and Irish immigrants built up the community between 1873 and the mid 1880s as a mostly residential, quiet village to raise their families. Though it was a family-first neighborhood, fun came in as a close second.
In the early days of the neighborhood there was no division between East and West Garfield Park and the two communities shared the infamy of having Garfield Park Race Track in the neighborhood. Initially founded as a gentlemen’s club in 1878, its conversion to a racetrack came a decade later and brought commerce in the form of restaurants and taverns. Unfortunately, continuous hooligan antics and consequential police raids marred the race track’s history. In 1892 two police officers and a horseman were killed in a deadly shootout—and that was the end of the Garfield Park Race Track. The building was demolished and homes were built over the ashes along Madison Street.
In 1893 the construction of the elevated train (now known to Chicagoans as the 'El') along Lake Street created easy access from the neighborhood into downtown. With the new residential areas and modern transportation Lake Street was the up-and-coming place to be, lining the northern side of what would become the Garfield Park Conservatory. But by 1914, the new 'it' place in West Garfield Park was along Madison Street. Movie palaces, department stores, and hotels opened along Madison, and the neighborhood survived the Great Depression and both World Wars with an energy and resolve to remain a viable Chicago hotspot for years to come.
Through the 1950s the neighborhood spirit was sorely tested, though. The construction of the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) displaced families living on the south side of West Garfield Park. In addition, America was experiencing the nationwide changes and conflicts brought to light by the Civil Rights Movement, and as many middle-class African American families moved into the area, a number of white families left West Garfield Park. Tensions grew as landlords started to ignore their West Garfield Park properties and the area’s new African American residents. Subsequently, the mistreatment led to a stigmatization that the neighborhood was undesirable. During the 1960s and â€˜70s West Garfield Park went through trying times including race riots that many other large cities experienced.
In the aftermath, West Garfield Park was left in mild disrepair. It has been through the continuing efforts of nonprofit and church groups, such as Bethel New Life, that West Garfield Park is once again finding itself to be a strong and hopeful community.