• Arcadia Publishing

For 150 years, even after it agreed to be absorbed into the city of Chicago in order to enjoy such civic perks as decent drinking water and a reliable sewer system, Old Irving Park has been an oasis of middle-class calm. That’s probably why you’ve never been there.

Now Wilfredo Cruz, a professor of sociology at Columbia College and, as of last June, a 25-year resident of Old Irving Park, has published a new book through Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series that pays tribute to his home neighborhood. He spent a year and a half rummaging through archives around the city, including the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago History Museum, and, of course, the Irving Park Historical Society, and wandering around the neighborhood with his daughter’s Nikon.

“I wanted to do a good job,” he says. “These are my neighbors. I have to live with these people.”

He’s been selling a lot of copies of the book at block parties.

  • courtesy Hiram H. Belding School
  • A girl on the porch of the house where Wilfredo Cruz now lives.

One of Cruz’s favorite pictures in the book is of a girl sitting on a porch of a house on North Kilbourne around 1910. Her dress is fabulous. But what really got Cruz excited was the discovery that she was sitting on the porch of his house.

Old Irving Park never had a seriously low point like, say, Lincoln Park in the 60s, but it had gotten a little scruffy by the time Cruz and his family moved in in the 80s. They bought a four-bedroom fixer-upper and got to work. At the time, the neighborhood was aging: Cruz’s three kids were the only young people on the block. Now it’s overrun with young families who migrated from condos on the lakefront in search of more space.

Nearly a third of Cruz’s book is dedicated to house porn. There are a lot of pretty houses in Old Irving, most dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all situated on big lots (because, Cruz explains, the neighborhood was originally an independent suburb with its own rules about property lines). “You get a lot of bang for your buck here,” Cruz says.

But it’s not just real estate that keeps a neighborhood in solid condition. Otherwise neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Logan Square, also conveniently situated along commuter train lines, would not have had such dramatic declines and resurgences.

“It’s because middle-class people are invested in their homes,” says Cruz. “They’re active in the community. If you’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in your home, you’re going to call your alderman and your state representative if there are problems in the neighborhood. If the community is very organized, politicians respond. There’s a lot of pride here. People take care of their homes and gardens and look out for each other.”

Cruz contrasts this to South Chicago, where he grew up. His father, like many of the neighborhood’s residents, worked in the steel mill and then, like many of the neighborhood’s residents, lost his job when the mill closed. “It trickles down,” Cruz says. “The stores close, then the Catholic schools because nobody sends their kids anymore. I saw how the community declined. Poorer working-class communities are powerless. I call it environmental racism, the way the city will put toxic waste dumps on the south side. In Pilsen there was lead pollution for years before the city closed the [smelting] plant.”

Cruz’s book is filled with pictures of community groups in Old Irving Park: garden clubs, block parties, the neighborhood organization that has been active for 30 years, an eternity in neighborhood organization time. (Who wants to take on that extra responsibility?) Over the years, the demographics have shifted, from descendants of European immigrants to Hispanics, African-Americans, and Indians. But the sense of community remains the same. On the 3900 block of North Kenneth, residents put up a plaque with the names of 51 people who had once lived on the block. Some of their descendants still live in family homes.

“It’s very family-oriented here,” Cruz says. “There’s no nightlife. It’s boring. I have a friend who lives in Lincoln Park. People get loud and drunk and throw beer bottles around. There are rats because of all the restaurants. Who wants those things?”

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.