Rogers Park is an edgy place. Bordered by the lake and Evanston as well as its sister neighborhood, West Ridge, it has always been influenced and shaped by its juxtapositions between built environment and natural world, between city and suburb.
When Chicago was nothing but a few farmers and traders, plus the soldiers rebuilding Fort Dearborn, a boundary was drawn: in the 1816 Treaty of Saint Louis, the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi tribes ceded to the federal government a strip of land beginning at the mouth of the Chicago River that was 20 miles wide and 70 miles long—land through which the government intended to build the Illinois and Michigan Canal. (Sources disagree on the tribes involved, but ours checked the treaty.) The northern Indian Boundary Line ran west by southwest, from what is now Rogers Avenue and the lake through what is now Indian Boundary Park in West Ridge and eventually to the Des Plaines River. At the lake and along this edge dividing the Native American from the settler, the village of Rogers Park grew.
Like the city of Chicago itself, the area was settled thanks to a fortuitous combination of geography, railroads, and greed. Irish immigrant Philip Rogers arrived in Chicago in the early 1830s and later bought 1,600 acres of government land on either side of the area’s one road, the prehistoric beach now called Ridge Boulevard. After Rogers’s death, Patrick Touhy—an Irish immigrant and Civil War veteran who’d escaped from Andersonville (the Confederate prisoner of war camp in Georgia, not the Swedish neighborhood on the north side)—married Rogers’s daughter Catherine and continued the lucrative real estate speculation that ran in her family, selling land mostly to German and Luxembourger immigrant families.
The Chicago and North Western Railroad’s Milwaukee Line came through in 1873 and a commercial strip grew on Clark Street near the station at Ravenswood and Greenleaf. Several hundred people now lived in the area, many still farming but many others commuting to jobs in the city. The village of Rogers Park was incorporated in 1878.
The growth pattern is familiar: trains brought businessmen and their families far from the city’s industrial smoke and immigrant crowds; the increasing density required infrastructure. By 1890, 3,500 people called Rogers Park home, and in 1893 Rogers Park and its neighbor West Ridge voted to avail themselves of Chicago’s better services: sewers, water, telephones, street lighting and paving, police and fire protection, and other urban amenities. The few hundred residents of West Ridge, who had incorporated their village a mere three years earlier, received another benefit from annexation: there had been talk of expanding the dry laws of Evanston—from 1900 the home base of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—south into the villages across Howard Street; joining Chicago guaranteed that the beer would continue to flow. For decades a practically unbroken row of saloons faced Evanston from the south side of Howard.
Yet despite their common foe to the north, the two neighborhoods were not always neighborly. In 1896 they fought the so-called Cabbage Wars over competing proposals for the creation of tax-levying park districts—along the lake, which is what Rogers Park wanted, or inland, which is what West Ridge wanted. The more urbane Rogers Parkers dismissed their farming and saloon-keeping neighbors as “cabbage heads,” and the West Ridgers retaliated by holding torchlight parades and waving cabbages on poles. West Ridge won the war—and that’s why Indian Boundary Park and Pottawattomie Park are where they are and the Rogers Park lakefront is mostly park free.
The eastern part of the village of Rogers Park was a swampy birch forest, memorialized by Birchwood Avenue, one of the few east-west streets not named for a developer. And while the construction of Sheridan Road sparked some development, the area lay fallow till 1906, when the Jesuits founded Saint Ignatius parish and Loyola University. But in 1908, what is now the Red Line finally came north from Wilson to Evanston, with four stations in Rogers Park, and the next building boom was on. The strip of land north of Howard (and south of Calvary Cemetery) was annexed by the city in 1915, putting the final bit of the current edge in place.
Thanks to public transportation, in the first half of the 20th century Rogers Park developed faster than West Ridge. From 1910 to 1930 demand for housing drove the development of large apartment buildings, weaving a dense cityscape. Night-life districts, centered on el stations and theaters, flourished along Sheridan, Devon, Morse, Clark, and Howard. Cultural and social institutions grew up around Roman Catholic parishes, Protestant churches, and synagogues, and light industry scattered through the area provided work.
After the Second World War, Rogers Park began the transition from a relatively new and stable neighborhood to its current decidedly mixed condition. Housing stock began to deteriorate, many larger homes and apartments were subdivided, and more affluent renters left for the suburbs. At the same time, West Ridge boomed with residential development as first- and second-generation immigrants, many of them Eastern European and German Jews, opened schools, synagogues, and businesses on and around Devon Avenue. Eventually the population of West Ridge’s population surpassed that of its smaller neighbor to the east.
In their turn, the children and grandchildren of these arrivals would flee to the suburbs, to be replaced by immigrants from Africa, East Asia, Eastern Europe, and, especially, Korea, Mexico, India, and Pakistan—the newcomers drawn by the affordable housing and business opportunities. Today the taquerias along Clark Street rival those in Pilsen, and even as it continues to support kosher shops and synagogues, Devon has become the heart of Chicago’s South Asian community.
In recent years, CHA tenants displaced by the demolition of Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes, and other public housing projects have been drawn to Rogers Park by scattered-site CHA developments and landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers, increasing the area’s African-American population. But the area’s first African-American family, the Pollards, arrived in 1886.
Countervailing pressure is also felt, as condo conversion and gentrification have made large inroads since the 1970s, especially within a half mile of the lake. But the blight of three-story cinder-block condos growing like fungi in so many Chicago neighborhoods has largely bypassed Rogers Park. The housing in Rogers Park and West Ridge ranges from 19th-century wood-frame homes—built beyond the reach of brick construction laws established after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871—to bungalows, two- and three-flats, and multiunit courtyard buildings, and close to the lake a few high-rises from the teens and 20s.
Rogers Park is no pristine historic area: it squandered much of its architectural heritage decades ago as stately homes along Sheridan Road were torn down and replaced with four-plus-ones, a style of apartment building almost as profitable as it is ugly. Art deco commercial buildings and grand theaters have been demolished for suburban-style strip malls, poured concrete nonentities, and yet-to-be-built condominiums.
The Chicagoan drama of the densely populated urban grid screeching to a halt at the immense lake is perhaps most stark in Rogers Park, where many streets end at beaches. Neighborhood activists are working hard to maintain them in the face of plans to create new landfill and extend Lake Shore Drive to Howard.
Viewed from a certain height, the area echoes the diversity of Chicago as a whole, with no one racial or ethnic group a majority. But zoom in a little closer and the neighborhood is as segregated as its city, with different groups occupying their own little strips of homes and businesses. Longtime residents watch the transient college students and other renters come and go. The 800-pound gorilla in a Roman collar, Loyola University, reshapes the neighborhood’s southeast corner with TIF money and political clout, unconcerned about either the long-term home owners or the renters, though both are affected by the vacant lots and empty storefronts it creates.
Time has made Rogers Avenue, the old treaty boundary, just another city street. But edges remain, perhaps most notably in the division between the residents who see their neighborhood going to hell and the residents who are grateful to have escaped someplace worse.