the Aladdin’s Castle funhouse at Riverview in the 1950s
the Aladdin’s Castle funhouse at Riverview in the 1950s Credit: Chuck Wlodarczyk

The Lincoln Square residents who gather each summer Tuesday at the neighborhood farmers’ market, in the shadow of the el stop at Western Avenue just below Lawrence, are surely as familiar with another neighborhood amenity a few blocks southeast down Lincoln Avenue. But what few may know about their handsome regional library is that Conrad Sulzer, for whom it’s named, was a Swiss immigrant who more than 160 years ago raised vegetables and flowers in fields a little further south and east, in the area now sometimes called Ravenswood.

Sulzer carted his produce into Chicago (which only came as far north as North Avenue) for sale, just as farmers from Indiana, Michigan, and rural Illinois today bring theirs to Lincoln Square.

By rights, Lincoln Square—and North Center to the south of it—could be known as Celeryville or Pickletown. By the mid-19th century some local farmers were boasting that they served as the celery capital of the United States. Other farmers, including the brothers Lyman and Joseph Budlong, grew cucumbers and other vegetables that they pickled at their factory at Lincoln and Berwyn. The growing German and Polish populations provided a ready market for the pickles, and the booming Budlong operations grew to include extensive greenhouses, which extended the local growing season.

Damen Avenue, looking north from Lawrence around 1890Credit: Sulzer Regional Library, Historical Room, Chicago Public Library

Celeryville and Pickletown didn’t make the cut, but if you were to tour the area bounded on the north by Peterson Avenue, on the east by Ravenswood, on the south by Diversey Avenue, and on the west by the Chicago River asking people where they live, you’d get a different answer almost every time. You’d hear Ravenswood, Welles Park, Saint Ben’s, Bowmanville, Rosehill, and more. Those names persist, but in the 1920s sociologists from the University of Chicago surveyed the city with its Department of Public Health to identify “natural areas” that could be used for statistical purposes, and today’s North Center and Lincoln Square became two of the 77 community areas defined by that campaign. Each was assembled from a cluster of dissimilar settlements, and each was profoundly shaped by the river, the railroads, and the elevated lines.

The land that farmers from England, Germany, and Luxembourg claimed in the 1840s had been Potawatomi fields. Lincoln Avenue was then Little Fort Road (its name a reference to its endpoint in Waukegan), traveled by farmers hauling their crops down to the city. When the Chicago and North Western Railroad laid the tracks in 1854 that would define the eastern boundary of North Center and Lincoln Square, farmers began to send their crops into Chicago by rail.

The railroad also led to the establishment of one of the Chicago area’s first commuter suburbs. In 1868 the Ravenswood Land Company, formed by a group of Chicago businessmen, began acquiring acreage—including 40 acres from the Sulzer estate—on either side of the railroad around Wilson Avenue. The company subdivided the land, put up the Sunnyside Hotel to attract visitors, and put in a station to serve workers with jobs downtown. They were speculating, but they wagered well: lots that sold for $4 to $8 a foot in 1869 were worth between $20 and $30 a foot in 1874.

Conrad Sulzer in the 1860sCredit: Sulzer Regional Library, Historical Room, Chicago Public Library

Everett Chamberlin, a local real estate agent who in 1874 wrote a book called Chicago and Its Suburbs, listed Ravenswood as one of the area’s up-and-coming communities and noted that it had 75 commuters making the 20-minute trip into Chicago. In the decades after the Civil War Ravenswood’s wealthy businessmen—among them wholesale grocers, manufacturers, real estate agents, and lawyers—kept pace with Hyde Park, Irving Park, Evanston, Oak Park, and Hinsdale by building two- and three-story Queen Anne and Victorian frame houses complete with indoor plumbing. In 1898, when Arthur Tebbets and Frank M. Simons published a History of Ravenswood, they described the area as “one of the finest suburbs in the city.” Walk today along Wilson, Kedzie, Leland, or Greenview and you’ll see some of these homes.

One stop north of Ravenswood, another development had been launched in 1859. In the second half of the 19th century cemeteries were being established away from the city center along streetcar, interurban, and railroad lines; mourners would travel to burial plots on special funeral trains, and taverns and restaurants outside the cemetery gates offered them food and drink, and shelter in the winter. The fortuitously misspelled Rosehill stop—the name came from Roe’s Hill, a patch of land owned by local tavern keeper Hiram Roe—gave its name to a cemetery that grew until it covered almost the entire northwest quadrant of Lincoln Square.

Industry was growing along the Chicago River as well. By the 1880s, the Deering Harvester Works (on a site that included what is now the Julia Lathrop Homes), the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, and several brickyards were clustered around the river north of Diversey. Workers’ frame cottages, saloons, groceries, and churches soon followed. Nowadays, not only the cottages but many of the factories house the residents who moved into the area as industry moved out late in the 20th century.

In 1879, a little farther north, at Belmont, a club of Prussian war veterans created a picnic grove and rifle range along the river’s east bank. Locals knew it as Sharpshooters Park. Over time, a bandstand, a dance pavilion, and food concessions were added, and the park opened to the public as a beer garden. Then rides and other attractions changed it once again—into Riverview Sharpshooters Park. Eventually, its more than 100 rides included the 212-foot-high parachute drop and the Bobs roller coaster, and it drew people from across the region for family outings, company picnics, and church fund-raisers. It finally shut down after its 1967 season. Today, the Area Three police headquarters, DeVry Institute of Technology, and a shopping center occupy the site.

Even into the 20th century, North Center and Lincoln Square consisted of discrete settlements separated by farm fields and open prairie. Loop commuters lived near the train stops, factory workers near the Chicago River, farm workers near the Budlong family enterprises up around Lawrence. But the Ravenswood el was completed in 1907, making several stops in the area, and the corridor along Ravenswood Avenue defined by the North Western tracks and, for the mile and a half from Roscoe to Wilson, by the el 300 feet to the west, transformed the neighborhoods around it. “Factories and office buildings lined the area along the railroad tracks, and apartment buildings have taken the place of old frame houses,” observed John B. Stone, a Ravenswood resident in the early 20th century whose written account of the changing times is contained in the Ravenswood-Lake View Historical Association collection at the Sulzer Library.

These changes didn’t come without a fight. Another Ravenswood resident recalled that “every time anything which would spell advancement was started someone got up a petition to oppose it. . . . When the streetcar line was proposed, when there was agitation for a bus line, and when apartments were beginning to be built attempts were made by petition to prohibit them.” (An oral history of early Ravenswood compiled by Vivien Palmer, a University of Chicago sociologist, can be found at the Chicago Historical Museum.)

When Lincoln Square and North Center were first settled in the 1840s and ’50s, they lay well outside the city limits. Residents east of Western Avenue belonged to Lake View Township, which by the 1880s offered them running water, a high school, and other important urban amenities. The just under 5,000 residents west of Western Avenue in Jefferson Township didn’t live so well. But when Chicago annexed both townships in 1889, each gained what it needed most—Jefferson Township got drinking water, and Lake View Township got sewers.

Welles Park from Lincoln and Montrose in 1946Credit: Sulzer Regional Library, Historical Room, Chicago Public Library

Just after the turn of the last century, the Metropolitan Sanitary District (now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago) decided to straighten and deepen the river where it meandered between Addison and Lawrence, little more than a swamp dotted with islands. Once the channel was dug, in 1907, an area that had been virtually uninhabitable became prime real estate with access to el and streetcar lines, and over a span of years extending well into the 1920s, a wholly new neighborhood was planned and built there. The bungalows, two-flats, and larger apartment buildings that went up offered stylish construction to middle-class Chicagoans, many of them workers who’d never known such amenities as central heat, electricity, and modern plumbing, or such ornament as carved fireplaces and built-in cabinets. (Some residents of the area passed up the improvements and lived on the river itself. A small houseboat community that developed just west of Riverview during the 20s continued into the World War II era.)

Chicago was generous to the new and prospering neighborhood, setting aside such public spaces as Welles Park, east of Western Avenue and north of Montrose, and Horner and Gompers parks across the river to the west of Lincoln Square. The Catholic Archdiocese established Queen of Angels church and school across Wilson Avenue from Welles Park, and just up Lincoln Avenue the Chicago Public Library built the Frederick H. Hild Regional Branch.

In 1931 another landmark was opened: Lane Technical High School, relocated from the near north side to an expansive campus at Addison and the Chicago River in 1931. Its football stadium would be constructed during the Depression with Work Progress Administration funds.

The conquest of the old swamp was the area’s last great residential development. By mid-century the separate settlements of Lincoln Square and North Center had merged into one densely occupied sweep.

In the 1960s I grew up on some of that reclaimed swampland, in the brick two-flat at Western and Wilson that my grandparents George and Anastasia Schmugge had bought in 1939. I went to school at Queen of Angels, learned to swim, sew, and ice skate at Welles Park, and mastered the monkey bars at the Waters School field house, at Wilson and Sunnyside. I enjoyed sweets from Lutz Bakery on Montrose Avenue and treats from Meier’s Delicatessen on Lincoln. I took my first trips downtown on the Ravenswood el and made annual excursions to Riverview. I roamed the open stacks of the Hild Library and learned about the world far beyond my neighborhood.

Lincoln Square and North Center never stood still, and they’ve changed enormously since I was young. As real estate values soared in the closing decades of the 20th century, tear-downs and in-fill developments transformed the housing stock. The Hild library moved down the block into the brand-new Sulzer library in 1985, and in 1998 the Old Town School of Folk Music moved into the empty Hild. Its presence has spurred even more commercial and residential redevelopment, creating a vibrant new center for a historic neighborhood. But its prosperity stands on the shoulders of generations of pioneers who came before, from Conrad Sulzer to the Budlong Brothers to George and Anastasia Schmugge.