History of Albany Park
The United States is a land of immigrants. From day one to now, this country has seen many people from foreign lands come to its shores with hopes for a brighter future. Some cities embrace it more than others; New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and of course, Chicago. In a country of immigrants Chicago stands out as being particularly embracing of those who want to forge a path here. Strong ethnic neighborhoods have always been present. Immigrant communities band together for both the comfort and security and that it brings. Albany Park embodies that spirit to the fullest degree. It stands out in a city of immigrants, which is in a country of immigrants. The dominant groups have changed over the years, but it’s still what the neighborhood is known for. It still has a tremendous amount of foreign-born residents.
Albany Park began as a business venture for some private investors. Parts of the city that were closer to Lake Michigan and downtown were beginning to grow and some real estate investors figured it was only a matter of time before the area now known as Albany Park became very coveted land. They were a small group of wealthy men, all from Chicago, and they saw potential.
After purchasing the land, they began to work their political contacts to help make the area grow. Of all the ideas they had it was one that proved to be the key turning point for the neighborhood; transportation. Once they were able to being the electric streetcar to Albany Park, everything seemed to turn around almost overnight. In the span of only two decades, land that previously sold for only $50 a sq. ft. was now going for almost $3,000. Residential homes and commercial developments seemed to almost grow out of the ground. The neighborhood was changing at a rate that surprised even the most optimistic of observers. Between the years 1910 and 1930 the population of Albany Park grew from 7,000 to 55,000. The modest plan of a small group of men had worked. Albany Park was more than just an idea it was a thriving community.
The primary ethnic groups that first resided in the area were German and Swedish immigrants. However, they soon began to move out and a large number of Russian Jews moved in, but they didn’t stay long. After WWII they began to move to the suburbs and the neighborhood started to flip once again. There was a down period, when the streets of the neighborhood were lined with vacant buildings and boarded up properties. What was once a proud and vibrant area was spiraling into decline.
The government saw that the area was becoming destitute and knew that they needed an answer. No one wanted to once beautiful are to turn into a crime and poverty-stricken neighborhood. Through a series of programs that focused on beautification, low-interest loans, financing etc. they worked on rebuilding it to its original grandeur. Due to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the door was open for Asian immigrants to come to the United States in large numbers and take advantage of the rebuilding that was taking place. In essence, it was economic opportunity that led to the building of Koreatown. Lawrence Avenue wasn’t named “Honorary Seoul Way” by the city of Chicago until 1993. In addition to that, the sign along the Kennedy expressway marking the neighborhood as Koreatown wasn’t placed there until 2004. However, it didn’t’ take that long for everyone in the area to know where they were. At its height, almost 22,000 Koreans lived in this neighborhood. It was thriving with every type of store you could ever want; bakeries, grocery stores, insurance companies, and more.
The sign along the expressway is still there and people who have lived in the city for years still think of it as Koreatown. Similarly, the city still has Lawrence Avenue marked as “Honorary Seoul Way”. But the truth is that Koreatown is basically a thing of the past. By the mid-1990’s most of the Koreans had moved from the area like previous ethnic groups and made their way to the suburbs. This was mainly due to a desire for a better education for their children. Older generations knew that an education was a primary key to success and they wanted their children to have every opportunity, even ones they themselves didn’t have. Many of the businesses along Lawrence Avenue stayed open for a few more years, but the writing was on the wall.
Over the years the area has flipped from being primarily one ethnic group to the next, but one guiding truth has remained. In Albany Park all are excepted who come with the desire to make something of themselves. Immigrants show up with a dream to live the life they desire, only asking for a chance to make it. This community has served as that chance, a stepping stone to something bigger. One of the beautiful aspects of the area is that when you walk down the street on a warm summer night you can still see so much foreign influence. Authentic Mexican food, falafel, kimchee, and Pad Thai are served in restaurants that stand next to each other. The sights and sounds come from everywhere and dazzle you. In some ways it feels like a different world compared to the areas that surround it. That’s because in a lot of ways, it is. Albany Park offers all who come both opportunity and a good time. The streets are lined with trees, and the neighbors are friendly. The cost of living isn’t as high as other areas sue to its proximity to downtown and because it has always been predominately and immigrant neighborhood. In some ways it still feels like a throwback to a different era. It’s not flashy, but it’s real. Experience authentic, experience Albany Park.