By Sam “Blackie” Pesoli & Vince Romano
The near-west side became the dumping ground for hundreds of thousands of European immigrants who found their way to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. That mass migration of southern Europeans, necessary to provide the labor force that fueled America’s industrial revolution, ended in 1924. By an act of Congress the further immigration of southern Europeans was restricted.
The ethnic composition of the near-west side immigrants at the turn of the 20th century consisted of:
Italians occupying the inner core of the near-west side neighborhood, from the river on the east on out to the westernmost boundaries;
Jews and Germans who lived south of Roosevelt Road, The Jews created an outdoor flea market, which became known as both Jew Town and Maxwell Street.
Greeks occupying the delta created by Harrison Street and Blue Island Avenue just north of the Jane Addams’ Hull House;
The Irish who lived north of the Greek Delta; and
The French and Norwegians who lived northwest of the Greek Delta.
The exodus out of the near-west side slums began shortly after WWI. The exodus was led by the French, Norwegians and Irish. By the end of the great depression and the beginning of WWII (circa 1939), the Jewish and Greek presence was reduced to their businesses; e.g. Greek Town and Jew Town (Maxwell Street). Italians were the only ethnic group that thriving community.
Jane Addams, co-founder of Hull House, America’s first settlement house, in 1889, labeled the near west side, “The Hull House Neighborhood.” It remained as such until the demise of the neighborhood by the UIC in 1963. Hull House, whose purpose was to improve the lives of the immigrant residents, provided social services and challenged the establishment to improve the living conditions of the crowded residents, The Hull House complex was completed with the opening of its summer camp, the Bowen Country Club, in Waukegan Illinois, in 1912.
That same year, 1912, Sheridan Park came into being.While the Jane Addams’ Hull House and the various churches provided social services for the immigrants who resided in the squalor of tenement houses, the purpose for building Sheridan Park in 1912 was to provide breathing space to the congested near-west side residents. The Special Park Commission identified several potential sites for the new “playground parks” including a small 3.5-acre area adjacent to the existing Jackson School. The site of the park was in the very heart of Little Italy, between Aberdeen and May Streets, a few doors north of Taylor Street.
Jens Jensen, then serving as West Park System consulting landscape architect, created the park’s original plan which included swimming and wading pools, and a natatorium, playgrounds, a running track, and an athletic field. The commissioners decided that due to the proximity of the school, which had both an assembly hall and gymnasium, no field house was necessary in Sheridan Park.
Over the years, the school facilities proved to be inadequate, and in 1977 the Chicago Park District constructed a large field house in Sheridan Park. The 3-story building, similar to the Gill Park field house on the north side, includes an indoor swimming pool, combination gymnasium and assembly hall, and six classrooms.
The Italian American community, Taylor Street’s Little Italy, became the primary beneficiary of Sheridan Park. Beginning with the depression years, on through the demise of the neighborhood by the University of Illinois in 1963 and the reconstruction of the field house in 1977, Sheridan Park became synonymous with Taylor Street’s Little Italy. Sheridan Park was an integral part of Taylor Street’s Little Italy.
Sheridan Park served the needs of the community
Summer day camp
Notable beneficiaries of Sheridan Park are:
We would be remiss if we did not memorialize the staff that operated Sheridan Park. They included: