The Marquette-Joliet marker at South Archer Avenue and South Leavitt Street memorializes one of the many historic events that took place in the McKinley Park neighborhood.

Our Neighborhood Deserves a Historical Society to Remember and Acknowledge Our Rich Heritage

Published November 28, 2019

By Mark Kinsella

Mark Kinsella bio photoMark KinsellaA small marker lies on the southwest corner of South Archer Avenue and South Leavitt Street, across from the 35th/Archer Orange Line station. Thousands pass this marker on their walk to the El and take little note of it: You have to look up close to see the drawing and words etched there. This is ironic, since this spot commemorates the passage of French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, an event that changed Chicago, United States and world history.

McKinley Park and its neighbor Brighton Park just to the southwest lie along a very historic corridor that led to the birth of Chicago, opened up a passage to international trade and made Chicago the transportation hub of the nation. This marker, the Orange Line and all the businesses on Archer Avenue rest on an ancient Native American trail that dates back thousands of years. It is the road that paralleled the route of the Illinois-Michigan Canal, which brought many Irish immigrants to the area. This main spine of the neighborhood is one of many local features that makes McKinley Park and Brighton Park one of the most historic stretches of geography in all of North America.

Rich in Historic Sites

Besides Archer Avenue, the main park in the area – McKinley Park – was one of the first large parks built in an urban setting for the use of nearby workers and families. It became a model for most of the other large parks in Chicago and many other cities, making it one of the most historic parks in Chicago and the nation. How many people know that our beautiful McKinley Park used to be a major horse racing track owned by “Big John” Wentworth, one of the first mayors of Chicago and a larger-than-life-figure who owned vast swaths of the now-Southwest Side?

McKinley Park St Andrew Lutheran Church 3658 S Honore StSt. Andrew Lutheran Church rests at West 37th and South Honore streets alongside a marker denoting the spot as the geographic center of Chicago.Currently starting to see redevelopment, the Central Manufacturing District across from McKinley Park on Pershing Road was a revolution in design and practice. It was one of the nation’s first large-scale industrial parks that brought together factories of all types and employed thousands of workers. Our Central Manufacturing District was the original model for almost all future Manufacturing Districts in the country.

The McKinley Park and Brighton Park neighborhoods, which have always shared a close affinity, are some of the oldest neighborhoods in Chicago. McKinley Park became part of Chicago in 1863 during the U.S. Civil War and remained untouched by the Chicago Fire of 1871. Brighton Park was once a town unto itself called Brighton until it was annexed to the city in 1889.

The neighborhoods contain some of the most historic churches in the city, built by the many immigrants who came to the area: Irish, German, Polish, Lithuanians, French and English. They were the forerunners of more recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia who are part of these churches now.

History of Neighborhood Families

My paternal great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. and came to McKinley Park in the 1880s, and I still have a photo from 1908 of my five-year-old grandmother standing with her family on the front steps of their house at 3648 S. Winchester Ave. My great-grandfather worked 14 hours a day, six days a week in the nearby Chicago Stockyards and was the father of ten children. Five of them died in infancy and childhood. What strong people they were, and I’m sure many other residents in McKinley Park and Brighton Park could share similar stories, photos and memories.

I have taught and coached at nearby Kelly High School for 32 years, and it has always mystified me that our area has no historical society, unlike many other Chicago neighborhoods. Perhaps our working-class, immigrant community never had time to start something like this because people were laboring so hard. But our local forebears deserve acknowledgement and celebration of their hard work and sacrifice that shaped all our lives right here.

A Historical Society Begins Here

It is well past time for a local historical society, especially with new economic development in McKinley Park potentially endangering our connections to the past. A historical society would make our neighborhoods even more special and celebrate the area’s incredible history. I’m certain many other residents of McKinley Park and Brighton Park have stories to tell and photos to share, too.

This op/ed is a first step toward establishing a local historical society. I can’t yet anticipate the specifics of how it will develop, but I ask that anyone who is interested in joining or volunteering send email to mkinsella948@gmail.com, and we will begin organizing.

Look also to the McKinley Park News and its event calendars for word of any upcoming meetings and news about our local historical society.

McKinley Park family photo 1908 3648 S Winchester AveA McKinley Park neighborhood family, including Mark Kinsella's grandmother, center, stands at 3648 S. Winchester Ave., Chicago, in this photo from 1908.

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Excellent article and an idea. How important to preserve the history of the peoples who founded Brighton/McKinley Park.
Justin Kerr
Agreed! This is an idea long overdue.

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