“Location...Location...Location,” is the age old adage of real estate and Jefferson Park's location, affordability, safety and access to transportation are the primary factors that lure people to this lovely corner of the Northwest Side. In fact, Jefferson Park has long been one of Chicago's transportation hubs, earning the neighborhood the nickname: “The Gateway to Chicago,” but to the locals, it is endearingly known as “Jeff Park.”
Nestled partly between two major interstates, it's simply difficult to imagine a simpler commute, whether heading downtown or to the northern or northwestern suburbs. If you're looking to lessen your carbon footprint, you can hop on either the Metra or the Blue Line, which share a Jefferson Park station. In fact, until the CTA extended its tracks to O'Hare in the mid-1980s, this was for more than a decade the final stop on the elevated train lines. And if the two trains don't provide enough mass-transit options, the station acts as the terminal for almost a dozen bus routes.
Settlement in the vicinity of Jefferson Park began in the 1830s with John Kinzie Clark and Elijah Wentworth, whose claim was near what is now the Jefferson Park train station, where they operated a tavern and an inn. The tiny settlement of traders, hunters, and farmers consisted of simple one and two-room log cabins until Abram Gale, for whom Gale Street is named, built the first frame house in Jefferson. Jefferson Park became the hub of an independent township that was incorporated at the nearby Dickinson Tavern as Jefferson Township in 1850 until annexed by the city of Chicago in 1889.
The area was once home to a significant population of Volga Germans, and one of the area's one time local landmarks was a local apartment building in the vicinity of Jefferson Park along Higgins Avenue dubbed by locals as "the Russian Hotel."
Jefferson Park is also, appropriately enough, home to the Northwest Chicago Historical Society which is dedicated to preserve the area's rich history as well as most historical events and lectures
Recreation and More
The “park” in Jefferson Park is a well-maintained seven acres operated by the Chicago Park District. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is located on the site of what once was the Esdohr Farm. The official name of the park is the “Thomas Jefferson Memorial Park,” the namesake of the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States. The park is equipped with two baseball fields, one combination football/soccer field, three tennis courts, one playground and a spray pool and a full outdoor swimming pool with dressing facility. Each summer, hundreds of residents stroll the park grounds for “Jeff Fest,” a Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce-sponsored outdoor community festival featuring local food, vendors and bands. The all-volunteer Citywide Orchestra practices at Jefferson Park and performs seasonal concerts for the community.
Educational options for families are another factor making Jefferson Park a stable long-term choice. There are many well-respected schools including several private Catholic and Lutheran institutions in this church-heavy area. Meanwhile, the highly-regarded Beaubien public school enrolls more than 1,000 kids, both from its own district and through a magnet gifted program. In fact, many realtors or parents will call the school to make sure the home they're buying is located in Beaubien's district.
A Polish-American Hub
The predominantly middle-class neighborhood attracts residents that come from a variety of diverse backgrounds. Like many neighborhoods on the Northwest side of Chicago the neighborhood has a heavy Polish-American presence, and is home to the Copernicus Foundation, the Polish parish of St. Constance, as well as a host of other Polish-American organizations, institutions and businesses.
Jefferson Park is also known for having a very high number of resident city and county workers. The area is filled with the homes of Chicago Public School teachers and staff, Chicago Police Department, Chicago Fire Department as well as Cook County Sheriff officers and staff.
Given that Jeff Park is safe, friendly and family-oriented, it also follows that there isn't much nightlife. It's got a few taverns, to be sure, but one of the biggest local activities is dinner at the locally renowned Gale Street Inn, a mainstay since 1963 and located in "down Jeff" — meaning downtown Jefferson Park, on Milwaukee just across the street from the transit terminal. Just a couple blocks away, up through the 1970s, residents could catch movies at the 2,000-seat Gateway cinema palace; today, it enjoys occasional use as part of the Copernicus Center, a cultural center devoted to Chicago's large Polish-American population.
Recently, a surprising newcomer has added a regular new entertainment option: live performance. The Gift Theatre was initially itinerant but in 2005 the company found a storefront home in a prime Jeff Park location. They've regularly produced full seasons ever since, sometimes to sparse audiences, sometimes selling out the elongated 30-seat house. The area's only arts organization, The Gift is slowly making an impact, and despite the harsh economy, it seems the company is here to stay.
Jefferson Park is also the home of the historic Gateway Theatre, a former movie palace. The Gateway Theatre still serves the community today as a performing arts center, hosting numerous cultural events such as theatrical performances, film screenings and concerts throughout the year. The neighborhood holds two large festivals annually: Jeff Fest in June and the Taste of Polonia over Labor Day weekend.
Political and Polish Tastes Abound
The Taste of Polonia has brought some of the nation's most prominent political figures to Jefferson Park to woo the support of Chicago's Polish community. President George H. Bush hosted the festival in 1992 and in 2000, former Vice President Dick Cheney as well as Tipper Gore, and Hadassah Lieberman made an appearance. Vice President Cheney's presence was particularly notorious with coverage in the New York Times of his lively antics which included dancing the polka with a beauty queen, serving attendees kielbasa with stuffed cabbage and addressing a cheering crowd by shouting the Polish phrase “Sto lat” (which means ‘May you live 100 years.’)
Thanks to its relative quiet and plenty of green space, many Jefferson Park residents consider their humble neighborhood a slice of suburbia in the city. Couples just starting a family buy their first house here; many find themselves contented and happily stay put. Crime is low and the prices are right, especially in today's market, with the average home listing at a little more than $231,895 and the median sales price being $186,000, as of June 2012.
With all of the upsides and downsides facing Chicagoans today, it seems that Jefferson Park has weathered the economic downturn very well and its long-range future seems bright.
Liam P. Cusack is associate editor of The Chicagoland Cooperator.