We open on East 55th Street. It’s the late 19th century, and the township of Hyde Park is flourishing. Cable cars rumble past the horse drawn carts that are bouncing down the dusty street, past an eclectic mix of rustic wood and ornate brick storefronts. Founded in 1853 due to its proximity to the Illinois Central Railroad (today’s Metra tracks), Hyde Park originally included all of the land from State Street east to Lake Michigan and from 39th Street south to today’s city limits. On the east side, wealthy Chicagoans settled near the Illinois Central tracks, with easy access to downtown, while on the west side, closer to State Street, German and Irish immigrants arrived to work on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad or to be close to meatpacking plants like the Union Stock Yards. In the early 1870s, the creation of Washington Park, Jackson Park, and the Midway Plaisance granted the area additional attention from middle class Chicagoans looking to move out to a residential suburb. This same decade also saw the establishment of the famous Chicago Boulevard system, which included East Garfield Boulevard, the name for 55th Street as it continues west of Washington Park. After being annexed by the City of Chicago in 1889 and experiencing a housing boom in anticipation of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the new neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Washington Park were primed to enter the 1900s. The stage is set for the dynamic century that is to come.
Welcome to a Century on 55th Street. Expositions Magazine is proud to present this special issue in concert with Chicago Studies. Over the past three academic quarters, a cohort of 22 student researchers made a deep dive into the history of 55th Street, from the Dan Ryan Expressway to Lake Michigan, finding and cataloging everything from building materials to business owners through the entirety of the 20th century.
However, it is impossible to fully illuminate this history. With a street that experienced as much change as 55th Street did, there is no way to give the thousands of people and businesses that called this street home their time in the spotlight. In addition, much of the project area has historically been poorly documented, especially in the neighborhood of Washington Park. There are many gaps in this narrative, and many important players will remain in shadows, but we hope we have done justice to this extraordinary, and completely ordinary, Chicago street.
While this issue of Expositions ends at the close of the 20th century, much of what is discussed still influences our city today. As we walk back through the years, we ask you to think deeply about the places, people, and processes that shaped and still shape this street.
Curtains up on the new century. What’s past is prologue. Welcome to 55th Street.