Best of Morgan Park 2021. Photo by Isiah ThoughtPoet Veney.

Best of Morgan Park 2021

An 1886 pamphlet enticing would-be homeowners describes Morgan Park as a destination with “high and rolling character” a “mere step” on the suburban Rock Island line from the “bustling mart” of the city’s center to the “quiet of green fields.” While the only green fields remaining are parks and cemeteries, many spots in Morgan Park are indeed quiet and still hold much of the quaintness its developers originally intended. 

About a decade after the Potawatomi ceded land to the U.S. government, one very wealthy Thomas Morgan purchased about 2,000 acres on and around the Blue Island Ridge, sight unseen, while still in England. Morgan then relocated via his own ship, with home furnishings, dairy cattle, and wolfhounds for hunting in tow. A year after the Civil War, when people moved North from the South in droves, spurring escalated economic activity, Morgan’s heirs sold the estate to the Blue Island Land and Building Co., which planned, developed, and founded Morgan Park. It was touted as a religious, educational, and temperance community—dry from the start—and incorporated in 1882.

People often combine neighboring Beverly with Morgan Park to refer to the Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhood. They usually mean to include the west side of Morgan Park, not the area east of Vincennes Avenue or the interstate. The Vincennes Trace, what is now Vincennes Avenue, was once a well-trodden buffalo migration route, which Native Americans utilized for their purposes over centuries. During the Great Migration, Black people who moved to the area lived east of the natural dividing line Vincennes created, in a tacit understanding they wouldn’t, or could not, live west of it. Those racial dividing lines largely persisted through the 1960s. The construction of Interstate 57 in the sixties further solidified the geographical division to create two separate Morgan Parks. The two different ward boundaries may better reflect a true community connection. Today Morgan Park is integrated racially but still segregated block by block. As of 2013, it was the largest Black-majority area with the highest percentage of white people

Morgan Park was annexed by Chicago in 1914 after a heated twenty-year battle. Women, who had the year prior gained limited suffrage in Illinois, carried the vote. They wanted better schools, police, and fire protection. Now, the majority of Morgan Park men and women consistently vote Democrat in national and local elections, although some areas are more “purple” than others. In continuing with its founders’ intent to promote excellence in education, Morgan Park lays claim to the longest running Montessori program at a Chicago Public School, Clissold Elementary. 

Observers can feel the history while walking through the community. Present-day residents keep busy preserving old houses, their stories, and still riding the Rock Island train line. Special thanks to Carol Flynn of the Ridge Historical Society for assisting with several important details of the area’s history. (Anna Carvlin)

Neighborhood captain Anna Carvlin is a public health advocate, yoga instructor, writer, and aspiring fiddler. She lives with her family in Morgan Park. This is her first contribution to the  Weekly.

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Best Stroll Into the Past

Prospect Park and Surrounding Streets

To get a sense of Morgan Park through the ages, take a stroll through Prospect Park and the surrounding streets. The park itself was imagined and designed by Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen, complete with a lily pond. Remnants of that original layout remain in a fenced enclosure within the park. Prospect Park Nature Garden provides a cozy spot to enjoy lunch atop a boulder while admiring native plants and trees.

The tree-lined streets that curve around the park catapult your mind out of the grid-fixed Chicago and into an old English village – an intentional design. Homeowners have done a wonderful job maintaining the unique character and charm of the historic Prospect Ave. A number of beautiful houses with varied designs were built on the north side of the park during the post-Civil War boom for the most prominent and wealthy citizens of Morgan Park. 

At the corner of Wood and Prospect and across from the park, purple trim really pops on the upper timber half of the Dickey-Castle craftsman home, built in 1912. Boasting one of the largest single-family home lots in Chicago, its expansive wooded yard feels like a small forest preserve. Every spring, multi-colored rows of tulips line the long walkway to the front door. 

The Ingersoll-Blackwelder mansion, a Victorian built in the 1870s, was purchased by artist Jack Simmerling in 1970 when it fell into disrepair. He spent the next several decades restoring and maintaining the house—a pursuit aligned with his lifelong devotion to preserving the memory of Chicago architecture through his paintings and sketches and by salvaging artifacts. Notably, Gertrude Blackwelder was the first woman to cast a vote in Cook County after Illinois’ limited suffrage passed in 1913. The Simmerlings sold the house in 2014; the current owner rents it for special events.

Morgan Park’s first physician, Dr. German, neighbor to the Ingersolls, founded the first United Methodist church in Morgan Park across from his house. The building is now home to a thriving congregation, but the Morgan Park United Methodist Church moved a few short blocks away at 110th St. and Longwood Ave. 

Since that initial planned community was realized a century ago, several ranch houses have been built on further-subdivided land plots. Those, plus the apartment building south of the park, make for a very mixed-income swath of Chicago. 

West of the park, Metra Rock Island trains deliver commuters from downtown to the historic Morgan Park 111th Street train station. The Blue Island Land and Building Co., original developers of the planned community, lobbied for the train to come out to this area in the late 18th century—a huge draw to people working downtown. That twelve-mile trip was impossible on a horse and buggy during rain or snow. 

Visible from the park are the bright red roll-up doors of the century-old firehouse for Engine Company 120, established just after annexation. On that same street toward Monterey Avenue is an old post office building, now home to a hair salon and an ornately embellished brick apartment complex, both built in the 1920s. A home formerly owned by one  Dr. Frederick Harry B. Parsons is nestled on that block as well—the only house remaining of that late 1800s–era on the street. 

A short jaunt to the block northeast of the park, especially on Drew Street, seekers will find another goldmine of neat old homes. One in particular, the expansive Hopkinson-Platt house, sits on about three acres of land. While the Ridge Historical Society has debunked claims of it having been a stop on the Underground Railroad, it is historically significant for the simple fact that it was one of the original homes built in the area. Also, the Platts, longtime owners, took in exchange students, refugees from the Hungarian Revolution, and Japanese-Americans released from WWII internment camps. (Anna Carvlin)

 Prospect Park, 10940 S. Prospect Ave. 

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Best Spot for Cheetos, Milk, and Chit-chat

Longwood Foods

Longtime resident Ann Digby has fond memories of living in Morgan Park, like putting in an order at Gramp’s Dicola’s on 111th St. to get her meat cut and dressed to perfection for holiday meals. She appreciates that when white flight was rampant, many white people in the area refused to leave, and instead figured out how to get along. She misses the time before the disruption created by the interstate, observing that there was definitely a “before and after.” She catches up with folks from the neighborhood at the annual Morgan Park High School picnic, where alumni are “serious” about supporting their school. 

But Digby seems especially delighted to chat about Longwood Foods. 

She loves the little grocery store—so much so that she would get her coffee there every morning before work. “Friendships begin there,” Digby said. She describes a congenial atmosphere where people can check up on people they haven’t seen in a while, or find out what’s been happening in the neighborhood. “They call me Miss Ann there.” 

Digby played the lottery every day, which is how she met so many friends. “We would get our coffee and stand around the scratch-off machine and stay and talk. If it got busy we’d move outside and continue the conversation.” 

Digby’s kids all went to Morgan Park High School. Students would go to Longwood Foods in the morning to pick up the lunch special—sandwich, chips, and a soda. In fact, numerous Google reviews mention the delicious sandwiches and excellent service. And people come from everywhere to get the nachos because they’re piled high. 

While it has changed management at least once over the past four decades, Longwood Foods has been not only a reliable “basic neighborhood ‘run in & grab a few things’ spot,” as one reviewer put it, but also a trusted locale for swapping stories and making connections. (Anna Carvlin)

Longwood Foods, 11106 S. Longwood Dr., Monday–Thursday 7am–10pm; Saturday 8am–10pm; Sunday 9am–9:30am; (773) 779-4901.

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Best Roots Festival

Morgan Park Roots Festival

For forty-six years, families and friends have gathered at Ada Park for the annual Morgan Park Roots Festival. The motto is “peace, love, and unity.” Crystal Warren is both the president of the Ada Park Advisory Council and a member of the Morgan Park Roots Organization, both of which host and sponsor the event. “It has a different feel than most community festivals in the city,” she said. “It’s a celebration within families and all together with the wider community, especially east Morgan Park.”

The festival is all about connecting back to the roots of oneself—enjoying the company of a tight-knit community that is a little more like an extended family in one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in Chicago. 

A need arose when community leaders realized people were only gathering for funerals and weddings. They wanted a time to enjoy each other purely in a spirit of celebration. It was more of a reunion picnic in the early days, for people who were born and raised there. It has evolved over time. People grew up, left town, and many still come back specifically for the Roots Festival.

There is always a main stage with plenty of space in front for line dancing. Local musicians and singers playing House and R&B would jockey to get on stage since it was a great place to showcase skills. Now the event pulls talent locally and from afar. 

A children’s canopy offers face painting and coloring activities. A senior and veterans tent get prime real estate right near the stage to eat lunch. 

Mark your calendar for next year. Every first Saturday in August Ada Park is the place to be for live music, African drumming, line dancing, battle of the DJs, Bingo and prizes and more! As the organizers said, “Bring your grill, chairs, tent, and children. We will take care of the rest!” (Anna Carvlin)

For more information about the Morgan Park Roots Festival, contact Crystal Warren at (773) 896-6552 or crystalqcee3@gmail.com.

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Best LGBTQ+ Network

Two Churches, the BAC and Grace English

Morgan Park has a robust LGBTQ+ support network within some of its most well-established institutions, including the Beverly Arts Center, the Morgan Park Presbyterian Church, and the United Methodist Church. 

The Beverly Arts Center has hosted several events geared toward the LGBTQ+ community, including the Chicago Gay Men’s Choir, abOut Art, and OUTspoken. None of these events would have happened if not for one Morgan Park resident in particular, Grace English, who has led the charge in making sure resources are available, especially to younger folks. English pestered the Beverly Arts Center (BAC) for six years to host the Gay Men’s Choir. When they finally did, it was a sold out show. “I’d never seen so many people I didn’t recognize at the BAC,” English said. The abOut Art exhibit was her idea as well. From conception to pitching it to the BAC, within six weeks the first show was on. OUTspoken is a live storytelling event by LGBTQ+ people, and English worked to bring its organizer to the arts center. 

English’s other brainchild, Rainbow Youth Connections, has been providing a safe space for over two years for LGBTQ+ youth to connect through the arts. English wants it to become a nonprofit so it can “spread its wings and fly.” People often donate food and baked goods. Some teens will show up to every meeting and not speak up. Some were afraid to come in at all. If they made it to the doorway, they would join in due to the warm welcome. 

The teens had been meeting at English’s former place of business, and when its doors shuttered they needed a new spot. After hearing of the unmet need, Pastor Ben Heimach-Snipes offered the Morgan Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC) space for them. 

Just across the street from MPPC, the United Methodist Church is part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which “equips and mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” according to the MPPC’s website. The Network “began as a faith-based response to institutionalized homophobia braided into the fabric of The United Methodist Church.”

It’s one thing to share that connection on the church website, but quite another to put those sentiments into action. Pastor Dennis Langdon has opened the doors of the church to host an annual Burning Bowl event for Affinity Community Services, an organization serving the Black LGBTQ+ community. Other events and volunteer opportunities with an LGBTQ+ focus have also taken place through the church, and, in the spirit of inclusion, they have included the rainbow symbol on some of their signage. 

These institutions and people in Morgan Park that identify and respond to the community’s needs are what makes for a safe and caring place where kids can grow up and feel a part of and accepted by the community. (Anna Carvlin)

Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St., (773) 445-3838, beverlyartcenter.org.

Morgan Park United Methodist Church, 11030 S. Longwood Dr., (773) 238-2600, morganparkumc.org.

Morgan Park Presbyterian Church, 2017 W. 110th Pl., (773) 779-3355, morganparkpres.org .

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Best Community-Oriented Church

Morgan Park Presbyterian Church

The Morgan Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC) has gained a reputation for being a resource the local community can really count on. It’s not an accident. Through a visioning process, the congregation decided to focus on three main areas: inclusion, healing and collaboration. “We know we’re small, but we have a giant space and a history we’re proud of,” says Pastor Ben Heimach-Snipes. “We want to actively seek out partnerships that resonate with that identity of inclusion.”  

One recent example is the church’s collaboration with the Southwest Chicago Diversity Collaborative on a successful Beverly/Morgan Park Juneteenth Family Festival and Black Business Crawl. MPCC committed to hosting the event on their grounds. Through further collaboration, activities like storytelling, drumming circles, African-based art, food trucks, music, and kid-oriented activities extended into neighboring Bohn Park and the United Methodist Church lot. Heimach-Snipes described the event as phenomenal. “There was such a spirit of love and care and dignity. And free food!” 

The church also agreed to host the Free Store, a local initiative through 19th Ward Mutual Aid created in response to heightened community needs at the start of the pandemic. More food distribution sites were necessary to address growing demand with fewer helping hands, since elderly volunteers stayed home for safety. While the United Methodist Church across the street runs the Maple/Morgan Park Food Pantry, the Free Store provided an after work time slot on Wednesdays. 

Other offerings open to the community include Tai Chi, and healthy cooking classes are planned for the future as a way to further address high rates of obesity and heart disease. In addition, MPPC now has a seed library named in memory of beloved community member Megan Robb, who died of breast cancer this past year. 

Also, the church has committed to hosting Rainbow Youth Connections, an LGBTQ+ support group, which aligns with the congregation’s focus on healing. Pastor Heimach-Snipes was first introduced to organizer Grace English, who had mentioned the group would march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He asked to march with the group wearing his collar and a rainbow flag. While the parade and most of the in-person support group meetings have been on hold due to COVID-19, the youth still get the message: they are welcome here. 

Heimach-Snipes summed up the congregation’s spirit of service to the community: “There’s a strong conservative Christian movement that’s digging into the traumatizing theology of the last century,” he said. “Christianity has been used to oppress people. So that’s got to be our work, to undo that and heal the traumas we received from the church and to find a way to belong in spite of the baggage.” 

In the fall, the themes of worship will include welcoming all, following Jesus, and finding hope. Upcoming community events at MPPC include a fall festival and an All Saints Day celebration. Follow their page for more information. (Anna Carvlin)

Morgan Park Presbyterian Church, 2017 W. 110th Pl., (773) 779-3355, morganparkpres.org.

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Best Community Garden Comeback

Edna White Community Garden

A mainstay of Morgan Park and Beverly for almost three decades, Edna White Community Garden has provided a space for gathering in nature. Kathy Figel, community garden director, says people might get “vegetables, friendship and warm fuzzies,” but that the bottom line is the garden is a space to feel safe and enjoy each other. 

During the past year-and-a-half of mass exodus from office spaces, people all over America have clocked more hours gardening. The spike in vitality at Edna White is evident, as people have sought outdoor spaces to hang out. The community aspect of the garden happens during one of the many events hosted throughout the year including yoga classes, acoustic musical acts, impromptu peace vigils, DJ nights and cocktails, Monarch butterfly activities for kids, and hot cocoa and holiday albums in the winter. In addition to an uptick in events, a new grant-funded bee-and-insect observatory was installed last year. Figel had secured a separate grant in years prior dedicated to supporting an African American beekeeper. Cedrick Jordan maintains the bee hives, and now anyone can observe the goings-on from within the observatory.  

Edna White Community Garden. Photo Credit Anna Carvlin.

Now situated across Esmond Street from the 22nd District police station, the garden project had somewhat of a rough beginning. Sadly, days before the garden opening in 1993, a main propeller of the project and now its namesake was murdered by an acquaintance. “Exactly what we were trying to help address happened to Edna,” Figel says of her organizing partner and friend, Edna White. 

Then after a few years, the garden needed to move. Neighborspace owns the land under the agreement that nothing can be built there in perpetuity. But Alderman Virginia Rugai wanted a new police station on that spot in 2002. So Figel negotiated for the City to ensure a clean space and plenty of soil right across the street. After some hiccups during the transfer, such as when the old lamppost salvaged from the World’s Fair was broken and left for forgotten, or when the city piled in sub par dirt leftover from Millennium Park, the new garden space is bigger and better than before. 

There are so many ways to get involved with the garden. Raised garden plots are available for $30 and ten hours of community service, and the garden is an excellent opportunity for anyone who needs to complete mandatory community service hours. Rent the space for a private event or come to one of the many upcoming events! A Day of the Dead Celebration with music and dancing will happen Tuesday November 2 at 6pm and the Family Holiday Celebration with Peanut Characters, Santa Claus and records spinning by Beverly Records is Saturday December 4 at 6pm.  (Anna Carvlin)

Edna White Community Garden, 1846-1898 W. Monterey Ave.. For information about garden plots and hours contact Kathy Figel, (312)-622-0634. 

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