“Chicago Community Area Profile: Avalon Park” by S.M. O’Connor

      Avalon Park (Community Area #45) on the South Side of Chicago is roughly triangular in shape.  It is bounded by 76th Street to the north, South Chicago Avenue to the east, 87th Street to the south, and the Illinois Central Railroad to the west between 76th Street and 77th Street and between 79th Street and 81st Place. Woodlawn Avenue is the western boundary from 77th Street to 79th Street.  Greenwood Avenue is the western boundary between 81st Place and 83rd Street.  The western boundary between 83rd Street and 87th Street is a curving line.  The Chicago Skyway runs through Avalon Park, parallel with, and west of, South Chicago Avenue.  Avalon Park is south of Greater Grand Crossing (Community Area #69), southwest of South Shore (Community Area #43), west of South Chicago (Community Area #46), north of Calumet Heights (Community Area #48) and Burnside (Community #47), and east of Chatham (Community Area #44).  It lies ten miles southeast of the Chicago Loop. [1]  The Avalon Park Fine & Performing Arts School, which is part of the Chicago Public Schools system, is located at 8045 South Kenwood Avenue. A few blocks to the southeast, the Avalon Branch of the Chicago Public Library is located at is 8148 South Stony Island Avenue is 8148 South Stony Island Avenue.

This community area began as a lightly-populated neighborhood of the Village of Hyde Park, a resort town and southern suburb of Chicago which the City of Chicago annexed in 1889.[2]  At that time, the area was dominated by Mud Lake, mosquito-infested swampland, and a garbage dump.  Swamp Lake was a popular place to go hunting.  At first, the area was lightly populated, by people who lived in houses on stilts because it was swampland infested by mosquitoes until the swamp was drained and a sewage system was installed in 1900.[3]  The neighborhood was called Pierce’s Park initially, but later was renamed Pennytown in honor of a general store owner.[4]    The earliest residents were railroad workers, most of whom were either of German descent or Irish descent, who built homes in what is now the northern part of Avalon Park in the 1880s.[5]  They were joined by skilled mechanics, many of whom were ethnic Germans, who worked in Pullman, which was a company town and suburb of Chicago that the City of Chicago annexed in 1889 and is now Community Area #50, or Burnside.[6]

Annexation of Hyde Park (and other suburbs) in 1889; Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893); and the drainage of the wetlands in 1900 stimulated home construction.[7]  There were three successive waves of single-family home construction, with the busiest period being the Edwardian Era between 1900 and 1910.[8]  The second wave occurred during the Roaring Twenties, and the third wave occurred during the Baby Boom after the Second Great World War.[9]  This last period of flourishing home construction was marked by the erection of brick Chicago bungalows and a few apartment buildings.[10]  It helped that there were plentiful jobs in those postwar years at the steel mills and factories in neighboring areas.[11]

In 1910, the members of Avalon Park Community Church succeeded in having the neighborhood renamed Avalon Park.[12]    Avalon, in Celtic mythology, is part of the Fairy Otherworld, where King Arthur’s half-sister Morgan le Fay took his body after he was mortally wounded in a duel with their son Mordred in the Battle of Camlann.  The ancient Britons, Welshmen, and Cornishmen expected Arthur to return from Avalon in their hour of greatest need.  Sometimes called the “Isle of Apples,” Avalon has been identified by some scholars with the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, the residents of which are known as Manxmen.  Others have identified it with Glastonbury Tor in modern England after monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed in 1190 to have discovered King Arthur’s grave.  Glastonbury Tor is a hill that was formerly surrounded by fenland (a wetland fed by mineral-rich groundwater), much like the swamp that formerly stood on the site of Avalon Park.  Thus, Glastonbury Tor would have looked like an island in ancient times and before real estate developers improved the land, Avalon Park would have resembled the area around Glastonbury Tor.

By 1920, the population of Avalon Park had reached 2,911, and by 1930 over 10,000 people resided there.[13]  Avalon Park is very much a residential community, with a small shopping district clustered around the intersection of 79th Street and Stony Island.[14]

In 1930, the South Park Commission (which later merged with twenty-one other park districts to form the Chicago Park District) acquired twenty-eight acres for Avalon Park.[15]   The Chicago Park District’s 27.84-acre Avalon Park is shaped like a backwards capital L.  Robert Moore, a staff architect, developed the plan for Avalon Park, but due to the same financial difficulties that forced Chicago’s twenty-two park districts to merge during the Second Great Depression, neither the South Park Commission nor the Chicago Park District were able to implement the plan until federal funds became available under the New Deal.  Moore was inspired by the plans the Olmsted Brothers firm had previously made for parks for the South Park Commission.  The Chicago Park District built the brick Avalon Park Fieldhouse in 1958.

Early in the second quarter of the 20th Century, a large number of Swedes joined the community area’s mixture of German and Irish residents.  By 1930, 19% of residents were Swedish-Americans, most of whom worked for railroads, steel mills, or factories. [16]  During the 1960s, there was an influx of Black African-Americans. [17]   As was the case in adjacent Chatham, many of them were professionals (such as doctors and lawyers) as well as businessmen.[18]  In 1970, the population of Avalon Park peaked at 14,412 people, 83% of whom were Black.[19]  Ten years later, the population had fallen to 13,792 people, of whom 96% were Black.[20]

By century’s end, the population of Avalon Park had fallen to 11,147 people, which was a lower population level than Avalon Park had back in 1950.[21]  This happened despite real estate developers having planned to construct multi-unit homes along 83rd Street.[22]   In recent decades, owner occupancy rates have been over 70%.[23]

In 2013, 304.1 acres of land were devoted to single-family homes, 27.3 acres were devoted to multi-family homes, 44.9 acres were devoted to commercial uses, 12 acres were devoted to industrial uses, 43 acres were devoted to institutional uses, 2.6 acres were devoted to mixed uses, and 313.6 acres were devoted to transportation and other uses.  There were 28 acres of open space and 24.6 acres were vacant.

The State of Illinois reported that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning estimated, using data from the 2015 American Community Survey, that in 2015 the population of Avalon Park had declined to 9,780 people, with 3,775 households.  The population had declined 8.6% between 2000 and 2010.  In terms of racial demographics, Avalon Park had 9,521 Black residents, sixty-two Hispanic or Latino residents, fifty-nine Asian residents, fifty-two White residents, and eighty-six “Other” residents. The median age was forty-five.  In terms of educational attainment, 6,238 people (88.5% of the population) had a high school diploma or higher and 1,556 people (22.1% of the population) had a bachelor’s degree or higher.  The median income was $41,351 with 1,407 households that had an income of less than $25,000, 841 households that had an income range of $25,000 to $49,999, 533 households that had an income range of $50,000 to $74,999, 351 households that had an income range of $75,000 to $99,999, 490 households that had an income range of $100,000 to $149,999, and 154 households that had an income of $150,000 and over.  There were 3,775 occupied homes, of which 2,500 were owner-occupied and 1,274 were tenant-occupied.  Another 639 homes were vacant.

ENDNOTES

[1] Wallace Best, “Avalon Park.”  The Encyclopedia of Chicago.  Edited by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice R. Reiff.  Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (2004), p. 57

[2] Best, p. 57

[3] Best, p. 57

[4] Best, p. 57

[5] Best, p. 57

[6] Best, p. 57

[7] Best, p. 57

[8] Best, p. 57

[9] Best, p. 57

[10] Best, p. 57

[11] Best, p. 57

[12] Best, p. 57

[13] Best, p. 57

[14] Best, p. 57

[15] Best, p. 57

[16] Best, p. 57

[17] Best, p. 57

[18] Best, p. 57

[19] Best, p. 57

[20] Best, p. 57

[21] Best, p. 57

[22] Best, p. 57

[23] Best, p. 57

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