Roscoe Village — Then and Now by Chuck Hadley
(edited by RVN)
The year 2002 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of the organization that became Roscoe Village Neighbors (RVN). The following is a brief history of the neighborhood that we call Roscoe Village.
The history of Roscoe Village as a defined community dates to the end of the 19th Century when developers bought the land just west of Western Avenue to construct the “world’s largest amusement park,” dubbed Riverview Park, which opened its gates in 1903.
Dozens of businesses sprang up along Belmont, Roscoe and Western to serve the needs of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who came to the park every year. About half of these businesses were bars and taverns. In addition, a few dozen park workers moved into the area and built homes, primarily on land previously occupied by greenhouses.
Growth continued at a slow pace until about 1920, when the Village experienced its first boom in economic development, with virtually every old greenhouse being torn down, and frame houses and brick and greystone two-flats taking their place. For the first time, Roscoe Village had become “the place to be.”
A majority of the people who moved here were second-generation German-Americans who were primarily tradesmen and factory workers. Factories grew up along the eastern end of the Village to accommodate some of them. Prosperity seemed never-ending.
Then in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it all came crashing down with the Great Depression. The unemployment rate in the Village exceeded 40 percent. Lacking such safety nets as Unemployment Compensation and Social Security, residents could not buy food, and many were evicted or foreclosed upon.
The end of World War II did not bring the booming prosperity to the Village that it did to many towns and neighborhoods across America. Although, because of high wartime wages and a lack of readily available consumer products, huge amounts of cash accumulated in bank accounts here, most of it ended up being spent on things like new cars and appliances. Little went into improving the housing stock, the quality of which had been declining since the beginning of the Depression. The Village rapidly became a place where nobody wanted to move, and in which no one wanted to buy.
Other factors contributed to an even further decline in the neighborhood. Sons and daughters of local residents, returning from the war, no longer wanted to live here. The brand new expressway system and the GI Home Loan Program made it possible for these younger people to move to the suburbs where rumor had it schools were much better than those in the City. By 1970, a frame or a brick two-flat sold for $20,000 or less.
Crime became a major concern in the neighborhood, and in 1977 a series of garage fires led to the formation of the Melrose-Oakley Block Club, which set about to improve community safety in its own area. This block club was quite successful; it was blessed with the leadership of a number of prominent people including Stuart Gordon, then at the Organic Theatre, and later producer of “Grease” and a number of movies. The club eventually grew to include all of Roscoe Village, or Riverview, as the area was then commonly called.
Calling itself Riverview Neighbors, the organization was run by a Steering Committee drawn from throughout the Village. The group’s main emphasis was on combating crime, and on preventing gang crime through work with teenagers who might otherwise become “gangbangers.” Early presidents included Carolyn Roof, Janina Schneider, and Chuck Hadley.
With the help of Lake View Citizens Council, of which the organization had then become a branch, a small Youth Center was opened on Roscoe Street, paid for in part with City funds. The Center offered sports programs, indoor games and homework assistance to all comers.
By the mid-1970s, both suburban and city residents were beginning to rediscover the solid housing stock and convenient transportation of the Village. The area began to attract “urban pioneers” who bought two-flats here specifically to fix them up, restore them to their former glory, and to live in them. In 1990, the purchase and condominium conversion of the Eversharp Building, better known as the “pencil factory” at 1800 West Roscoe Street, caught the attention of the whole City.
At first the project appeared to be a losing proposition, but the original developers sold out to new owners who soon made it a roaring success. This lit a fire under housing and development in the Village, and property values rose dramatically. Buildings that sold for $20,000 in 1971 were now selling for up to $400,000, and by 2000 a few were listing as high as $800,000.
In 1986, the community undertook its first Roscoe Street Summer Festival. Produced entirely by volunteers, it made a modest profit but, more importantly, was a means of bringing the Village to the attention of the rest of the City.
In 1988, the organization changed its name to Roscoe Village Neighbors (RVN) to reflect the name by which nearly everyone then referred to the area, for Riverview Park had long ago been replaced by the Riverview Plaza Shopping Center.
Soon after, RVN changed the name of its summer festival to Retro on Roscoe, hired a professional producer, and soon turned the event into a major fundraiser, the proceeds of which finance all of RVN’s programs.
These programs include beautification, aid to local schools, the annual Garden Walk, improvement of our parks, the What’s News in Roscoe Village newsletter, RVN’s web site, Candidate Forums, the annual Easter Brunch, Halloween Parade and Party, and Winter Celebrations, “Come Meet Your Neighbor!” events, and RVN’s very active Zoning & Land Use Committee.