An urban planning whodunit: the Chicago neighborhood that vanished into thin air

February 8, 2011

Chicago ex-pat Michael DeLaRosa, who grew up on the Northwest Side in the 1970s, emailed me a puzzler last week.

Michael went to the site Historic Aerials to browse 70 years worth of aerial photographs of his old neighborhood located on the edge of the LaBagh Woods' Irene C. Hernandez Family Picnic Grove. "While looking at the aerial photos I noticed that [Hernandez picnic grove] was empty on the 1938 photo. [but] there looks to be a fully populated neighborhood (alleys and everything!) in the 1951 photo, and everything gone in the 1962 photo," he said.

1938

1951

1962

There are plenty of places in the city where where buildings disappear for park space.. But what Michael reported is a bit more remarkable for 20th century Chicago. As the photos above from 1938, 1951 and 1962 show, an entire neighborhood popped into existence, then faded out entirely without a trace--after no more than two decades (and as we'll find out, the neighborhood lasted only one decade). And the short lived community vanished and stayed that way.

What happened?

This took a little digging, naturally, but the story is interesting.

The 19-acre forest preserve site was leased to the military in 1941 and became Camp Sauganash, a recreational place where soldiers from Fort Sheridan and Rockford's Camp Grant would spend their furloughs. The camp was composed of 80 tents, but in 1942, wooden barracks were built and even a military police unit was stationed there for a short spell. The Civil Air Patrol later moved in.

After World War II, the land was given over to the Chicago Housing Authority and in 1945 was slated to provide temporary housing for returning veterans. Renamed Sauganash Homes, a series of small, pitched-roof plywood homes were built in Indiana and moved to the former camp. The city kicked in to build the streets, and other infrastructure to make the area resemble a real neighborhood. According to a Tribune story of the time, veterans and their families moved in on Christmas Eve of 1945.

Sauganash Homes had it own tenants' council--a body which pressured the CHA to building fencing along the river after a two-year-old drowned in 1947. By the 1950s, neighborhood groups sought the demolition of the homes fearful the building's shabby conditions would devalue property in the area.

In December 1955, the CHA announced it would demolish Sauganash Homes. There were two families left; the CHA had cleared residents from the project over the previous year by not renewing leases. A larger CHA veterans' housing tract on the northeast corner of 79th and Kostner on the Southwest Side was also demolished and replaced by homes and Rainey Park.

By the time Michael DeLaRosa and his family moved into the Northwest Side area in 1972, the Sauganash Homes were no more than a memory.

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Got a question about a building (or in this case, the lack of one)? Drop me a line at lbey@ywbez.org and I'll see if I can answer it.

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