Echo of past to help with the Blue Island’s future?

Olde Western Ave businesses hope development links to heritage, blue-collar ethos

March 7, 2013

Dave Brown, the owner of Rock Island Public House in south suburban Blue Island, hopes to prove people wrong when it comes to getting good beer in his area.

“The reason we actually opened this bar was in part because everybody said it couldn’t be done,” said Brown. “Everybody said there’s no room for craft beer on the South Side. We feel that Blue Island’s kind of gotten lost or gets a bad reputation.”

Selling craft beer is not novel, of course, but it is part of what Brown sees as a new back-to-the future strategy of development along his stretch of Blue Island’s Olde Western Avenue and Broadway Street.

His building, like many on the block, has historic value and hearkens back to a time when Blue Island was teeming with industry and a sense of community. Blue Island was once home to many blue collar workers, but industry in the region has struggled. Residents have recently tried to revitalize the city through environmental initiatives and artist outreach — all while cautioning against the label of “hipster destination." The large Latino population is strongly blue collar, as is the ethos.

And when you meet Brown and other area business owners, they’re not shy about telling you so.

“We’re trying to emphasize there’s much more down here than public perception leads to,” Brown said.

The 35-year-old former resident of New Orleans moved to Blue Island in 2005 with his wife, Jennifer, who has been a longtime resident. Brown is also a part-time firefighter for the city.

Jason Berry, a city planner for Blue Island, told WBEZ “You have a chance to be pretty progressive. We’ve tried to do that with active transportation stuff with environmental stuff with music and the arts.” He added that the city's trying trying to push, and it's great that "The community all along seems to be saying yeah, keep doing it.”

Business operators told WBEZ that there will soon be an opportunity for Blue Island to consider playing up its past and rejuvenating the retail environment, as Republican Mayor Donald Peloquin is leaving after a tenure of nearly 30 years.

“This area of Olde Western Avenue could be really something special in this town because it’s a historic district,” said Mario Mendez, a lifelong resident and owner of Mario’s restaurant.

“This building was built before Abraham Lincoln became president," he said. "This area could be very special if it was taken care of if the city devoted money and time into making it something that no one has around here.”

Mendez pointed out several historic photos on the wall of his Mexican restaurant. Such photos are also shown prominently at Brown's public house as well.

That kind of civic pride is also on display at neighboring Jeben’s Hardware, where customers can stand beneath antique airplanes suspended from the ceiling. A whistle can surprise visitors, too. The source? A model train that circles the store shelves.

“I hope to see a new mayor that comes in to all of the businesses because even the chamber of commerce. This is what makes this community,” said Judy Tuma, the hardware store's manager.

Tuma and Mendez both think the city could do more for Olde Western Avenue to help increase local business.

“What I see is we’re down here cut off from main street Blue Island and sometimes this area can be more prosperous and buildings full compared to what’s going on uptown…. We need to clean up,” Tuma said.