How Blue Island fought off Chicago's annexation attempt

February 24, 2014

If Blue Island, a Southwestern suburb of just four square miles, once beat back Chicago’s attempt to annex it, we shouldn’t be surprised that they trounced other suburbs in a Curious City face-off.

Recall that curious citizen Jim Padden asked Curious City how Chicago grew over time by annexing its neighbors. (The answer? It’s in an animated map).

But then, we asked you: Which Chicago suburb’s story of resisting annexation do you want to hear more about?

Blue Island prevailed against Oak Park, which is on the city's western border, and Evanston to the north. I want to thank the thousands of you who voted

If you’re not familiar with the place, Blue Island is a diverse, proudly working class suburb of about 24,000 people. It’s about 16 miles southwest of Chicago’s loop, as the crow flies.

To get to the heart of why this suburb said ‘No thanks’ when Chicago came knocking, we need to go back in time.

Which is the city, which is the suburb?

In the 1830s, Blue Island and Chicago were just whispers of their future selves among Illinois wilderness.

“Blue Island is just two years younger than Chicago,” said chair of the Blue Island Historical Society Mike Kaliski. “So Blue Island was a stopping point for travelers going on to Chicago. It was still a day’s travel from here to Chicago. So between Chicago and Joliet, Blue Island was it. There was nothing else and this was a big town. So Blue Islanders always felt maybe Chicago should be the suburb, not Blue Island. ”

But Blue Island remained a modest four square miles while Chicago grew, annexing its neighbors one at a time. By 1914, Chicago had sidled up to Blue Island’s doorstep.

“Morgan Park had voted for [annexation by Chicago in 1914],” Kaliski said. “So now, oh boy, it’s getting closer. Now what are we going to do? So there was probably a little more urgency to the Blue Islanders’ frame of mind at that time.”

Blue Islanders got to see what happened to their neighbors in Morgan Park after Chicago gobbled them up in 1914. For one thing, Morgan Park lost half its street names in the transition; its east-west streets took on numbers (e.g., West 111th Street), following Chicago’s convention.

We dug out some old newspapers to give a sense of how the arguments for and against annexation played out. Here’s an excerpt from the Blue Island Standard on February 2, 1915.

“Who is Annexation Society? The writer afraid or ashamed to disclose his identity...The first gun in the annexation campaign was fired last Saturday when hundreds of circulars called Volume 1 Annexation filled the mails and found their way into nearly every home in the city.”  

The anonymous ‘Annexation Society’ flyers touted Chicago’s public schools and other city services. But they didn’t convince many Blue Islanders. In 1915, residents rebuffed Chicago in a landslide, with about 77 percent voting not to join Chicago.

Blue Island roots

The outcome doesn’t surprise Richard Bauer. The 83-year-old comes from a family whose roots in Blue Island run deep. He’s a direct descendent of Henry Bauer, who opened a brewery in Blue Island in 1858. Richard Bauer was born 15 years after the annexation vote, but remembers plenty of stories about why it failed.

“There were certain businesses and politicians that were very prominent and it wouldn’t be any advantage to them at all,” Richard said. “They’d be out. Naturally they’d want to stay the way it was.”

Richard said he never heard anyone in Blue Island consider joining Chicago again.

“If there had been any talk it wasn’t serious talk,” he said.

Jason Berry is a city planner and history buff who loves Blue Island so much he braved a blizzard to come out and talk about it.

“We have our own identity,” Berry said. “It’s not a shock to me that in 1915 Blue Islanders also felt the same way — growing up in the shadow of Chicago doesn’t mean you have to give up who you were. The pride that Blue Islanders have today you see echoed in these old papers. Blue Islanders always felt strongly about their place in history and I’m glad that they were able to hold onto it.”

Identity. That word keeps popping up. Sure, taxes, politics and plenty of other things factored into Blue Island’s fear of annexation. But it seems that — for most folks I talked to — it’s about identity.

Identity and infrastructure

It’s one thing to have a strong community identity. Plenty of Chicago neighborhoods do.

Shoot, Hyde Park was annexed into the city way back in 1899, but if you ask someone at 55th and Woodlawn where they live, odds are good the first words out of their mouth aren’t “Chicago,” but “Hyde Park.”

So the warm fuzzy feeling of a Blue Island identity wasn’t enough to fight off annexation. It had to have city services good enough to make Chicago’s offers of infrastructure unconvincing.

A big part of it was that Blue Island had already secured a way of getting fresh water from Lake Michigan without Chicago’s infrastructure.

“They didn’t need Chicago to come in and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to get water, you’re going to get this and this — we’ve already got it,’” Kaliski said. “We got a contract and they already secured the water. So you gotta understand their attitude was we don’t need you. We don’t want to be part of Chicago. There’s nothing Chicago could offer except higher taxes.”

Blue Island was also bolstered by its connection to the railways and had diverse industry. It made everything from bricks to beer.

Depending on diversity for future growth

The only thing more diverse than the industry in Blue Island’s past is its people. The latest U.S. Census numbers show residents are:

  • 41.3% white
  • 47% Latino (can include other categories)
  • 30.8% African-American

The city just elected its first Latino mayor: Domingo Vargas. He says Blue Island’s diversity still keeps it distinct from Chicago and newer suburban sprawl to its west.

Blue Island businesses struggled in the 20th century to compete against suburban malls.

But Vargas — whose own family has lived in Blue Island since 1914 — says the suburb is poised to grow again. They’re not making bricks anymore, but they are brewing again.

“Blue Island’s basically been a community of churches. As well as the breweries. So from one extreme to the other,” Vargas said. “We’re coming back. The churches are coming back, the breweries are coming back, and eventually hopefully more of the small businesses will be the unique niches here again.”

There’s even talk now in Blue Island of making room for newcomers by snapping up a few bits of available land in the surrounding area.

Because, as just about everyone we met there said: Who wouldn’t want to live in Blue Island?

Tricia Bobeda is a WBEZ web producer. Follow her @triciabobeda.