Living in Chicago means that there is no lack of buildings to stand in awe of and of history to learn. As someone who holds a master’s degree in history and who has had the good fortune to be able to walk into, not just past, literally hundreds of these buildings over the past three years, it really makes my history-driven imagination take flight on a regular basis. I think to myself, “What company used to own this West Loop loft, and what was life like for the people who worked here before people lived here?” Or maybe, “Who lived in this Wrigleyville walkup when the Cubs won their first world series over a century ago? Were they baseball fans, and did they sit on their rooftops to see what they could see during games?” Or even, “What beautiful two-flat sat here before this lot was leveled to build this (still beautiful) million-dollar single family home?”
Being a Chicagoan is truly a historian’s dream (and even though I no longer practice history professionally–it’s still a huge part of who I am).
I personally take a great interest in the building and street where I live as well. My first apartment in Chicago was in a building two streets over from Wrigley Field, built in 1906. While it had obviously been modified over the years, I loved thinking about all of the people who went in and out of the door that was now mine.
In October 2017, my husband and I made a move to Lincoln Park. We now live on Lill Avenue, and I recently made it my mission to find out more about our street and our building. As it turns out, our street is named after one William Lill, an English immigrant who walked from Louisville, Kentucky to Chicago, Illinois in 1835. He co-owned a successful brewery, Lill and Diversey Brewery, until it was lost in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. (Source) Since my husband was born in Kentucky, he found it especially interesting that our street is named after a Kentucky transplant.
Between William Lill arriving in Chicago and the building where I currently live coming into being on the street named after him, several Sanborn Maps were created to help insurance companies assess fire risks to buildings in this city and many others. These maps are an incredible resource to let us know city layouts and structural information dating back to the late 1800s. I found my street on one such map from 1894, courtesy of the Library of Congress:
This kind of find makes me so excited–I can compare what I see now with what used to be here. The spot where my building is now was totally empty in 1894!
After taking a look around on the Cook County Assessor’s website, I also discovered that our apartment building was constructed in 1930. This made me wonder what life might have been like for the very first residents in our unit. Did three flights of stairs seem as daunting then as they do now? Did they enjoy the view of Lill Avenue and the natural light as much as I do? Did they work for a brewery, like William Lill (and SO MANY other Chicagoans), or did they work for a railroad company, like the North Chicago Street Railroad Company, which used to have a powerhouse sitting right where our beautiful neighborhood park, Jonquil Park, now sits. I may never truly know, but I can definitely imagine what might have been.
Learning about my surroundings and understanding how they have changed over the years makes me feel very connected and in-tune with my community. I love to learn, to investigate, and to engage with the history around me. No matter where you live, researching your neighborhood is a fun way to discover more about your city–you never know what may come up!