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Old Irving Park's History Told Through Photos in New Book

By Patty Wetli | August 28, 2013 9:10am
 Wilfredo Cruz, a 25-year resident of Old Irving Park, is author of "Images of America: Old Irving Park."
Old Irving Park History in Photos
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IRVING PARK — As an academic, Wilfredo Cruz is used to writing books nobody reads.

His latest effort, a photo history of Old Irving Park — the neighborhood he's called home for the past 25 years — is sure to find a wider audience.

The book, "Images of America: Old Irving Park," is the Columbia College professor's third collaboration with Arcadia Publishing.

"I thought it was a beautiful neighborhood with a story to be told," said Cruz, who teaches sociology but also previously wrote for the Chicago Reporter.

"It's been a hidden gem for a long time."

Given the number of Old Irving homes on the National Register of Historic Places, it's no surprise that architecture takes center stage in the book, along with chapters on religion, business and education.

"I had to learn terms like 'cupola,' 'clapboard,' 'cornice' and 'mansard roof,'" Cruz said.

His own American Foursquare (four rooms on the first floor, four on the second), built in 1906, even makes an appearance in the book — twice.

Having combed the archives of libraries, local schools, churches and the Irving Park Historical Society, Cruz uncovered a photo of one of the first occupants of his house, a young woman perched on a front porch railing. Later in the book he shows the house in its current state, a photo he snapped himself after an extensive restoration.

"It was a handyman special, it was falling apart," Cruz said. He and his wife fell in love with the area, the large lots and the 200-year-old tree in the backyard, buying the home as "almost a giveaway" for their growing family in the 1980s.

Renovation was a time-consuming "labor of love," something newcomers to the neighborhood seem to have little patience for.

"Today, you see a lot of teardowns," he said.

That's precisely the sort of change Cruz documents in his book, beginning with the neighborhood's origins as a Chicago suburb in the 1860s.

People tend to romanticize that era as "how they had it so good" before they became part of the city.

"Even though it was a nice suburb, it didn't have running water, sewers or streets. It was a hard life, especially for women," Cruz said.

Voters were all too happy to cast their lot with Chicago in order to obtain the aforementioned "amenities," he said.

While as a resident, Cruz is an unabashed booster of Old Irving Park. As an author and a sociologist he strives for objectivity, depicting the neighborhood warts and all.

"I have a picture of a baby abandoned at a local church," he said.

The book also chronicles the construction of the Kennedy Expressway, which "destroyed a lot of businesses and homes" and cuts "right through the heart of Old Irving Park."

"It's a double-edged sword," Cruz said. "It's good to have transportation, but with progress comes regression."

In at least one instance, Cruz managed to capture history as it was being made.

He wandered into a barbershop on Pulaski Road, where Italian immigrant Rosario Speziale had plied his trade for 53 years. Two days later Speziale retired and Cruz had a photograph of the business' last days to include in the book.

"I happened to be in the right place at the right time," he said.

As much as his book delves into the neighborhood's past — the cover image depicts men departing from the Irving Park train station to serve in World War I — it also brings readers into present-day Old Irving Park.

Cruz's photographs demonstrate the civic efforts — "all those little things that make a difference" — that have strengthened the community in recent years: creating garden clubs, painting viaduct murals, hounding city officials to fix broken sidewalks and winning the fight against a proposed dump site.

"People moved in and invested," he said of Old Irving Park's renaissance in the 1980s. "There are strong community organizations willing to go out and do the work, go to CAPS meetings. They're kind of busybodies and you need that, people who call the police."

Interviewed at the local Starbucks on Kostner Avenue, Cruz pointed to the faux pressed-tin ceiling and historic photos on the wall — results of a recent remodel — as proof that even the coffee giant recognizes the unique character of Old Irving Park.

Ultimately, the more than 200 photos in Cruz's book tell the story of a neighborhood that's remained a vibrant middle-class community, even while continually growing and evolving.

Witness page 78, which features a picture of Beil's Bakery, founded in 1944 by German immigrant Matthias Beil. The shop closed in 1999, Cruz writes, and eventually reopened as a Mexican bakery, Cuenca.

"Things don't remain static, you have ethnic change," Cruz said. "First there were Germans, Swedes and the Irish. Now it's Latinos and Indians, with the same aspirations other immigrants had — they're looking for a nice place to raise a family."

Copies of "Images of America: Old Irving Park" are available at City Newsstand, 4018 N. Cicero Ave. Cruz will be signing copies from 1-3 p.m. Sept. 7 at Walgreens at Irving Park and Pulaski roads.