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10-Mile Walk Down Archer Avenue Reveals S.W. Side's Past, Future [PHOTOS]

By Joe Ward | February 1, 2016 6:05am
 Historian Rob Bitunjac talks about Garfield Ridge on a walk down Archer Avenue Saturday.
Historian Rob Bitunjac talks about Garfield Ridge on a walk down Archer Avenue Saturday.
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DNAinfo/Joe Ward

GARFIELD RIDGE — To help train for an upcoming 39-mile breast cancer walk, Amelia Tonkin decided to join a group that on Saturday walked the entire length of Archer Avenue.

And while the 10-plus mile trek was a good primer for her upcoming walk, Tonkin said the experience was worthwhile in more ways than one.

"You see neighborhoods in a much different way," said Tonkin, who lives in River North. "It's a cultural melting pot in one street."

READ MORE: This Group Walks an Entire Chicago Street in One Day, Once a Month

Built in the 1830s, Archer was one of the first of the diagonal "highways" the city built to make it easier to get to and from downtown on a grid system, according to Rob Bitunjac, a historian with the Clear-Ridge Historical Society who joined walkers Saturday.

Beginning at 19th and State streets and ending at Harlem Avenue, the thoroughfare cuts Southwest through a number of historic and diverse neighborhoods: Garfield Ridge, Midway, Archer Heights, Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Bridgeport, Chinatown and South Loop.

The group "Walking Across Chicago" started at Harlem and trekked back eastward on a four-hour plus walk that highlighted the changing demographics, landscapes and industries that have played a major role in the Southwest Side's makeup.

Archer Avenue Dutch Reformed Church in Garfield Ridge. [DNAinfo/Joe Ward]

One of the first ethnic groups in the area were the Dutch, who Bitunjac said bought land from former Chicago Mayor "Long" John Wentworth's farm in the area around Harlem and Archer.

Though it's a predominantly Polish area now, Dutch landmarks are scattered along Archer, including the Archer Avenue Dutch Reformed church, which was built in 1910 and is the oldest Dutch reformed church in Chicago, Bitunjac said.

Unlike more preserved, historic areas in Chicago, Garfield Ridge and Midway have constantly been changing, Bitunjac said. There are only a few relics from the time of the Dutch settlers, including a number of curious stone pillars that line Archer.

The pillars are reminders that the area used to house a massive gated community, and the pillars would connect gate doors for the community.

Pillars that show the outer limits of a former gated community that preceded Garfield Ridge. [DNAinfo/Joe Ward]

A bit east of Garfield Ridge, walkers began having to shout over the droning of planes taking off and landing at nearby Midway Airport.

The fact that Midway is surrounded by largely residential areas is a bit unique to modern American cities, said Elliot Mason, a walker who joined the group because she is an "infrastructure nerd."

The area around the airport grew once the massive new facility was opened. If you walk close enough to Midway, it can appear as though massive jetliners are taking off in an alley right behind a row of houses.

"The city grew out [of] it and ate it," Mason said of Midway Airport. "Sometime it feels like you should see a plane's tire marks on Archer."

Walkers then made it to Brighton Park, a predominantly Latino community.

That's where actually walking a certain neighborhood comes in handy, said Shira Raider. It allows you to get a sense for parts of the city that some people might only see when visiting a particular restaurant.

On past walks down Halsted and Western, the group traveled through Englewood and Chatham, neighborhoods that many outsiders only know for their high incidence of gun and gang violence.

The encounters are beneficial to both the natives and the walkers, some said.

"You go to these places people vilify," said Raider, a Rogers Park resident, who has walked through and worked in Englewood. "They're in loving families, want to be with friends. It's not that different from us."

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