ROGERS PARK — A small church in Rogers Park this week turned into a living history museum, with longtime residents reflecting on the neighborhood’s past and admiring its present.
The Tuesday event, called “Growing Up In Rogers Park,” was the first “living history program” of the year produced by the Rogers Park West Ridge Historical Society. A panel of longtime Rogers Park residents gathered at the 16th Church of Christ Scientist, 7036 N. Ridge Blvd., to reflect on the ever-changing landscape of the neighborhood during the the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
The panel was moderated by historical society President Ken Walchack, a longtime Rogers Park resident. The panel included residents and former residents Jim Cusick, Peggy Cusick, Marilou Kessler, Linda Bressler and John Fitzgerald.
“It’s tough to remember this far back,” Fitzgerald said. “But these are memories worth remembering.”
Back then, many tight-knit ethnic groups called the neighborhood home. Irish, Jewish, Mexican and other ethnic groups often lived in the same block or street.
Peggy Cusick remembered when Loyola University was a ghost town during WWII. In those days, only men were allowed at the Rogers Park campus, and during the war most men had either enlisted or were drafted.
Movie theaters were a mainstay for most kids growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the summers, it was the only place where people could escape the heat since the theaters had air conditioning.
Back then, people spent the majority of their summer at the beach, the residents shared. Kids would sometimes sleep on the beach, escaping the balmy heat with the lakefront breeze.
The panel described a much less structured life for children. Most days would go by largely unsupervised for kids who could go just about anywhere — providing they didn’t break city curfew.
Bressler said she was picked up by police three separate times for breaking curfew. But in those days, the police knew most families and usually returned children home to face the wrath of their parents.
Work for children was not uncommon in those days, most of the neighbors on the panel said they started working between eight and 12 years old.
Fitzgerald said he had his first paper route in fourth grade. He would also sell papers as the Metra station for a nickel, getting to keep a penny for each paper sold. He had to be careful though — in those days cinder could blow down from the train tracks and ignite all of his papers.
Setting pins at the bowling alley, cutting lawns, caddying and babysitting were also popular first jobs back then.
For Kessler, the most memorable event during her time in Rogers Park was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Back then, he feared the atomic bomb and remembered the air raid drills they’d practice in grammar school.
“We learned to avoid looking at the flash,” he said. “It was scary, but it was like going to the movies scary.”
Bressler said Richard Speck — the serial killer who killed eight nursing students in South Chicago in 1966 — stuck with her the most. For one of the first times she could remember, people were truly afraid to walk the neighborhood.
The panel lamented over business closings — none of them could recall a single restaurant that had survived from their childhood. They also wished the city would have developed even better public transit and not been so quick to embrace cars.
“They are absolutely everywhere now,” Cusick said.
Rogers Park, a neighborhood that today prides itself on its diversity and tolerance, was not that way for many on the panel growing up. Sensationalized and irrational fears of black Americans permeated the neighborhood in the ‘60s at the height of the Civil Rights movement. From the ’60s until the mid ‘80s, the neighborhood experienced white flight, and by the early ‘90s, Rogers Park was more diverse.
That diversity today is one of Roger Park’s greatest strengths, the panel members said.
“Rogers Park is a microcosm of the world now,” said Fitzgerald, who has visited every county in the contiguous United States. “There is really no neighborhood like it. It’s a wonderful place to live.”
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