BUCKTOWN — Walsh Park in Bucktown is home to two acres of open green space, a playground, basketball hoops and the eastern end of The 606’s Bloomingdale Trail.
In its previous lives dating back more than 100 years, it was home to two factories that each burned down in arsons nearly 60 years apart.
That historical coincidence is not likely to be found in local guidebooks, but it is prominently featured among dozens of stories about the surrounding neighborhood told by Bucktown resident Gordon Meyer in his long-running Bizarre Bucktown walking tour.
Now, after eight years in business, Meyer is making a dramatic change to his operation. This summer, he’s begun offering his entire tour package virtually as he takes time off due to family commitments.
The tours are available online for purchase here. Spread across 37 videos, most of them under five minutes long, they provide snapshots of neighborhood history Meyer argues are essential to understanding Bucktown and Wicker Park.
“Wicker Park and Bucktown have a rich history, but it’s not super apparent. They’ve changed so much over the years, but the echoes are still there if you know where to look,” Meyer said. “From a social perspective and from a personal perspective, it lets you be a little more grounded in why you’re living where you’re living.”
When Meyer moved to Bucktown almost 20 years ago, he started hearing stories about some of neighborhood’s landmarks he just couldn’t get out of his head, often from people hanging around the local bars.
Meyer had friends who gave walking tours in other cities, and always thought he might do something similar.
“It was probably always a little bit in the back of my mind, like, ‘Hey, I would like to do that if I had the material.’ And I think eventually I just kind of reached the tipping point. ‘I’ve got like five stories, five potential stories, and they’re all within a relatively short distance of each other. Maybe it would work,'” he said.
That started a two-year research process that included combing through old newspaper archives and talking to “old-timers” who tipped him off to pieces of neighborhood lore.
Meyer launched his first tours in 2014, at first to a mostly local audience which steadily grew to include a stream of out-of-towners. A few years later he launched a Wicker Park version and a “Dark Tales of Bucktown” spinoff.
He tells the secret history of places like the iconic St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, neighborhood taverns and even a hidden distillery once housed under the garage of a workers’ cottage on Bloomingdale Avenue.
The stories about Walsh Park date back to 1912. A malt company operating there burned down that year, and authorities discovered the fire was started on purpose.
In July 1970, an abandoned factory on the site also burned to the ground weeks before it was slated to be demolished.
That fire, it turns out, also was intentional: The factory blaze was one of a series of arsons in the area linked to an insurance fraud scheme. The plot later became a public park named after John Walsh, a firefighter who died from injuries received while putting out the fire.
Almost all of those stories are available in digital form on the Bizarre Bucktown website. That includes some of Meyer’s favorites, like how the congregation of St. Mary of the Angels saved the church from demolition, and the sordid saga of illicit gambling and corruption at Lottie’s Pub.
He’s also partial to the history of the 1915 Chicago tailor strike, which saw garment workers at factories in Bucktown and across the city demand better contracts.
“That was such an impactful thing for not only the city but the whole country. And it’s all centered right here,” Meyer said.
Meyer concedes the virtual tours are a bit of a trade-off, where viewers sacrifice the chance to ask questions and have a back-and-forth with him about a particular story they’re interested in. But there are also numerous perks, he said.
“You can take them in any order. And you can spread them out over time, you can watch them as many times as you want. So I think there are some advantages,” he said. “A lot of the stuff on the tour isn’t easily found, right? So if you’re curious about the history and just the neighborhood, it’s a good place to learn it. And you don’t have to worry about the weather.”
Meyer said he’s not sure if he’ll return to in-person tours, although he might entertain the idea of a hybrid model at some point. During the pandemic, he also launched a series of “Fact File” booklets with additional neighborhood stories. They’re available at Quimby’s Bookstore, 1854 W. North Ave.
What remains is his curiosity and passion for Bucktown and Wicker Park, something he hopes rubs off on the people who take — and now watch — his tours.
“I think history either speaks to you or it doesn’t,” Meyer said. “But if it does at all, and I think it can speak to a lot of people, then I think the stories are worth paying attention to.”
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