Efforts to diversify Elgin's economy had already begun before the old watch factory clock tower was razed in 1966.
Elgin has been more than a sawmill town; more than a butter capital ... ; more than a one-industry town. It has always been the area's service center.1
Chapter X. Modern Elgin
In quick flashes of contrast, the pictures appear on the screen of time: A collapsing watch factory tower, block after block of fine new homes with two-car garages, black power scrawls, old landmarks crumbling under wrecking balls and bulldozers, three big motels along the tollway, crowded schools, the blinking red lights of fire engines and squad cars in the night, the steady rush of traffic along the U.S. 20 bypass.
Pictures alone can't portray the sweeping change. Listen to the audio full of questions: I realize Sherman Hospital needs more parking, but what's going to happen to our neighborhood? Do you think Larkin can beat Elgin? Helen, did you see that E.C.C. student's mini? Por que no tratan de entendernos? Is there no end to rising taxes? I'm for lower taxes, too, but how about a north end bridge? Any good sites west of Randall Road? Remember when Elgin was a quiet place? Are the teachers striking again? Is water from the river safe to drink?
Just as the Civil War was one dividing line in the development of Elgin, preparing the way for its rise as an industrial city, the turmoil of the '60s ushered in far-ranging and accelerating change. Network television carried the national traumas of assassination, riots in cities, and the dirty warfare of Vietnam into living rooms on Cooper Avenue, South Street and Park Row. Elgin residents experienced the uneasiness of a rise in homicides, burglaries and other serious crimes.
Foreign-made cars and tape players became commonplace. Fundamentalist churches, some in store fronts, were flourishing. More and more families were disrupted by divorce and estrangement between parents and children. Conglomerate mergers reduced the number of locally owned and managed enterprises, and nationally franchised retail outlets multiplied. Shopping centers conveniently located within the city and more comfortable enclosed malls in other communities lured customers away from downtown. An increased diversity of lifestyles surfaced from the counterculture, a new mixture of ethnic groups, and a widening of class differences between the east and west sides. And through all the upheaval, the city expanded its role as an educational, medical and financial center for newer, suburban villages on its periphery.
1. Youth and Growth
The postwar children were now crowding the secondary schools and community college. A dress code adopted by Elgin High School in 1958, the setting of formal rules a sign that the customary order was crumbling, was soon subverted by a combination of long hair and jeans. If the appearance of young people was unsettling, some of their attitudes and the vocabulary used to express them shocked their elders. Referring to a local underground newspaper, The American Revelation, one mother alerted the community: "How many of you parents are aware of the filth and immoral propaganda that your children are reading? Ask where it is printed; you may be surprised to find it being done in a church basement."2
"Americans today, their minds jellied by affluence and status lust, are crazed for security," anguished three students. "This obsession has caused complacency in their lives, and has set color TVs and split-level homes as the ultimate goals. Depression-bred parents and their affluent offspring have lost the concept and love of freedom their pioneer ancestors had."3
The Vietnam conflict widened the gap between generations. Although the war was supported with misgivings by most Elginites, as early as 1966 the pastor of the First Congregational Church urged "our country to sympathize and support the nationalistic, social reform movements in southeast Asia, recognizing their similarity to our own anti-colonial and revolutionary heritage."4 Young protesters attempting to join a Loyalty Day parade were jeered, but peace demonstrations became more frequent as the frustrating war lengthened.
Fast-food restaurants aimed at the youth market added colorful touches of national uniformity to the Elgin landscape. Among them were a second McDonald's on the west side in 1967, a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the west side in 1967 and east side in 1973, an east-side Pizza Hut in 1971 and another on the west side in 1973, and a Burger King on Dundee Avenue in 1974. Along with the supermarkets, they were the chief employers of high school youth. Symbolic of the new era and unique to Elgin was the non-profit Colloquy coffee house opened in 1968, a project initially funded by eight local churches and the YWCA. Until it closed in 1979, it was a gathering place for Age of Aquarius idealists and lost souls to talk over their problems and listen to folk and rock music. "Kids in the '60s questioned everything," remembered a volunteer staff member. "Going to a coffee house was a way of not being with the establishment ."5 The Colloquy served food, soft drinks, and of course coffee, but no drugs were allowed.
Narcotics of all kinds could be obtained with little difficulty elsewhere. Grandparents who remembered Prohibition raids had at least one experience in common with their grandchildren as drug busts became frequent entries in the police reports. In one high school foray, police searched a student's locker and found some marijuana. "The next thing you knew, it turned up everywhere," reported the astonished juvenile officer. "Kids were throwing it out the windows, flushing it down the toilets and throwing it in waste baskets."6
Accompanying this new form of pleasure came a new freedom in satisfying an old one. The woods across the road from the new Elgin High School building were declared off limits when the ground was found littered with "roaches" and male contraceptives. In 1974 venereal disease was reported to have reached epidemic proportions, and the Open Door referral center opened the following year. The Crossroads Clinic provided birth control counseling beginning in 1976.
Despite a decline of more than five thousand patients at the Elgin state hospital population had advanced to 63,668 in 1980. The ethnic mixture was 81.1 percent non-Hispanic white, 10.2 percent Hispanic, 6.6 percent black, and two percent 11 other," chiefly Asian. Between 1960 and 1980, the city's median age dropped from 37 to 29. Growth was especially rapid in the second of these two decades. WI-lile most Illinois cities of more than fifty thousand were losing population, Elgin not only gained but climbed from seventeenth to eleventh in rank among the state's municipalities. Some of the newcomers preferred a small town to a big city or a suburb. "People can't identify with new suburbs like they can with Elgin," pointed out City Manager Leo Nelson. "We have a long history and a strong local identity. That's a big attractive difference."7 Another reason was the employment opportunity created by a successful effort to diversify the economy.
2. The Civic Center
Elgin, from its earliest days, had been a retail trade center, attracting customers from nearby farms and villages who came by horse and wagon, train and trolley. Automobiles expanded this market, and the growth of Carpentersville beginning in 1953 increased sales.
The cars, however, multiplied faster than space to maneuver and park them. Unpopular curbside meters were first installed downtown in 1942. The first city-owned, off-street lot opened in 1952 on Prairie Street. One-way streets were introduced to speed traffic movement the next year. In 1957, when the number of cars owned by city residents exceeded fourteen thousand, the city floated a twenty-year, $500,000 revenue bond issue to develop six metered lots on the perimeter of the business district. In addition to the city's efforts, the three major department stores - Sears, Ackemann's and Spiess -constructed their own lots.
"Downtown" provided a substantial share of the municipal government's revenue. Although the central business district in the '50s made up only three percent of the city's area, it contributed about ten percent of the real estate tax receipts. When Elgin began collecting a local sales tax, the city's finances became even more closely linked with the continuing vitality of the downtown retailers.
The opening of the Meadowdale Shopping Center in 1957 siphoned customers from the tri-villages to the north. Ease of access to the eighty-five-acre tract along Illinois 25, was an omen of the automobile-oriented competition to come. By 1959, there were fifty-four stores whose ads promised "plenty of free parking"-7,000 spaces-on what was then the largest paved lot in the Fox Valley. Between 1957 and 1962, Elgin downtown business vacancies increased by forty percent. Sales in several lines either declined or lagged behind national growth figures.
Hope for an end to the parking dilemma grew out of a bequest in a will. When Hattie (Pease) Hemmens, heiress of Walter L. Pease, the distiller-turned-banker, died in 1957, she left more than a million dollars for a community building. The estate's trustee, the First National Bank, designated the city government to develop the project. The search for a site, which would require parking space, brought about the concept of a civic center to revitalize the aging downtown area in the comprehensive city plan of 1959. The idea was advanced when the Post Office Department announced its intention to occupy a new building, and the state fire marshal condemned the dilapidated and overcrowded City Hall.
Robert L. Brunton was Elgin's city manager, 1962-72. A graduate civil engineer, he had served as assistant director of the International City Management Association. During his administration the city went into the bus business; constructed the Civic Center, a west side water treatment plant and a new fire station; developed Spartan Meadows golf course; and opened Lords Park swimming pool.
In January 1960, the city applied for federal urban renewal funds to clear a site. The federal government would pay seventy-five percent of the difference between what the land was worth before the buildings were removed and its value after clearance. The city had to pay the twenty-five percent difference plus the cost of the land without the buildings. The area selected was a rough triangle of twenty-five acres bounded by the river on the west, Highland Avenue on the south, Douglas Avenue, North Street and North Grove Avenue. This site contained about thirty-five families, most of them living in the old Elgin Butter Company building, an equal number of unrelated individuals, and seventy-six businesses of all types. About fifty buildings had to be razed on fifty-seven parcels of property belonging to forty four private owners.
A new city manager, Robert L. Brunton, arrived in January 1962. Elgin was fortunate to acquire an experienced administrator who was trained as a civil engineer, had a master's degree in psychology and sociology, and possessed an enthusiasm for work and problem-solving. It became his responsibility to coordinate plans for the city, postal authorities, state, and township; supervise the planning for the new City Hall and community building; work with architects and contractors; and submit a workable program to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for annual recertification of the project. To qualify for federal funding, the city had to adopt new zoning, housing and subdivision ordinances; revise its building, electrical and plumbing codes; and begin work on a comprehensive plan. The city was required to find suitable housing for those displaced by the project.
A referendum was necessary to approve a bond issue of $1.3 million for the land purchase and $1.2 million to erect the new municipal building. A citizen's committee, headed by realtor Thomas M. Loveday, was formed to secure favorable passage. The two-week crash campaign used newspaper advertisements, radio announcements, automobile tags and workers going from house to house, all pushing the slogan, "Let's get growing!" Voters on November 19, 1962, approved both propositions by a nearly three to two margin.
Federal funds were released in the spring of 1964, and the city began the long process of negotiating for the purchase of properties. Demolition was started in October. Three stages of the project proceeded concurrently. While some structures were still intact and occupied, others were being razed, and in some places, excavation had begun. The first buildings, the post office and the Second District Appellate Court, were occupied in 1966 before the last building, Rinehimer Brothers Manufacturing Company was razed in July 1966.
A $980,000 bond issue for a new library building was passed at a referendum held in 1965, ground was broken in 1967. Opened in 1968, it contains seating in the reading and meeting rooms for more than five hundred and has a main floor book capacity of 150,000 volumes. Total cost of the project was $1.7 million. Use has continued to grow over the years. In 1948, the year television sets were first sold locally, the circulation of adult books was 79,294; in 1980 the total was more than 400,000. In addition to books, the library now lends pictures, long playing records, jigsaw puzzles, video-tapes and time on a computer.
Completed at a cost of nearly two million dollars, Elgin's fifth City Hall was first occupied in December 1968. About a third of its space was occupied by Fire Station No. I (since moved to the northeast end of the city) and the police department, including the lockup, pistol range and communications center. The two-story and basement building is divided into two sections by a cooling tower. A branch court of the 16th Judicial Court District is in the north wing; city offices and the council chamber are located in the south wing. The exterior consists of a steel skin with bronze heat-absorbing plate glass.
Last of the Civic Center buildings to be erected was the multipurpose Hemmens Auditorium. More than a dozen years after the will of its donor became the basis of planning the whole project, it was opened with a concert in October 1969. An acoustic marvel, it is one of the finest auditoriums in the country. Soloists can be heard without being drowned out by the instruments, and the sound is clear, no matter which of the 1,225 seats is occupied. In addition to conventions, trade and hobby shows and a host of cultural events, the Hemmens has been the home of the Elgin Choral Union, formed in 1948, and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, which began rehearsals in 1950.
The Civic Center stimulated improvements elsewhere in the downtown area. The fountain, which had been removed in 1903, was restored to the square in 1967, a gift of women's garden clubs. The old City Hall and Fire Station No. 1 were razed for a city parking lot in 1969; the site of the former post office was made into a park in 1971; and the old library was converted into an addition to Ackemann's department store in 1970, the same year Joseph Spiess Company completed its new men's store. The financial institutions were especially active in creating a fresh look. The First National Bank was transformed with a major remodeling and expansion project in 1969-71; the Elgin National Bank erected a new building on its site in 1965-67; and Home Federal Savings expanded into an enlarged new building in 197577. A new YWCA opened on its previous site in 1966. Some unsightly old structures were removed. A hangout for derelicts, Heartbreak Hotel, and a tumultuous tavern, the Barrel House, both across Douglas Avenue from the center, were razed in 1971.
The Civic Center project reclaimed and beautified a portion of the riverfront. An attractive new bridge, built with funds secured by a campaign initiated by Larkin High School students, connected the east bank to Walton Island. Especially appealing to downtown merchants was the land cleared for parking. In addition to the 79 spaces made available at the site of the old City Hall and fire station, 118 spaces were opened up north of the library and 330 at the northwest comer of Douglas and Highland Avenues.
Bolstered by shopping dollars from the tri-villages to the east and the city's population growth, Elgin's retail sales between 1963 and 1971 increased 120 percent, in comparison with a gain of 66 percent for the Chicago metropolitan area as a whole. Elgin's 1970 sales tax receipts per capita were $30.10, far higher than the metropolitan average of $21.45. The bright new day would be clouded by regional malls about to appear on the horizon.
3. A Diversified Economy
The declining fortunes of the Elgin National Watch Company stimulated a drive to attract new industry. Elgin could offer a location along the tollway, close access to O'Hare Airport, an abundance of vacant land, expandable sewer and water facilities, the educational and training services of Elgin Community College and a large pool of skilled and semi-skilled workers. The search began with the formation of the Elgin Industrial Development Company in 1957, when private investors purchased a farm inHanover Township adjacent to the Milwaukee Road tracks. This became the site for the relocation of the Elgin Sweeper Company in 1966 and a container plant for Sherwin-Williams in 1967.
Recruitment activities were assumed by the city government in 1962 with the establishment of the Elgin Industrial Development Commission. Led by William Y. Barber, it worked with local firms on plans for expansion as well as continued the search for new employers. The first firms encouraged to move to Elgin were Standard Pharmacal and Rahn Products. Although the campaign was later turned over to the Chamber of Commerce as its Economic Development Commission and pushed by Ed Kelly, the Chamber's executive, the city government in 1976 began issuing industrial revenue bonds to assist businesses in financing the erection of plants. The largest of these, eight million dollars, was issued for Flenders, a West German-based manufacturer of industrial gear drives and power transmissions, which started production in 1981.
Competition with other cities for new industry has been intense, but Elgin succeeded in raising the percentage of its employed persons in manufacturing between 1970 and 1980. While this sector declined in the nation as a whole from twenty-seven percent to twenty-one percent, Elgin gained from thirty-two percent to thirty-six percent. This increase occurred despite the departure of some major firms, such as Flexonics in 1961, McGrawEdison in 1965, Elgin Softener in 1965 and Elgin Manufacturing in 1970.
Most of the new plants were constructed on the west side. The Bumidge Brothers Industrial Park, a 260-acre site at the southwest comer of McLean Boulevard and the U.S. 20 Bypass, was started in 1961-62. Development began on the Miller-Davis company complex, southwest of the Tollway and Illinois 31, in 196869. Elgin Oaks, a commercial and industrial park on the northwest comer of the latter intersection, was opened in 1974.
The city's industrial base has become highly diversified in an era of plastics, electronics and computer-controlled production. There is a roughly fifty-fifty split between durable and non-durable light industries, a factor which has eased the problem of unemployment during recessions. No firm employs more than a thousand. The largest manufacturers are Simpson Electric, C-R Industries (formerly Chicago Rawhide), Shakeproof Division of Illinois Tool Works, U. S. Can, David C. Cook Publishing, Woodruff & Edwards and Elgin Sweeper.
Three nationwide firms are headquartered in Elgin. Organized in 1946 to market what was left of Collingbourne sewing materials as well as war surplus nylon thread, LeeWards grew with the acquisition of hobbycraft merchandise. The search for a firm name ended with a map showing the Leeward Islands. At first only a mail order house, a retail store was opened in the former Flexonics plant in 1962. The plant once occupied by McGraw-Edison and Motorola on Illinois 25 was purchased for administrative offices and a mail order building in 1970. Today, LeeWards Creative Crafts has more than forty stores located throughout the country. Until the mail order business was discontinued in 1983, the firm mailed out more than thirteen million catalogs annually.
Simpson Electric, a producer of electronic measuring instruments and test equipment, occupied part of the old watch case factory on Dundee Avenue in 1961. It was joined in the same location in 1962 by American Gage & Machine, a conglomerate. These two firms were among the companies assembled as Katy Industries Inc. Corporate offices were moved from New York to Elgin in 1970. Katy has more than fifty companies, among them two offshoots of the watch company, Elgin Diamond Products and Elgiloy. The largest of seven local Katy firms is Simpson, which has received two consecutive awards for quality excellence from the U.S. Defense Department for its panel meters, relays and controllers.
An outgrowth of a Chicago Rawhide purchase, Safety-Kleen became a wholly independent corporation in 1974 and, like Katy, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It is now the world's largest provider of parts cleaner services and related solvent recycling. Its more than 200,000 customers are firms that repair and maintain vehicular, farm, small engine and industrial equipment. The company is also developing other services in the restaurant, automotive paint refinishing and industrial chemical recycling markets. A new Elgin office completed in 1984 directs the operation of six recycling centers, one of them in Elgin, and some 235 customer service branches throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Elgin's varied output now includes lighting fixtures, architectural woodwork, specialty paint products, weather stripping, guitar strings, dental X-ray film and mounts, grinding machines, bearings, screw machine products, metal fasteners, machines for applying spray tips, glass cleaner, piston pins, chiropractic equipment, religious literature, gray iron castings, activators for automatic valves, diamond cutting tools and the photocomposition of classified telephone directory ads.
Mingled among all this diversity are the new technologies. The local pioneer in plastics is Elgin Molded Plastics, which started up in 1949. The growth of this industry can be traced by a listing of some of the firms and the start of their Elgin operations: Cap and Seal, 1963; Reel Tool, 1967; Suburban Plastics, 1971; Hansen Plastics, 1971; Component Plastics, 1970; S.A.W. Tooling, 1972; Master Molded Products, 1975; Harwood Plastics, 1978; and Avix, 1979. Hoffer Plastics in South Elgin, which employs many Elgin residents, is a large supplier to major industries, but most of the local firms are small operations. Elgin Community College has had a plastics technology program since 1966.
Jim Liautaud, a young engineer with an idea that a process of binding plastic to metal could be applied to the electronics industry, founded Capsonic Inc. in 1968. The business started out in a small building on Bluff City Boulevard, and two years later, was employing forty in a new plant in the Burnidge Industrial Park. Capsonic has become a major supplier of injection-molded parts. The American Antenna Corporation was formed by Liautaud in 1977 to use the plastic bonding process to make a high-quality CB radio antenna. American Research and Engineering, an offshoot of Capsonic, unveiled its first product in 1982. The K40 dip switch is a small-sized micro-switch that can be automatically inserted in electronic equipment. Other local electronics firms are Olympic Controls, Midland Standard, Allied Electronics and Knowles Electronics.
Once a local manufacturer could be described, as was ElginStove & Oven in 1927, as "a distinct Elgin industry, organized in Elgin by Elgin men; its progress inspired by the vision of its president, a resident of Elgin, with practically all its capital stock owned by stockholders who claim Elgin as their home."8 This was not true of all local plants. The management of the Elgin National Watch Company was for many years centered in Chicago, and the local milk condenser was only one link in the long Borden chain anchored in New York. Many firms, however, were locally managed, as are most of the plastic plants today, but Elgin has not escaped the great wave of business combinations that began in the '60s.
Elgin Metalformers, which then had about 140 employees, was purchased by Borg-Warner in 1960 and moved to Chicago the next year. Flexonics, which was acquired by Calumet & Hecla in 1959, was moved to Bartlett in 1961. An old industry, Elgin Manufacturing, became a division of Doughboy Industries in 1962 and was moved to Wisconsin in 1971. In 1964, Elgin Softener was acquired by Culligan, Inc. and moved to Northbrook in 1970. Cole Dynamics, welcomed by the Elgin Industrial Development Commission in 1963, was purchased by what became the Torrin Corporation and relocated in Connecticut in 1977. Elgin Metal Casket, purchased first by Simmons and then by Gulf & Western in 1979, left for Indiana in 1982.
Not all mergers have resulted in the business leaving Elgin. The B. S. Pearsall Butter Company was acquired by Shedd-Bartush in 1945. Shedd's in turn was purchased by Beatrice Foods, which sold its margarine business to Unilever in 1984. The Williams Manufacturing Company became part of Standex International in 1978. Wards became a subsidiary of General Mills in 1969. Harig Products, which began production in Elgin early in 1966, is now a segment of Textron. Elgin Sweeper was purchased by Federal Signal in 1982. Among the firms that remain locally owned and managed are Woodruff & Edwards, David C. Cook Publishing, Elgin Machine Works (now Elgin Industries) and Elgin Corrugated Box.
4. Service Center
While continuing to be an industrial center, the service sector of the economy has had a rapid growth. The proportion of Elgin's residents engaged in manufacturing is not only much greater than among Americans generally, but there is also a higher percentage in professional and related occupations. This is the result of the expansion of School District U46, most of whose employees live in Elgin, and the two general hospitals.
The city's largest employer and one of the major hospitals in the country, Sherman Hospital has been steadily expanded in a confined area on the northeast side. Successive additions to the original buildings have brought the number of beds from 125 to 225 in 1951, to 268 in 1958, to 338 in 1964, and to more than 400 in 1973, with concurrent enlargements in treatment facilities. The Crystal Lake Ambutal, an extension of Sherman's emergency department, opened in 1978. A three-story surgical pavilion was ready for use in 1980, and a six-tier parking deck was completed in 1981. A medical office building was scheduled to become part of the complex in 1985.
Opened in 1980, the surgical pavilion of Sherman Hospital is a symbol of modern Elgin's service economy.
A new St. Joseph Hospital was constructed in 1971-73 on thirty-three acres of west-side land. About four times larger than the east-side building it replaced, its initial 240 beds have been expanded to 280. St. Joseph's previous site was donated to the city for the St. Francis neighborhood park. A $3.3 million Regional Cancer Care Center, serving patients from a six-county area, opened in 1984. The new wing enables the hospital to offer intraoperative radiation therapy, which moves some healthy organs and tissues out of the way and points the radiation at the exact cancer site. St. Joseph is one of only two dozen hospitals in America equipped for this procedure.
Combined employment at Sherman and St. Joseph exceeds 2,500 and they admit about 25,000 patients annually. The two hospitals have cooperated to avoid duplication of facilities and reduce health care costs. Sherman is the regional trauma center and specializes in open heart surgery and kidney dialysis. St. Joseph has a psychiatric ward and concentrates on cancer treatment. When Sherman acquired a computerized "CAT" scanner for the head, St. Joseph installed one for the body. Nearly all the local doctors are on the staffs of both hospitals, and their combined services have made Elgin a focus of medical care for the far northwest metropolitan area.
The Sherman Hospital School of Nursing closed in 1952, but Elgin Community College introduced a nursing education program in 1965. The St. Joseph Hospital School of Radiation Therapy Technology, established in 1977, is one of ninety-seven in the United States. Applicants must be registered nurses or certified graduates of a two-year program in radiologic or nuclear medicine technology.
Close access to these hospitals has spawned a number of large new nursing homes and retirement centers. Mary Margaret Manor opened in 1960, Americana in 1966, Olivette in 1969, and both Imperial and Countryside Manor in 1972. Medical and dental office complexes have also arisen; one of the largest of these, until the Sherman building was erected, was the Fox Valley Professional Park, opened in 1964.
The Ecker Center for Mental Health, established as the Elgin Mental Health Center in 1955, is named for J. Aldene Ecker, one of the founders and its executive director for twenty-seven years. Its staff of fifty full-and part-time employees provides outpatient psychiatric services for children, youth and adults suffering from psychological, social and learning problems. The clinic served eighty-nine patients in the first year; now, 1,200 to 1,300 receive treatment annually. About half of them are former hospital patients requiring ongoing support and professional supervision. Available services include individual counseling; day treatment, transitional living and other aids for the chronically ill; temporary shelter for those who need intensive, twenty-four hour care but not hospitalization; and emergency outreach.
The Jayne Shover Easter Seal Rehabilitation Center has been serving physically disabled persons since 1953. New, expanded quarters were occupied in 1970 and enlarged in 1978. Any person who has developmental disabilities or rehabilitation problems in the areas of ambulation, coordination, communication, visual and perceptual deficits, oral motor deficits, hearing and developmental delay are eligible for the center's services. Lovellton, an inpatient alcoholism treatment facility, opened in the former Resthaven Sanitariwn building in 1981. It also operates a detoxification program.
Elgin is also a financial center. The First National continues to be the largest of the city's five banks. Its west-side affiliate, the Larkin Bank, was opened in 1970. The Elgin National and Union National are now controlled by out-of-city holding companies. The Elgin State Bank, organized as the Lincoln State Bank in 1964, is based on the northeast side. Largest of the three savings and loan associations, Home Federal has branches in eight outlying communities. Elgin Federal and First Federal have offices on both the far east and far west sides, in addition to their downtown offices.
First Chicago Corporation, the holding company of the First National Bank of Chicago, has operated a credit card center in Elgin since 1973. Visa and Master Card bills and payments of nearly three million card holders are processed in four buildings around the city. First Chicago's credit card loan portfolio ranks third in the nation. Most of the consumer and merchant accounts are in the Midwest.
5. The Black Revolt
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were a denial of equal protection of the laws, Elgin could reflect that its public classrooms had been integrated for more than eighty years. But there were no black teachers. Inequality was the rule in other areas. Two of the largest local industries did not hire Negroes, who were also excluded from the apprenticeship programs in the skilled trades. Barbers refused to cut their hair, hotels did not offer them rooms, some stores barred them from trying on wearing apparel, real estate agents discouraged them from moving into white neighborhoods and a private cemetery would not accept them for burial.
The equal access to public accommodations required by state law had long been a dead issue. In 1958 a black psychologist employed by the state hospital was refused service at a local restaurant. His appeal to the state's attorney was pigeonholed, and he resorted to a civil suit. A year later, an Elgin City Court jury fixed damages against the operator. It was the first local judgment against this form of discrimination.
Despite these conditions, the black population more than doubled between 1950 and 1960, rising from 768 to 1,595. The newcomers were part of the great migration northward, and came mainly from rural areas in southern Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Both the Second Baptist and St. James AME churches were vandalized in April 1953, a sign of the hostility with which they were welcomed. For the most part, they were poorly educated and ill-prepared for the social demands of urban living. Many found low paying, un killed jobs now shunned by whites at the state hospital and the Woodruff & Edwards foundry. Those who had jobs elsewhere in the Valley came to live in Elgin rather than attempt to break the color barrier in surrounding communities, but decent housing was seldom available.
The new arrivals were compelled to live in shacks along the west bank of the river or were crowded together in and around the old "settlement." A trailer park arose in 1953 on commercially zoned property on the south side of Laurel Street adjacent to Willard Avenue. No sewage connections or running water were provided for the individual trailers. The only washrooms for about one hundred residents consisted of six toilets, four wash basins, and four showers, and even these limited facilities were often in disrepair. The trailers were decrepit, and the area, which had once been swamp land, was often flooded. Most of the heads of household could afford better housing, but it was not available to blacks.
An Elgin Housing Group, formed in 1959 by concerned white and black citizens, struggled to find urgently needed rental units and began a campaign for open housing legislation. A major stumbling block was the inability of white landlords to make distinctions among black applicants. The prevailing fear of loss in property values was expressed in a letter to the Courier-News:
A dwelling is an inanimate object-it is the human occupant who breaks the windows, tears the window shades, clutters the lawn and tree banks with beer cans, bottles, and other refuse ...This view was countered by a black spokeswoman who was "sick and tired of having the necessity of my earning through thrift, neatness and integrity, the right to be accepted in the mainstream of American life, and then, maybe, the great white father will see fit to find me a house. While I do not discount the virtues of thrift, neatness and integrity, I do not think these should be requirements for housing for minorities alone."10
Owners of rental property have an obligation to adjacent property owners and the whole community - making sure they do not contribute to the development of new 'blighted areas.'9
The black revolt that began with the refusal of Rosa Parks to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus was exploding on many fronts. In Elgin, Illinois, the battle would be fought on two salients of the housing problem-the push for an open occupancy ordinance to prohibit racial discrimination in housing sales and rentals, and the erection of public housing for low-income families. The need for decent housing became critical in the '60s with the closing of the Laurel Street camp in 1964, the removal of state hospital employees from quarters on the grounds and the curtailment of housing starts by high interest rates.
Leadership was provided by the Elgin branch of the NAACP, re-activated in 1965, and the United Organization for Community Action (UOCA), a local unit of the federal government's Office of Economic Opportunity, formed in 1966. The blacks could appeal to an old American revolutionary document, the Declaration of Independence, and they had allies. Social action-oriented young clergymen affirmed their conviction that "the Judeo-Christian tradition proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of all persons as well as the interdependence of all people."11 The federal government was concerned about the enforcement of the local building code, an obligation the city government had assumed in accepting funds for the Civic Center urban renewal Project. Although families had been displaced in clearing the site, the land was used for parking lots and government buildings. Enforcing the building code was difficult, if not impossible, because there was "no place to go" for those who would have to vacate the condemned buildings. The city's Human Relations Commission, established in 1959, provided a sounding board for the rising discontent.
Inspired by the example of Martin Luther King, local blacks began voicing protests. Ernest F. Fisher, a microbiologist and NAACP leader, pointed out an inconsistency:
In conversation with some other citizens, the remark has often been made to me that they would like to see more progressive and enlightened Negroes move to Elgin. It is ironical that when Negroes of this type do desire to move here, they can not find an apartment.12Richard Broadnax, one of the most perceptive and articulate black spokesmen, was born and raised in the city and was graduated from Elgin High School in 1962. One of his ancestors had been a contraband from Franklin County, Alabama, during the Civil War. After four years of service in the Marine Corps, he returned home and found trouble brewing. In an article in the Courier-News published in the spring of 1967, he wrote:
In noting the condition of (the) Negro community, I've concluded that Elgin citizens should be truthfully informed of the dangerous social condition which exists here.The answer came that summer. The frustrations and bitterness arising from the open housing controversy were heightened by TV news accounts of riots in Newark, Detroit and other cities. Steps had already been taken to relieve the housing crunch. Construction of public housing was under way, and a fair housing ordinance had been approved, but the situation was out of control.
Elgin Negroes, as Negroes everywhere, find themselves victims of the white man's double standard of democracy.
As a Negro, I have lived in the poorer section of this city. I am part of a younger generation whose views differ from our ancestors. We've waited one hundred years for the unfulfilled promise of equality. Lord knows we are tired of waiting. We have been pushed to the wall by the forces of discrimination and can go no further. All over America, the Negro is striking out for freedom, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently. How will they strike out in Elgin?"13
The first of two racial disorders during the summer of 1967 occurred on the night of July 29-30. It began with the stoning of a police car at Fremont and Gifford streets. At the same time, gasoline was spilled on the street and ignited. A crowd of more than a hundred Negro youths hurled missiles at two other squads that arrived on the scene. When the intersection was cleared, some of the crowd regrouped in smaller numbers and headed downtown, demonstrating at City Hall before they were dispersed. There were attempts at arson with Molotov cocktails. More fire bombs were thrown on the night of August 4-5, one of them starting a fire in a store room of the Sears, Roebuck automotive shop, causing damages of about $150,000. Police from neighboring communities were called in to assist the Elgin department in protecting fire fighters when they answered the numerous fire calls, many of them false alarms. Thirteen alleged arsonists were apprehended.
Both disorders were controlled by an emergency curfew that sealed off traffic in the central business district and closed taverns and gas stations. There was no looting, and no one was injured, but hysteria was rampant. Rumors circulated that a carload (or carloads) of armed blacks from Chicago was heading toward Elgin, and guns were readied in hundreds of households.
The local NAACP denounced violence as a means of achieving social change, and refuted charges of police brutality in the arrest and booking of the suspects. At a trial of one of the accused, it was disclosed that targets for the bombings had been discussed at a meeting led by two War on Poverty activists. Besides dividing the black community, the disorders alienated many white residents who had been sympathetic to black aspirations.
Yet raw hatreds were now surfacing to a grudging realization that black racism was an outgrowth of its white counterpart. The fire bombings and street disturbances were not simply the work of "outside agitators" or the rage of young delinquents. They were also the culmination of years of degradation imposed on a minority by a majority violating its own national values. To understand this, a knowledge of what had happened in Elgin since the coming of the contrabands was not necessary. It was sufficient to have lived as a black.
Doors have been opened to those who have attained middle-class status. In 1968, the first black was appointed to the police department, and a subdivision whose developer had vigorously opposed sales to "non-Caucasians" was successfully integrated. The first black school administrator was hired in 1970, and the following year a black was elected to the Board of Education. Robert Gilliam was chosen by the voters at large for the City Council in 1973 and re-elected in 1977 and 1981. Betty Stephens Brown was elected president of the Elgin Woman's Club in 1975 and in 1980, a black woman was chosen Miss Elgin. The VFW post has elected a black commander. The banner of the Poor Boys, none of whom are now in poverty, hangs in a local restaurant with those of other service organizations. One of these, the noon-hour Kiwanis Club, has had a black president.
When Renard Jackson was elected to the Board of Trustees of Elgin Community College in 1981, the attitudes he expressed marked a new stage in the local ethnic relations cycle: "A number of people said I'd never make it. But the things once thought impossible can be possible, if you make it happen."14 By 1982, the black director of the Human Relations Commission could report that there had been complaints from some black renters that they have been denied housing, but "I've never had a call about problems with buying or financing a home in six years."15
The rise of some black citizens to positions of influence and some improvement in housing conditions does not mean that economic equality has been attained. Unemployment among black youths, many of whom withdraw from high school before receiving a diploma, is comparatively high. The drop-outs are usually members of families receiving public assistance, and most come from broken homes.
Blacks have been part of the community-albeit long a separate part-for more than a century. Their labor has contributed to the city's growth; their lifestyle, to its diversity; their athletic abilities, to its sports tradition; and their striving for equality of opportunity, to a widening of its social vision. In that small piece of the American landscape called Elgin, a minority has pursued the right to be respected as individuals and to find in themselves the responsibility for their destinies. Hundreds of blacks assembled for a program at the Hemmens Auditorium could now raise their voices with a mass choir from their churches and sing,
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has ta ugh t us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.16
6. Hispanics and Laotians
In 1910 the foreign-born in Elgin represented twenty-two percent of the city's population. Fifty years later, this proportion had declined to less than six percent, but a new wave of immigrants was already moving in. Like their predecessors from Europe, Mexicans have experienced the ethnic cycle from cultural shock to assimilation. Other Hispanics-American citizens by birth-have arrived from Texas and Puerto Rico, and the newcomers also include Cubans and other Latin-Americans.
Mexicans first appeared in Elgin during the First World War, when the supply of unskilled labor from Europe was no longer available and there was a surplus of Mexican workers in the border states. The earliest arrivals were railroad section hands, many of whom had been recruited by labor contractors in Texas. They lived just north of what was then the city limits in a box car and shack town along the Milwaukee Road tracks between what is now Illinois 31 and the west bank of the Fox River. It became known as "Mexico City," but the area also housed some blacks and poor Anglos. By the early '20s Hispanics had followed Hungarians into the Woodruff & Edwards foundry, where the working conditions were hot, hard and dirty. Some of these employees found rental quarters near the factory along North Grove and North State streets.
The Depression brought much hardship among the migrants. Referring to those living in "Mexico City," the mayor complained in the early spring of 1932 that "practically all of them are on the charity list, few of them are citizens of the United States," and that they "take jobs that Elgin citizens ought to have."17
Disturbances erupting from tune to time in "Mexico City" broke out within the city with three homicides, one in 1932 and two in 1934. All of them involved Mexicans as both victims and accused. Murders were then rare occurrences in the community, and these cases contributed to a negative image of the Spanish-speaking among Elgin's native-born. Samuel P. (Sam) Sauceda, a playmaking guard on the Maroon cage teams of 1943 and 1944, was the first Hispanic to gain recognition. Later, he became chairman of the department of modern languages and athletic director at Marquette University.
The federal census recorded only sixty-eight residents of Mexican birth in 1950. Ten years later, there were 383, but foreign born Mexicans were outnumbered by 515 U. S. citizens from Puerto Rico. The islanders first came to Elgin during the Second World War, when the Woodruff & Edwards foundry recruited about fifty males and provided living quarters for them in a barracks remodeled from an old building near the plant. Most of these workers returned home after the war, but the connection with Elgin had been established. Dozens of Puerto Ricans now living in Elgin have their origins in the village of Aguada on the island's west coast.
The population explosion and widespread unemployment in Mexico compelled the move to El Norte. The immigrants preferred to live in the less congested satellite cities around Chicago rather than in the metropolis. More than a dozen families have their roots in the little village of Matanzas in the state of Jalisco. Filiberto Martinez, who began working at Chicago Rawhide in 1950, was the Pied Piper whose descriptions of a better life in Elgin lured them north.
Jobs that native Americans no longer wanted were available at the foundry and other industries, nearby nurseries and farms, restaurant kitchens, and hospitals' housekeeping and dietary departments. One Hispanic described the situation in the late '60s:
We came to Elgin because one of the friends of one of our relatives told us how much money he was making on the job here. Often, he had a shiny new auto as proof of Ins prosperity. So we came, too, hoping for a better job and a better standard of living.The census of 1970 listed 2,933 who spoke Spanish or had Spanish surnames. This figure jumped to 6,529 in 1980- 10.2 percent of the city's population. About three-fourths of these were of Mexican origin. Many others were not placed in this nebulous category or were missed in the count. Among the latter were the illegals.
When we got here, we discovered that our relatives' friend had not told us about the roach-infested rooms we had to live in and the high rents we had to pay, because there was nothing else to be had and nowhere else to go. They didn't tell us about the people who would stare and refer to us as 'those Spies' or 'those Greasers,'or the cool way we would be tolerated because we had a little money but didn't know how to count change or read the scales.18
Elgin Aurora, Joliet and Waukegan, satellites on the edge of the metropolitan area, were popular havens for those crossing the border without authorization. They all had established Mexican communities, extensive non-unionized industry, and were outside the normal range of operations for the understaffed Immigration and Naturalization Service. The murder of an illegal foundry worker in 1969 exposed the presence of a local smuggling ring channeling unskilled labor to Elgin. INS raids apprehended twenty-seven in 1970, fifty-one in 1973, and eighty in 1980. The illegals, or undocumented aliens, were paying about five hundred dollars for transportation from Texas and another five hundred dollars for a set of papers, including an immigration card, driver's license, birth certificate and Social Security card. Smugglers provided substandard housing, often at high rents, and charged for cashing paychecks. Illegals worked for near-minimum wages and were afraid to report crimes against themselves. A Mexican-born Elgin resident was convicted of smuggling in 1979.
Centro de Informacion y Progreso was formed in 1972 with the sponsorship of nine United Methodist churches and the four Catholic parishes. It is now a United Way service agency for Hispanics-"Una voz y una mano que ayuda"-"A voice and a helpful hand." Clients receive lessons in English, learn how to complete job applications, are given referrals to government agencies and attend citizenship classes.
Although the undocumented make headlines, many Hispanics of Mexican origin are now second, third, and even fourth-generation natives. This ethnic group includes numerous home owners. They are active church communicants, especially at St. Joseph's. Others attend churches of their own formation, such as Templo Calvario and El Mesias Methodist. Several food stores and restaurants have been opened. Among the professionals, Attorney Manuel Barbosa has been chairman of the Illinois Human Rights' Commission since 1980. "We have more integration now in Elgin than ever before," he has stated. "But we still have a significant number of recent arrivals who are slow to integrate."
The small, landlocked Kingdom of Laos was internally divided during the war in Vietnam. The Royal Lao government, which held the Mekong River region, was given American aid to fight Pathet Lao guerrillas in the mountains who were allied with the North Vietnamese. Mountain tribes, among them the Hmong, were recruited by the CIA to disrupt communist supply lines and gather intelligence for the U.S. forces.
When the U. S. State Department invited the city of Elgin to adopt a "sister city" in its People-to- People program of cultural exchange, the Laotian capital of Vientiane was suggested. That city's mayor, the governor of Luang Prabang, province and the inspector general of the ministry of the interior visited Elgin in 1966, and formal acceptance came the following year. Greetings were exchanged between city officials, books from Vientiane were received by the Gail Borden Library, and in the fall of 1967, photographs of Elgin, its products and city flag were displayed in Vientiane at the annual That Luang festival.
A civic banquet held in Elgin in 1968 invited Laotian students attending Southern Illinois University. Among them was Saysana Songvilay, who would later become a U46 teacher and head of the Illinois Lao Association. The featured speaker was Robert S. Zigler, a native of Elgin, who had served as a training officer in. Vientiane for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The mayor of Elgin was later invited to attend a state dinner at Washington, D.C., in honor of the crown prince and princess.
Handicapped by the language barrier and unsettled conditions in Laos, further relations between Elgin and Vientiane dwindled to brief visits by Laotians who stopped off at O'Hare Airport on their way to Washington. The sister city arrangement had little or no connection with the later influx of Laotians.
The withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam strengthened the Communist Party in Laos. Late in 1975, businessmen in Vientiane began closing their little shops. One by one they slipped across the Mekong River to Thailand on the other side. With the Pathet Lao takeover that year, those Laotians who had been identified with American businesses and government agencies left their country in large numbers. Dwindling food supplies and fear of persecution increased the flood of refugees. They were crowded into Thai camps, where they were starved, robbed and assaulted while waiting for sponsors for emigration to the free world.
The first refugees from Laos to Elgin arrived in January 1976. They were Phet Oudom, his wife, Sonsy, and their son, Bounnhasith. He had been a district manager for Coca-Cola and had served as instructor for the U.S. Information Service. This family and others were sponsored by a group of seven area churches, but most of the first wave came under the aegis of Elgin Community College, which was then coordinating local resettlement through a federal grant.
About 250 had already arrived when the YMCA assumed the resettlement function late in 1979 and the college turned to providing classes in English, drivers training, welding, machine tooling and plastics. Three Y contracts with the U.S. State Department prepared for the resettlement of 565. Y representatives met them at O'Hare and furnished food, essential clothing, temporary housing and counseling services. Not all of the refugees came to live in Elgin. A substantial number were located in Hanover Park, and there has been much secondary migration sparked by family reunification and job opportunities elsewhere. A YWCA project that began in 1979 offered social services, job counseling and placement, as well as training in consumer and survival skills.
The initial arrivals were among the better educated and more highly skilled from Vientiane and villages along the Mekong. Later waves were rural people, many of whom were illiterate in their own language. The refugees presented a sharp contrast to earlier Elgin immigrants, whose vanguard were usually young men seeking their fortunes. The Asians came in extended families, with both children and aged, and were dependent upon public aid. The federal government compensated state and local agencies for welfare and medical programs benefitting the refugees. Their religion was a mixture of Buddhism and a belief in the spirit world. Most of them were affected by malnutrition, disease and the trauma of the Thai camps.
It was difficult to maintain family unity when forced to five apart by the shortage of low-rent housing. The children learned American ways faster than their parents, leading to a generational conflict common to immigrants. But the Laotians were eager to learn and impressed employers by their cooperative attitudes. A small grocery opened in 1978, sold rice in fifty-pound sacks and took on the role of a social center. The first public celebration of the Lao New Year took place in April 1981 at the armory, where guests were introduced to the string-tying and water-sprinkling ceremonies.
The 1980 census reported 646 Asians within the city limits. This may have been an undercount. The school district's bilingual census taken in February 1982 listed 500 Laotians, 42 Vietnamese, 23 Hmong, and 24 Cambodians. A study by the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce suggested that a saturation point in tern-is of support services had been reached, and recommended that future placements be limited to the immediate family members of those already here.
7. Stretching the Limits
Country Knolls North and South, Lords Park Manor, Garden Quarter, Tyler Bluff, Kennington Square, Williamsburg Commons, Century Oaks West, BentTree, Parkwood, Country Aire, Sandy Creek, College Park. One after another developers trooped into City Hall with their attorneys and architects to bargain about annexation and zoning requirements for new subdivisions that shifted population from the older central portion of the city near the river to the countryside. Between 1960 and 1980, Elgin's area expanded from less than nine square miles to more than twenty, and the number of dwelling units increased from 14,801 to 24,892. New construction was concentrated on the eastern and western edges, residents in Cook County alone increasing from 2,868 to 11,020 during the twenty-year period. Much of the future development lay westward, where the northwest comer of the city limits reached a point 3.7 miles from Fountain Square. Rising land values along the tollway led to the closing of the airport in 1983.
With few exceptions, such as the brick flats and doubles erected in the 1880s and '90s, single-family detached houses were the rule in Elgin until apartments, duplexes and townhouses became more common beginning in the 1960s. Rising land costs, a dramatic increase in single-person households, and small families encouraged the trend. The first of the big new apartment complexes was the Highland House-one hundred six units in three buildings opened in 1962. Three high-rises are clustered on the near west side: the nine-story, 96 unit Oak Ridge (now Knollwood) opened in 1968; and two eleven-story, 150-unit buildings for senior citizens, Central Park Tower, opened in 1970, and Westwind Tower, completed in 1973. The peak year for building came in 1972, when 603 building permits were issued for multifamily units and 450 for single family-homes. Because many of the multi-unit buildings were condominiums or cooperatives, owner-occupied dwellings-61.9 percent of the total in 1960 had dropped only slightly to 58.9 percent in 1980.
Construction began in 1979 at Valley Creek, the largest annexation in Elgin history, on the far northwest side. Its plans for 903 single-family homes, 222 duplexes and 968 apartments are expected to add as many as 6,500 persons to the city's population. The development will include a shopping center, school, park and church sites, and a professional office complex.
The continuing population growth and rising interest rates, one of the concomitants of the Vietnam war, led to a severe housing shortage in the second half of the '60s. In 1966, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected the city's workable program, required for continued funding of the Civic Center project, because of failure to enforce the housing code and lack of housing for low-income families. When a reluctant City Council activated the Elgin Housing Authority that year, there was no alternative to public housing. The original agreement with the federal government authorized the EHA to build three hundred units. Budgetary constraints allowed for the construction of only 272 between 1968 and 1972.
The high-rise Central Park Tower was reserved for the elderly. Guidelines for the selection of sites for the family housing drafted by the City Council, designed to eliminate de facto school segregation based on residence, alarmed neighborhoods where sites were proposed. One zoning board meeting attracted so many protesters that it had to be held in the Larkin High School gymnasium. and lasted more than five hours. The 122 family units-seventeen single family homes and the rest two-story townhouses were finally built on nine separate sites in five different school attendance districts.
This conventional public housing, owned and operated by the Elgin Housing Authority, served a pressing need at the time, providing safe living quarters for families who had been living in basements and fire traps. Later government-assisted projects were based on a direct subsidy to private developers through interest reduction or direct federal financing. The Poplar Creek and Huntington Park cooperatives and the Watchtower (now Times Square) Apartments, completed in the early '70s, were examples. In 1974, Section 8 of the Housing and Community Development Act became the federal government's major housing assistance program. Tenants of privately owned units paid a percentage, depending upon family size, of their income for rent and utilities. The balance was subsidized up to the market rate. The law required planning for housing assistance in order to be eligible for community development grants. The largest Section 8 development in Elgin is the 453-unit Burnham Mill complex on Fleetwood Drive, first occupied in 1976.
By 1980, the number of subsidized units in Elgin reached 1,637, but only about half of the residents who qualify are able to rent them. Joliet, Elgin, Waukegan and Aurora, the four satellite industrial cities, lead all other communities in the metropolitan area outside Chicago in the number of government-assisted units. They are now found all over America, as the cost of housing exceeds the ability of a growing number of families to afford shelter.
More unusual is Willow Lakes Estates, a luxury mobile home park for retirees. It is one of the biggest and most lavish in the metropolitan area. Opened in 1964 along the west bank of the Fox River just south of the Tollway, its one hundred thirteen acres were filled to capacity with about six hundred units by 1972. The 22 acre man-made lake is stocked with fish and water fowl. Among the amenities is a spacious recreation center and heated swimming pool. The management provides boats, lawn care and a social director but prohibits children, motorbikes and pets. When Governor James Thompson came to the park on a campaign tour, his dog was snatched and confined in the administration building. "How were we to know it was the governor's pet?" explained one resident. "Rules are rules."20
Owners of the mostly double-width homes lease the plots on which their units stand. Disputes about the resale of homes and rent increases led the Willow Lakes Homeowners Association to initiate regulatory legislation enacted in 1979. The state Mobile Home Landlord and Tenant Act spells out in detail what is required of both parties.
Elgin's housing conditions have improved. The most dangerous slum buildings have vanished. Of the occupied housing units in 1960, 6.6 percent were without some or all plumbing facilities; in 1980, only 1.4 percent were in this condition. The number of units with more than one person per room dropped from 6.4 percent to 4.2 percent. Aging neighborhoods have been given incentives for rehabilitation. One of these on the east side, with an interesting mix of nineteenth-century architectural styles, has embarked on a preservation program. Spurred by the conversion of John Newman's mansion into the Butterman's restaurant in 1976 and the restoration of the exterior of the Academy's Old Main in 1980, the area was designated as the Elgin Historic District and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
The city government's responsibilities expanded with the population. After the privately owned bus line announced its intention to abandon its operations, voters in 1967 approved continuation as a municipal system. Paramedic emergency ambulance service was assumed in 1973. New fire stations were opened on the northwest side in 1977 and on Summit Street in 1985. The latter replaced Station No. 3 on Dundee Avenue and No. I in the municipal building downtown. Before available open space disappeared, park lands were increased to more one thousand acres. The biggest parcel comprised 410 acres land purchased in 1977. Part of this is being developed as a soft ball complex with ten diamonds to accommodate the growing interest in that sport. Among other parcels acquired were the site of the old Trout Park amusement center along the river, the former Girl Scout camp at Hawthorne Hills, and Burnidge Woods.
The improvements downtown sparked by the Civic Center could not keep pace with developments elsewhere. The very year the center was completed, ground was broken for the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, twelve miles east of Elgin. Opened in 1971, it was promoted as the world's largest enclosed-mail shopping center, with more than 1.8 million square feet of leasable space. Four years later, its gross sales had surpassed Elgin's, and it was drawing consumers from the tri-villages to the east.
In meeting the competition of enclosed malls, downtown Elgin was handicapped by aging buildings, a confusing maze of one-way streets bisected by the North Western tracks, parking tickets when time on the meters expired and the vagaries of the weather. In addition, as the city's circumference widened, outlying shopping centers with big parking lots arose on undeveloped land along the borders. The first one, Town & Country Plaza along McLean Boulevard, had opened in 1957. It was progressively expanded, and in 1972 added Zayre, a high-volume discount operation. Gromer's, the city's largest supermarket, anchored the Wing Park Shopping Center that opened in 1959 farther north on McLean. K-Mart, another major discount retailer, built along Illinois 25 in 1965.
Decentralization was resumed in 1984 when the Tyler Creek Plaza shopping center was opened on Big Timber Road and North McLean Boulevard. In the same year construction was started on the Elgin-O'Hare Business Center on the site of the former airport, and the Clock Tower Plaza was under development on the acreage once occupied by the main plant of the Elgin National Watch Company.
The Woodfield Mall spurred renewed interest in a downtown pedestrian mall, which had been another recommendation of the 1959 city plan. After John E. Spiess proposed construction of an upper level on the Riverside Drive parking deck, planning began in earnest. Completed in 1975, the addition was a joint venture of the city and the Spiess department store, which reserved one hundred fifty-three spaces for ten years.
With this necessary expansion of off-street parking, the Fountain Square Plaza Mall was constructed on DuPage Street and South Grove Avenue in 1975-76. Adjacent property owners paid two-thirds of the nearly $1.5 million cost through a special assessment district, and the city contributed the balance. The fountain was enlarged at the north entrance, and the old City Hall clock was installed at the south end. A centrum for special entertainment was erected at the intersection of South Grove Street and DuPage Avenue. The mall was landscaped with trees surrounded by concrete circles. Earth-tone bricks were paved in circular patterns around the trees. An In Downtown Elgin Association (IDEA) was formed to coordinate promotions and plan activities to attract shoppers.
Although successful for a few years after its completion, the mall was functioning without two supports that once had attracted shoppers. The movie houses, which had lured people downtown, were hard-hit by television, which kept customers home. The Rialto was destroyed by fire late in 1956. The Meadowdale Cinema in Carpentersville was converted to a cost-efficient, multi-theater operation in 1970. This competition, combined with an impression that downtown was no longer safe at night, led to the closing of the two remaining theaters. The Grove shut down in 1976. After it was sold by the parent chain in 1977, the Crocker ceased booking mainstream features and thereafter ran only Spanish-language films.
The car dealerships on South Grove Avenue had also brought customers downtown in the evening. Once they had an average inventory of fifteen to twenty vehicles; now they needed one hundred and more space. In order to tap the growing market in the tri-village area to the east, most of them moved to a new automobile row on Illinois 19. The exodus began with Ford in 1971; by 1977 only one new-car dealer remained on South Grove. In 1984 this holdout, the Oldsmobile-Cadillac franchise, left the city for a location on Illinois 25. Although six financial institutions continued their downtown operations, they established outlying branches that reduced the need to bank downtown.
One factor leading to the downtown malaise was unique to Elgin. Employing new drug therapies, the Elgin Mental Health Center, the renamed state hospital, had steadily reduced its patient population. By the late '70s the Center had less than seven hundred residents. The city absorbed many patients who had lost contact with their place of origin. Insufficient state aid was provided for rehabilitation in halfway houses. Some found a place to stay in the ninety-bed Douglas Hotel until it closed in 1982, and they wandered through the business district, exhibiting annoying or erratic behavior. Other loiterers, lingering around the concrete tree stands or leaning against buildings, became more noticeable with the declining number of pedestrians. Although downtown was not a high-clime area, it was so perceived by many women.
It was ironic that downtown Elgin had never appeared more aesthetically pleasing. The modem quarters of the financial institutions, the Douglas Avenue streetscape, the Advocate Place mini-park and other improvements were attractive. And by the time the 330-space, three-level Spring Street parking deck was completed in 1981, the unpopular meters were removed from most of the streets. Parking was now readily available, but where were the cars?
Efforts continued to save the central business district. In 1979, with the massive Spring FLU Mall about to open near the intersection of Illinois routes 31 and 72, the City Council joined downtown businessmen in engaging planners to develop a comprehensive study of the area. The grandiose plan, coupled with a proposed drive to attract new ventures, called for enclosing the Mau, developing the vacated South Grove properties into an office complex, and the construction of high-density housing around the shopping center. Nothing resulted from an expenditure of more than $210,000.
The Fountain Square Plaza Mall is now filled with empty store fronts. The largest volume retailer, Sears & Roebuck, moved to Spring Hill in 1980. Operating at a loss for two years, the F. W. Woolworth store closed in 1983, the same year J. C. Penney Company left for Spring Hill. When Joseph Spiess Company departed for Spring Hill early in 1984, the city's senior planner announced, "We are not looking at the downtown area as the retail core anymore."21
9. Education Center
The final annexations of school districts adjacent to U46 came in 1956 with the addition of District 250, which served rural Hanover Township east of Elgin. This expanded the area of U46 to its present size of about ninety square miles. District 250 was then operating two schools. The largest of these, Hanover Countryside, had five teachers and less than one hundred pupils. By year's end, however, across the road from Countryside school and a little more than five miles from Fountain Square, more than twenty pre-fabricated houses were under roof. They were the start of a "new town" to be called Streamwood, which seemed to spring up as fast as one of its mass-produced homes. Barns disappeared amid curving streets, and TV antennas replaced rows of com. Feverish building activity led to a 1960 population of 4,821, and 18,176 in 1970. Another development, incorporated as Hanover Park in 1958, had a similar growth, but most of its area was east of the U46 boundary line. Its population within the school district was 5,596 in 1970. Most of the homeowners in these new communities were young families with children.
Orrin G. Thompson, U46 superintendent from 1946 to 1966, and his successor, Paul R. Lawrence, 1966-1981, were burdened with the responsibility of planning new buildings, finding ways to finance them, and-during a period of an acute teacher shortage -staffing them. In 1960, the district's enrollment was more than 11,600; four years later, it reached 16,000; by 1968, it neared 21,000. In 1973, when U46 became the third largest in the state in terms of enrollment, there were more than twenty-five thousand students. After reaching a peak of 25,808 in 1976, there was a leveling off with the decline in the birth rate and a slackening of new construction.
The influx of students in the eastern portion of the district was matched by an increase in minority group students in Elgin. In 1968, the Board of Education stated that: "Considering a desirable racial and socio-economic mix of students, it would be prudent to distribute public housing throughout the city."22 The City Council cooperated by locating the first seventy units of public housing in areas other than the three elementary schools which then had the highest number of minority group children.
Between the 1967-68 and 1976-77 school years, however, the proportion of minority enrollment in the school district nearly doubled, rising from 6.5 percent to 12.8 percent. About three-fourths of the minority elementary school students-chiefly black and Spanish-speaking-were concentrated in the schools of Elgin, particularly in Channing, Garfield, Grant, Sheridan and Wing. These five schools had minority group enrollments in excess of 27.8 percent, the maximum allowed under desegregation guidelines of the Illinois State Board of Education. The district had to comply or face the loss of state aid.
In 1977, Columbia and Wing schools were closed and their enrollments shifted by busing some students to other schools, transferring others to the new Lords Park school, and adjusting attendance center boundary lines. Both black and white parents objected to the changes. The validity of a suit brought by west side parents to prevent the busing of students to desegregate Grant school was denied in Kane County Circuit Court
Despite these efforts, by 1981 minority enrollment had increased to 16.8 percent, and seven Elgin schools were out of compliance with state guidelines. The pressure to resolve the difficult problem was relieved that year by a judicial decision. The 2nd District Appellate Court, in a case involving an Aurora suit, ruled that the state board's guidelines were unreasonable. The opinion said the board was doing by indirection what the school code prohibited it from doing directly - that is, requiring districts to bus students.
Only about four percent of black students in the ninety square mile district were attending schools outside the city limits in 1976. This disparity was among the factors leading to racial disturbances in the high schools, the level on which white students from the outlying area came in contact with black students for the first time. Sparked by a combination of black militancy and white backlash, outbreaks of violence forced the suspension of classes at Elgin High twice in 1972 and once in 1975. Larkin High was shut down in 1974 and 1977.
Students were bused to schools with vacancies or assigned split shifts to relieve the overcrowded classrooms. Mobile units, prefabricated in two sections and joined at the installation site, were introduced in 1963. Space was leased in churches, the Masonic Temple and an abandoned fire station. In 1970, in addition to a staggered schedule, an open campus policy was introduced at Elgin High to ease the pressure of student crowding.
Taxpayers in Elgin were reluctant to vote for new buildings that would increase their real estate taxes for the benefit of children outside the city. The median age of Streamwood residents was 17.9 years in 1970; in Elgin, 13.4 percent of the city's population was sixty-five and older. Many of the elderly were living on fixed incomes, which were shrinking with inflation. Widening the growing geographic split within the district were complaints that Cook County property assessments were lower than those in Kane County. The successful campaigns for voter approval of new bond issues that took place in the '60s relied on overwhelming majorities in the eastern villages to counteract the negative votes in the city. The majority of Elgin voters in a 1968 referendum were even opposed to a $13.9 million package that included a proposal to build a new Elgin High School. The 83.7 percent "yes" vote in the five precincts in the eastern part of the district carried the measure.
The Board of Education sought to balance construction in Streamwood and Hanover Park with new buildings and additions for Elgin's burgeoning west side. Highland Elementary and Kimball Junior High schools opened in 1959, Hillcrest in 1967 and Century Oaks in 1970. The board also pursued a program of replacing outmoded structures on the east side of the city. Pupils from Lincoln and Franklin moved into the new Charming Memorial school in 1968. The old Sheridan school was razed after a new building was erected on the site in 1973. Columbia was closed after its attendance area merged into Lords Park school in 1977. Wing school, which had a sixty percent minority enrollment, was closed that year to comply with state guidelines for desegregation.
City loyalties were divided in 1962 when Larkin High School opened on the west side. Its attendance area was extended east of the river in 1971 to equalize minority enrollments. Because the new Elgin High campus, unveiled on the far east side in 1972, served students from the eastern villages, Larkin had a higher proportion of city residents among its students.
School rivalry, and probably community interest, centered on athletic contests between the two schools. Both were members of a new conference, the Upstate Eight, which started play in 1963. The Larkin Royals under Coach Ray Haley emerged as a football power, winning or sharing outright titles in 1967, 1969, 1973, 1979 and 1980. The 1979 squad won eleven successive games before losing in the semi-finals of the state play-off. Coach Bill Chesbrough's Maroons continued the Elgin High's basketball tradition, capturing conference championships in 1965, 1969, 1973 and 1975 and gaining the state finals in 1975 and 1983. Beginning in 1972-73, the Upstate Eight started interscholastic competition among girls' teams. Although boys' football and basketball attracted the most spectators, the girls soon equaled the boys in enthusiasm and extent of participation.
The Elgin Teachers Association, which had been revived in 1947, became militant in the '70s. A new breed of teacher arose from the campus revolts of the previous decade. Impelled by inflationary pressures and the desire for a voice in shaping school policies, the ETA became one of the more aggressive teachers' unions in the state. There were strikes in 1971, 1972, 1975, 1978 and 1981, the last dispute closing schools for nine days and resulting in the jailing of ETA officers for defying a court injunction. Along with resorting to the picket line came political action in the form of support of receptive candidates for the school board. School bus drivers also received recognition for collective bargaining after a 1974 strike affecting 10,000 student riders.
Although the ETA vote was often influential in board elections, it was diluted in the greater vote turnout at referenda on proposals to issue bonds and increase tax rates. Of the five referenda between 1972 and 1980, only one passed. A major factor was the increasing number of voters without school-age children; the new towns now had empty nests. These setbacks, combined with the state's failure to adequately fund mandated programs, forced budget cuts and a return to deficit financing. Tax anticipation warrants were issued in 1984.
While maintaining academic standards at or above the national level, U46 had to meet the challenges of students with a broad range of abilities coming from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds. Increasing family disruption compelled the schools to take on responsibilities and burdens once assumed by the home. Special education programs, closely regulated by state and federal law, were developed for the one student out of eight needing them. These included students with learning disabilities, physical handicaps, below-average intelligence and behavioral disorders. Home and hospital instruction is also provided for any student who is out of school for more than two weeks. Spanish-English bilingual instruction began in 1971 and Laotian-English started in 1980. Once again, Elgin classrooms were introducing the children of immigrants to American ways.
Elgin Community College was separated from U46 in 1966 with the formation of Community College District 509. Gilbert I. Renner, who served as dean since 1950, continued as president until 1971. U46 assisted the reorganization by leasing space and turning over the physical assets acquired before divestment. The boundaries of 509 originally coincided with those of U46. After District 300 to the north was annexed in 1967, District 301 to the west in 1973, and District 303 to the south in 1974, the service area encompassed about 365 square miles. Major population centers, besides Elgin, included Carpentersville, the two Dundees, South Elgin, Streamwood, St. Charles, a portion of Hanover Park and Bartlett. Financing is based on state aid, the local property tax and tuition payments.
A five million dollar bond issue for a permanent campus was approved by an overwhelming vote of 3,222 to 946 in a 1967 referendum. The site selected was former state hospital land acquired by the city of Elgin on the southwest side. The college purchased 108 acres and the remaining 121 acres, surrounding the campus on three sides, was developed by the city as the Spartan Meadows municipal golf course. The first building, the North Annex, was opened in 1969. Construction of a three-story main building and a gymnasium was completed in 1970. A business education administration wing was opened in 1973 and mathematics-science wing was ready in 1974. A $2.8 million industrial technology building was opened in 1978-79. Its two stories contain room for eight vocational areas and a three hundred-seat auditorium. With fifteen hundred full-time and more than six thousand part-time students pushing these facilities to capacity, the vacated Sears department store in downtown Elgin was leased and remodeled at a cost of $2.6 million. This new center opened in 1983.
The original emphasis of instruction was in general education and the liberal arts, paralleling the first two years of a four-year college program for potential transfer. In 1950, evening classes were offered for more flexible scheduling, and non-credit courses followed the next year. The adult or continuing education program, as the evening division later became known, provided a mixture of courses suited to a wide diversity of students. Thousands of residents have attended ECC on a part-time basis, selecting courses that fulfilled their needs for training and enrichment. The technical-vocational program that began with nursing in 1965, rapidly expanded with the opening of the permanent campus. More than two dozen short-term, one-and two-year programs have been established. The college operates about fourteen hours daily, and offers courses ranging from conversational Spanish and anthropology to plastics processing and fabricating. Concerts, lectures, exhibits, films and other special events are open to the public. The typical student is married and working part-or full-time.
Higher education on a smaller scale is offered at Judson College, a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with the American Baptist churches. Founded by Dr. Benjamin P. Browne in 1963 on a former private estate along the west bank of the Fox, its seventy-five-acre park-like campus is enhanced by the waters of Tyler Creek. Starting out with Volkman Hall and an enrollment of ninety-two, Judson now has more than five hundred students - half of whom come from homes within fifty miles of Elgin - and fourteen buildings. The school's motto is "Christ the Light of the World," and chapel attendance is required. No smoking, alcohol consumption or social dancing is permitted on campus.
Ellis Business College, which opened in 1900, was unable to compete with the ECC and closed its doors in 1968. Two other private schools remain. The Chicago Junior School, which was moved to Elgin from Michigan in 1923, is sponsored by the Christian Science Church. Classes are held for children from preschool through the eighth grade on wooded grounds of more than sixty acres. Most of the students live on campus in dormitory cottages. Elgin Academy, after surviving another financial crisis by selling its art collection in 1967, has had several consecutive years of enrollment increases. Combined enrollment in the Upper Schoolgrades nine through twelve-and the Middle School-grades six through eight-is now about three hundred, and an elementary school program was started in 1984. Westminster Presbyterian Church developed a Christian School beginning in 1977.
10. The Federal and Metropolitan Web
Illinois cities once functioned with little state assistance and had no direct contact with the federal government. Although chartered by the state and limited in their powers by its authority, they were expected to subsist on their own resources. Most of the municipalities, like Elgin, were also separated from neighboring communities by farmland.
The city of Elgin is no longer geographically isolated; its actions may affect others living beyond its boundaries, and events elsewhere have a direct bearing on its decision-making. As early as 1913, Elgin's lack of a treatment plant was arousing protest in St. Charles. In 1929, an editorial in the Courier-News commented on the use of park facilities by outsiders:
The great influx of Chicagoans and people from cities within a wide radius is fast creating a monopoly of the pleasure spots of this city in favor of the outsider and at the expense of the Elgin resident and taxpayer.23One of the paper's columnists, "Gun" Clifford, looked at the other side of the metropolitan link nine years later:
Elgin is in the Chicago area. You have to take the thorns with the roses. We possibly have one thousand people taking a good living out of Chicago and spending most of their money in Elgin, including taxes. The number of commuters is as important to Elgin's good as almost any factory in the city. Good roads and good motor cars have ended our isolation as a city.24For more than fifty years, the only villages within a seven-mile radius of Fountain Square were South Elgin, East Dundee, West Dundee, Carpentersville and Bartlett. With the postwar exodus from Chicago, four new villages within this same circle were incorporated in 1957-58-Streamwood and Hanover Park in Cook County, and Valley View and Sleepy Hollow in Kane County. Elgin's boundaries now extend south of portions of South Elgin and east of portions of Bartlett. By 1980, when the village of Hoffman Estates annexed land north of the tollway and west of portions of Elgin, most farms had disappeared. In 1960, the population of thirteen neighboring villages was about equal to that of Elgin. By 1980, their combined population had more than tripled and was more than twice as large as Elgin's.
The exterior of Elgin Academy's Old Main, completed in 1856 in the Great Revival style, was restored in 1979-80.
Concurrent with the increasing contact with other communities was a closer relationship with the state and federal governments. The Depression years brought substantial aid from Springfield. In 1931, the state undertook responsibility for maintaining city streets over which state highways are routed, and in 1934, Elgin began receiving a share of state motor fuel tax funds. Unrestricted money came with the enactment of an Illinois income tax in 1969. One-twelfth of that tax is returned to cities on a per capita basis. State and federal funds now account for more than a fifth of the city's revenue, and about half of the school districts' revenue comes from state sources.
Federal aid did not end with the Depression. The urban renewal funds that financed the land clearance for the Civic Center were followed by housing assistance money. In 1972 the city began receiving federal revenue sharing funds, and three years later it received the first grants under provisions of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. The law mandates public hearings to receive input from individual citizens and community organizations about the distribution of the funds. More than six million dollars was received by the city between 1975 and 1984. Approved projects included park development, a permanent site for the Greater Elgin Senior Center, a housing rehabilitation program, the upgrading of streets and water mains, and the installation of an elevator in Hemmens Auditorium to make it more accessible to elderly and handicapped persons. Elgin Township is also a recipient of revenue sharing, and School District U46 depends upon federal money for a number of its services. These include bilingual and special education programs, energy conservation projects and school lunches. For the years 1972-74, a federally funded experimental Model School stressed individualized, informal learning.
The Gail Borden Public Library illustrates both metropolitan cooperation and the use of money from Washington. It abandoned its Elgin Township boundaries in 1974 and became a special district with an extension of its area into Hanover Township. Membership in the North Suburban Library System brought the advantages of borrowing books from other communities. The children's center and two meeting rooms were constructed with a federal public works grant and opened in 1978.
Mayor William E. Rauschenberger, a staunch conservative, confessed that
"we have to have state and federal money to survive this growth. And almost
every grant insists that the municipality do this or that. Call it guidance
or interference, there's no doubt we'll have more of it. I guess
more government action is unavoidable, but Big Brother is going to be hard
The Fox River has provided the means of resolving two of the most pressing problems of American cities-sewage disposal and water supply. The solution involved both the federal government and some of the outlying villages. Between 1961 and 1965, acting under a court order that eliminated the need for a referendum, the Sanitary District of Elgin built a new activated sludge treatment facility at its main plant in the southeast end of the city and a trickling filter plant in the north end. The expansion was designed to service new residential, industrial and commercial developments and prevent sewer run-offs.
The village of South Elgin was accepted into the district in 1965, and its effluent began flowing into the main treatment plant in 1969. By 1970, the system was nearing its eight million gallons-per-day capacity, and new construction was grinding to a halt. Voters in 1971 approved a bond issue for expansion of the main plant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was asked to provide up to seventy-five percent of the cost, decided to require phosphate removal to keep down the growth of algae in the Fox River. This escalated the project's cost. In addition, the EPA insisted that the new plant should also treat sewage from the Poplar Creek watershed to the east, where the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Chicago was planning to build. Its projected plant on Poplar Creek was about one and a half miles from Elgin's plant, and this would have created an unnecessary duplication of facilities.
Construction did not begin until 1974, after a joint agreement was signed by the Metropolitan and Elgin districts. Under the cooperative plan, which the EPA considered a model for other sanitary districts, the Metropolitan pays for and receives three million gallons per day of Elgin's seventeen million gallons-per day capacity. The total cost of the project, completed in 1977, was $13.6 Million and Elgin now processes flows from parts of Streamwood and Bartlett. The service area of the Sanitary District of Elgin continues to widen. Federal funding has been approved for the expansion of the north end treatment plant along the west side of the river to meet incoming lines from West Dundee. A seven million dollar project to increase main plant capacity by eight million gallons per day was started in 1983.
The Kane County Board has given the Sanitary District of Elgin permission to create a sludge dump near the Five Islands area in St. Charles Township. Sludge from the district's three plants will be pumped over a distance of about five miles to the eighty-acre site, a former stone quarry.
Population growth steadily depleted the Elgin area's deep-well water table, and rising electric rates increased the cost of pumping. Foreseeing an eventual shortage, the city turned again to a cleaned up the Fox River for its supply rather than participate in a costly Lake Michigan pipeline project. The Riverside Water Treatment Plant on the west bank of the Fox over River Road was authorized in 1976. Financed by the sale of general obligation bonds and completed at a cost of $13.5 million, the new facility was in full operation in 1983.
Elgin was the first municipality in the six-county metropolitan area to use a surface water supply other than Lake Michigan. Riverside has the capacity to treat and pump as much as sixteen million gallons of well and river water per day. A computerized system determines the most economical mixture, depending on river conditions. The capacity is about double the current average daily consumption, but the sale of water to other communities is expected. Sleepy Hollow began purchasing water in 1982, and Bartlett has also contracted with the city for water service.
In 1975 Elgin's municipally owned bus system became a member of the six-county Regional Transportation Authority, which is supported by an addition to the sales tax and state funds. Besides a substantial operating subsidy, the RTA provides buses under a lease agreement and contributes to the financing of the Fox Valley route, which connects Elgin and Aurora. A canopied RTA terminal on the west bank of the Fox between Highland Avenue and Chicago Street was opened in 1985.
The extension of water, sewage and bus lines beyond the city limits is only part of a complex web of area services centered in Elgin. Sherman and St. Joseph hospitals treat more patients who live outside the city than within. Readers of the Courier-News, which dropped the "Elgin" from its masthead in 1970, and listeners to WRMN are not confined to the city limits. The Association of Commerce became the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce in 1973 and has members in several communities outside Elgin. The Y is now called the Greater Elgin YMCA.
An urbanized area, as defined by the Census Bureau, consists of a central city or cities and surrounding closely settled territory or urban fringe. The Elgin Urbanized Area, so designated in the 1980 census, extends from Valley View and South Elgin on the south to the Village of Sleepy Hollow and the tri-village to the north. It had a population of 106,737. South Elgin is also part of the Gail Borden Library District. School District U46, its central offices located in Elgin, encompasses all or parts of six villages. Elgin Community College's District 509 includes, besides all villages served by U46, St. Charles, Burlington, Gilberts, Hampshire, Algonquin, Carpentersville, the two Dundees and Sleepy Hollow.
Although considered a satellite city in the Chicago metropolitan area, Elgin now has many of the characteristics of a central city surrounded by suburbs. There are more people present in Elgin at noon than at six at night, unlike a suburb, where the reverse is more common. Elgin's daytime sojourners include college and high school students, office and factory employees and hospital patients. Elgin also has a greater variety of socio-economic classes and ethnic groups than most suburbs.
11. Elgin Today
Elgin was once the location of the world's largest watchmaking complex. It was once a dairy center whose Board of Trade established butter prices for much of the country. It was once the site of automobile road races that attracted famed drivers and throngs of spectators. The city can take pride in its historic past, but what of today?
"As I travel throughout the metropolitan Chicago area," observed one resident, "I hear terms like 'dying' applied to the city of Elgin by people I meet."26 Pessimists can point to a decimated retail core, the absence of a mainstream theater, a school system engulfed in debt, the loss of its airport and the prevalence of crime, but these problems can be found in cities all over the Midwest. This litany of decay is usually followed by a comparison of what Elgin used to be, at least in rather selective memories. The belief that Elgin's great days are gone and that it has little future is a form of nostalgia about days gone by that ignores the shortcomings of the past. Was Elgin a better place to live when its one main industry economy was shattered in the depressions of 1893 and 1932? Should those who now live in Elgin be envious of the time when the city had an active Ku Klux Klan? Should a city where the foreign-born comprised more than a fourth of its population for sixty years now decry the current influx of aliens?
The challenges of a chaotic world often seem more disheartening than the ones we have surmounted. Elgin is not dying, but growing with a younger population. Quantity may not be a measure of quality, but it is a sign of vitality. The city was one of the first in America to be battered by foreign competition in the new international economy, and emerged from the experience with an expanding and diversified industrial base. If people no longer travel to Elgin to shop, they come to find jobs, learn about computers, receive medical care and other professional services, and hear an outstanding symphony orchestra.
Germans and Scandinavians poured into Elgin seeking to fulfill their aspirations for a better life, a motivation shared by the more recently arrived Hispanics and refugees from southeast Asia. The newcomers have added to the diversity of the city that is a microcosm of America in its lifestyles, social classes and ethnic groups. Here, in urban proximity, live Rotarians and truck drivers, factory operatives and business managers, store clerks, doctors and laundry workers. Elgin supports African Methodist and Greek Orthodox churches, bowling alleys, choral groups, taverns and women's study clubs. It can observe the Laotian New Year and Mexican Independence Day as well as Christmas, Yom Kippur and the Fourth of July.
Some new suburbs have enacted building and zoning ordinances designed to exclude all but the prosperous. They have erected walls against the conflicts and stress of difference. It is comforting to live among one's own kind rather than attempt to reach beyond the accidents of birth and geography, but it is not stimulating. The walls keep the young from the chance to see the world as others see it.
Early settlers who recalled a little farm-oriented village on the banks of the Fox River looked in amazement at factory smokestacks. Later, those who remembered a Watch City that was centered downtown and had just one high school would in their turn say, "Elgin sure has changed." The city has been evolving year by year since its founding in 1835. If life remained the same, there would be no history.
And yet the transformation of more than a century has not altered the
continuities of life in Elgin. A city, not a suburb, it remains a balanced
community where people both live and work. Many residents have local roots
going back four and five generations. For those who want additional reassurance
of stability, Republicans keep winning at the polls. Elgin is still providing
opportunities for all kinds of people, some of them disadvantaged, to share
in the hope that is America. What will happen in the future is beyond the
province of a history. The changes to come will be welcomed by some and
deplored by others, but the wise will use them to build a community that
respects the needs and aspirations of all its members.
Town in the West
II The Dividing Line
III Watches, Milk and Butter
IV The Expanding City
V Boom and Panic
VI The Good Years
VII Whirling Twenties
VIII Depression and War
IX Civic Pride
X Modern Elgin
Town in the West
© 2001 by E. C. Alft and ElginHistory.com. All Rights Reservered.