To thousands of traveling Chicagoans, West Elsdon is the neighborhood they glimpse on their way to catch a plane at Midway International Airport. But for some 18,000 working-class residents, it's home.
Even with its proximity to the airport, West Elsdon is remarkably quiet because Midway's runways mostly point away from the area. Ald. Mike Zalewski, of the 23rd Ward, fields some complaints about jet engine noise, although the airport has been here since 1927.
Residents in the northwestern portion of West Elsdon, an anomaly on the X-shaped flight path, qualify for the Chicago Department of Aviation's Residential Sound Insulation Program. It helps homeowners pay for new windows, doors and insulation. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, you learn to tolerate the background hum of the airport.
West Elsdon is a homogenous neighborhood about eight miles southwest of the Loop. Nearly every house is a post-war bungalow with a front stoop and an awning over the front-room window. Homeownership is a source of pride, as is evident by the well-manicured lawns and colorful window boxes.
A trapezoid of a neighborhood, it's bordered on three sides by railroad tracks and by 59th Street on its south side. Don't look for an East Elsdon because it doesn't exist. West Elsdon is so-named because it was west of a settlement of railroad workers who lived in Elsdon, which is now Gage Park.
Pulaski Road is West Elsdon's main drag, where taquerias have replaced many Eastern European restaurants that served the homeowners who filled the neighborhood a generation ago.
The area's original empty-nester homeowners are white South Siders who treasure memories of singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with Bill Veeck and cherish souvenir bricks from the old Comiskey Park. As they retire, they are selling homes to West Elsdon's second generation, young Hispanic families. A sign of the times: The neighborhood's anchor parish, St. Turibius Church, holds masses in Spanish, Polish and English.
The West Elsdon ethos is "very low-key," said Zalewski, which stems from its being 99 percent residential.
The biggest concern here is the influx of crime and gang activity. The long-standing West Elsdon Civic Association, headed by resident Jim Mazenis, acts as a liaison between the aldermanic offices, police and residents to keep crime at bay.
"West Elsdon is like the red-headed stepchild because we're split into several wards," said Mazenis. "But we try to keep people informed, and we publish a newsletter. We tell the residents what's going on, like seniors being scammed by people pretending to collect fees for missed jury duty. Last summer, neighbors told us about a drug dealer. We told the police, and they set up a sting.
"Every neighborhood has its troublemakers. But I have to add that most people here are hard-working, decent people who help each other."
Notice the north-south streets in West Elsdon start with the letter "K," thus the neighborhood nickname, K-town. This is a vestige of a grand street-naming plan that was supposed to start with A at the state line and extend west, but resulted in little more than K through L. The Ks are 11 miles east of Indiana because K is the 11th letter in the alphabet.
The K names do distinguish the ethnic origins of West Elsdon, though, from the Hungarian "Karlov" to the Czech "Kolin." The exception, Pulaski, is appropriately named for a man with Polish and Lithuanian roots.
Things to do
West Elsdon is not gentrified —there's no Trader Joe's or T.G.I. Friday's. Do head here for authentic Mexican cuisine and grocers.
At Pasteur Park, toddlers swing in old-fashioned rubber baby swings while their moms relax in the shade. Older children play baseball or tennis.
The Marquette Park Golf Course is one neighborhood away.
And a quick ride on the CTA gets you to the stimulating sights and sounds of downtown Chicago.
Some pilots and flight attendants rent three-flats on West Elsdon's west side, but the neighborhood consists mostly of single-family bungalows. True to the South Side tradition, they are mostly brick.
"Some are remodeled and some are frozen in time," said Julie Anderson, Realtor with Re/Max 10 in West Elsdon. "They have hardwood floors, and some have finished basements. Most sell for about $130,000, but foreclosures go as low as $50,000 and the better-kept ones sell for as much as $250,000." Detached garages feed into alleys.
Even though this neighborhood abuts a major airport, its blue-collar residents primarily use trains and buses to get to work. Or they head north to travel on Interstate 55.
The CTA's Orange Line runs from Midway Airport to the Loop. CTA bus routes 55 and 59 follow east-west streets of the same names.
Although residents complained of school overcrowding in 2000, when the number of school-age children in West Elsdon peaked at 3,000, it fell to 2,200 by 2010. And the addition of two new schools that serve the area — Irene C. Hernandez Middle School for the Advancement of Science and Eric Solorio Academy High School — eased the crowding.
Now, four public elementary/middle and four public high schools serve West Elsdon.
Enrollment is steady at the St. Turibius School (pre-K-8) , which serves the neighborhood's mostly Catholic population. The Archdiocese of Chicago lists four high schools within five miles of West Elsdon.