Friday, April 17, 2020

The Reasons Why Harwood Heights and Norridge Aren't Part of the City of Chicago.

The villages of Norridge and Harwood Heights are surrounded by the City of Chicago like islands. For at least half a century, the canoe-shaped hole in the city's Northwest Side has been a source of wonder and frustration for anyone who's ever squinted at an old city street map.

But the situation was no accident. The self-sustaining villages of Norridge and Harwood Heights owe their independence to a combination of stubborn farmers, wary city bureaucrats and determined neighbors who wanted their own shot at governing.
The villages of Norridge and Harwood Heights are surrounded by the City of Chicago.
Some homeowners had made a fleeting effort in 1928 to get the city to annex the territory, hoping they could get access to Chicago's water and police protection that their urban counterparts took for granted. But they ran into resistance from the dominant farming population.

The homesteaders in the area had no need for paved streets, sidewalks or street lighting, and weren’t willing to pay taxes for such things.

Just north of the area, the city's boundaries were creeping out to swallow the industrial and commercial corridors of Milwaukee Avenue and Northwest Highway. And to its south, a community called Dunning was forming around the Cook County Poor House and Insane Asylum.

That left a hole in the city grid which had a sparse population and even less infrastructure. In the 1930s, Norridge and Harwood Heights were little more than open prairie, low-lying forest and seasonal swamps, interspersed with some farms and dirt roads.
In 1947, residents near Lawrence and Harlem avenues, led by a Navy veteran named Herbert Huening, made a second, more serious effort to join the city.

At the end of WWII, the residents wanted what citizens of established communities had lighted and paved streets, police and fire protection, an adequate water source and storm sewers.

The City of Chicago believed that the area residents didn’t want to pay to fix their water system or build their own sewers. Being annexed to Chicago would be a quick fix and have Chicago pay for all those upgrades.

Rejected by city leaders, Huening convinced his neighbors that they could run the show themselves. They drew up articles of incorporation for the village of Harwood Heights with a population of 400 people.

Months later, another contingent of residents just south of Montrose Avenue prepared their own push to join the city. Calling themselves the "Annexation Improvement Club," the group scored audiences with 48 of the city's 50 aldermen to make their pitch. They even got tentative approval from the City Council, officially joining the city for a brief period.

But after just 30 days the Annexation Improvement Club member Joseph Sieb suggested they secede and plant their own flag, just like Harwood Heights had done. Borrowing their name from both Norwood Park and Park Ridge, the village of Norridge was incorporated on December 4, 1948.

Ascending to the role of Village board president in 1951, Sieb rallied the new government to pave the roads and dig the sewer lines that the area had long begged for. They founded a police department, created a park district and wooed developers with cheaper land and looser building restrictions than could be found in the city.

Norridge shared some of its public services with Harwood Heights, merging their school district and fire departments. The massive Eisenhower Library was built in 1973, today accessible to residents of both villages.

The "island" might have been too isolated to attract much fanfare in the early 20th century, but it proved a ripe target for the car-centric building boom of the 1950s. Vast tracts of fresh-built bungalows promised transplanted city residents "room to breathe."

Family entertainment businesses began popping-up, fueling the building boom even more. 

The Harlem Outdoor Theater opened in 1946 at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Road with a capacity for 1,030 cars. It was the second drive-in theater to open in Chicagoland.
The Hub Roller Rink opened in October of 1950 on Harlem Avenue. KiddyTown Amusement Park opened in the summer of 1953 at the north end of the future Harlem-Irving Plaza.
Suddenly, people were realizing they didn't need to move all the way to Arlington Heights for a 20-foot driveway and a two-car garage. And the best part was that you never had to worry about city bureaucracy — you could just walk to the Village Hall and get your problem sorted out.

In 1955, Sieb convened business leaders and encouraged them to build a shopping center at Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Road on the site of a former livestock farm. If open spaces didn't attract outsiders to Norridge, the Harlem-Irving Plaza (the HIP) opened in 1956 certainly would, with original anchor stores; Kroger, Walgreens, Wieboldt's, W.T. Grant, Woolworth, and Fannie May Candies.

By the early 1960s, the tables had turned on the city leaders who had spurned the neighbors' pleas for annexation. Instead of sinking their tax dollars into expressways and Downtown high-rises in Chicago, citizens of Norridge and Harwood Heights got to carve out a retail empire, exclusively for their own benefit.

Rumor had it that Sieb — who served as mayor until his death in 1998, making him the longest-serving municipal leader in state history — often boasted of calls he got from Mayor Daley, asking "Are you ready to join the city yet?" As the story goes, Sieb just hung up the phone.

It was a formula that village leaders drew up by necessity.

Today, thanks in part to the sales tax raked in through Harlem-Irving Plaza, a megamall now anchored by a Target and packed with ritzy department stores and quality restaurants, the village hardly needs to collect any property taxes to keep public services running.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. I really enjoyed this. My mom grew up in Norridge and I spent a lot of time there when my grandparents were living. We walked to the Harlem & Irving Plaza many times and I never knew the history about this area, and honestly I just assumed that Norridge was actually part of Chicago! Great story.


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