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In 1835, Henry DeKoven purchased prairie land in the region. In 1857, a group of citizens formed the Town of Cicero, a ten-member local governing body that covered modern day Cicero, Oak Park, Berwyn and Austin. Eight years later, DeKoven's land was bought by Henry W. Austin. Austin, a businessman and real estate speculator, developed the namesake Austinville subdivision. Its population grew exponentially as the area's attractive amenities and access to suburban railroad service drew in population. In 1870, the Town of Cicero placed its town hall in Austin. However, by the 1890s, the heavily populated Austin area dominated town politics, but did not constitute a majority of voters. The Austin-controlled township government allowed the Lake Street Elevated to extend into Oak Park. Outraged, the other residents of Cicero Township voted to allow Chicago to annex the Austin area in an 1899 referendum. The residents of Austin voted against the referendum.
After its annexation, Austin continued to maintain an independent, suburban identity. By the 1920s, the area had developed significant street railways to serve its commuter population. This infrastructure attracted a large group of European immigrants to the community. In 1926, it was estimated the area had approximately 140,000 residents. In 1923, Austin Hospital opened. In 1938, the hospital, now called William Temperance Hospital, was taken over by Sisters of Saint Casimir who operated the hospital as Loretto Hospital.
Following the arrival of African Americans, Austin then experienced a dramatic decrease in white residents, white owned businesses, and industrial jobs. By 1970, despite the aggressive blockbusting efforts of realtors, the Austin community was 32% black. A decade later, it was 73% black. This trend would continue for the rest of the twentieth century with Austin becoming a stronghold for Chicago's African American middle class.
The latter half of the twentieth century further municipal saw significant divestment from the community. The Central station on the Chicago Transportation Agency's Congress Line was closed on September 2, 1973. In 1988, West Side Health Authority was formed after the closure of St. Anne's Hospital. In 1991, the Sisters of Saint Casimir gave control of Loretto Hospital to a management company.
In 1999, developers agreed to turn the abandoned Galewood rail yard into an industrial park.
During the development of the property, then-Alderman Ike Carothers solicited a bribe to allow the permitting process and zoning changes to move forward. The subsequent trials created a political scandal, and ended with the conviction of the developer and Carothers on various felony charges. The $60 million development ultimately brought new homes and a movie theater to the neighborhood.
Austin is Chicago's second largest community area both by population and by land area. The Austin community area is made up of four neighborhoods; Galewood, The Island, North Austin and South Austin.
Galewood is named for Abram Gale who bought a farm on the area in 1838. The neighborhood is bordered by the Milwaukee District / West Line to the north, Harlem Avenue to the west, North Avenue to the south and Narragansett Avenue to the east. The area is a historically Italian-American community with a sizable population of Chicago city employees. Since the 1980s, it has seen an increase in African American and Latino residents, but this integration has occurred peacefully in contrast with other areas of Chicago.
The neighborhood has strong ties with neighboring Montclare, including sharing a namesake library in the Chicago Public Library system, and is sometimes considered as part of that neighborhood and not the Austin community.
Galewood is significantly whiter than the remainder of Austin. Galewood is 22.51% White, 50.17% African American, and 1.77% from two or more races. Residents who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino of any race were 23.96% of the total Galewood population with the western half of Galewood being 36% white and 31% African American.[N 1]
The Island neighborhood is located in the southwest corner of the Austin community. It has a population of approximately 1,700 residents. It encompasses roughly a square mile and its western and southern borders are to the suburbs of Oak Park and Cicero respectively. It is further isolated from the rest of Austin by an industrial corridor to its east and railroad tracks and Interstate 290 to the north. It is only accessible from Austin Boulevard & Roosevelt Road.
The Island was the last of Austin's neighborhoods to integrate. In the 1980s, when the rest of Austin was over 70% African-American, the Island did not have a single African-American family. In 1984, when an African-American family attempted to move in on Roosevelt Road, they were met with violent resistance and shortly moved out. Politically, the area went heavily for Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary and for Edward Vrdolyak against Harold Washington in the 1987 mayoral election that broke down on racial lines. Today, the Island is an integrated community.
One of Austin's neighborhoods is North Austin, its boundaries starts north at Milwaukee District/West Line and Armitage Avenue, Western boundaries are Austin Avenue or Austin Boulevard south of North Avenue, Eastern boundaries to Cicero Avenue, and Southern boundaries to Division Street. The Robert LeFlore, Jr. Post Office at 5001 West Division Street is in this neighborhood.
In the area, the population was spread out, with 30.50% under the age of 19, 20.80% from 20 to 34, 18.70% from 35 to 49, 18.40% from 50 to 64, and 11.60% who were 65 years of age or older. The media age was 33.9.
The median household income for the area was $31,435 as opposed to $47,831 for the city. The area's residents were disproportionately lower income with 41.0% of residents earned less than $25,000, 27.6% of residents earned between $25,000 and $49,999, 14.1% earned between $50,000 to $74,999, 8.0% earned between $75,000 and $99,999, 6.4% earned between $100,000 and $149,999, 2.9% earned $150,000 or more.
There were 41,807 residents in the labor force. 18.9% of workers were employed in the healthcare industry, 11.3% were employed in retail, 11% were employed in administration, 8.4% worked in education, and 8.3% worked in hospitality and food services. The area had an unemployment rate of 22.1%.
The Chicago Tribune "Crime in Chicagoland" page, the Austin neighborhood ranked 11th out of 77 community areas in Chicago in violent crime, 25th among Chicago community areas in property crimes, and 5th out of 100 for quality of life crimes.
Children reading at the "Robert Emmet School" in 1911. The school, located at 5500 W Madison Street, closed in 2013.
Austin Community Academy High School closed after spring 2007. New smaller schools have replaced Austin Community Academy High School: Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, which opened in 2006, and Austin Polytechnical Academy, which opened in September 2007.
Other portions of the community area are zoned to Manley High School, Marshall H.S., and Orr Campus.
Austin is served by three free weekly newspapers. The West Suburban Journal, founded in 2004, is published by West Suburban Journal, a black-owned press published by Trottie Publishing, based in the West Cook County suburb of Westchester. The founder and publisher of West Suburban Journal and West Cook Journal, L. Nicole Trottie, is the first black woman in Illinois history to start an accredited weekly newspaper. Trottie is also the first African American woman ever elected to the Illinois Press Association's Board of Directors in its 150-year newspaper-rich history. The Austin Voice has been published in Austin since 1988. The Austin Weekly News, founded in 2005, is published by The Wednesday Journal, a publisher of free weekly newspapers based in Oak Park, Illinois. Both papers are published on Wednesdays and distributed in stores, office buildings and recreational venues throughout the community. Austin is also served by Austin Talks, an online publication maintained by journalism students at Chicago's Columbia College and underwritten in part by the Chicago Community Trust.