A brief history of Berwyn

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manfredini22Ber-wyn [bur-win] — noun, a city in NE Illinois that is conveniently located within one mile of two major transportation arteries, the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) to the north and the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) to the south.

Berwyn’s northeast edge is less than a mile from Chicago’s western city limits and just minutes from the bustling Loop business and entertainment district.

Berwyn has three convenient commuter rail stations, serviced by Metra along the BNSF Railway. Berwyn’s Metra stations provide tremendous customer potential and visibility for local business and offer Berwyn residents’ ready access to area jobs and attractions. Pace bus service is extensive and links conveniently to the CTA’s elevated Blue Line trains. Additionally, both O’Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport are within easy driving distance.

On June 6, 1908, Berwyn became a city, receiving its official charter from the State of Illinois and having a population of approximately 5,800. The first two decades of the 20th century saw Berwyn develop in much the same way as other Chicago suburbs. It was a place in which “harried commuters relaxed in the evening, weeded gardens, set hens, and mowed their lawns.” In 1921, the city began its rapid development. Large numbers of Czechs moved from the Pilsen area on Chicago’s near West Side to Berwyn and its neighbor on the east, Cicero. Literally thousands of new homes were built each year. Many newcomers found jobs at Western Electric’s huge Hawthorne Works in Cicero, commuting via trolley.

Berwyn’s construction boom continued into the Roaring ’20s, as farms and fields gave way overnight to new homes. Entire blocks were built at once, with contractors digging all basements simultaneously, and then bringing in crews to lay foundations, followed by carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers. Block after block of bungalows rose as Berwyn’s population swelled from 14,150 in 1920 to 47,027 in 1930: an increase of 222 percent in just ten years.

Today, Berwyn has the most significant collection of Chicago-style bungalows in the nation. Traditionally, Berwyn Bungalows are one-story buildings with basement and attic, two to three bedrooms, and a living and dining room. Decorative details included oak woodwork and stained glass windows.

manfredini23By the 1960s, Berwyn was a melting pot of Eastern Europeans families of Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, German, Greek, Irish, French, Croatian, Slovak, and Slovene descent. Then came an influx of Italian families to this suburb from Taylor Street and Chicago Avenue, and Lexington and Harrison avenues. Many came to Berwyn and Cicero from their changing urban neighborhoods with the great westward migration. Others came to start a new life after their neighborhood was destroyed by the loss of so many children in the Our Lady of Angels fire, and the majority came because of the affordable housing and a chance to have their own giardino.

While the vast majority of Italian immigrants and Italian Americans brought with them a tradition of honesty and hard work to benefit their new neighborhood, WE were negatively stereotyped and viewed as a lower class that was restricted to blue-collar jobs. WE also faced racism and were considered problematic for “their” community.

After years of not being accepted in their new neighborhood, these Italian Americans wanted their voice heard and wanted to prove to their community that they were productive involved members of society. So out of a basement a group of Italian-American men went through the phone book and called every Italian last name in Berwyn and invited them to be a part of their organization.

In 1965 the Italian American Civic Organization of Berwyn was officially chartered as a non-profit charitable and social organization whose purpose is to provide frequent activities for promoting cordial relationships amongst members while diffusing the Italian language and culture in the community and aiding the sick and needy.

Throughout the years, this group of men continued to prove their worth, ownership and involvement in their community by becoming the leaders that helped shape Berwyn, even having one of their own elected in 1981 as the first Italian-American mayor of Berwyn. From sponsoring Little League teams to moving a Presidential Statue to a middle school or sending local veterans to the WWII memorial, the IACOB continues to be involved in Berwyn for over 45 years.

Families with Czech and Bohemian roots, together with many Italian Americans, Greeks, Lithuanians, Poles, Yugoslavians and Ukrainians, have been joined in recent years by Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans who now call Berwyn home.

As Berwyn moves into the 21st century, its traditionally hard-working, middle-class, mostly blue-collar families, who were admitted conservative in their outlook, have been joined by young, professional families and a growing population of gay and lesbian residents. With a current population of over 56,000, Berwyn continues to move forward through the path of the Italian Americans in the past and the current Italian Americans who are paving the way toward the future.

Now, just as in those early times, residents are justly proud of “Beautiful Berwyn.” With its tree-lined streets, sturdy brick bungalows, and Victorian “painted ladies,” Berwyn continues to be a stable, safe and diverse community. With the continuing efforts of its homeowners, business community, civic organizations, and city government, Berwyn looks forward to its second century as it celebrates its rich and varied past.

Benvenuto A Berwyn will provide you with stories of Italian Americans in our fair town, including current events, updates and personal stories. If you have an idea for a story or someone we should know in Berwyn, please send the information to mariomanfredini@sbcglobal.net.

About Mario Manfredini

Mario Manfredini is a lifelong Berwyn resident who grew up in the "Twin Cities" of Berwyn and Cicero, cherishing his childhood memories and enjoying everything that Berwyn has to offer today. You might spot Mario working in the neighborhoods as a battalion chief for the Berwyn Fire Department, keeping Berwyn active as president of the Berwyn Park District or volunteering in many capacities with the Italian American Civic Organization of Berwyn. He served on the board of IACOB for 20 years and the board the Berwyn Fire Fighters Union Local 506 for 12 years.

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