When Greg Lis and his friends were growing up in the 1950s and wanted to play baseball, they'd head over to Cinder Field, a vacant lot in the Southwest Side neighborhood of Ashburn, and choose sides for a pick-up game.
Lis, vice president of Americorp Real Estate Services in Chicago, said baseball is still a slice of life here, but today it's typically organized ball at school or a community park.
Recreational opportunities, much less green space, were scant in the early years of Ashburn. As the name suggests, the community served as a dumping ground in the 1800s and turn of the last century for ashes collected from Chicagoans' fireplaces and coal-fired furnaces.
The Irish, Dutch and Swedes were among the first immigrants to put down roots here in the 1890s. In 1916, Chicago's first airport, the Ashburn Flying Field, was established in the neighborhood. But the airfield's location prevented more than 60 acres on the west side of Ashburn (now the neighborhood of Scottsdale) from being developed for homes until the 1950s.
The airfield closed in 1939, overshadowed by the emergence nearby of what is now Midway International Airport. The ash heaps disappeared, too, leaving only the occasional cinder to work its way to the surface as a vestige of the community's past or to skin the leg of a kid sliding into home plate.
Ashburn's growth skyrocketed during the post- World War II economic and baby boom, resulting in changes in the demographic makeup.
In the 1960s, an influx of African-Americans and Hispanics moved in, but the transition to a blended community wasn't easy. Racial conflict erupted over school desegregation. After years of strife, the area evolved into a stable, middle-class community that is ethnically and racially diverse.
In 1988, Chicago journalist Vernon Jarrett wrote a series of newspaper articles about the Wrightwood community in Ashburn, touting it as a "model for racial harmony." And in 1999, The New York Times published a story using Ashburn as a case study in the difficulties of neighborhood integration in Chicago, citing Ashburn as an example of "successful neighborhood integration."
Scottsdale, a subdivision in Ashburn, has its roots in a residential development project and shopping center planned by Raymond Lutgert. The real estate developer paved the way for about 1,000 homes on the site of the vacant Ashburn Flying Field in 1952 and named the development after his son, Scott.
The history of Ashburn's rise from the ashes can be found in the stacks at the Wrightwood-Ashburn Library on South Kedzie Avenue. The Chicago Public Library branch houses more than 40,000 volumes, including an African-American Heritage collection. The Scottsdale Branch is on 79th Street.
Long overlooked as a place for residential development, Ashburn is now an official community area of 38,000 about 14 miles southwest of the Loop.
CTA bus routes and the Orange Line connect residents to and beyond the Loop or to Midway. Metra's Southwest Service line at the Ashburn and Wrightwood rail stations provides quick access to downtown Chicago Monday through Saturday.
The main thoroughfares are dissected by tree-lined streets of single-family, brick homes boasting tidy yards, brick garages and side driveways.
A side driveway was on Erin Horath's wish list when she and her husband were looking for their second home in Ashburn.
"I grew up in St. Denis Parish," the Chicago native said. The couple now live in St. Bede Parish.
"Referring to your parish is a South Sider thing," she said, explaining that the custom of referring to neighborhoods in terms of parishes evolved because of the location of the Catholic schools. Where you attended school indicated where your family lived.
At one time, St. Denis, St. Bede and St. Thomas More parishes all had schools. Today, only St. Bede the Venerable preschool through 8th grade remains.
Schools still draw families to Ashburn. Elementary schools include three magnet schools, one charter school, one arts school and two parochial schools. One high school and two elementary schools are part of the Chicago Public Schools, and there is a private high school. Richard J. Daley College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, is on the northern end of Ashburn at Pulaski Road and 75th Street.
The Chicago Park District maintains four parks and two play lots within Ashburn. Lis said families organize weekends around their children's activities. That could be anything from baseball to traditional Irish dance lessons.
For years, the boundaries of the parishes defined the community and, to some extent, the housing.
Though single-family homes rule, there are some two-, three- and six-flats. Rentals and condo conversions are scarce, but a few town homes were built near the Metra stops.
"We don't see many abandoned homes (in Ashburn), but we are not immune to what is happening in the market," Lis said. "We have had some short sales and foreclosures, just not as many as other areas."
In the 1960s, bungalows and expandable homes were constructed in St. Denis Parish, and ranch homes were built in the area served by St. Bede Church. St. Thomas More Parish has higher-end homes, in the $300,000-to-$400,000 range, Lis said.
"Ashburn is well-kept, and there is pride in ownership," he said. "It is an (ethnically) mixed community of good neighbors." His mother, Anne Lis, 87, moved to Ashburn in 1952. "Good neighbors kept her in her home, and she felt safe there," he said.
Overall, Ashburn is considered a relatively safe place to live. Sgt. Jennifer Dowling, of the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy office in the 8th District, attributes that to its residents.
"There are a lot of dedicated people who have lived there for years," she said. "There is an active CAPS and Neighborhood Watch program, and it is a community that works together."
Ashburn has several busy commercial thoroughfares. With the exception of Scottsdale Shopping Center, which was built in the 1950s, small strip malls serve residents' daily needs. Mom-and-pop shops like Mr. Tony's Hair Salon mix with a few chain stores like the Family Dollar Store on Pulaski. Ford City Mall and Westfield Chicago Ridge Shopping Mall are nearby. With plenty of access to mass transportation, shopping in the Loop or other Chicago neighborhoods is convenient.
When Horath's sister or former classmates visit from out of town, Pulaski Road is on their reminisce list.
"We have to go to Vito & Nick's Pizzeria," she said, adding it was a favorite even before its Italian beef pizza was featured on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives." "(We have to) stop another night at Angie's (Restaurant & Pizzeria), which is almost across the street, and Don's (Drive-in Restaurant) over on Kedzie for a hot dog."
The layout of the brick ranch that the Horaths recently purchased is nearly identical to their first home. "I love the house, and I love the neighborhood," she said. "And I love the side drive." Horath owns A Bit of Eden Landscaping, and, much like the proverbial cobbler, she has yet to work on her own yard.
"We will be flooding it soon," she said. For three months a year, her husband waters the backyard to create an ice rink for skating. "I remember my mom used to call the fire department to come by our neighborhood park to flood a section for us kids to skate. And they did," said Horath.
Such is life in Ashburn, where fond memories, family and friends keep families on the South Side, and entertaining at home is more common than going out for a night on the town.
"The day we moved in, our neighbors had stocked our refrigerator and left a full cooler sitting by the back door, " Horath said. "I love this neighborhood."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times