Neighborhood Spotlight: Austin
Anchored by the historic Columbus Park and filled with a diverse collection of architectural treasures, Austin is Chicago’s second most populous neighborhood, with about 95,000 residents living in the community. Located on the West Side of the city, Austin forms the western border of Chicago. Despite historic socio-economic challenges, Austin has experienced exciting redevelopment and community initiatives, and is home to Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.
By Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
Annexed to Chicago
Developer Henry Austin lived in the neighboring suburb of Oak Park and envisioned building a tranquil temperance village. He purchased 470 acres in 1865 and called it Austinville. The area was originally part of the suburban Cicero township and its tree-lined boulevards attracted over 4,000 residents by the 1890s. In 1899, Austin was voted out of Cicero Township and annexed to Chicago. Austin residents strived to maintain their independence after and built the imposing Austin Town Hall in 1929, modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
A Landscape Masterpiece
The sprawling green beauty of Columbus Park was created by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen in 1920. Spanning 140 acres and designed in the prairie tradition with a lagoon, waterfalls, and a nine-hole golf course, Columbus Park is one of the country’s only parks to be designated a national historic landmark. Stroll down lush walking paths to the Columbus Refectory, adorned with arched entrance ways and ornate terracotta designs. The building is a popular space for weddings and events.
Take in the park’s nine acres of native woodland, wetland habitat, and wet prairie for some of the best views of native blooming plants in the city. For more active excursions, the park has opened new pickleball and tennis courts.
There is no way to visit Austin and not stop by the red-brick enclave of MacArthur’s Restaurant (5412 W. Madison St.), made famous by former President Barack Obama as one of his favorite soul food spots. Stroll up to the cafeteria-style counter and select from a mouth-watering array of dishes like smothered pork chops, fried chicken, collard greens, and mac ’n’ cheese. Top it off with sweet potato pie and prepare to roll out the door. For a lighter meal, head to Vegan World Cafe (5419 W, North Ave.) for delicious options like vegan steak with eggplant fries, a mock tuna sandwich, or jerk jackfruit tacos.
Enter the chic space of Urban Essential Coffee Cafe, (5300 W. Chicago Ave.) for a drink or a quick bite. Decked out with a vibrant mural of a woman laughing while clutching a coffee cup, the cafe invites you to slide into a leather chair with a fresh brew or tea and relax. Owned by a local father-and-daughter team, the cafe also offers wraps, baked potatoes, cakes, and cookies. Feed your sugar cravings at Bitoy’s Sweet Treats (5957 W. Chicago Ave.). Step into the electric blue shop and sample hand-crafted confections like red velvet cookie cupcakes, gourmet spicy cheese popcorn, or chocolate sprinkled with cherries and chili peppers.
Wander through the Austin Historic District to view late 19th and early 20th-century grand residences constructed in Queen Anne, Victorian, Prairie and Shingle styles. Built in 1869, the Italianate elegance of the Seth Warner home is the oldest house in Austin and one of the oldest structures in Chicago, predating the Great Chicago Fire. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and once served as a conservatory for the West Side community as well as a hotel during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The J.J. Walser Jr. house was constructed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1903 and showcases the architect’s design experiments with the Prairie style. Nicknamed the “Empress of the Queen Anne’s,” the F.R. Schock house showcases beautiful craftsmanship with rough-cut stonework and pressed copper trim. The Chicago Architecture Center provides guided two-hour walks of the Austin Historic District throughout the year.
Kehrein Center for the Arts
A shining example of Austin’s community revitalization, the Kehrein Center for the Arts is a restored, 900-seat auditorium that stands as a creative anchor for the neighborhood with an art gallery, theater, and gathering space. Opened in 2019, the center hosts fine and performing arts events including concerts, plays, comedy shows, spoken word and dance performances, fashion shows, and art exhibits. Their events calendar features activities every week for the community and the larger public.
Veteran’s Peace Garden
Nestled in the middle of Austin’s bustling Madison Street business corridor, the Veteran’s Peace Garden beckons for a moment of quiet reflection. Austin boasts about 50 community gardens, but this green space dedicated to veterans includes landscaped trees and plants, a gazebo, and a flag pole. It’s a great place to sit and watch the neighborhood activity.
An unexpected sight in Austin is the spectacle of a small goat herd calmly munching grass in front of a fire station, library, or home. GlennArt Farm goats are pastured all around the neighborhood and they make an adorable scene in the middle of an urban thoroughfare. Visitors can sign up for goat yoga and goat chills, where you can cuddle and play with the baby goats and connect with neighbors who volunteer at the farm.