#964: The Blip

August 8th, 2018

On the Northwest Side, where winding cul de sacs hit the strip malls of Touhy Avenue and the subdivisions bear the name of the natural features they tore down to make the subdivisions, there’s a little blip of Chicago carved out of Niles, Illinois.

Here, look at it. 

There are no markers that say the blip is still Chicago. On the south side of the street and down a touch there’s a small sign that welcomes people to the North Edgebrook subneighborhood of Chicago’s Forest Glen, but on the north side of Touhy the blip is nondual from the suburbs. Same bleating, strip-mall commerce. Same constant assertion everything’s as folksy as Nana’s peach cobbler crumble.

There’s a massive bulwark of storage lockers there, and charming older homes I want to buy. It’s a single subdivision, about 600 feet side-to-side, 1,300 top-to-bottom. It’s Niles to the north, east and west, but it’s legally Chicago. There’s no reason it should be Chicago, or at least not a reason that doesn’t trace to a 1920s land boom and an empire of flowers, but we’ll get to that.

The man in the flip-flops has lived in the blip 25 years.

Heading north on Meade Avenue past the slab of storage lockers on Touhy brings you to a subdivision that’s what subdivisions were meant to be. No megamansions that scream of both status and pending subprime mortgage collapse, just rows of small, single-story houses decorated with silly signs about spoiled dogs and sports teams. It’s relaxing here, as Meade curves into Sherwin and then McVicker. It’s comfortable. The neighborhood feels like walking into a friendly house and having a smiling stranger tell you to take your shoes off.

Two older white guys are standing in the street trying to diagnose a running van. They have Chicago-dad bellies, Chicago-dad goatees and, at least on the one who spoke, the biggest Chicago-dad dese dere dose accents heard this side of Jolly-et. Each wore flip-flops and had a Bluetooth in his right ear.

“They bought it from Niles some years back,” the first one said.

I pressed on dates, but he shrugged, then hazarded a guess for my and politeness’ sakes.

“It was after the war. They bought it to build houses, little houses for guys coming back,” he said.

He’s wrong, sort of, but it’s a charming story.

The blip entered Chicago on July 7, 1928 along with the neighborhoods of North Edgebrook and Wildwood, according to this map found on Chicagology.

Thanks to journalist Robert Loerzel and “aspiring Chicago historian” @chownlife — a person I have never met and don’t know the name of but now owe a beer — the story emerged bit by bit on Twitter, three history nerds spending a Sunday night googling ancient land records and floral industry trade publications, sharing what they found. I thank you both and apologize for calling us nerds.

In 1928, florist Louis Wittbold wanted to turn his family’s massive properties of nurseries, orchards and greenhouses into real estate, assembling a tract of 165 acres from landowners including himself, his brother Otto Wittbold and a man named Herman Wagner.

In “[w]hat is called a record for simultaneous approval of a subdivision by county, city and regional planning authorities,” according to the Chicago Tribune, the prominent landowner pushed the deal through in March 1928.

In May of that year, the land was annexed to Chicago. I don’t know how the development proceeded from annexation to Chicago dads in Blueteeth diagnosing vans, but I can’t imagine it was a straight path. The homes are post-war, according to the Cook County Assessor’s Office. The man in the flip-flops was right on that.

That’s a gap of more than two decades between homes and land deal. We of the future know what was waiting for Louis Wittbold in October 1929.

The Wittbold family story is fascinating in its own right, and its own separate rabbit hole. In the 1800s, Louis and Otto’s father George Wittbold came to Chicago from Germany, where by some versions of the story he worked for the kaiser, or the king of Hanover in other tellings. He set up shop in Lakeview, soon owning huge greenhouses by Halsted and Aldine in modern-day Boystown.

As the area developed, George got in on the game, turning his Lakeview land into apartments and moving his nurseries and greenhouse operations into and north of Chicago’s Edgebrook neighborhood, which had been part of the city since 1889.

The Wittbold company did the original landscaping for Wrigley Field in 1914 when it was Weeghman Park, and bragged about it in ads. (No, they didn’t do the ivy. That was added in 1937.)

And in the 1920s, his son Louis also saw real estate where flowers were, pushing a massive land deal through local appoval.

The last bit of the purchase before the deal went down was 17 1/2 acres from Herman Wagner — “the Kellen tract.” The blip isn’t quite 17 acres and it’s a little west of the Touhy and Austin address the Trib gave for the sale, but I’m pretty sure that’s it.

So why is there a blip of Chicago carved out of Niles? Because that’s the land Louis Wittbold owned. Why did he own a little blip just north of his family’s massive growing yards and acres of greenhouse? That’s a question for the dead man.

Maybe it was offices, an extra greenhouse or just part of the 17 acres he picked up when Herman Wagner wanted in on the subdivision game. Whatever the reason, the long-dead florist lives on in the boundaries of Chicago.

He had greater, more personally satisfying legacies I’m sure — family, kids, gardenias, etc. But a vestigial tail on a city border isn’t the worst reminder of a man’s life. We all leave our little footprints on the people around us, even if they don’t remember who left them.

A charming blip of homes is a nice footprint to leave.

Read about a man who lives on in the side of a building (his great-niece once contacted me to thank me for this story)

And a woman who lives on in a bike (her sister thanked me too)

See photos of the Wittbold greenhouses

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