The Story of Jefferson Park
Many Chicagoans know Jefferson Park for the transit stop of the same name––a busy hub where the ‘L,’ several bus lines, and the Metra all converge.
Watch: Jefferson Park
The northwest community area, which was named after Thomas Jefferson, traces its roots back to the early 1830s, when a trader named John Kinzie Clark settled there. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, its access to long-established Native American trails gave the community its nickname, “the Gateway to Chicago.”
Many Polish immigrants settled in Jefferson Park in the 1800s, and its Polish influence is still evident in the neighborhood today, especially during the annual Taste of Polonia Festival.
Today, Jefferson Park has a growing Hispanic population, according to data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Jefferson Park still serves as a gateway, as it is home to the largest transportation hub on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The Blue Line (in the middle of the Kennedy Expressway), Metra trains, and CTA buses all meet at the Jefferson Park Transit Center on Milwaukee Avenue where a statue of Thomas Jefferson greets commuters.
Neighborhood Spotlight: The Copernicus Center
In 1930, world-famous movie stars began gracing the screen at the Gateway Theater in Jefferson Park. The Italian baroque-style theater was designed by the Rapp and Rapp architecture firm, which also designed many of Chicago’s iconic theaters, such as the Chicago Theatre, the Oriental Theatre (now called the Nederlander Theatre), the Bismarck Theatre (now called Cadillac Palace), and the Uptown Theatre. The Gateway was one of the first acoustically designed theaters with sound-absorbent plaster, according to one Chicago Tribune movie critic.
The 2,000-seat movie palace was later converted to a Polish cultural center in 1981, after the Copernicus Foundation, a local nonprofit, purchased the building two years prior. The foundation and its center are named for the Polish scientist, also known as the Father of Modern Astronomy. The theater interior was restored, and although it no longer regularly shows films, it still hosts a variety of live performances, such as theater, dance, music, and more. In 1985, a “Solidarity Tower,” which sits atop the renovated theater façade, was added, built to look like the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland.
Things to Do
Fill up on authentic Polish fare at Smak Tak on North Elston Avenue or chow down on some BBQ ribs at Gale Street Inn.