After the Civil War, America began to push for the prohibition of alcohol. Many Americans felt that alcohol was at the root of many of the nation’s problems. Throughout the country states banned the sale of liquor. In 1890, a community was founded on the principle of prohibition. This town was touted during the Colombian Exposition of 1893 as a town where liquor would not be tolerated. This town was initially known as Magic City, later the town was renamed after one of its early leaders, it was known as Harvey. Although prohibitionist designed the town, it was far from being a dry community. Several liquor establishments attempted to open, thus creating problems for the community.
One local businessman William McLatchy owned a large track of land east of Halsted. Several other businesses also opened along the same stretch of road all of them were either taverns or saloons. The City of Harvey seeing these businesses opening just outside of their borders and selling alcohol began a crusade to annex this section. In 1900, the town of Phoenix Park was established primarily to retain its independence from the temperance minded community Harvey. The result of the election was 38 for and 18 against the establishment of the town.
Village records do not indicate when the spelling change was made from Phoenix to Phoenix or when the word Park was omitted but by 1905 all records refer to spelling as we know it today. A controversy soon erupted between the new town of Phoenix Park and the city of Harvey. State law required that for the town to be incorporated it must have a population of at least 300 people. The City of Harvey filed a lawsuit claiming that most of the residents that Phoenix Park counted were mostly hobos shipped in for the election.
The courts never upheld this claim and Phoenix was allowed to incorporate into a Village on August 29, 1900. News accounts of the first election of Phoenix vary widely. One account claimed that on election day state militia were seen walking around carrying rifles in order to keep the peace. Another report out of Chicago claims that the election was a very simple and boring affair with very few people bothering to involve themselves.
On the night of August 29th, the first city council of Phoenix was elected and sworn in at Jim’s Saloon. That night, the votes were counted in the saloon and the officials were sworn in there. At the turn of the century, the most popular voting places were in bars, which in most cases did not allow women to enter. By 1910, the population of the village had grown to about 500 people most of them were of Dutch or Polish Heritage.
The original city limits extended South to 159th and Halsted East to 159th and Vincennes. The Southwest section of town was deannexed to Harvey in 1962. At that point Phoenix lost about 30% of its population and 50% of its businesses and tax base. The first Blacks to ever move to the Village of Phoenix came in 1915. The first Black family that arrived appears to be that of the Jefferson Family. Mr. Jefferson apparently lived at a home, which still stands at 152nd and 9th Avenue. Not much else is known about Mr. Jefferson or his family. A few years later the family of Amanda Riley moved to 152nd Street on 9th Avenue a block away from Mr. Jefferson.
Some members of the Riley family still reside in the Village. During the 1920s the number of blacks living in the community steadily increased. Most of them worked in the railroad yards located in Markham. Old timers said that many of the Blacks who came during the 1920s and 1930s lived in boxcars that had been discarded by the railroad companies and converted into living quarters. Those who remember the makeshift housing said that it was not as bad as one might think. By 1930, the population had grown to almost 2000 people with at least 50 different businesses throughout the Village.
The first Village Hall was built in the 1920s and still stands today. With most of the homes, outhouses, and wells the Village started building its first sewer and water system during the 1920s. In the 1930s road and building projects began in the Village with the paving of Vincennes Road. In the 1930s the existing Coolidge School was built. Its current location is 155th and 7th Avenue. According to some older residents the original location was near 153rd and 7th Avenue.
No records exist of the original building. In 1938, roads were paved throughout the Village as part of the Works Progress Administration under President Roosevelt. The program was designed to provide work for those rendered unemployed by the Great Depression.
In 1936, work began on a new Village Hall at 15240 Vincennes Rd. The building was completed in 1938 and included the Mayor’s Office, Clerk ‘s Office, Public Works, City Council Chambers, Police Station, and Public Lockup. That building was demolished when the new Village Hall was a built. The Village’s first library was located in the basement of the Village Hall and was started by a group of local residents. The library had difficulties due to lack of funding and occasional flooding in the basement, which destroyed many books.
After W.W.II the population of Phoenix changed drastically. The African American population soared with the large number of steel mills in the area. Some of the blacks came straight from the South, others moved away from Chicago’s heavily congested South Side and the building of the Dan Ryan expressway displaced others. Whatever the reason the population of Phoenix soared to almost 5000 by the late 1950s. New housing was added to accommodate the large growth. The Phoenix Manor was built which consisted of new homes on the South end of town.
During the 1960s another 60 homes were built between 151st to 152nd Street between 4th and 8th Avenues. In 1960, the mostly white city council voted to de-annex the predominately white South section of town into Harvey. As a result, the city lost 1/3 of its population and 60% of its tax base. The Village has had difficulty since that time trying to recover from the loss of most of its tax base. The mid 1960s saw blacks come to a leadership role in the village. Mr. Harper was elected Mayor in 1961, followed by L. K. Watkins and William Hawkins.
During this period the Park District was established. Also during this period the schools were improved because a lawsuit was filed by a group of residents to desegregate School District 151. The following year the high school followed and integrated Thornridge High School. The great sports team of the early 1970s at Thornridge was primarily due to the efforts of students from Phoenix. The first health clinic was established in the 1970s through the efforts of village residents.
The building of the Hawkins Multi-Purpose Center and the Fire Station was completed during this period. In the 1980s under the leadership of Mayor Harris, Belmont, and Wells the Village has seen the demolition of over 80 burned or abandoned structures.
The Hawkins Multi-Purpose Center has been expanded to include community programs such as Talent Search, Family Centered Educational Agency, the expansion of the health clinic and senior nutrition site. The 1980s saw the establishment of The Phoenix Library District and community organizations such as I-Watch, and The Golden Agers.
The 1990s has seen the establishment of the Phoenix Fest as one of the largest African American festivals in the South Suburbs. The Village has completed a street lighting program and is currently working on replacing water and sewer lines. A 56-unit senior citizens complex has been completed and 80 new homes have been built. The Village has developed a partnership with School District 205 for students to build houses in the Village as a class report; so far 6 homes have been built and sold. A new Village Hall was completed in October of 2001.
The new building houses the Clerk’s Office, Water Department, City Council Chambers, Mayor’s Office, Police Department, Public Lockup, Computer Lab, & Administrative Offices. The building is located at 633 East 151st Street between the Fire Station and the Williams Hawkins Multi-Purpose Center. The old Village Hall has been demolished and will be used for commercial development. In addition to a new Village Hall, we recently constructed a Public Works Building which is located at 15117 3rd Avenue, which is directly behind the Phoenix Fire Station.