Shaped like a string of boxcars that tumbled off the CSX rail line, Chicago Ridge is a working-class southwestern suburb known for the regional mall that attracts shoppers like a magnet.
Thanks to its abundance of modest multifamily housing, Chicago Ridge has evolved from its German/Polish/Irish roots to a United Nations of a village that includes growing Hispanic, Middle Eastern and African-American populations.
While chain restaurants skirt Westfield Chicago Ridge shopping center, the rest of Chicago Ridge has plenty of mom-and-pop establishments. The locals head to Jack Desmonds Irish Pub for beer and Irish music or to Grove Sports Bar & Grill to cheer on the White Sox. Commercial tax revenue from such establishments keeps a lid on residential property taxes, said village clerk Charles Tokar. "Until 2010, we were able to give residents rebates," he said.
The north section of town forms an industrial park and is home to one of Chicago area's oldest animal shelters, the Animal Welfare League, which runs pet therapy and humane education programs, has a veterinary clinic and is a temporary home to 22,000 animals a year.
Typical of Chicago Ridge's second-generation families, Jennifer Wilson and Bill Watt bought a house in 2009 for their family of five. "We're Ridge Rats. We grew up here, and my parents are still here," said Wilson. Her neighborhood, she said, is a mix of seniors ("our anchors") and young couples who help out each other during crises like the 2011 blizzard.
"It's all about the kids," said Wilson. "This is a town where things like daddy-daughter dinner dances are big deals."
"Decent schools, housing you can afford and family activities" are priorities, said Siegel. That would be Siegel, in fact, in the red sweater at the annual Mayor's Children's Christmas Party at the mall. But the voice behind the park district's Calls from Santa? Village officials swear it's from the North Pole.
While other suburbs contributed products to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Chicago Ridge gave a chunk of itself. Eight trainloads of dirt helped fill the exposition grounds. The village's name comes from the ridge this produced, though it is indistinguishable now.
The village's first homes were built by the Paul E. Berger Co. (a cash register and slot machine manufacturer) for its employees.
Until Chicago Ridge's population swelled in the 1950s, it was so small, historians say mail carried the aroma of the postmaster's homemade pies because her house doubled as the post office.
Built in 1981, Westfield Chicago Ridge (formerly Chicago Ridge Mall), provided the village with revenue to pave streets, install a sewer system, establish a full-time fire department and build a village hall, said Siegel.
Two-thirds of Chicago Ridge's housing is multifamily, both rentals and condos. A two-bedroom condo, sans garage, sells for $80,000, said Realtor Kathy Toscas of Re/Max Team 2000 in Orland Park. The lone new development is Lennar Corp.'s cluster of 58 town houses at the center of town, where units start at $169,990.
Chicago Ridge's south end contains most of its single-family homes, where a 1950s three-bedroom ranch can be had for $100,000.
Two-story houses that sprouted on teardown lots before the recession are the village's highest-end properties. "One sold in 2010 for $410,000, but it had all the bells and whistles," said Toscas.
Chicago Ridge is about 20 miles from Chicago, a strong selling point for commuters who can hop on a Pace bus or take a 45-minute Metra train ride to downtown. Many residents are tradespeople, taking Interstate Highway 294 or Harlem Avenue out of town.
Chicago Ridge children who live south of Southwest Highway attend Ridge Central School or Ridge Lawn School for K-5, then Finley Junior High School. Those who live on or north of Southwest Highway attend Ernest F. Kolb Elementary School and Simmons Middle School, both in Oak Lawn.
High-schoolers attend Harold L. Richards High School in Oak Lawn.
Things to do
Chicago Ridge is the kind of community where families get their money's worth from the park district's splash park, tennis courts, baseball fields, a fitness center, miniature golf course and batting cages.
Every July, 20,000 to 30,000 people attend the lively RidgeFest, a big carnival and concert venue that has drawn such headliners as Ted Nugent, Joan Jett and Keanu Reeves. Children's entertainment features pony rides, a petting zoo, magicians and clowns.
Teens enjoy hanging out at the food court at Westfield Chicago Ridge mall, where 142 stores and a six-screen movie theater surround major anchor stores, including Sears, Kohl's and Carson Pirie Scott. While the recession has emptied some regional malls, this one doubles as a shopping destination for many south suburbanites and a downtown substitute for locals.
Chicago Ridge goes all out in December with the Snow Much Fun day at the public library, a house-decorating contest, a seniors' luncheon and Operation Santa Claus, when Santa and his firefighter helpers deliver candy door-to-door by fire truck.