THE TRANSFORMATION OF AURORA

1950-2000

David B. Hipp

I was born in Aurora in 1939. Both of my parents and one grandmother were also born in Aurora. My grandfather, Fred, on the Hipp side emigrated from Germany in the 1890’s and opened the Broadway Meat Market in downtown Aurora with his brothers, Gus. Then, he opened his own store on Beach and Liberty, and Gus opened his on LaSalle. He operated that store until his death in the 1940’s, and my uncle ran it until the supermarkets obsoleted the local grocery stores post-war.

My grandfather Barber, whose roots were in Freeport, came to Aurora in the 1910’s after graduating from the University of Illinois in Engineering. He and his partner, W.B. Greene, worked for Stephens Adamson in Aurora until their ideas for a portable conveyor and loading equipment for the coal industry were turned down by their bosses at S.A., and they decided to start their own business in 1916, naming it Barber Greene.

I list this background because family memories were intermeshed with Aurora history for the first half of the 20th century. I have lived in Aurora all of my life, with the exception of the college years at Notre Dame (1957-1961) and the U of I Law School (1961-1964). I married Sandy Swanson in 1964 and, after passing the bar exam, came back to Aurora in 1964 to join Barber Greene as a computer programmer and to raise five children.

The post-war Aurora where I grew up was a very unique city, although its uniqueness was not apparent as a youth. It was a city of 50,000 divided by the river with a rich heritage of architecture. It was an industrial town—a factory town—a proud town—and really two cities—East and West. The East Side, roughly bordered by the river, the Burlington tracks on the North, Farnsworth Avenue on the East, and Montgomery Road on the South, was a collection of neighborhoods.

Aurora was a very Catholic town with many parishes, each with an original ethnic background. There were the Hungarians and Romanians on Pigeon Hill, the Germans around St. Nicks, the Irish of St. Marys, the French of Sacred Heart, the Dutch of Good Counsel, the Italians on the far South West of St. Peters. It had strong family-oriented Black communities on both sides of town, and an active Jewish community whose leaders were community leaders and who did not experience the prejudice inherent in many cities, such as being blackballed at country clubs or social clubs. Aurora teemed with social dinner and tavern clubs of an ethnic background, which is one of the reasons it has always failed to, sustain a restaurant industry.

The East Side was a workingman’s town. Jobs were plentiful, and a factory worker with machinist or welding or assembly or mechanical aptitudes could find lifetime work straight out of high school at wages adequate to support his family and buy a house and get jobs at the same company for his children. It was a town where people lived in the town and worked in the town and died in the town. The East Side was not wealthy, but it was not poor. It was proud, involved in churches and schools, with a strong union orientation, law-abiding, and high in fundamental values.

The West Side, roughly bordered by the river on the East, Prairie on the South, Edgelawn on the West, and Indian Trail on the North, was clearly the wealthy side of town. It possessed a large stock of beautiful large homes built from the 1890’s to the 1920’s by the leading citizens of the city at that time. Yet the housing was not isolated as wealthy neighborhoods alone. While the east-west streets of Downer and Garfield were dominated by these large homes, the cross streets were normal housing, resulting in neighborhoods that were a mixture of regular families and the wealthy industrial leaders and professionals.

Most of the West Side north of Galena was factory workers’ homes, much like the East Side, as well as the neighborhoods on the South side. With half of the population, the West Side was home to almost all of the professionals (there were no doctors living on the East Side). Prior to World War II, the Far West side (Randall to Edgelawn) had only scattered housing around Aurora College, but this building growth was completed by the late 1950’s. The competition between East and West was intense with the longest continuous rivalry in football and basketball in the state.

I attribute Aurora’s stability and uniqueness to the fact that so much of its major industry was locally owned and locally managed. There were many companies that were founded in Aurora in the early 1900’s and remained either privately owned or publicly owned but retained their corporate headquarters in Aurora. Many of these companies were well known nationally or internationally operating throughout the world but controlled locally in Aurora.

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