George Matsukis shucks off the title of archivist. But to hear him recount stories and the history of his former childhood neighborhood of Austin, one can see why the title fits.
“Growing up in Austin in the ’50s and ’60s was a magical place as we rarely locked our doors,” Matsukis, 60, recalled. “We would cruise up and down the alleys to gain access to one another’s houses, often raiding each other’s fridges before announcing ourselves. I have never experienced such a close-knit community feeling anywhere else that I’ve lived since leaving Austin.”
Now living in East Dundee, Matsukis is part of a group of former Austinites who have taken to Facebook to preserve memories of their old neighborhood. The Facebook page for Austin West Side Archive uses the social networking site as online portal to document a time when Austin had electric trolley buses ambling down its streets. The page seeks to collect personal stories of that neighborhood while reconnecting former residents.
Facebook, Matsukis explained, is an excellent way to do that. He said Facebook makes it easy to share photos and memories. And the page is filled with them. A scroll through it is a trip back in time as black and white photos offers a glimpse of a bygone era in Austin history.
The site could be described as a virtual memoir as it shows a graduation day picture at Austin High School (circa. 1966) as students sit in cap and gowns in the school’s auditorium. Another picture captures youth frozen in midair as they dive into the pool at LaFollette Park (circa. 1959).
Matsukis remembers a time when Austin was teeming with grand movie palaces where 25 cents got two movies and two cartoons at the State Theater, 5814 W. Madison. Posts often reveal fond childhood memories of playing baseball in the parking lot of North Austin Lutheran Church, built in 1920. Another post recounts a date at the Sky-Hi restaurant, the interior of which resembled an airplane, located on the corner of Cicero and Monroe.
Even the shopping on the West Side was better, Matsukis recalled. Residents, he said, didn’t have to leave their community because the shopping district on Madison and Crawford, now Pulaski, rivaled downtown.
“If you wanted the cutting edge in suits for guys, business attire or something really hot and dressy to wear if you were a woman for a Friday or Saturday night date, you go over to Madison and Crawford,” Matsukis said.
The response to the Facebook page has been favorable. It has more than 500 friends, who Matsukis said post home photos from their archives to allow people to “remember when.”
But Matsukis can’t take credit for starting the page. It already existed when he joined. Involved in several school reunion clubs, Matsukis was told about the page as a way to connect with his former classmates and neighbors. He said it was a way to reminisce about some of his boyhood haunts, such as Skips, a drive-in restaurant located in Maywood.
“It’s a happy retreat down memory lane to go back to look at some of those old pictures of places that are long gone like the North Avenue Roller Rink,” said Matsukis, who delivered the Austin News and Austinite newspapers as a young boy.
It was a picture that got Matsukis involved with the Facebook page. He was searching for an original copy of a newspaper clipping featuring him as a boy at a 1959 or 1960 Christmas party for the Austin Youth Club. The picture was featured in the Austin Weekly, but his search came up empty when informed that the paper’s archives don’t go back that far.
Matsukis came across a faded torn copy in his father’s wallet. He was making arrangements for his father who had died in 1982 when he found the clipping. Matsukis wanted it for sentimental reasons.
“I had forgotten all about it,” he said. “As we went through his personal effects, I couldn’t believe that 20-some years later he still had that picture.”
That is what the Facebook page is about — preserving memories. Matsukis sees the page as a teaching tool to help current Austin residents learn about their community. Austin, he said, was a separate town, hence the name for the Chicago Park District facility Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St.
He encourages people in his age bracket to visit the page to rekindle memories, but also “anybody who is involved with the Austin community today to go back and take a look at what we once hand.”