One hundred and twenty years ago this month, the Illinois Supreme Court handed down a decision that “fixes the status of Austin,” according to a report, titled, “Austin’s Strange Plight,” published in the Inter Ocean newspaper on Oct. 21, 1899.
“The decision is peculiar in that it reverses the ordinary course of annexation,” the writer explained. “The principle governing such action heretofore has been that the wishes of the people in the territory to be annexed must be observed. But under this decision of Thursday the right of the people of Austin to say whether they will accept the municipal authority of Chicago or not is, in effect, denied.”
Although Austin, as a definable place, had been created in 1865 by Oak Park developer Henry Austin, the community was governed by Cicero Township, which comprised 10 member communities, including Cicero, Oak Park, Berwyn and Austin.
In 1899, according to Amanda I. Seligman’s Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side, “longstanding tensions between rival interests in Oak Park and Austin peaked.”
That’s when “Austin voters approved the extension of the Lake Street Elevated as far west as Austin Boulevard, to the chagrin of Oak Park residents, who feared the arrival of inexpensive transportation would encourage working-class migration into Cicero.
“To punish Austin, the town board voted to detach it from Cicero and annex the community into Chicago.”
Despite most residents of Austin voting against the referendum to allow annexation, the Supreme Court ruled in Cicero’s favor anyway because Austinites also elected to be governed by Cicero “and Cicero,” the Inter Ocean writer explained, “had the power to designate any part of its territory for annexation” by Chicago. The decision would instantly make Austin one of the city’s largest neighborhoods.
The courts allowed annexation because state law, as of April 4, 1899, “permitted, as in the case of Austin, annexation without representation. The power of the Legislature to pass such laws, the court held, cannot be questioned.”
In an article published in the Inter Ocean the next day, Oct. 22, 1899, a writer explained that “no other part of Cicero will ever be compelled to come in against its own wishes. As the law of annexation has stood ever since July 1 of this year, there can be no annexation without the consent of the governed.
“However, Austin will hardly pose as a martyr,” the writer continued. “It may be confidently expected that as the Thirty-Fifth ward, it will soon be proud of its new urbanity, and will look back upon its Cicero days as merely preparatory to a more useful municipal career.”
One hundred and twenty years later, it’s left to those now living here to consider how useful a career that’s been.