Alsip: A starter spot where families tend to stay

On a recent sweltering day, the Aquatic Park in Alsip was packed with kids and adults splashing in the pool and soaking up the sun.

The inviting oasis, which includes the outdoor pool, mushroom fountain for youngsters, playground and tanning hill, is just one of several things that makes living in this village appealing to residents. Some locals say they moved here because of Alsip's affordable homes, low property taxes and decent schools but found a gem in the community pool.

The Aquatic Park is "relaxing and safe," said Maribella Bahena, a seven-year resident who often goes there with friends.

Harry Tannehill, also a fan of the pool, and his wife, Lora, moved to the village in 1999 after finding the perfect four-bedroom bi-level house that was within their price range and had many upgrades. The property taxes are "still lower than what a lot of other communities pay," he said.

Tannehill said he is pleased with the schools, which include Alsip, Hazelgreen and Oak Lawn Elementary School District 126, Atwood Heights District 125 for elementary through middle school students, Cook County District 130, for kindergarteners through fifth-graders and District 218's Alan B. Shepard High School in Palos Heights.

"(Students) get a lot more individual attention," said Tannehill, whose 9-year-old son Eric attends Hazelgreen Elementary School.

Measuring more than eight miles with a population of 19,000, Alsip offers an ample selection of homes. Most were built in the late 1950s through the early 1970s and include ranch styles without basements, raised bungalow-style ranches, split-levels, tri-levels, quad levels and Cape Cods, according to Jim Nealis, a broker associate with ReMax Team 2000 in Palos Heights. Newer homes are mostly split-levels and two-stories.

The village also has a smattering of apartment buildings and several town-home subdivisions, with the newest built in 2006 and 2008. Three condo developments were built at least a decade ago. The village owns two affordable senior citizen complexes for people 55 and older.

The highest selling home in the past six months was a two-story, built in 2003, for $285,000. A similar home sold for $348,000 in 2007, Nealis said.

"It's a good area to come into and begin homeownership," said Nealis, who has lived in the village 21 years. "It's convenient to a lot of things with I-294 expressway access, so you're not too far out in the cornfields like some communities are and within striking distance of where a lot of people work."

The 20-mile commute to Chicago is convenient on Interstates 294, 57 and 55. For train service to Chicago, residents drive to the Blue Island or Morgan Park stations to take the Rock Island District train or to Chicago Ridge for the Southwest Service train. Residents also can hop on a Pace bus to the Orange Line at Midway International Airport, which runs to Chicago.

For homebuilder John Gallagher, who owns JP Gallagher Building Corp. with his wife, Virginia, moving to Alsip from Oak Lawn four years ago made good economic sense. He was able to afford a larger lot for a tri-level home and saw his property taxes decline.. The Gallaghers have built a number of single-family homes in Alsip and Oak Lawn.

"We were able to get more land, more bang for the buck and be in a much better tax bracket," John Gallagher said. "I would classify Alsip as a real sleeper kind of village. It's got a lot to offer, but people seem to look at Alsip as the forgotten stepchild. The village has a great park district and wonderful services as far as snow plowing, street repair and tree pickup."

The area dates back several centuries to when Potawatomi Indians lived there. French explorers and missionaries visited, building a Catholic mission that burned down. The first European immigrants to settle in Alsip in the 1830s were mainly German and Dutch farmers. Frank Alsip opened a clay quarry and brick factory in 1885, and other industries followed. The village was incorporated in 1927, taking the former industrialist's name.

Today, Alsip is known for the huge Swap-O-Rama indoor/outdoor flea market, where vendors sell everything from produce to tools. The village also is home to two notable cemeteries: Restvale Cemetery, where Muddy Waters was laid to rest, and Burr Oak Cemetery, the burial spot for civil rights figure Emmett Till. Scandal hit Burr Oak in 2009 when four workers allegedly dug up several hundred graves, dumped the bodies in mass unmarked graves and resold the plots.

Although Alsip is primarily a residential community, it has a strong commercial and industrial base that includes a Coca-Cola bottling plant, Berry Plastics Corp., Griffith Laboratories and Crown Cork and Seal Co.

Mary Schmidt, executive director of the Alsip Chamber of Commerce, said the village has a large business community with more than 800 companies, including manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and retail.

"Retail has always been a struggle for this community but I'm seeing a renewed interest in phone calls from people looking at sites in town," Schmidt said.

Business strips along Cicero Avenue and Pulaski Road feature several popular restaurants, grocery stores, a Home Depot, LA Fitness and convenience stores. Many residents, though, tend to shop at surrounding malls for more variety.

Mayor Patrick Kitching, a lifelong resident with his wife, Allyson, said he is hoping to attract retail to a TIF district at 127th Street and Cicero, right off the Tri-State expressway. The village is also establishing another TIF along Pulaski from 123rd to 115th streets to help stimulate growth there, Kitching said.

"We'd love to attract some retail and brighten that area up with antique pedestrian street lighting, brick parkways, park benches to make it a little shopper's plaza where people could maybe look at the clock tower and flowers," Kitching said. "We have high hopes."

Property crimes have been a challenge for the community, though the Alsip Police Department has several programs to try to combat those and other crimes.

When crime is high in one area, some patrol officers dress in plainclothes and drive unmarked cars to target the area, Police Chief Christopher Radz said.

The department and residents are starting neighborhood watch groups to help keep streets safe, and police have a Crime Free Multi-Housing program, in which property owners receive crime-awareness training and work closely with officers when crimes occur.

The Police Department also conducts security surveys of homes and businesses upon request, offering safety suggestions.

"Chances are, when we catch somebody, they aren't an Alsip resident," said Radz, adding that crime decreased by 5 percent between 2008 and 2009.

The Park District is a source of pride for residents, with its 21 parks, variety of programs and special events

The village's largest park is Commissioners Park, with volleyball courts, playgrounds, lighted ball fields, a walking path, fishing pond and picnic area. Sears Park is being redeveloped and is set to reopen in September, with a new lighted football/soccer field, picnic shelter, benches and lighted walking path with fitness stations, playground and pond.

The village's Apollo Recreation Center has two gyms, a co-ed fitness center, women's circuit center with aerobics room, and space for a preschool program. The center offers dance programs, adult and youth athletic leagues, sports camps and dog training classes. It also has seasonal events.

Jeannette Huber, director of Parks and Recreation, said she has seen a spirit of cooperation between the park district, village and residents.

"There are many active individuals who care about the community and are very involved in the park and the schools," she said. "These are the great people who make this community desirable."

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